The Bitmap Brothers: Universe review

A new book presents the history and designs behind such games as Speedball and Xenon. Here's our review of The Bitmap Brothers: Universe.

In movie-making, as in other forms of art, we’re used to the notion that some people’s work is recognisable at a glance. But what about videogames? Back in the 80s and 90s, the Bitmap Brothers were among the very first design teams to create games so distinctive in their look, sound and feel that you instantly knew it was one of theirs. Having first exploded onto the gaming scene in 1988 with Xenon – a kind of variation on Toaplan’s arcade shooter Slapfight, except you could transform into a tank – the Bitmap Brothers set about creating a style that was slick and unspeakably cool.

When it came to studios with a unique style, the closest forerunner to the Bitmaps, at least in the UK, was Ultimate Play The Game, a firm whose mystique and minimalist, airbrushed magazine ads and box designs set them apart from an increasingly broad crowd in the 8-bit era. The Bitmap Brothers, on the other hand, were something else again: long before the PlayStation and Grand Theft Auto, they made games seem edgy and cool. Thanks to a widely-published image of the team standing in front of a helicopter – all shades, spiky hair and blue-steel looks – they added a bit of rock and roll to the gaming scene.

And yes, beneath all the hype, there were the games: Xenon 2: Megablast wasn’t the best shooter of its day, but with its exotic graphics and funky theme music by Bomb The Bass, it felt like the most futuristic. For many, the Bitmap Brothers will be best remembered for their spectacular future sports titles Speedball and Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe. Fast, aggressive and hugely addictive, they were the kind of thing that attracted players who didn’t even typically like sports games.   

All of this serves as a rambling introduction to The Bitmap Brothers: Universe, the latest, book from Read Only Memory, who by now have established a reputation for consistently fusing style and content: their previous tomes have covered such retro game highlights as Sensible Software, the Sega Mega Drive and, my personal favourite, an oral history of the British programming scene in its pre-millennial heyday.

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The Bitmap Brothers continues the publisher’s lineage, with its design and materials giving the book a real tactile quality: its striking Speedball cover artwork by Bitmap artist Dan Malone is printed on thick, sharp-edged board, giving the volume an appropriately unvarnished, industrial feel. Within, the 300-plus pages (about 360 including index and endpapers) deliver a mixture of contemporary photographs, early production drawings, screenshots and box art from the games and lots more archive material – some of it never before published.

Darren Wall’s elegant, streamlined designs and layouts are given historical context by Duncan Harris’ in-depth chronology of the Bitmaps’ formation, its evolution as the 80s tipped over into the 90s, and the inspiration and design process behind the studio’s games. Featuring interviews with the Bitmaps themselves – founder Mike Montgomery, Eric Matthews, Steve Kelly and Dan Malone among them – it’s a lively, warts-and-all account of a group of designers whose behind-the-scenes lives weren’t quite as slick as their public image made out.

Some of us, who maybe weren’t even in our teens when the Bitmaps’ early games came out, might have taken that image of the team standing in front of a helicopter at face value; the photo appealed to the mythical idea of making games, earning a fortune and buying yachts. Inevitably, the fantasy didn’t quite live up to the reality: the helicopter didn’t belong to the Bitmaps, but rather media mogul Robert Maxwell.

The Bitmap Brothers: Universe is full of superb insights and bits of information such as this. One of my favourite early ones involves Speedball: this cornerstone of 80s gaming began life as – of all things – a  simulation of the more dainty sport, Real tennis. The game was commissioned by publisher Mastertronic, who abruptly decided to cancel the project early in development. Unperturbed, the Bitmaps went down the pub and began reworking their work-in-progress from the sport of kings to something far more red in tooth and claw.

These anecdotal details are matched by some small yet immensely pleasing design flourishes: screenshots from the original games are printed with fine scanlines, which mimic how the games used to look on old TVs and CRT monitors. Footnotes are printed in little text blocks in the corners of the pages. Once again, it’s a book that’s as pleasant to flick through, handle and (whisper it) sniff as it is to actually read.

The Bitmap Brothers: Universe provides a broader snapshot of a wider history outside gaming. We get a flavour of what London was like before all the gentrification began – the abandoned warehouses in Wapping, Palace Software’s headquarters in King’s Cross, which was a less-than-salubrious place at the time. We see how rapidly and almost unrecognisably the games industry changed as sprites gave way to filled polygons, and how the Bitmaps struggled to keep up in the new millennium: rising costs, competition from overseas,  evolving hardware, shifting audience tastes.

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It’s a fascinating story, superbly told and presented. More than anything else, The Bitmap Brothers: Universe depicts a group of people who, beneath all the public image and hype, simply loved making games. There’s a similar sense of care and attention in the book itself; as such, it’s an essential purchase.

The Bitmap Brothers: Universe is available now from Read Only Memory.


5 out of 5