Founded in 1984 by Ian Stewart and Kevin Norburn, Sheffield’s Gremlin Graphics went on to become one of the premier 8-bit software houses of the 1980s. With many of its games due to appear on Antstream Arcade, we take a look back at six of Gremlin’s finest creations of that particular decade – which is your favourite?
As Antstream Arcade has noted before (see Spectrum Hidden Gems), the bouncing ball sub-puzzle genre was an unusual one in the mid-Eighties, often mixing fast arcade action with some thoughtful gameplay. Bounder, written and designed by the youthful trio of Chris Shrigley, Robert Toone and Andrew Green, was devised as the friends discussed the various arcade games they admired. After suggesting a tennis ball bouncing around in a Marble Madness-style environment, the perspective shifted to an overhead view for the completed design in which the player guides their smiling sphere across a series of cunningly constructed levels. Each course features deadly enemies, yawning drops and stern walls, and these must be cleanly bounced over in order to progress. Careful use of power squares, which boost the height of the ball’s bounce, is required and there’s a range of mystery squares that can bestow both benefits and hazards to the player. Fun and inventive, Bounder was extraordinarily well-received on the Commodore 64, and is a fantastic example of the original game design that we saw in the mid-Eighties, especially from UK developers such as Gremlin.
Footballer Of The Year (1985)
Before 1985, and indeed some considerable time after, team games were the common football action simulation. In terms of 8-bit Soccer, Match Day had already presented superior control and Emlyn Hughes International Soccer would soon greatly increase the range of on-field options and abilities. But it was with this 1985 Gremlin game that the genre was twisted, as the player took control of just one footballer, ultimately guiding them to success at the top of the first division. Originally proposed to Gremlin as a board game, the idea was adapted into pixelated form by Chris Shrigley and Terry Lloyd with mixed results across the various 8-bit platforms. But the idea remains a solid one despite its limitations (there is little variation beyond the initial options and goalmouth shooting section), and Footballer Of The Year went on to inspire the runaway mobile gaming success, New Star Soccer.
Monty On The Run (1985)
After the misfire of 1984’s Monty Is Innocent (which didn’t actually star the rebellious mole but his buddy Sam Stoat), everyone’s favourite talpidae was back a year later for another adventure. Having been sprung from jail, Monty must now escape his safe house, town and country for the free life across the English Channel. Once more there are countless devious screens for our hero to negotiate, each one full of bizarre life-sapping enemies and traps (including those infamous metallic crushers). Having carefully selected the five items that form his freedom kit, Monty must also collect a plentiful supply of gold coins in order to fund his trip, as well as the subsequent life abroad. Coded by Wanted: Monty Mole’s Peter Harrap, Monty On The Run proved to be a standout success, particularly on the ZX Spectrum. Despite its frustrating freedom kit element (you didn’t know which pieces you’d need until you got to a certain part of the game) and an overall high level of difficulty, there is much fun to be had guiding the little fellow to the waiting ferry and freedom.
Thing On A Spring (1985)
Devised and coded by Commodore 64 veteran Jason Perkins, Thing On A Spring introduces a Zebedee-type character on a mission to help rescue his fellow toys, imprisoned by the evil toy goblin. As his name suggests, Thing can only move by jumping, and each screen presents a stiff challenge for any gamer. Fortunately, Thing On A Spring’s cartoon graphics and fast-paced gameplay meant it was an instant hit, gaining an impressive 93% in Zzap!64 magazine and inspiring a sequel two years later called Thing Bounces Back. And we’ve left the best to last. Throughout Thing On A Spring, the player is treated to a fantastic Rob Hubbard tune (amazingly his first video game effort) and some cute, chippy sound effects. The role of sound design can often be underappreciated in retro games, but here the master tunesmith proves that a good ditty can make a great game even better. All hail the SID!
Jack The Nipper (1986)
Upholding Gremlin’s reputation for original games, this illustrious naughty-‘em-up from 1986 was so popular it led to a comic strip in Your Sinclair magazine that continued the wayward adventures of its central character. In Jack The Nipper the game, the player takes on the role of Jack who, bored of all the wimps in his town, is seeking to raise the bar in terms of naughtiness, recorded conveniently on a ‘naughtyometer’ at the bottom of the game screen. Jack can do this in a variety of ways, usually in the style of Spectrum classics such as Pyjamarama – combine one object with another and create mayhem! Presented in a faux-3D view, the game’s designers had the sense to realise their silly game needed to be displayed in a cartoon style which perfectly suits the on-screen antics. Standing (or rather wandering randomly) in the way of the recalcitrant child are the town’s inhabitants who must be avoided in order to stave off the dreaded nappy rash. A highlight is most definitely the obscure ways Jack can elevate his naughtiness, including pasting chomping molars together and blaring a horn next to a sleeping cat. Devilishly impish fun for the mischievous toddler inside all of us.
Trailblazer was the brainchild of ace Commodore 64 coder Shaun Southern, of Mr. Chip Software, who up to this point had mainly been known for its work with Mastertronic. One of Southern’s most popular titles for the budget publisher was the Kikstart series which offered simultaneous two-player play. Trailblazer repeats this trick, only in a much different style of game. If you are being unkind, you could reduce Trailblazer to a mere clone of Gremlin’s earlier hit, Bounder, only with a different point of view. To say so would be a dreadful injustice, however, as it’s a marvellous game, especially in split-screen two-player mode. The player takes control of a ball as it moves endlessly forward across the playing area, known as the Cosmic Causeway. Holes regularly appear and must be jumped over while some tiles can affect the speed of the ball, or even reverse its controls! Essentially a unique racing game, Trailblazer was another outstanding Gremlin Graphics release, and rounds off our latest super six with a joyful style.
Antstream Arcade is now live - play these Gremlin games and hundreds of other classic video games on the world's first streaming, subscription-based retro gaming service. Subscribe today!