The Budget Kings: 35 Years Of Mastertronic
Updated: Mar 27, 2020
Unless you were lucky enough to have super-rich parents, most of us didn’t have a lot of spare cash to splash out on games as kids. Growing up in the UK in the Eighties, full price 8-bit games for the Spectrum, Commodore 64 or Amstrad CPC would set you back an eye-watering £8 or £9 at a time when 20-50p weekly pocket money was the norm. Buying any game was a big gamble before, in 1983, four men decided to take a much bigger gamble of their own. Their idea was to ultimately transform the way games were sold, and how much for, and eventually – arguably – it helped speed up the demise of the 8-bit software industry. But that’s to take nothing away from the incredible achievement of Mastertronic founders, Frank Herman, Martin Alper, Alan Sharam and (initially) Terry Medway.
With considerable experience in the video rental and sale sectors – Herman in acquisition and distribution, Alper and Medway in retail – Mastertronic was formed with the intention of capitalising on a gap in the software market, with the name a combination of the word master and a range of media products (Mastervision for example) that ultimately hardly appeared, apart of course from videogames. In general, games were sold via mail order, high street stores such as WH Smiths, or specialist computer shops. The Mastertronic founders figured that if they could bring games in cheaply, and make them more casual and accessible, then they could take advantage of a gap in the retail landscape. Budget games did exist at this point, but were usually of such poor quality (in both terms of the presentation and the actual game) that conventional retailers were initially reluctant to take on Mastertronic’s 100-strong dealer packs. The key became launching the brand into unknown markets such as newsagents, mini-markets and petrol stations, using ex-Nottinghamshire cricketer Richard Bielby and his string of contacts to assist. Mastertronic’s high quality artwork and presentation did enough to sell them in decent numbers, coupled with the bargain basement price tag of £1.99.
Bielby had already worked with Frank Herman, selling American movies on video cassette via his self-employed agents, and when the attention turned to videogames, he was approached again and another distribution network was forged. Despite launching on the 1st April, 1984, this was no April fool; there really were Spectrum and Commodore 64 games for sale on the shelves of your local newsagent, and for a pocket-money friendly price of just £1.99.
With no sales strategy or meaningful marketing push beyond this, Mastertronic’s games had to sell themselves. Fortunately, for the four men behind the company, the public bit and the numbers rose quickly.
But Mastertronic needed a stream of games to maintain the early momentum, and they also knew the quality of their titles would also eventually be a factor. Bedroom coders the Darling Brothers, Richard and David, along with their father, produced some of Mastertronic’s better and most popular early games such as BMX Racers and Chiller.
From this solid base, Mastertronic quickly expanded throughout the mid-Eighties. More developers came on board (such as Mr. Chip and Binary Design) and the publisher became home for many bedroom coders who were looking for a foot into the business. New friends in the distribution sector meant they parted ways with Richard Bielby, who remained in the industry with Codemasters, a budget rival set up by The Darlings in 1987. Multiple labels began to appear as the brand was diffused: Entertainment USA and Bulldog were intended to show off coders specific to their regions (America and the the UK respectively) while MAD – Mastertronic Added Dimension – introduced a higher price of £2.99 and more complex games, most notable David Jones’ Spellbound and Knight Tyme. Then, in 1987, Mastertronic hit pay-dirt with Ricochet. The company had already been recycling games from other publishers (for example the very successful Formula One) but now had its own specialist label to do so. Re-releases of 8-bit classics such as Ghostbusters and Way Of The Exploding Fist flew off the shelves.
But by 1987 the market was changing. Mastertronic no longer had a monopoly on low-priced budget games. Codemasters had hit the ground running, Firebird’s Silver range was proving popular, and practically every software house was re-releasing its own games on its own budget label. After purchasing antipodean publisher Melbourne House, Herman, Alper and Sharam were savvy enough to realise their current market was shrinking and to focus on other segments of the gaming world. The result was the acquisition of Sega’s UK distribution rights for its new Master System console, and so began a chain of events that would eventually lead to Sega Europe. With more than half an eye on this new business, Virgin Group merged with Mastertronic shortly after and began publishing 16-bit games as the 8-bit market shrunk further. Finally, in 1991, Sega itself stepped in and absorbed Mastertronic into its European operation leaving the now-small games division in the hands of the newly-formed Virgin Interactive Entertainment. Unable to use the famous name (probably in the assumption that Sega owned the brand), Virgin launched Tronix in 1991, although this budget label was short-lived. With Sega having little or no interest publishing games under the Mastertronic brand, that was the end of the budget superstars until 2003 when The Sold Out budget range was rebranded, selling mainly PC games and software under the old moniker. The famous name disappeared finally in 2015 when this company folded.
Today the fondest memories will come from that febrile period in the mid-Eighties when Mastertronic were churning out budget hit after hit. With its games cheap enough for everyone to play, and its distribution system fluid enough to allow developers the freedom to experiment, the publisher was immensely popular with two important facets of the industry: those that made the games, and those that played them.
If you want to learn more about classic Mastertronic, browse covers and photos, we highly recommend you check out Anthony Guter’s excellent site.
Sadly, all three main founders have passed away, yet the spirit and games of Mastertronic lives on.