Ultimate Play The Game
In 1982, in the village of Ashby-De-La-Zouch, two brothers were working in the arcade game field, producing games for the
growing industry that dominated the sea fronts of many UK holiday resorts. Between them, Tim and Chris Stamper, along with
their friend John Lathbury, produced four arcade games that they sold to US and Japanese arcade manufacturers.
The first released in 1982 by Bally Midway was called Blue Print, and featured a man trying to collect parts for a
machine. The next three were all released in 1983 and varied in style. Saturn, a shoot-em-up was released by Jaleco,
Grasspin, again for Jaleco, a kind of maze game with spinning wall sections and finally Dingo, again for Jaleco, a game they
managed to at least get their company name in, ACG, which stood for Ashby Computers and Graphics. This name would soon become
synonymous with quality for many Spectrum owners.
By 1983, the home computer market was starting to pickup and that coupled with ever more expensive arcade design tools,
forced the young company to look for something more economical. Initially not too impressed with Clive Sinclair’s new micro,
the ZX Spectrum, saying in an interview in Crash magazine that they thought it was a "piece of garbage", the market was too
good to ignore especially as the machine used Z80 processor, used in many early arcade machines, including the ones produced
by Tim and Chris.
We're really excellent at arcade games... Tim Stamper
Creating a new company that would become linked with quality, the Stampers embarked on an all-out attack of the software
industry. They knew they were good, probably better than all of the current crop of game companies in 1983, and with the added
knowledge of game design from the arcade days, they were ready to make their mark. With this, they decided on a name that
would emphasise their confidence and Ultimate Play The Game were born.
With the Spectrum having only 16K of memory, programming had to be tight, and the games had to be as close to arcade quality
as possible, and they were. Jetpac hit the shelves in mid 1983 and sent shockwaves through the industry, who at times had
been content to pump out low quality BASIC games, but this single game acted as a wake up call.
A game of this quality, with large smooth graphics, good sound and superb playability made everything that had gone before look
ordinary. Almost in the blink of an eye, the industry were now playing catch-up. They either had to improve or risk failing,
as the game playing public now knew what their little black computer could really do. The game got great reviews in the press,
and Ultimate had arrived in a big way.
Controlling your Jetman, you had to collect parts of your rocket, and then refuel it before moving on to the next planet.
Hoards of aliens were set on your demise, and there were four ships to build, each having four levels of play, something
unheard of for 16K games.
Jetpac sold over 300,000 copies, helping to keep this young company going and producing more games. Wanting to keep ahead,
Ultimate quickly followed the game with PSSST.
Controlling a gardening robot, who would later make another appearance in a future game, you had to help a flower grow by squirting
garden pests with the correct spray. Again, the game had large, beautifully drawn graphics that were smooth and well animated.
The sound and playability were excellent, and this, like Jetpac, sold in the thousands.
It wasn’t just the quality of games that seemed to surpass most other companies, but also the packaging, marketing and mystery,
Using high quality cover art and full colour, full page advertisements, Ultimate certainly knew how to drawn the punters in,
and at the same time surrounding the company with a vail of secrecy, or so it seemed.
Their games were written using an expensive development system that allowed code to be uploaded straight into the micros. This
meant for rapid development, and their initial aim of producing one game every two months seemed optimistic, even for them. Within
a few months though, two more games hit the market, Cookie and Transam.
Cookie allowed you to control a chef who had to gather ingredients for a pie. It wasn’t as simple as this though, as the ingredients
were misbehaved and moved around randomly. Each stage required a set amount of ingredients to land in the pie dish, and you did this
by throwing flower at them, and knocking them downwards. If this wasn't enough, there were also other things being thrown at you
that you had to avoid. The game had a nice intro sequences for each ingredient reminiscent of Pacman, and some nicely drawn nasties to avoid.
Tranz-am, for me the weaker of the releases, had you driving a car across the USA in a bid to collect 8 cups. The play area was large and
you had a map to help you navigate, but your fuel was limited and you had to remember to keep filling up. There were also other cars out
to hinder you, so you had to stay on your toes. Remarkably enough, these four games were 16K, and they outshone many of the 48K titles at
the time. Because of the size they were ideal for Sinclair’s new ROM interface, and were the best releases for that medium.
48k Of Memory
As Ultimate’s games grew in complexity, they made the move to 48K, giving them more room to flex their game design muscles. First came the
follow-up to Jetpac, Lunar Jetman in late 1984. This expanded the world, giving us a scrolling landscape and a lunar buggy to drive. The
gameplay was also swapped to a more involved game where you had to destroy the alien base by using a bomb.
The buggy was used as a refuelling point, and as transport for the bomb. You also had to build small bridges for craters to allow
the buggy to move. All in all a much more complex affair. There was a rumour that the game featured a trailer too, and an image
appeared in Crash magazine proving the point. Sadly it was all a hoax, as Ultimate confirmed in an interview, and scouring of the
code found no graphics that matched the screenshot.
Just making it before the end of the year came Ultimate’s 5th game, Atic Atac.
Getting rave reviews in all magazines, this game again changed the way developers and game companies looked at the Spectrum.
It was something different and offered much deeper gameplay than the average release. You could play one of four character
types, and which one you chose gave you access to different secret tunnels around the castle.
The aim was to escape, and to do that you had to find the parts of the ACG key. The game was a top down maze game, with different
areas to explore, different monsters to defeat with different objects, and coloured door keys needed to access some rooms. There was
also trap doors that sent you plummeting down levels, staircases and a rather well drawn chicken that displayed your health status.
Another genre defining moment for Ultimate Play The Game.
By now, the company were gaining a very large following, helped by the mystery that surrounded not only the company, but the games too.
They very rarely gave interviews, especially during this busy period. The only ones that spring to mind is one in Home Computer Weekly
from August 1983, Crash in April 1988 and The Games Machine in March 1988.
Working 16 hours, 7 days a week meant they just didn’t have time, but it did build up a certain mystique, in in reality they preferring
instead to work on new games, that were only promoted, in the days after the 16K games, by single page images. There was no hype, no
quotes saying it would be something never seen before, no previews, no trade shows, just these wonderfully drawn images. This made the
buying public eager to get their hands on them, and sales were booming.
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