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Imagitech Design

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Imagitech Design might not be the best known developer, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. It created some truly impressive arcade conversions in its early days, and soon found itself linked with both Grand Theft Auto and the Atari Jaguar. We speak to key members about those formulative years.

imagitechDewsbury, West Yorkshire might not seem the obvious place to open a game studio but in 1986 Martin Hooley and James North-Hearn did just that.

Dewsbury became prominent in the 19th Century as a mill town and so it seems only right that the original home of Imagitec Design was a converted mill. In these early years Martin had a team of around 20 staff, many of which he recruited personally to help set up its development systems. “In the early days I recruited and imported a number of crack hacking teams, one of these was The Judges, the legendary Dutch Hackers,” Martin says.

As Imagitec began to write its own development systems, porting games across several platforms became much easier, as Martin explains. “Our porting skills grew quickly as we built our own development solutions based on the Atari ST. Joolz [Julian Alden-Salter] wrote most of the tools.” Imagitec actually became the first ever UK developer to work with Electronic Arts when it converted Ferrari Formula One from the Amiga to the other popular home computers of the time. Imagitec really cut its teeth on some of these early ports, with other efforts including a conversion of Ultima from the Apple II to the C64 (this code was later used for the NES version) and Times Of Lore from the C64 to multiple formats. This was the first game written by Wing Commander’s Chris Roberts.

Imagitec - group photo

A proud Imagitech Design poses for the camera.

Imagitec worked with another big name, as Martin tells us. “We did a lot of work for Apple direct, converting a lot of the Gremlin titles to its Macs, using Power VR graphic boards called the Gazelle,” adding this interesting snippet, “this was the same chipset as the iPhone, we even worked on its failed Pippin console.” This led to the start of a long-standing relationship with Gremlin Graphics that would see Imagitec not only producing original titles for Gremlin, but also handling conversions of games to other platforms.

Imagitec’s first two games for Gremlin were Blood Valley and Butcher Hill, both of which were released for the Spectrum, C64 and Amstrad CPC, with the latter also seeing conversions to the Amiga and Atari ST. Both games received a lukewarm reception, but they did show that Imagitec could work with multiple platforms at one time. “It was the long-standing relationship with Gremlin that led us to become one of the best trans-coding shops that there was, we could port anything to anything,” Martin proudly tells us.

With the reputation of Imagitec quickly growing it was time to hire more staff and in 1989 the company grew massively in size. One of these new employees was Kristi Louise Herd, who went on to become a lead graphic artist for the company, and she still remembers it all very clearly… “I was at college and I had dabbled with computer graphics and a bit of code. My main focus was to qualify as a professional graphic designer and I would think about a job when I graduated. To gain some experience, I volunteered my services to Dewsbury Technical College producing booklets using Desktop Publishing. It was a cool thing to do as it gave me an opportunity to experiment with drawing graphics on a computer.”

Imagitec at work

Surely that’s not someone sleeping?

It was at this point her tutor spoke to her about a job opportunity she might be interested in. “He said that a mate of his ran a small gaming company and he was looking for artists, why not give him a call.” That company of course was of course Imagitec Design and after she took a portfolio of work to an interview with Martin, she was offered a job on the spot.
Kristi’s first work for the company was on the C64 and included the smash hit Fiendish Freddy’s Big Top O’ Fun for Mindscape. She has great memories of working with the C64, telling us, “I took to the C64 without a hitch. At my interview I had to draw with a joystick using Koala Painter on the C64. It took a while to get used to drawing with double pixels, but I thought it was pretty awesome. I had some difficult games to do graphics for, but the C64 handled the task without a problem.” Kristi also feels her work with the C64 put her in good position to handle other machines, revealing “working with the C64 made me a more competent artist because of the technical difficulties to overcome. It was always a challenge to get something different going on the C64, but I think as an artist, I achieved that.”

Barry Leitch joined Imagitec in 1988 as audio director and was a huge part of the company’s growth. He worked with the programmers to create custom sound drivers for all the major machines, enabling them to quickly create and convert music for all manner of platforms. “I had worked with the programmers to unify the data structure for the music drivers,” Barry tells us. “The C64 was by far the most advanced music driver we had at the time, as everyone was literally trying to squeeze every ounce out of C64 audio. Being able to utilise even just the note data and recreate the instruments for the other target platforms made life so much easier.”

Barry then revealed more about the conversion process, revealing, “I’d write the Amiga music first as a four-channel wave table. Having a background in C64 audio was key to how the audio was composed and I was careful to only do stuff that I could replicate on other systems.”

Barry & Julian

Barry and Julian do their best Hale & Pace impression.

Barry thinks that many other studios were too ambitious with what they tried to do, telling us that “some people used big speech samples or other sounds that would never be able to be replicated on lesser platforms. While this gave them an edge on the Amiga, it sounded pish on every other platform.”

Once the Amiga version was done Barry would then make the three-channel versions. “I reduced the polyphony using arpeggios, or by sneaking some percussion into the bass line tracks. Once that was done it was really just a matter of recreating the instruments for the different platforms to take advantage of any special hardware capabilities and TADA! You had the music across a bunch of platforms in a matter of minutes.” Barry thinks that all this work really gave them the edge over other studios of the time. “As we had all those music drivers, it made us a great alternative for clients to use instead of David Whittaker. A lot of the conversion work came from the partnerships we had with other companies at the time, Gremlin, Electronic Arts, Microprose, Virgin etc.”

Kristi Louise Herd

Kristi Louise Herd is now a keen photographer.

Efficiency also played a big part in Imagitec’s success, with Barry proclaiming: “We were fast, really fast! For one example, I think it was Supremacy on the PC, I was literally given a cassette tape of the music at 4pm on a Friday afternoon and told if I had it done by 5pm they could use it, if not the game would ship without music, and I did it!” Another memory revolved around a trip to Gremlin. “I was doing Impossamole for the TurboGrafx 16, all the music and the sound driver was written in five days down in Sheffield. Top Gear for the SNES was a similar affair with stuff being thrown together under ridiculously tight time-frames.”

Barry’s favourite machine to work with was the Amiga and he attributes much of his success to Commodore’s machine. “When it came to the Amiga, Gremlin were making amazing games. I was really lucky to be in the position to do these games, suddenly the stars aligned and I stopped writing music that sucked! Lotus 2, Utopia, Harlequin and Hero Quest were all great melodies.” When compared to the other famous computer musicians of the time Barry commented “It didn’t hurt that Richard Joseph was fairly exclusive at the time. Hubbard, Galway and Whittaker had all headed to the States and Daglish had vanished, so for a brief time I felt like I was the king of the castle!”

When it comes to the glory years of Imagitec Design in the late Eighties and early Nineties, the stories are endless. It regularly burned the candle at both ends, working until the early hours of the morning and often slept in the office. Many of them even had their own bedrooms and apart from numerous jaunts to the local pub, Imagitec was their life. Kristi looks back on how stressful those years in the industry were, and reveals, “Those of us who worked in the industry around [that time] belong to a unique breed. It was challenging, it was exciting, we felt and acted like rock stars, but lived like paupers! There was no money and no glamour, but we produced games that are still talked about and will remain classics.”

Notable Imagitech Design Games

XenophobeXenophobe

Viking ChildViking Child

RaidenRaiden

I-War GameI-War

The Humans - Mega DriveThe Humans

To read the whole feature you can download issue 111 from GreatDigitalMags.com

Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from ImagineShop

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