Cascade Games is best known for the infamous Cassette 50 compilation it released, which had a number of terrible games on it. There was more to Cascade Games than poor compilations however. Don’t believe us? All will be revealed in the following article.
The Eighties was a turbulent decade for videogames. Simultaneously an exciting yet stressful time for those involved; many software houses rose and fell in this period. One of them was Cascade Games, founded by Guy Wilhelmy and Nigel Stevens.
“I was studying Physics at Loughborough University in the late Seventies,” begins Guy Wilhelmy, “but I became mesmerised by computers and it was obvious that software was going to play a big part in my future.” Guy had already begun programming, writing various horse racing and gambling odds programs on the university’s interactive mainframe computers. While gathering data for his software, he noticed something. “I saw that most people using the mainframe were playing games rather than studying. I guess a light went on somewhere in my mind!”
At the same university, studying Human Biology, was Nigel Stevens. The two men quickly discovered they had common interests in gambling and computing. Nigel and Guy soon forgot their studies as they brainstormed moneymaking ideas, and it wasn’t long before they were devising a whole suite of programs to try and interpret various gambling strategies, ostensibly by attempting a primitive type of artificial intelligence. “In the human anatomy lab we had a PDP-11 computer,” recalls Nigel, “and I could gain access to it during the night. So Guy and I would sit there in the darkness punctuated only by the occasional beam of flashlight from a security guard. I don’t think Guy quite realised at the time what was in the freezers that surrounded us!”
Programmer Rick Vanner poses with a ZX81.
Post-graduation, the pressure of finding jobs meant Guy and Nigel only kept in contact sporadically. With Nigel finding employment as a local government programmer, Guy was managing to scrape a living with his first software company, Databank Software Services, developing and selling business and betting programs on computers such as the Apple II, Commodore Pet and Exidy Sorcerer. “After my finals it had been a simple choice between gambling and computer games,” explains Guy, “and with the latter being more fresh and exciting, ultimately it was an easy choice.” Operating out of a run-down house in Loughborough, he programmed, designed adverts, wrote copy for magazines and sent out thousands of mailshots, working night and day to try and establish a profitable business.
Yet, despite help from Nigel and his father (who was reciprocating work Guy had done in setting up his father’s factory in London a few years earlier), Guy became disillusioned with the software industry, and began training to be a teacher in 1981 before embarking on a career-defining trip to America. He says: “While in the US, I saw what was happening with software and games and that really got my enthusiasm going again.” On his return to the UK in 1982, Guy moved to Harrogate to complete his teaching probationary year and began a new company based on his middle name: Ulrich Technical Services – or UTS. The beginning of UTS coincided with the launch of the ZX Spectrum so, together with the Apple II, Guy concentrated on these two formats as he considered UTS’ first move.
This first move would sculpt his and, eventually, Nigel Stevens’ early careers, as Guy explains. “It had always annoyed me that when I was writing single games back in the late Seventies, a five- or ten-minute cassette was nearly the same price as a 45-minute one. I therefore always used full-length cassettes and then had the idea of putting more and more games onto each cassette to use up the extra tape. I needed a USP, something so far out there that no-one else would dare to compete, and this seemed to fit the bill perfectly.” This was the technical beginning of what would become Cassette 50, and Guy was shortly busy creating the many games that would make up the Apple version of the compilation from his home in Harrogate. When he contacted his friend about his new venture, Nigel Stevens wasn’t convinced – but this time Guy was determined to make it work, despite the return of late night programming sessions, now in addition to a regular day job.
Eventually Nigel would see the potential and contributed by providing additional computers and programming. “I saw no real advantage in keeping everything to myself,” says Guy generously, “and considered it useful to have someone to bounce ideas off.” Guy created the necessary hardware and software to allow the Apple II games to be easily ported to other computers and permitted Nigel to use his existing adverts and masters and sell Cassette 50 from his own home in South Wales. “The logic was, that if the public saw two companies selling the same thing, perhaps it would give it more credibility,” says Guy, “and if one didn’t pick up an order then the other might.”
Ace turned out to be a big success for Cascade Games. A sequel soon followed.
What Guy didn’t anticipate was Nigel’s home address proving much more attractive to customers than his PO box which had been forced upon him by mortgage constraints; the name of the Stevens family home was Cascades. “It had been a massive risk initially,” states Guy, “I’d designed the first adverts and found a graphic artist to convert my ideas. It was a huge business gamble and a frightening step as I’d booked over £2000 worth of advertising.” The risk paid off as sales of Cassette 50 – bolstered by an enthusiastic advertising campaign – rocketed.
By 1983, it was clear to the two friends that they needed to form a proper limited company. Nigel remembers: “I was earning more in a month from the software than I was in an entire year in my regular job. It was obvious that there was a lot of potential in the market and that we could do really well out of it.” When it came to the newly formed company’s name, it was apt to use the name of the Stevens family home that had served the early versions of Cassette 50 so well. “Then Nigel and I flipped a coin to decide who would be chairman and who would be secretary,” laughs Guy. With offices established above a Volvo dealership in Harrogate and Nigel Stevens swiftly relocating from South Wales, this was the real start of Cascade Games Limited. In 1984 they hired their first programmer, Ian Martin, quickly followed by Damon Redmond and Rick Vanner.
“I think I was just 15 when I started at Cascade and worked mainly on making new versions of the games on Cassette 50 for the Atari 8-bit format,” says Rick, “and I was at least able to make the games more interesting by making use of the graphics and sound on the Atari.” The young man was impressed by Guy Wilhelmy and his dedication. “I was amazed by the original idea of 50 games on one cassette and how Guy did all the development work to make it on multiple platforms. For example, the Atari conversion was done by making the Apple II send keyboard commands to the Atari and it would type the game out!”
Rick Vanner now makes various game creating tools.
Unfortunately for Rick, his employment at Cascade did not last long. “I stupidly showed a copy of a game to a friend and word got back to the team,” he grimaces, “and I got sacked for my trouble. I learned an important lesson that day, which was hard to take at the time, but I moved on, went to college, and never made that mistake again.”
Damon Redmond had already crossed paths with Cascade; his game Rabbit Raid on the Atari 8-bit computers had been bought by Guy Wilhelmy for the princely sum of £10 before being deposited on the ill-fated Cassette 50 follow-up, Cassette 4. Shortly afterwards, Damon found himself ensconced in Cascade’s offices, busy converting Cassette 50 games to new formats. “I worked on the Atari, Amstrad, Spectrum and Commodore 64 versions,” admits Damon, “but it’s no secret they were all rubbish!” Yet despite his dismissive assessment of the compilation, Damon has fond memories of it. “Personally I have a soft spot for Cassette 50. It was my first real entry into a 28-year career in the videogames industry.”
In the meantime, Guy Wilhelmy was still busy writing games and had coded a Commodore 64 title called 3D-Beee. “It was a dog,” he says candidly, “as although it was in machine code, I couldn’t give it the attention it needed to exploit the superb sound capability of the C64 and the things I wanted to do with the graphics.” The Cascade co-boss was caught in a situation common to many of the early software pioneers. “There simply wasn’t enough time to run a company and program,” he continues, “so I decided my programming days were behind me.”
Guy focused his attention on another aggressive advertising campaign for Cassette 50. “I noticed children, and boys in particular, were obsessed with the concept of calculator watches,” he says, “so another light came on in my head. I used a spread-sheet for the first time and we made a big decision: if sales were good enough we could give away one of these calculator watches with every copy of Cassette 50.” The free calculator watch was an immense gamble for Cascade but one that paid off handsomely as Cassette 50’s sales shot up once more. And it was soon to put the funds to good use…
Notable Cascade Games Games
To read the whole feature you can download issue 109 from GreatDigitalMags.com or the ImagineShop.
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