English Software might not be as well known as some 8-bit software houses, but that certainly doesn’t mean it should be ignored. It released a string of interesting games during its lifetime and is notable for its many Atari 8-bit games. Here we look at how it all began.
Picture a little cottage in the country, complete with pretty flower borders and a rustic garden gate. Not something you’d imagine would have much to do with computer games, unless perhaps you were playing Hover Bovver. But it was this very image that attracted a number of budding game programmers to a new software house with a mysterious air of Old World charm.
“It was a black and white advert in Computer & Video Games,” says Simon Hunt, designer of Diamonds and Dan Strikes Back. “It had a picture of a cottage with a rose on it and it was saying they were looking for software authors to write games. I was 19 at the time, and I’d already written a version of Diamonds in Atari BASIC for C&VG, and when English Software said they were interested I had to write to C&VG to say please don’t publish it as I didn’t want to give away the idea… So my dad drove me up to Manchester from Bedfordshire and I showed them my work in progress – how I was converting Diamonds from BASIC to assembler language – and they said ‘yeah this is brilliant, if you can develop it we’d definitely like to sell it.’ That was Philip and his brother Ralph.”
“I wanted a name that would appeal to the US games market,” explains Philip Morris, English Software’s founder. “I started at a computer chess retailer in October 1977 called Gemini Electronics, based in Newton Street in Piccadilly. It was the first independent Atari VCS and later Atari 400/800/CBM 64 retailer in Manchester. After a while I stopped retailing because I was being approached all the time by other Atari programmers, so I moved to an office to work on games full-time. We were based in Parsonage Gardens, off Deansgate. I personally play-tested every game and came up with the packaging designs, using outside companies to do the artwork.”
Jon Williams was the coder behind the popular Jet-Boot Jack.
“That was his decision for using the little cottage with the garden as the motif,” adds Simon, “because he said that Americans would go for that quaint, English thing…” And they did, to a point, with several English Software titles making it to the States, including Airstrike, Jet-Boot Jack and Elektra Glide. The decision early on to fully support the Atari home computers was also something that may have appealed in the US. And although the Anglophile theme wasn’t necessarily reflected in all the games, at least a few, including Henry’s House, Knight Games and The Adventures Of Robin Hood, were certainly inspired by romantic visions of medieval England and baby royal princes. Although ironically, in a time when most games publishers were supporting Clive Sinclair’s machines, English Software had their eyes firmly on the all-American Atari above the home-grown systems.
“I personally felt the Atari computer was the most sophisticated at the time to produce games for,” says Philip. “But the big money was being made by the Spectrum companies… There was no money for in-house staff, it was always freelance programmers submitting nearly finished games, or working to my briefs and game designs. I personally evaluated all the games that were finally published; some were really great, some truly awful – not at all uncommon in those days. Game ideas were varied, some totally original and some direct copies of other games, for instance Airstrike and Scramble.”
“My brother bought an Atari 400 from Phil’s shop in Manchester,” remembers Airstrike’s programmer, Steve Riding. “I started doing simple games on it, and Phil had this crazy idea of selling them. The first game was Cosmic Conflict, which was a mixture of BASIC and 6502. After that, Phil managed to get an Atari Assembler Cartridge and that’s when Airstrike began. I guess it came as a result of experimenting with the hardware and then working out how the scroll registers worked. Initially I coded an editor to map out the levels. A little later I thought ‘what would happen if I looked at the same data in hi-res?’ That’s where the radar at the bottom of the screen [in Airstrike II] came from. Soon afterwards, I quit university to do games.”
English Software titles were very noticeable due to their distinct design.
Like Phil, Steve felt that the Atari machines were a superior games platform, despite their high cost compared to the Spectrum. “Because of its console background the Atari had a lot of excellent arcade conversions which showed what could be achieved,” he says. “And there were a few more contributing factors that opened up the Ataris for me. Firstly, in a moment of inspiration, Atari had published the listing of their operating system, which gave great insight into the workings of the machine. At the same time, Byte magazine published monthly articles on coding the Atari hardware which was super helpful. Because of this we may lay claim to the first ‘arcade quaity 100 per cent machine code games’ developed in Europe…”
“I loved coding for the Atari, even though by today’s standards it seems pretty primitive. At the time it was so elegant. Phil was a great guy to work for – he loaned me the development kit including a floppy disk drive as I had been using tapes before then which wasn’t ideal. I have to say I thought it was fantastic when I started to make enough money to rent a big house and live with lots of my friends, and if I needed any money I would just do another game. Initially I would also work in Phil’s shop at the weekend, so I got to interact with lots of the potential buyers, which was great.”
Airstrike was popular enough to spawn a sequel, as was Simon Hunt’s subterranean earth-mover Diamonds. It was a hectic arcade-style game where players dug through earth and attempted to squash nasties with boulders while grabbing sparkling gems. “Despite what you might assume, I had never played Dig Dug, although I might have seen it once in an arcade,” says Simon. “I was more aware of Pac-Man and Spectrum games like Manic Miner and Sabre Wulf. This was pre-Boulder Dash,” he notes mischievously, “in fact I like to think that maybe Boulder Dash might have been influenced by seeing my game!
English Software made many games for the Atari 8-Bit.
“Philip decided that it would be a cool marketing idea to offer some kind of prize so we thought about it and he came up with the idea of getting a plaque made with a real diamond embedded in it. So we decided to make it a competition. If you could complete the 64th level the screen would show this picture of a diamond, and you had to take a Polaroid and send it in. It felt like there must have been 50 or 60 kids that had sent in a picture… Philip invited me up to the ESC offices after the close date of the competition and gave me this big envelope of letters and I had to sort through all the entrants to find the highest score. I know the guy that won it lived in Wales, but I’ve no idea where it would be now…”
Simon followed Diamonds with Dan Strikes Back, where Digger Dan returned in a scrolling adventure featuring more precious stones and mushrooms. “Another ESC game, Firefleet, had vertical scrolling and was a kind of contemporary for Atari’s Caverns Of Mars. I really liked the vertical scrolling idea, and the levels with the mushrooms on the floors were inspired by the dot-collecting of Pac-Man and Bounty Bob. I wanted to have sections that you unlocked as you went down, and Dan Strikes Back was more of a puzzle game in that you had to work out how to open the doors on each level.
Knight Games proved very popular and received a sequel.
Simon also reveals, “I had plans for a third game called Return Of The Fungi, where Digger Dan would have been in the centre of the screen surrounded by a forcefield and Brian the Blob would be running around the outside firing toadstools at you, which would land and break into spores you had to avoid or blow up with bombs. I had planned the spores to behave like Missile Command with the way the explosions bloomed and blossomed. Unfortunately I never did more than a title screen.”
Perhaps English Software’s most popular Atari release was Jet-Boot Jack, which was programmed by Jon Williams. It was while working as a TV and radio repair engineer that Jon had first dabbled with games programming on the Commodore PET. After writing a dice-based game and getting it published by Petsoft, he had found that his royalty payment had come to the grand sum of exactly two pounds. Moving to the Atari suddenly seemed like a very good idea…
Notable English Software Games
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