Image Works begins with Jim Mackonochie, a former Mirror employee. He took a gamble in 1983 and created a very popular publisher that quickly began to move into the 16-bit gaming territory. With strong ties to Robert Maxwell and talented developers like the Bitmap Brothers, Image Works (originally known as Mirrorsoft) started to release a huge number of hits, from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to Speedball 2. Jim reveals here how it all started.
Mirror employee Jim Mackonochie founded Mirrorsoft on a shoestring budget in 1983, but the company really made an impression once Robert Maxwell bought the Mirror Group the following year. However, three years later Mirrorsoft was at a crossroads. Having concentrated on educational titles for longer than it probably should have, the 8-bit games market was very crowded, and Jim recognised that the 16-bit frontier would give Mirrorsoft the chance to gain an advantage. Because it also published more serious utilities and simulators, Mirrorsoft had an image problem with the more youthful games sector, and this was something Jim was keen to address.
“By then, Mirrorsoft had Cinemaware, FTL and the Spectrum Holobyte labels,” Jim explains. “Education and business also went out under the Mirrorsoft label, which really wasn’t associated with hardcore gaming, as, say, Ocean or US Gold were.”
At the same time, the CD was due to forever change home computing, so Jim surrendered control of Mirrorsoft in early 1988 and set up a new Mirror Group company with the intention of creating pioneering multimedia CD-ROM titles.
“I believed that CD-ROM technology was the future for software media distribution,” he recalls, “so Pergamon Compact Solution was set up for the professional and reference market, as well as to assist Mirrorsoft to get a head start by developing Defender Of The Crown for CD-ROM.”
Despite this new workload, Jim remained chairman of Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte, keeping an eye on developments as he was setting up Compact Solution. A new managing director for Mirrorsoft was soon recruited from a rival publisher.
I was personally headhunted by Robert and Kevin Maxwell and joined Mirrorsoft as MD in March 1988,” says Peter Bilotta, who was previously the chief financial officer for Activision’s European office. “I came in to revitalise the old-fashioned branding and market opinion of Mirrorsoft and develop a pure entertainment brand that would sit within the newly formed Maxwell Entertainment group of companies.”
A new publishing label was therefore top of the agenda. After brainstorming the name for a few months during countless internal focus group meetings, Image Works emerged as the leading contender. “I remember liking the name immediately, but it took some time to agree upon the final logo and colour scheme,” says Peter. Among the Mirrorsoft marketing team was Alison Beasley, who remembers how the final logo came about.
“We hired a very expensive ad agency to come up with the design, and they did the obvious and came back with pixels and a circuit board!” she laughs, recalling the highly stylised Image Works logo that adorned the packaging and adverts. With a name, logo and style chosen, it was time to start finding the new talent that would get Image Works noticed. John Cook was games manager at Mirrorsoft, having previously been features editor for Popular Computing Weekly. It was his responsibility to find quality titles for the new label.
The first Image Works game was the European release of Maxis’ 16-bit debut, Skychase, for the ST, Amiga and IBM PC. Other launch titles included the quirky Foxx Fights Back from Denton Designs for the Commodore 64 and Spectrum, and a couple of games designed by David Bishop named Bombuzal and Fernandez Must Die.
“If I recall correctly, Fernandez needed some TLC,” explains Dene Lester, who had recently joined Mirrorsoft as a project manager. “We called in a third-party artist to improve the visuals. The game was so open that players found themselves getting lost and didn’t know where they were supposed to go next. We took a leaf from the Ikari Warriors coin-op and turned the game into a vertical scroller to keep the players focused, so going up the screen led to progress towards the next objective.”
With Atari ST and Spectrum versions in development, a familiar and legendary 8-bit programmer volunteered to write the Commodore 64 version. “I got involved with Image Works on Fernandez Must Die,” explains Tony Crowther, who had previously written some of the early C64 classics including Stop The Express, Potty Pigeon and Blagger. The chance to work with designer David Bishop led to the creation of a couple of additional games, as Tony recalls. “I got talking to David, and he had ideas for other games, and I remember on a visit to his house we designed the first stages of Bombuzal, which we then completed on the Commodore 64 and handed to Image Works three weeks later.”
Bombuzal was a nice surprise for Mirrorsoft, signing the finished game on the spot for the Image Works label. The published version included additional levels designed by fellow game programming legends including Andrew Braybrook, Geoff Crammond, Jon Ritman and Jeff Minter.
“They then got my good friend Ross Goodley to write the ST version, and I got my first chance to play with 16-bit computers when I did the graphics,” adds Tony. Amiga and PC conversions followed, and Bombuzal even appeared on the SNES in Japan a few years later via Kemco. “My next project was my last ever Commodore 64 game, a shoot-’em-up called Phobia,” continues Tony. He also wrote the Amiga version for Image Works, which was his 16-bit programming debut.
The Bitmap Brothers pose in front of Robert Maxwell’s helipcopter.
Among the other Image Works launch titles was a futuristic sports game called Speedball. It was the first of four productions for Image Works by The Bitmap Brothers, which initially comprised Steve Kelly, Eric Matthews and Mike Montgomery. After the success of its debut 16-bit shoot-’em-up, Xenon, The Bitmap Brothers was considered a hot property, and Speedball further enhanced its reputation.
“We’d just finished doing Xenon, and Mastertronic asked us to do a game based on real tennis,” explains Mike Montgomery. Having done a lot of research into the subject, they opted to approach the publisher with the idea of doing an original game design instead, which was rejected.
“So, we went down the pub and designed Speedball on the back of a fag packet!” says Mike. They took the idea to a raft of publishers including Hewson, Ocean and Mirrorsoft, where the game literally struck a chord with John Cook, who was practising his guitar while the Bitmap team pitched their future sports arcade game. “I was very keen to sign Speedball,” remembers John. “It was clearly a great game, and we beat a number of publishers to the punch to sign it.”
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a huge success for Image Works.
Marketing guru Cathy Campos also remembers Speedball with much affection. “I loved doing the PR for that game!” she exclaims. “That’s when we did that photo shoot of the Bitmaps in front of Robert Maxwell’s helicopter,” she adds, referring to an iconic photo of the three founding Bitmaps standing on the helipad on top of the Mirror Group building in London, with Maxwell’s private helicopter behind them.
Speedball proved to be a terrific hit for Image Works, and it was quick to negotiate a new deal with The Bitmap Brothers that included Xenon 2: Megablast, Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe and a game called Anneka.
The biggest commercial hit for Image Works came in late 1990 when it released the home computer versions of Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, converted by Probe Software from the NES platform game, published by Konami via its Ultra label. The Sinclair Spectrum version alone sold a staggering 420,000 copies in just over a month at a time when 8-bit sales were in serious decline, becoming the top-selling game for Christmas that year.
Other titles from Image Works included futuristic 3D game The Killing Cloud from Vektor Grafix, split-screen platformer Flip-It & Magnose from Expanding Minds, Foursfield’s isometric puzzler Brat!, and the unusual Theme Park Mystery from Brian Howarth and Teoman Irmak. All in all things for Image Works were really beginning to look up…
Notable Image Works Games
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