Retro Game Designers: The Bitmap Brothers: the Video Games Rock Stars

In the late 80s and early 90s, Bitmap Brothers could be considered as the “rock stars” of 16-bit developers. The best games ever made for the Commodore Amiga were born from their hands: Xenon II Megablast, Speedball, Speedball 2, Gods, Cadaver, The Chaos Engine. And their games were not only beautiful to look at, but also to listen to, thanks to soundtracks of all respect, often made by real pop stars of the 90s.

The Bitmap Brothers were officially born in 1987, from the union of three talents: Mike Montgomery, Eric Matthews and Steve Kelly.

Mike Montgomery didn’t even dream of a future as a successful programmer. It all started by chance when he worked as a clerk in the British supermarket chain Woolworths. The first computers that appeared in the offices sparked a passion in him that soon led him to look for a new job at the London Leisure Software. Leisure produced versions for Zx Spectrum of classic board games, such as Cluedo or Scarabeo. Steve Kelly worked for Psion (another historic label for Zx Spectrum) and had recently completed Checkered Flag, a first-person racing game. Together with Eric Matthews they found themselves working on a joint project and so their friendship was born.

Xenon dei Bitmap Brothers su

The first “official” game made by the trio was Xenon, the classic shoot’em’up for the Amiga and Atari ST that we all remember. Originally it had to be called “Kelly X”, but luckily they opted for a more sci-fi and catchy name. The game was released by the Melbourne House (Mastertronic label) and showed 16bit computer owners of the time what new technologies could do. Ultra metallic sparkling graphics, a good soundtrack, fair playability and a few touches of megalomaniac class, like the face of the digitized authors that marks the beginning of the game round. Xenon also ended up in the arcade, on specially modified Amiga systems.

Bitmap Brothers knew they had talent. But they immediately realized that the world of video games, especially at that time, was quite a crowded place. The launch pad, as in all compelling stories that are respected, came out unexpectedly and by pure chance. Montgomery, in fact, had created a small program on Commodore Amiga for a technician, who at the time was working in the post-production of a London TV. He did the work for free, without expecting anything in return.

La storia dei Bitmap Brothers - La trasmissione Get Fresh - Su

It turned out that the guy worked in the staff of “Get Fresh”, a well-known children’s program in England. In the Show, at a certain point in the episode, viewers could call from home and participate in a sort of tele-videogame, to be controlled by voice or phone keys. When it came to choosing the game to be proposed, Montgomery’s friendships oriented the editorial staff towards the latest creation of Bitmap Brothers: Xenon. The advertising push was incredible and sales projected the game to the top 40 of the most sold for Amiga.

The collaboration with the TVs continued also for many other projects, making the trio famous not only in the specialized press, but also between the casual gamers.

Mike Montgomery, Eric Matthews e Steve Kelly i Bitmap Brothers su

But the greatness of Bitmap Brothers was not only in the quality of their games. The three friends realized that the big problem of the video game industry was that the programmers always worked behind the scenes. The audience imagined them as bespectacled nerds, locked in their dark closets to compile code. The software houses treated them as low laborers (read: slaves), to be squeezed as much as possible against a misery pay. Bitmap Brothers revolutionized this mentality. They paid a professional photographer out of their pockets. They dressed as jet-set stars, long coats, dark glasses, arrogant behavior and even had their helicopters photographed behind them (on loan). Then they took all these photos and sent them to video game magazines. “This is us, the Bitmap Brothers”. And they ended up on the front pages.

In the first contract with MirrorSoft they demanded that both the team and the game itself be advertised. They were no longer “programmers”, they were “cool” catwalk characters.

Speedball dei Bitmap Brothers la storia su

At the end of the same year of Xenon, 1988, the Bitmap Brothers completed SpeedBall. Expectations were high, because the public wanted to find out if these “talents” would be able to repeat the success of the first game. And they succeeded. SpeedBall was actually born as “Real Tennis”, a sports game commissioned by Mastertronic, which, however, halfway through its development, pulled the plug on the project. This is why Bitmap Brothers revised the idea into a futuristic sport and sold the game to Imageworks. Curiosity: the game will also be distributed on Nintendo consoles, but with the name “purified” in KlashBall. In fact, for the Japanese the “Speed” was too much like the drug of the same name.

For the third game the Bitmap Brothers decided to opt for a sequel to Xenon. The absolutely innovative choice for the time was to create a collaboration with the record label Rhythm King and the dance artist Tim Simenon (aka Bomb the Bass). The result was a game that not only surpassed the previous one in appearance and gameplay, but which, for the first time on a computer, accompanied the game action with a “real” music: a remix of the dance hit MegaBlast.

La Storia dei Bitmap Brothers - Speedball 2 Brutal Deluxe copertina di Glen Fabry su

In the late 1990s it was time for SpeedBall 2, Brutal Deluxe, which saw Bitmap Brothers collaborating with cartoonist Glen Fabry. His unique and unmistakable style is visible in the box art cover, which adds to the game that dark and violent look, partly inspired by the 70’s Rollerball. Glenn Fabry will become a permanent collaboration since then.

Bitmap Brothers Demo Disk Riviste Inglesi la storia su

As a clever marketing move, Bitmap Brothers games were not advertised only in the form of advertising pages. Their projects, even months before the official release, were distributed as playable demos (sometimes with original levels created ad hoc) attached for free to the magazines.

When the market was ready, Bitmap Brothers decided to found their own label, Renegade, which published not only their future titles, such as Gods, Magic Pockets, Cadaver and The Chaos Engine, but also products of other promising developers.

In short, the success of Bitmap Brothers can be attributed to their ability to be marketers of themselves, to confront the market as characters, rather than as video game authors. But besides this there was also the substance. Every single game produced by them always had the same incredible attention to detail, attention to graphics and gameplay. The result was always a small masterpiece, perfect in every manic detail.

Montgomery, Matthews and Kelly never sat on their laurels. They were able to get involved after every success, experimenting with very different genres, ranging from shoot’em’up to platforming, to isometric adventures.

The 16-bit era gave birth to a multitude of games that have become timeless classics. In this golden age, dominated by the Amigas and the Atari STs, a special place as a protagonist goes without a doubt to the Bitmap Brothers, who have proved to be among the best, if not the best developers for these machines.