In 1984 Birmingham wasn’t known for its software companies. The leaders were Manchester and Liverpool, spawning companies such as Imagine, Ocean, Bug Byte and Software Projects. However what Birmingham lacked in quantity it sure made up with quality. Greg Follis and Roy Carter had been programming for about 17 years before starting up Gargoyle Games in the heart of Dudley, creating business software and tools in a computer research department. This experience gave them an edge over the young up and coming coders of the eighties, which was reflected in the quality of their games. Whilst working for a company developing software, the guys decided to work on their own games. So during their free time they developed Ad Astra and after nine months they released it to an unsuspecting public. By now a friend of Greg, Ted Heathcote was roped in to sell the games and helped develop Gargoyle Games.
Read an old Crash! interview here.
To the Stars
Ad Astra was a quality 3D shoot-em up for the time. Using sprites, not wire frame, to give a perspective, the game was fast and pretty. From the moment you started the game you knew you were in for a treat. The animation was amazing with large rolling asteroids to dodge and fast diving alien ships to shoot at. In fact one magazine complained it was too fast, there is no pleasing some. There are 20 segments, with each segment being made up of seven phases. Each phase always starts with large asteroids hurtling at the player's ship, all you can do is dodge them as your shots do nothing. After this alien craft appear as dots in the distance and then swoop down onto you. There are five different types of aliens attacking, each in eight different formations. Getting a healthy 80% in Crash and a Sinclair User score of 8 (out of 10), this wasn’t a bad for a début game.
Celtic MythsNext came Tir Na Nog, an instant winner. It started with an animation, written by Roy, of a walking man. From here their interest in fantasy inspired them to develop Tir Na Nog. After throwing out the idea of doing the Epic of Gilgamesh they settled on Celtic mythology. Tir Na Nog broke all the rules and started a unique genre in Adventure Games, being advertised as ‘a true computer movie’, this was no brag. The map was huge and the puzzles many, this adventure kept players going for quite a long time.
The hero, Cuchulainn, wanders Tir Na Nog (Land of the youth) looking for parts of the Seal of Calum. Cuchulainn is made up of twelve separate animations which are 56 pixels high, an amazing feat on a 48k Spectrum. The landscape scrolled smoothly and you wandered the animated lands of Tir Na Nog. Depth was given by being able to rotate the landscape by ninety degrees, allowing our hero to wander down other paths. Wandering the paths of Tir Na Nog, are the Sidhe, which attack Cuchulainn. However Cuchulainn does not die, as he is already dead, instead he drops all of his objects and returns to the starting point in The Central Plain. There are many other foes, all well animated. From the large floating head of Cernos the Hunter, to Nathair the dragon.
It wasn’t long before Tir Na Nog was converted to the C64 and eventually to the Amstrad, when it came out. From here on most of Gargoyle Games titles were converted to these popular formats.
Dun Darach followed, a prequel to Tir Na Nog. Giving the same ‘movie’ quality, they vastly improved the game play. This time the wandering characters were more interactive and part of the adventure. Some will try to steal from you while others will police you; by confiscating anything you might have stolen. Also you were able to buy and sell from the many shops, gamble and save money in a bank account. This time Cuchulain found himself in the walled city of Dun Darach looking for his charioteer Loeg, whom the evil sorceress Skar had kidnapped. The attention to detail was amazing; everything was part of a puzzle. The pictures in the galleries were clues, the torches, on the walls, sometimes outlined a hidden door and even the rats have a use. Greg and Roy’s skills as programmers become apparent when you find out that the central character on screen had to be slowed down in order to make the game playable. Dun Darach offered many levels of play; not only could you play it as an intricate and detailed graphical adventure, but also as a strategy game, a try your luck gambling game and even a financial simulation as well.
Back to the Stars
If this wasn’t enough Gargoyle Games gave us Marsport, a SCI-FI adventure. Looking similar to Tir Na Nog and Dun Darach, Marsport was actually a major improvement, technologically, to the other two. For a start the map was bigger, there were more locations to store objects and now we could go up and down via lifts, giving the game even more depth. One more addition was the ability to shoot aliens, once you found a gun that is. The start of a trilogy, Marsport saw a new hero, John Marsh, sent to the abandoned dome on Mars, which had been overtaken by aliens called the Sept. John’s aim was to recover plans for strengthening Earth's own dome. Additional features were a scoring system based on the puzzles solved and a couple of mini games within the game. Masport was supposed to have been followed by Formax and Gath, but sadly Gargoyle Games never got round to releasing the other two games in the trilogy.
Next saw a complete change in game style with Sweevo’s world. Created just for fun, this arcade adventure saw a small robot Sweevo (Self-Willed Extreme Environment Vocational Organism) wandering a Knightlore-esque landscape solving jump ‘n’ dodge style puzzles. Even though this was an arcade adventure it still had that extra depth Gargoyle Games were famous for. When the 128k Spectrum came out, an enhanced version of Sweevo's World, called 'Sweevo Whirled', was released. This included more rooms, extra objects and more graphics.
In 1986 it was time to expand on the graphical adventure. The result, Heavy on the Magick, was a totally new idea again. Gone was the scrolling graphics and wandering paths, instead we saw enlarged graphics and 'flip screen' rooms. This resulted in a much larger adventure than the previous games. Heavy focused more on the adventure scenario this time, by using 'flip screen' rooms and magnified sprites, Gargoyle was able to add more puzzles and monsters in a classic Dungeon and Dragons scenario, with real player stats, magic spells and fighting abilities. For the first time Gargoyle used a text parser, commands were entered using single key stroke then the rest of the sentence was typed as normal. This time the adventure was set in the world of Graumerphy in a dungeon of Collodon’s Pile. The hero, Axil, is a low-grade wizard or neophyte. Your aim is to get out of the dungeon, by solving puzzles, fighting monsters and basically improving your skills and abilities on the way.
Again the fine detail we came to expect from Gargoyle was present. From the ruffling of Axil’s cloak when a breeze blew to Axil bumping into the wall when asked to go through a non-existing exit. Instead of the arcade movements of the previous adventures we now had a text parser to contend with, which even allowed you to talk to some of the pitiful creatures that roamed the dungeon. Magic played a big part in Heavy, Axil being a wizard. Spells could be found and learnt during the game improving your chances of survival. As before the dungeon was littered with cryptic clues and useful objects.
The instruction manual promised modules and future adventures, but alas they never saw the light of day. This time Greg and Roy had other ideas for the future.
By the end of 1986 adverts were appearing in magazines by a new company called Faster Than Light. Anyone who took notice of these adverts would notice the small print at the bottom of the advert. It read ‘Carter Follis Group of Companies’. Faster Than Light, or FTL, was an offshoot of Gargoyle Games, allowing Greg and Roy to experiment in arcade games.
The first release was Light Force, a top down view, scrolling, shoot-em up. But since this was a game by Roy and Greg, it wasn’t any ordinary shoot-em up. For one thing FTL used some clever graphic design to keep the classic Spectrum colour attribute clash down to virtually nothing and Light Force was full of colour. Split into five sections made up of Space flights and Landscapes, the player starts off in the thick of an asteroid belt. Once through the belt the player is immediately attacked by a swarm of alien ships. Space stations also float past under the players ship, allowing bonus points by shooting at parts of these stations. If you manage to pass this level, you then swoop down onto a jungle planet where more ships attack you in formation. An ice planet, a desert planet and then alien factories follow this on later levels. Greg and Roy did it again, Light Force was an instant hit gaining an overall 91% in Crash. As with Ad Astra the boys started out with a winner for a new label.
Yobs and Finks
Shockway Rider was the second title for FTL, an original and compelling game. In the future pedestrians will travel by the Shockway, a series of moving walkways. However being the future, yobs, finks and scum populate the Shockway. The challenge is to ride the Shockway and complete a full circle around the city. There are three walkways each running faster than the last, each with it’s own obstacles. On the edge of the Shockway lie tin cans and bricks, with which you can use as ammunition, by throwing them at the scum and yobs, without these you have to rely on your fists
Shockway is completely addictive, with slick game play. The graphics are up to the usual Gargoyle Graphics / FTL quality with a well-defined perspective giving depth to each of the three walkways. You really have to keep your wits about you when playing, as the other characters hang back on the slower walkways, jumping onto your lane at the right moment to catch you out.
Sweevo is Back
The final title by FTL was Hydrofool, which was a returning adventure for Sweevo. This time he was given the job of cleaning out a giant aquarium called the Deathbowl. Donning his scuba gear, Sweevo set about cleaning the inside of this giant fish bowl, the only way to clean such a heavily polluted aquarium was to drain it by pulling out four giant plugs. Of course games like this are never that easy. In order to get to the plugs, Sweevo had to solve several puzzles and avoid some very nasty inhabitants. Luckily there are some weapons scattered about the tanks, giving Sweevo an edge.
As before, Hydrofool is in the same format as Sweevo’s World. Except this time, being in water, our friend is able to float up or down. Each ‘room’ has doors interconnecting with each other; also the Deathbowl has different levels that are accessed by whirlpools. With over 200 rooms, even more on the 128K, this game was no mean feat and had the expected longevity of an FTL game.
It Pays the Bills
Since 1986, Gargoyle Games was quietly creating tie-in licenses for Elite Systems. When Elite got into trouble by their over ambitious project, Scooby Doo, they turned to Roy and Greg to start from scratch. This resulted in a fairly mediocre platform game, which had the feel of a Gargoyle game, but had the usual ‘something lacking’ which most license games suffered from. Thundercats, based on the popular cartoon, was a much better release and proved very popular. It contained everything a Gargoyle games should, great graphics, smooth scrolling with a clever use of colours and an attention to detail.
By 1988 the bottom of the 8-bit market had dropped out and a lot of companies were in trouble or had ceased trading. Gargoyle Games and FTL quietly disappeared in the same modest way they appeared. We never did get to see the follow up to Marsport, the modules for Heavy on the Magick or any more great arcade games from the FTL stable. For a lot of players, this was a great loss and many people wonder how great the games would have been if Roy and Greg had continued in the 16 bit era. Looking at the Atari ST port of Thundercats, might give you a hint. However gossip does say that Roy and Greg worked for Psygnosis for a while. Psygnosis were developing an updated version of Tir Na Nog for the PC, but sadly this never got past a demo running at a computer show.