Tharg's Computer Memories

A brief history of 2000AD computer games by Leigh Shepherd

When Rebellion bought 2000AD, you could be forgiven for being surprised - a computer games company taking over a comic? That said, 2000AD and computer games have a lengthy history, with a long line of games based on 2000AD characters stretching back almost two decades.

Even before any characters had made the jump from page to pixel, the comic had run features on the burgeoning computer games industry. ‘Tharg’s Mighty Micro Pages’ was a semi-regular feature that ran reviews of games and printed short programs submitted by readers. Ex-editor Richard Burton worked on the short lived Big K magazine (which was promoted with adverts drawn by Ian Gibson) while Kelvin Gosnell, another ex-editor, wrote a comic strip for Crash and Zzap!64 magazines called "The Terminal Man". He even wrote an article for the 1985 Christmas special edition of Zzap!64 called "2000AD speak", which outlined the origin of 2000AD words such as grexnix and Zarjaz. The introduction to the article made the link between 2000AD’s audience and the new breed of computer gamers and programmers; "Judging from Zzap’s mailbag, a goodly number of you do savvy 2000AD-speak. Letters to Zzap talk quite frequently of Zarzog (sic) games or scrotnig playability. These two particular adjectives seem to be the most popular and have even found their way on to software house press releases."

It wasn’t until 1984 that Tharg decided that the primitive computer technology had advanced sufficiently to bring his characters to life. The first game came about through unusual circumstances, as Mark Eyles, then Creative Director for Quicksilva explains; "I wrote to 2000AD while working at Quicksilva asking for a picture of Tharg to help give us more thrill power while working on games. The then editor, Richard Burton, wrote back, sending through a signed photo of Tharg. In an accompanying letter he revealed that he was a fan of our games.

I went up to see him to talk about licensing a 2000AD character. My first choice was Dredd, but all the rights for Dredd were tied up with the film, so I went for my second choice - Strontium Dog."

Unusually, the Spectrum and Commodore 64 versions of the games were completely different, with Spectrum owners getting "The Killing" (an adaptation of the strip from progs 350-359) and Commodore owners getting "The Death Gauntlet". Eyles explains the reason for this: "(Quicksilva) worked on Strontium Dog: The Death Gauntlet. By enormous coincidence as we were getting ready to launch Death Gauntlet we were approached by some guys who had produced a Strontium Dog game for the Spectrum. They hadn't thought about licensing the character before producing their game! So we said great, we'll publish it for you!"

Strontium Dog: The Killing was a top down affair, where you manoeuvred Alpha from room to room. The idea was to build up your bounty by clearing each room of criminals, while avoiding being shot or touching the glowing hazards that littered the screens. As in the original story, Electroflares could be used to clear out medi-centres, and other characters from the strip such Barnak Spraks and Steelkreeg the android made appearances.

By contrast, Strontium Dog: The Death Gauntlet saw Alpha stranded on a hostile planet, fighting his way to a rendezvous with Wulf and the Gronk. A sideways scrolling shoot ‘em up, Alpha was propelled across the surface of the planet and had to avoid both obstacles and hostile aliens. Again, Alpha could use electroflares (this time to temporarily stun opponents) as well a limited number of time bombs to fling himself out of danger.

Both games benefited from the involvement of Ezquerra, who produced two of his finest images of Alpha for the cover art. Mark Eyles brush with 2000AD would not end with these games. He later wrote Wireheads for 2000AD and is now Head of Design at Rebellion, where he also helps out with the 2000ADonline website and has a hand in editing the graphic Novels.

It would not be until 1986 that other 2000AD characters would feature in their own games. Piranha’s Rogue Trooper (programme by Design Design) brought us an isometric Nu Earth, while Melbourne House’s Judge Dredd (programme by Beam Software) featured a platform based gameplay that would set the template for the next decade of Dredd games. Both games struggled with the job of bringing the unique features of the comic to life with varying degrees of success. Ian Wareing, Programmer for Design Design, realised the task set him: "the main part of my job was to portray Rogue Trooper as accurately as possible. Rogue freaks will recognise him immediately.".

Certainly many elements of the strip are present, with Rogue marching through ruins, deserts and glass zones, accompanied by a running commentary from the bio-chips. However, the game as originally envisaged by the programmers appears to have had even greater ambitions. In early previews there was talk of Rogue encountering Bland and Brass and being affected by Dreamweaver gas. In addition, Rogue was to have been able to don a disguise, and hijack vehicles, but sadly none of these elements made it into the eventual release.

The Judge Dredd game sees you attempting to keep the crime level down in Mega City one. The player first chooses which crime to investigate from the sector map, and then takes to the streets to hunt down his quarry. The Judge’s Lawgiver is fully equipped with all six types of ammo, and the player is able to issue non lethal warnings to lesser perps in order to make an arrest. Only when the crime rises above tolerance does the game finish. A nice touch was the instruction sheet, which was laid out as a ‘Judges Manual’ - for example, section 2.6 states that "Regulations allow the individual Judge to pause during his or her current mission. Approved procedure to pause is to press the F1 key.".

These two games are probably the easiest to track down, both having been reissued as budget titles a few years after the initial release. In a subsequent multi-game budget release from Alternative Software "4 in 1 MegaHeroes", The Rogue game was relabelled "Space Trooper" and featured the eponymous hero: "the sole survivor of the Yablon Massacre" whose "driving urge is to find and expose the traitor responsible for the slaughter of his comrades". Hmmm, sounds familiar……

1987 brought Nemesis The Warlock, again for the Spectrum and Commodore 64 formats, in an atmospheric version programmed by Creative Reality and published by Martech. Another platformer, this game had Nemesis battling Terminators and their reanimated corpses, armed only with Excessus, a gun with limited ammunition and his ability to spit acid fireballs. Before moving from each screen Nemesis has to dispatch a set number of Terminators and find the correct place to exit. A neat twist that suited the macabre nature of the strip was the ability to pile up the dead Terminators’ bodies and use them to gain access to higher platforms.
Martech followed this up a few months later with a Slaine game, again by Creative Reality. In their design notes they expressed the difficulties in realising the galaxies greatest characters in 8-bit form: "The idea for the design of the (Slaine) game came about as a result of the response to "Nemesis the Warlock". This game was very well received but 2000AD devotees felt that it did not go far enough to capture the true spirit of Nemesis, as portrayed in the comic. People asked "where’s Grobbendonk?"; "What about the ABC Warriors?" ;etc. We realised that for Slaine an entirely different approach was required.".

Certainly the game, while ostensibly a text based adventure with illustrative graphics, featured a unique interface for the player. Rather than type in the actions the player wished Slaine to take, a cursor was used to select instructions as they drifted across the screen. These could be strung together to make commands and were an attempt to replicate the thought processes of the character. Creative Reality also got help from Pat Mills (credited as helping with "story and text") and Glenn Fabry provided a striking original cover for the game, as well as producing a stunning cover and internal illustrations for the October ‘87 edition of Computer and Video Games.

1988 promised even more 2000AD games. In the December ‘87 editions of Crash and Zzap!64 magazines, Piranha ran a 16 page advert for the Judge Death game, that reprinted the first two episodes of the Anderson strip from progs 416 and 417. This first person perspective target shooting game from Budapest-based programming team Hobbyte, allowed the player to step into the boots of Anderson as she tries to stop the Four Dark Judges rampaging through the streets of Mega City 1. In the news section of Crash in that issue, Piranha stated they had already started work on a Halo Jones adaptation, and were considering an Ace Trucking game. The Halo Jones game was to have been set on the Hoop and based on the first Book of Moore and Gibson’s classic. "The basic idea is that Halo Jones goes shopping" said programmer Mike Lewis. The game was to have featured a map randomiser, so that no two games were exactly the same, and was due for release in Easter ’88.

It was not to be, as Piranha folded before any of these games could be released. However, the Death game was in an advanced state and is available on emulators in both its original form, and as the reworked "Horror City", with amended graphics.

By 1990, the 16 bit Atari ST and Commodore Amiga machines had become the new rivals at the forefront of gaming. Both Dredd and Rogue were to appear in quick succession on this format (the Dredd game was also produced for C64 and Spectrum).

The Judge Dredd game from Virgin was another sideways platformer (this time with the benefit of scrolling screens), that borrowed heavily from the earlier Melbourne House release (the game ends only when the crime rate becomes untenable, Dredd can arrest lesser perps rather than shoot them, etc). Each level is based loosely on a classic strip (for example fatties in first level, then devolving citizens in Charles Darwin block in the second) though conforms to the same set up - locate and shut down food dispensers/air vents/water supplies, etc. while fighting off and arresting criminals. The game did allow the player to drive the Lawmaster (both as a means of negotiating the main levels, and as part of sub-levels at the end of each stage of the game), but the Lawgiver had only three shots; standard, heat seeking and for some reason a "high-powered laser" shot. The game is notable for featuring a cover by Dermot Power, predating his first strip work for 2000AD by some months.

The Rogue Trooper Game combined two sideways scrolling levels bookending two ‘Space Harrier’ style flying stages. Rogue must break out of Nort captivity in the first stage, as well as gather data on the identity of the Traitor General. Commandeering a Nort craft for the infuriating second and third levels (where success is dependent on the blind selection of fuel and equipment that you are asked to make at the start of the stage), Rogue arrives at a Souther base. Here he has to deliver the information to Souther command before the Norts overrun the base. The instruction manual also included a massive 56 pages of Rogue strip, reprinting his earliest adventures.

   After these two games, everything went quiet until the Dredd film licence of 1995. This game was by Acclaim, whose name eagle eyed earthlets will have seen scattered through the comics pages throughout the early 90’s in 2000AD’s only attempt at product placement.

The programmer of the SNES version, Carl Muller, wrote to the comic and explained that he had become a fan of 2000AD while researching the game. "This is why we extended the game beyond the movie, so we could put in Chopper, the Gila Munja and the Dark Judges". The game once again conforms to the sideways platforms and ladders formula established by the very first Dredd game from a decade earlier.

In 1997, a Judge Dredd light gun game was produced by Gremlin for the Playstation. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this game was the inclusion of FMV cut scenes, starring Richard Waters, the actor who had been used to promote Dredd for some years prior to the games release. Gremlin also hired Simon Bisley to provide concept art and the cover.

   Other than a Dredd based pinball game for the PC in 1998, there have been no more releases based on 2000AD strips. Two years ago, Rebellion bought 2000AD and with it all the licences to the characters. Since then, work has continued on the Dredd vs. Death first person shooter. There have also been rumours and hints about other games high on the converson hitlist, such as Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog and Slaine.

Controversially, the first game to be released under the 2000AD banner was Gunlok. Not linked to a strip, there was for a time suggestions that Gunlok might make the leap to printed page. Since then a prequel to Rebellions forthcoming game Wardog has appeared in the Megazine, but we still have to wait until next year for Rebellion’s first attempt at realising an established 2000AD character as a game.

Until then, enjoy these retro blasts from the past and ponder on the thrill power that was squeezed out of machines that had less processing power than the average toaster!