Company History - Ultimate Play the Game


1982 - Ashby Computers & Graphics Ltd
1982 - Ultimate Play The Game

So how did it all start?

Christopher Stamper was bitten by the video game bug early. "I was hooked right from the first ping-pong games. For the first time, I could control something on a TV". He discovered computers when he was at Loughborough University. These where the days when if you wanted a computer you had to build it from a kit. His degree in physics and electronics at the university led him to build the RCA CDP1802 computer. It was then the fastest system around. He says "Immediately I could see all the possibilities the new computer offered me and I decided to devote my life to explaining them". One of the first projects he did with this new technology was to design a traffic lights program.

It was the summer of 1980 Chris was 21. He quit his course and took a job with a games manufacturing company. They were repairing the early arcade games and also converting them. They would take the old Space Invader circuit boards and convert them into the latest game, Galaxian. At the same time he bought the very first Sinclair home computer the ZX80 and started to program on that. After two years with computer firms he decided he could produce better video games. He teamed up with his younger brothers, Timothy who left his technical design course at Leicester Poly and Stephen who dropped out of his Poly course (he had only been there a month).

He was also joined by his girlfriend Carole Ward (who was later to be his wife) and a college friend John Latchbury (sometimes reported as Lathburg). The brothers also knew Joel Hochberg of Coin- It Inc. in Miami through their arcade jobs.

Together in 1982 they formed Ashby Computers & Graphics Ltd. They produced a couple of little known coin-op conversion kits to bring in some funds (kits like these normally soup up a game say by making the aliens faster etc.) and then started trading as Ultimate Play The Game. They worked from the house next to their parents newsagents in Ashby De La Zouch in Leicestershire. The venture was supported by the brothers' father, who had moved the family around a lot in search of jobs.

In 1982 Ultimate - Play The Game was born, a trading name for Ashby Computers and Graphics, Ultimate was to attain a near-legendary status among gamesplayers and critics alike over the next few years, breaking sales records and winning industry awards year after year, and it set out to establish its name from the very start with the launch of Jetpac in the summer of 1983.

This first release was a massive hit, selling 300,000 copies over a UK base of 1 million machines, a practically unheard-of figure at that point in time. Pssst was released soon after, and from then on there was no turning back for Tim and Chris. A string of 14 hit games were to be released on the Spectrum between 1983 and 1986, each one earning instant critical acclaim and huge sales: games such as Underwurlde, Sabre Wulf, Lunar Jetman, Knight Lore (the first to feature Filmation, a pioneering concept in isometric 3D) and Alien 8 would rank among the all-time 8-bit classics and leave Ultimate with the reputation as the most enigmatic, quietly confident and downright successful force in the business. Eventually the developers branched out into the Commodore 64 market and released a handful of original titles such as The Staff of Karnath and Entombed alongside conversions of past classics, but never quite made the same impact on Commodore's machine (or others such as the MSX and Amstrad), remaining most proud of their achievements on the Spectrum.

In the mid-80s, the Stampers experienced their first taste of things to come when they were introduced to Nintendo's initial foray into the home videogaming market, the original 8-bit Nintendo Famicom (NES outside Japan). The obvious potential of this machine, combined with Tim and Chris' increasing disillusionment with the disorganised UK software scene, practically made the decision for them: the time had come to move on.

Rare was set up as a specialised subdivision in 1985, with the Ultimate distribution rights later sold off to software giant US Gold. The last Spectrum game to be programmed by the Stampers, Gunfright, flaunted all the old magic that the declining label's last few titles, Cyberun, Bubbler and Martianoids , sadly lacked.

The Filmation Engine

The Filmation engine allowed the creation of forced perspective 3D flip-screen environments, ideally suited to platform-based arcade adventures. Player characters could move in four diagonal (from the player's perspective) directions, were able to jump over or onto obstacles, and even push objects around the game environment.

When Filmation was introduced in 1984, it featured far more complex graphics and environments than any isometric title yet, garnering Knight Lore much attention and critical acclaim. Ultimate Play The Game first described the engine in the Knight Lore manual thus:

KNIGHT LORE features filmation [sic] © a unique process whereby you have complete freedom within the confines of your imagination, to do as you wish with any of the objects found within KNIGHT LORE
— Ultimate Play The Game, Knight Lore documentation[2]
Nightshade was the first title to use Filmation II, a free-roaming variant of Filmation

Knight Lore was followed six months later by Alien 8 and in 1986 by Pentagram. A second engine, Filmation II, was introduced in 1985 and used in two titles, Nightshade and Gunfright. This new version of the engine introduced large scrolling environments (much like Ant Attack's) rather than flip-screens. To avoid obscuring the player character, streets and buildings rendered by this engine would disappear to their outlines when the player character walked behind them, and the ability to flip the viewpoint through 180 degrees with a press of the Z key was introduced. Although Filmation II increased the graphical complexity of the titles that used it, the gameplay was simplified; the player was no longer able to jump (and indeed had no reason to) and was confined to essentially simpler environments, with no obstacles other than the buildings themselves. This simplification resulted in Nightshade and Gunfright being more straightforward shooter games than the puzzle based Filmation I titles.

Two later games, Martianoids and Bubbler, were developed by U.S. Gold (and published on the Ultimate Play The Game label) which also used scrolling 3D environments, though neither made explicit use of the Filmation II engine. Both had similarities to Filmation II, though Martianoids did not use a true isometric perspective and Bubbler had more in common with Atari's Marble Madness than previous Filmation titles.

Ultimate's final, unreleased title, Mire Mare, was long thought to have been Filmation-based, but in the late 1990s Rare revealed that it would actually have been more like the top-down Sabre Wulf, the first title based around the Sabreman character.


Filmation II