The Bitmap Brothers from another mother8 minute read

After Rebellion acquired The Bitmap Brothers brand and portfolio in 2019, Jim Cullinane looks into the history behind “gaming’s first rockstars” and what future their brand has in the current market.

It was 1987 when Mike Montgomery realised that his dedication had paid off. Previously a manager at Woolworths, Mike had grown interested in computers when the shop had begun to sell them. He took up programming as a hobby – teaching himself to code until he gained more and more confidence in himself. After becoming a lead programmer, due to the effort put in, he soon formed a development house that would produce some of the most iconic games in history. Steve Kelly and Eric Matthews joined with Mike to form The Bitmap Brothers in an era that was sure to define the video games of the future.

Mike Montgomery (photo credit: Bedrooms to Billions)

The team started to develop and managed to get their first big break on a television program called Get Fresh. People of a certain age will remember the shows where a viewer would call into the station whilst they played some rudimentary video game at the same time.

Xenon

The Bitmap Brothers break came from their debut game Xenon being played in this fashion. Flying as Darrian (according the the games instruction manual upon its physical release by Melbourne House), you must fly your craft in the ongoing war against the Xenites. Something that seperated this game from the norm was the fact that is had two distinct modes (something not usually seen in a vertical scrolling shooter). At any moment in the game the player could switch from flight-mode to controlling a grounded tank.

Xenon was critically acclaimed, apart from in Germany where German magazine Power Play gave it a score of 4.5/10 – far from the 9/10 score it was seeing elsewhere. After its initial release on the Atari ST it would eventually see ports on the Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga, PC and more.

Xenon – The Bitmap Brothers

The home consoles of the time soon saw releases of further The Bitmap Brothers games with Speedball in 1988, Xenon II: Megablast in 1989 and Cadaver in 1990. Xenon II: Megablast was a remarkable feat, with a 16-bit colour pallet and an iconic soundtrack all compressed onto one 3.5″ floppy disk. The aesthetics of all these games, and the audio representation were phenomenal.

Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe

Then came Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe. A futuristic sports game which was based on a mix of American Football, Soccer and Ice hockey (predominantly the fighting), landed The Bitmap Brothers firmly into legacy status. The second installment of Speedball, a franchise that was based on Rollerball (the movie), is often cited to be the best game The Bitmap Brothers ever produced. Its brutal gameplay, fluid movement, amazing graphics and music was a completely refined work of art that harnessed the best that Mike and his team had to offer.

Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe – The Bitmap Brothers

At this time The Bitmap Brothers were under the development company Mirrorsoft. They had a specific, and unusual, agreement in which Mirrorsoft had to promote The Bitmap Brothers name equally as much as the titles they were developing. This how Mike, Eric and Steve would soon be dubbed “gaming’s first rockstars”. However, due to their popularity, the team decided to create Renegade Gaming – a new distribution company where The Bitmap Brothers could distribute their own titles and gain complete control. Because of their relationship with Rhythm King records this also allowed Mike and his team to use professionals to create the music for their games. At the time this was unprecedented and again separated The Bitmap Brothers apart from other developers at the time.

Gods and The Chaos Engine

After this realignment The Bitmap Brothers worked on more classics such as the infamous Gods in 1991 and The Chaos Engine. Gods saw the player taking control of “the hero” of whom is a man offered by the gods to retake their citadel which has been invaded by “four guardians”. It was a platform puzzler which is known for being quite difficult – especially on the console variants, such as The Mega Drive, where the game runs faster and thus increases the difficulty. In 1992 the game was rated one of the top four games by Computer Gaming World.

Gods – The Bitmap Brothers

The Chaos Engine was published under Renegade Software in 1993. Set in a steampunk Victorian era, the player was able to select one of four possible characters in an attempt to defeat The Chaos Engine across four levels. The game had a two-player option which added to the fun and soon the game became a huge hit for The Bitmap Brothers. Some changes were made to the game following some turbulence around one character – The Preacher – and subsequently The Mega Drive and SNES versions had his dog-collar removed from the box artwork and his name changed to The Scientist. In America the game was retitled Soldiers of Fortune. The game had mixed reviews but was still widely popular and Windows, Mac and Linux saw a widescreen port developed and released in 2013.

The Chaos Engine – The Bitmap Brothers

The sale of Renegade

In 1995 Warner Interactive Entertainment purchased Renegade from The Bitmap Brothers team, leaving Mike and his team to find a new publisher. Sensible Software, who were published under the Renegade label remained and continued on from their success of Sensible Soccer and the graphical point-and-click adventure Flight of the Amazon Queen.

Since 1995 The Bitmap Brothers continued to develop games such as The Chaos Engine 2, Z, Speedball 2100 and more – spanning different platforms and even mobile devices. The latest development was released in 2002 under the title World War II: Frontline Command (not including the port of Speedball 2, Speedball 2: Evolution, which landed on mobile devices in 2012). World War II: Frontline Command had some favourable reviews but overall was considered unoriginal.

Speedball 2: Evolution – The Bitmap Brothers

Seven years passed since Speedball came back to the fore when the news hit that Rebellion, a publisher with achievements spanning over 25 years, purchased The Bitmap Brothers brand and entire back-catalogue.

Who are Rebellion?

Rebellion started life in 1992 when the brothers Jason and Chris Kingsley decided to spend their time doing freelance work in the games industry. Early promise was had when Atari UK formed a deal with the two brothers. In the coming years there were major milestones, from the successful Alien vs Predator game to securing the 2000 AD comic franchise – Rebellion were growing in size at a rapid pace. In 2006 Rebellion purchased Core Design from Eidos, making it, at the time, the largest independent European development studio. The Simpsons Game, Call of Duty – Final Fronts, Shellshock 2 and Sniper Elite later and Rebellion purchased The Bitmap Brothers for an undisclosed amount.

(photo credit: Artist concept of Rebellion Studios from Variety)

So now that Rebellion own The Bitmap Brothers they have stated that they plan to release some of the classic back-catalogue to more modern platforms, and they want to further expand on the franchises that they now own. Giving the amazing history and developments that Mike and his team created there will be many fans excited about what be possible under a new powerhouse publisher.

Jason Kingsley OBE (left) and Chris Kingsley OBE (photo credit: The Sunday Times, Driving)

What does the future bring?

We have gone from seeing these three legends of gaming standing in front of Robert Maxwell’s personal helicopter, producing some of the 80’s and 90’s most iconic titles to Mike Montgomery handing the torch to a pair of new brothers – Jason and Chris. What future will this bring The Bitmap Brothers brand, and will we see some amazing classics coming to current generation consoles? Knowing the critical response The Bitmap Brothers achieved in the past we can be sure that a new range of games, old or new, will be popular – especially with the nostalgic gamer’s of the 80’s and 90’s.

Whatever the situation that arises Mike Montgomery, Steve Kelly and Eric Matthews have shown how a team of individuals, no matter how small, can have a massive impact on any market, and that market’s audience. And from that legacy, “a new team emerges”.