Towards the end of of 1985, adverts started appearing in my Computer & Video Games magazines for “the first ever computer cartoon” – Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery! And to a massive Scooby Doo fan like me, it was incredible! They were clearly Spectrum screenshots on there, but they definitely looked like nothing else, except maybe what a Spectrum port of something like Dragon’s Lair might look like… which, the following year, we’d find out was more or less the case!

Anyway, as 1985 became 1986, previews started appearing that hinted at an interactive story involving a spooky Scottish castle belonging to Shaggy’s aunt, presented as cartoon action sequences that you directed to solve the mystery. And yes, it really was like a laser-disc game crammed into a 48K Spectrum! As the months passed, the big double-page, full colour adverts kept coming, but no sign of any game, then in March 1986, in an Elite preview exclusive, C&VG said “despite what you’ve read in other magazines, Elite still plans to release its computer cartoon adventure, Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery for the 48K Spectrum,” but towards the end of the article also says that it won’t be in the “heavily advertised” form because there wasn’t enough memory left to make it playable! And, of course, what we eventually got at the end of 1986 was the fantastic, but utterly brutal Scooby Doo, an arcade-platformer take on Kung-Fu Master, with some of my favourite graphics ever on the Spectrum!

As much as I love what we finally got, I still look at the original advert and wonder what could have been… And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling 48K of memory! If only Sir Clive had come up with 128K a bit sooner it might all be different, but that’s the tale of my very first encounter with a game that weren’t. Wasn’t!

Fast forward to Christmas 2021, and I received a wonderful new book called The Games That Weren’t, written by Frank Gasking and published by my favourite retro-gaming book peddlars Bitmap Books, who are responsible for all kinds of equally wonderful stuff on my bulging bookshelves, but nothing that bulges quite as much as this 644-page hardback behemoth!

As someone that writes about games from time to time, I think I’m qualified to say that everything about this puts me to shame! The first thing you notice, the very first time you flick through it, is that it’s clearly an absolute labour of love, much like Frank’s website of the same name that he started way back in the nineties to document and find lost and unreleased games across many platforms. The next thing you notice is that it’s visually stunning – even more so than Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery! And then you realise that it’s so much more than that…

As games industry legend David Crane tells us in the foreword, this is all about games that never quite reached the game-playing public. Going all the way back to 1975 and up to 2015, the book covers 80 games that weren’t, and they weren’t for myriad reasons that all get unravelled here – flawed game design, internal politics, over-ambition, poor hardware sales, high cartridge costs or cabinet costs, failed field tests, expired licenses, not being able to fit a computer cartoon into 48K… Actually, I should say that Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery didn’t make the cut here (which gives me hope that it still might arrive one day!), but some of the tales around these unreleased games are definitely mysteries worthy of Scooby and the gang!

Having spent some time in my stack of old game magazines just get my head around enough of the Scooby Doo story to mention it here, I can really empathise with Frank’s decades-long obsession with investigating these mysteries – that 30 minutes putting together a timeline from first advert to previews, doubts, cancellations then something else emerging in its place was really fascinating! But where I’ve just included a picture of an old copy of C&VG, every game covered in The Games That Weren’t includes a load of development assets, screenshots, photos and artistic impressions – all reproduced in the very highest quality and sometimes for the first time – to illustrate the wonderfully in-depth analysis on each game.

Before we analyse that analysis, let’s quickly mention a few of those games to give us a bit of context, as well as what is probably my favourite thing about the book, which is not only discovering stuff you didn’t know existed, but discovering stuff you would have actually bought, and even seeing screenshots of it! And that’s why we’ll start with Elite on the Nintendo Game Boy, which got to prototype stage then the deal with Ocean fell through and consigned it to history; another nice feature is that for each game it tells you if it’s available to play or not… And apparently this one is, so definitely expect more from me on that in the future! We all know about Elite, but there’s an awful lot more that you probably won’t know anything about, such as Death Pit, Dick Special, Eye of the Moon, Virtua Hamster(!), Spitfire Fury and Starring Charlie Chaplin to name but a few. There’s unreleased sequels like Heart of Yesod, Star Fox 2 and, er, Gazza 2. There’s all kinds of film licenses that (possibly thankfully) never saw the light of day like The Terminator, Lethal Weapon and Waterworld, as well as other licenses like Daffy Duck and Tony Hawk’s Shred Session. And then there’s the versions of games you probably do know but never made it, like Rescue on Fractalus! or Bubble Bobble, Ridge Racer or The Last Ninja…

As I write this, the last game I played before I went to bed last night was Arcade Archives Frogger on Nintendo Switch, so I reckon that Frogger 2: Swampy’s Revenge on Nintendo 64 is the perfect place to talk about the actual meat of the game analysis you’re getting here! It starts with a title screen summarising the reason it weren’t – cartridge costs in this case – then the year it weren’t (2000), the developer, the platform and whether or not it’s available to play. Then we get some background history – why Frogger epitomises 1980s arcades, the aim of the game, its reception and its ports. Then we get into what happened next; in the case of Frogger, it obviously never stopped being released on different platforms, but there was a Hasbro remake developed by Millenium Interactive in 1997 that leads us directly into the non-sequel. When Hasbro wanted a sequel, Millenium weren’t available to do it, so they approached Interactive Studios. We then hear from Philip Oliver, and then the project’s technical manager, Matt Cloy, who talks about the team and how they set about developing the game for the Nintendo 64. We get right into the development kits and all the juicy technical details here, right from the horse’s mouth, as well as some great detail on the process of developing then moving on from the earliest designs.

This turned into very much a 3D game, in stark contrast to the overhead 2D original, with complex geometries and some wild-sounding environments that weren’t too far removed from Super Mario Galaxy, years ahead of its time. But Hasbro didn’t like it! Need something more traditional, more 2D, more like Frogger. So then we hear about how it was all stripped back, the action became more immediate to the player, and a story was introduced involving Swampy the Crocodile being jealous of Frogger’s fame and fortune! At this point we start getting some really nice detail about how the game actually played as levels took shape and started to be tested and tweaked, and then there’s some substitutions made in the team to bring on some experience and make sure the game was brought home as planned.

And then it was all brought down with a bang! Hasbro got cold feet on increasing cartridge production costs and lead times, and the prospect of any profit was becoming risky, so at 70% complete, the Nintendo 64 version was canned. Now we jump to the PlayStation, PC, Dreamcast and Game Boy Colour versions that did eventually make it into the wild, reviewed okay, but never really had a chance to sell properly because after a year Konami said they wanted it removed from sale because the licence had expired! Now we get into the fun part of years then passing, glitchy prototypes sneaking out into the hands of collectors, and later builds appearing that featured things like placeholder sounds from other games and Pac-Man styled frogspawn collecting that would never have made the final cut. Finally, we get to what happened next, where we are now with availability of the various unfinished states online, and how the developers feel about the project in retrospect. And as we’ve already discussed, all those written words are supported by some beautiful visuals, in this case a full-page unpublished advert for the game including the Nintendo 64 logo at the top, and a selection of half-page, well-curated (and well-defined) screenshots that serve perfectly well to bring the game to life. It really is an incredibly polished package, and that’s all for just one of the eighty games!

Now, not every game gets the thousands of words of research and interviews that Frogger 2 gets – though an awful lot of them do – but regardless, you can see the care, attention and passion that’s gone into every single feature on every single game. And all of this this is complemented by five purpose-built “Hardware That Wasn’t” blueprint features and a load of interviews with the likes of the aforementioned David Crane, Jeff Minter, the Oliver Twins, Matthew Smith, Geoff Crammond and many other industry big-hitters, plus an honourable mentions section on loads of other games, all in chronological order, that you can find out more about digitally.

As I flick through the book to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything, I’m so tempted just to keep going here! I happened to stop on Solar Jetman, where a wonderful Commodore 64 loading screen capture caught my eye; then Spitfire Fury, which would have been amazing to play on our school’s A-level Technology class’ exclusive Archimides; or maybe my brother would have bought Rolling Thunder for his Atari Lynx; and don’t get me started on Gauntlet for Ninendo DS!!! I just love this book! And it’s not only the quality of the written content that’s to love, but the hardcore hardback binding, the weight of the glossy paper, the definition on the mass of pictures, the bookmark ribbon, the generous font size for our ageing eyes… And of course, the real stars of the show are all these games that we never got to love, finally getting some of the recognition they deserve.

I hope in some way this also gives Frank Gasking and Bitmap Books some of the recognition they deserve too! Congratulations to all involved – you’ve come up with a masterpiece!

You’ll find The Games That Weren’t right here at Bitmap Books.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Games That Weren’t by Frank Gasking

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