Ultimate Play The Game

Ultimate Play The Game was the publishing name of Ashby Computers And Graphics Ltd.

Formed in 1982 by two arcade developers, the brothers Tim and Chris Stamper, they produced the first two games for the company in 1983, Jetpac and Pssst, on the Sinclair Spectrum.  These games were of a quality not seen before, and were even more impressive as they were 16K.  Two more games followed in the next few months, Cookie and Tranz Am.  Jetpac alone garnered sales of 300,000, an incredible feat when the Spectrum had a user base of around 1,000,000 at the time.

In a later interview with Crash magazine the brothers revealed that they worked 364 1/2 days a year, just taking Christmas morning off.  Their philosophy was that if you only work nine to five, you get a nine to five game.

Based in the town of Ashby De La Zouch in Leicestershire, Chris Stamper provided the coding, and Tim the Graphics.  Tim also provided the distinctive cover art.

Almost never talking to the press, Ultimate gained a fascination and mystic that made them the talk of the software world.  This was not a deliberate plan: they were just too busy.  They always had time for the fans though, employing someone to handle the fan mail and to send out caps and posters.  Local kids who called at the offices were likely to come away with a reward or two.

It is said that the conversion of Jetpac to the Commodore Vic 20, which they did in-house, and the difficulties in doing so, convinced the brothers that all work on 6502 based machines should be outsourced.  The in-house teams would then concentrate on the Z80 machines, the Spectrum and later Amstrad and MSX.

One feature of the games was that a clear objective was not defined, just a story would give hints on what the game required of the player.

By 1984, the library had grown to include more classic games: Atic Atac, Lunar Jetman, Underwurlde, Sabre Wulf (which was the first game to star the much loved Sabreman), and a real game changer, Knight Lore. This cartoon-like adventure was an isometric game with incredible visuals created on Ultimate's own Filmation graphics engine.  As well as having great gameplay, the graphics stunned the Spectrum world, and Knight Lore became a major influence on other games.  Edge have described it as the greatest single advance in the history of games, perhaps overstating slightly, but it was an incredible achievement that was perhaps Ultimate's peak in creativity on the Spectrum.

This was followed up in 1985 by Alien 8, which despite being a more polished game drew criticism for being far too similar to it's predecessor.  Later that year Nightshade was released.  It used Filmation 2, a new engine where the scenery would disappear to allow the player to see inside a building.  Although technically impressive, it was seen as a slip in quality.

By this time the Stampers had started a new company called Rare, which began reverse engineering Nintendo's NES console, with a view to getting a license to produce games from them, this was difficult for western companies, but Rare persisted, and were rewarded when Nintendo saw what they had done with a skiing demo, which would become their first title for the NES in 1987, called Slalom.

In 1985, Ultimate released several original games on the Commodore 64.  Staff of Karnath, starring the wonderfully titled Sir Arthur Pendragon, was a rough looking, but very enjoyable castle exploring adventure.  Entombed was an improvement on that, but with annoyingly hard corridor sections.  A third adventure, Blackwyche, started to stretch the formula a bit thin, and it appeared shortly after a ridiculously difficult shoot-em-up/platform game set in Egypt called Imhotep, considered the worst game by Ultimate.  A wild west adventure titled Outlaws followed.  This was also poorly received.  One final Pendragon adventure called Dragonskulle would close the chapter on his adventures on the Commodore, and it was the final title by Ultimate for the machine.

All but one of the original Commodore games were coded by two brothers, Dave and Bob Thomas.  Imhotep was submitted complete by Manuel Caballero.

Firebird had aquired the rights to publish some ports of previous Ultimate games on the C64.  Underwurlde, Sabre Wulf and Nightshade were all released, but coming nearly a year after the Spectrum games, they were poorly received in the gaming press, and by the public.

On the BBC between 1984 and 1985, two coders converted various titles to Acorn's machine, Jetpac, Atic Atac were ported by David Rhys Jones, while Lunar Jetman, Sabre Wulf, Knightlore, Alien 8, and Nightshade were handled by Paul Proctor. Nightshade actually ran better than the Spectrum version, albeit with less colour.

At the end of 1985, Ultimate released the last Spectrum game with the direct involvement of the Stamper Brothers, called Gunfright.  The player was tasked with dispatching some of the wild west's most wanted bandits, such as Jesse James and Buffalo Bill.  It was an improvement on Nightshade, but behind the scenes the Stampers thought they had pushed the Spectrum as far as it could go. they would from now on concentrate on their new company, Rare.

After publishing Knightlore, Alien 8, Nightshade and Gunfright on the MSX, and Sabre Wulf through to Gunfright on the Amstrad CPC 464, the Ultimate name and back catalog were sold to US Gold, who would go on to publish four games on various systems: Cyberun and Pentagram in 1986, then Martianoids and Bubbler in 1987.

It is unknown who authored the first two, but they have the graphical hall marks of the Ultimate classics, Cyberun being a Jetman influenced game (spoiled by a massive difficulty level) and Pentagram the last title to feature Sabreman, (until he was revived by Rare in 2004 for a GBA title). It was another Filmation game that could have involved the Stampers, as the games were often written out of sequence to release. These two games were released on Spectrum and the MSX format. Cyberun was advertised for Amstrad but never saw the light of day.

 Martianoids and Bubbler were not well received and sold poorly, making them very collectible today. They came out on Spectrum, MSX and Amstrad, the latter's disc version commanding high prices when it appears.

Rare bought back the rights from US Gold in 1988, after the back catalogue had seen budget release on Mastertronic's Ricochet label. It was announced that Ultimate were going to release more titles for the 8 bit machines, starting with Solar Jetman, which was to be programmed by Software Creations.  Pictures appeared in the gaming press, but the game only appeared on the NES in 1990.  It even has the Ultimate Play the Game logo at the start and not Rare's.

After forming Rare, with an Arcade division called Rare Coin It, the Stampers were to go on and form a very lucrative and successful relationship with Nintendo, firstly on the NES, and then  the SNES, N64, and one title for the Gamecube.  The Japanese giants had bought a 49 % stake in the Rare in 1994, but eventually the whole company was sold to Microsoft for $377,000,000 in 2002.

The Stampers left Rare in 2007.


Ultimate Play The Game

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