Mastertronic was a pioneering budget software label and publisher, founded in 1983 by Martin Alper, Frank Herman, Terry Medway and Alan Sharam using money from investors and their knowledge of video distribution. The company initially sent packages of 100 tapes to anyone who would take them. Not just the large shops of the day such as Woolworths and WH Smith, but also newsagents, toy shops, petrol stations, and motorway service stations.
Early on there was suspicion of such cheap software, as the games retailed for £1.99 when most games were around the £7.99 - £9.99 mark, but the software sold in huge numbers, as generally the quality of the games matched those of high-end software, and even if they didn't, gamers were more prepared to spend a couple of pounds on a title that was not as good.
The artwork on the boxes was often of a hugely high standard and would often drive up sales with players buying the game on the strength of the cover. By 1984 Mastertronic had gained a reputation as a real player in the software industry, and it was the start of many more budget labels such as Codemasters and Players coming into retail.
The company was further strengthened in sales by Richard Bielby who ran a distribution network for smaller retailers.
In 1985 the company launched the M.A.D label (Mastertronic Added Dimension) which started to publish games at £2.99, these were considered more worthy titles, and was a way of keeping their freelance programmers with better royalties. Even though the games were cheap, they sold in huge numbers, and the generous royalty payments meant most of the programmers did very well indeed.
Some well known programmers sold games through Mastertronic, including the Darling Brothers, who later founded Codemasters and David Jones, author of the Magic Knight series of games for the company.
Another Mastertronic subsidiary label, Entertainment USA brought titles over to Britain from America starting in 1986. Also, Bulldog Software was set up to send titles the other way a year later.
Software for the 16 bit machines and the PC platform were sold between 1985 and 1990, but did not see sales of anywhere near what the 8 bit computers garnered. Piracy was always rife, but these games cost more to produce, so the fortunes of the company started to fade by 1986.
In 1987 Mastertronic merged with Virgin Interactive and became the distributor for the Sega Master System, and as the budget sector for computer software shrank, it was this part of the business that grew enormously, with the console outselling the NES in the UK, one of the few territories that the Sega machine outsold the Nintendo one. In 1988 they were known only as Virgin, who were absorbed into Sega UK in 1991.
Although the original label was gone, the name was acquired by another company The Mastertronic Group, which formed in 2006, and was born out of the merger of the Producers and Sold Out, with one of the original founders Frank Herman as chairman.
The company will always be remembered fondly by anyone who shopped for software in the 1980s, and greatly expanded the reach of the games around that time.
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