I’ve never checked (and I don’t even know if is possibile to do it) the average age of the followers of this blog, but I can assume it will be around around 30 (let’s say 28-32?) so most of you were born during the 80s, just like me, and maybe some of you have takene the first steps in gaming/computer world on the loved ZX Spectrum. To all of you, mainly americans, who were not graced by Sir Clive home computer, the name Ultimate Play The Game means more or less nothing. Maybe you can even tell it’s an ugly name for a company (and actually it is).
But I’m also sure that if I say Rare, 99% of you will know I’m talking about one of the most famous and influential develepment houses of the last 20 years (so one the most famous ever).
Well, maybe you didn’t know it but…we’re talking about the same company!
We need to go back in the early 80s to tell the story of this company, precisely in 1982, 35 years ago. It was the year in which the already cited Spectrum was unveiled and one of the most important years for the home computer market, during which were released machines like Sharp X1, Thomson TO7, Atari 1200XL and, obviously, the Commodore 64. If you want/need/feel the urge to know something more about them you can read the piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago, 1982: the year of the home computers.
In 1982 two ex-arcade developers, Tim and Chris Stamper, founded Ashby Computers and Graphics Ltd. Under the trading name of Ultimate Play the Game (known even as Ultimate) they released some of the best (and best selling) games for the ZX Spectrum but they worked also on other british home computers like the BBC Micro and Amstrad CPC, along with MSX and C64.
The year after the foundation, so in 1983, Ultimate released its first game for the Speccy, the universally praised and well received Jetpac which sold more than 300k copies and was later succesfully ported on other home computers. Jetpac proved to be a huge success for the newborn company and provided a profit of £1 million. The success was reflected also in the enthusiastic reviews: Your Sinclair placed Jetpac on #74 in the top-100 list of Spectrum games and Retro Gamer put it in14th place in the best games of all time list.; always in 1983 Jetpac also won Golden Joystick Award prize as the “Game of the Year”. Not bad for a fledging company at its first game. Squeezed in only 16K of memory…
Ultimate continued to crank out successful hits: in 1983 they released Pssst!, Tranz Am and Cookie, always for the 16K Speccy. These three games, along with Jetpac, were part of a very limited set of title for use with the ZX Interface 2 on the Speccy 16K.
After the results on the 16K, Ultimated took the road of the 48K and in 1983 released other two success, Lunar Jetman, sequel of Jetpac and Atic Atac, a huge adventure, set in a castle composed by hundreds of different rooms in which the player has to find and collect the pieces of a key. This game was another big hit: CVG rated it 9 out of 10 stating that was the best Ultimate game, even better that Jetpac.
The year after, 1984, saw Ultimate release another great game, Sabre Wulf, the first in the Sabreman series, retailed at 9,95£ against the 5,50£ of previous cassettes to disencourage piracy. This move, surely bold anf risky paid off and the game sold 350k copies only considering the Spectrum version. Always in 1984 came out two sequels of Sabre Wulf, Underwurlde and Knight Lore.
This last game was a huge revolution in Speccy games and made popular the isometric adventures based on Filmation graphic engine, used also in Ocean games Batman and Head over Heels. As a further evidence of the company success, Ultimate won the “Best Software House” prize both in 1983 and 1984.
While on the top, some rumors started to circulate about a possible Ocean buyout and then in 1985 Ultimate declared to have sold their catalogue and name to U.S. Gold that continued to brand its games under the Ultimate label. But the high quality standards started quickly to decrease and the latter games weren’t well seen by the critics.
The company stayed afloat for other three years and in 1988 Ashby Computers and Graphics Ltd. under the new trading name of Rare Ltd. bought back from U.S. Gold the rights sold and started again to develop games, becoming the most loyal third party developer for Nintendo.
This was the end of the Ultimate Play the Game label; the history of Rare from the NES golden ages to the Microsoft buyout will be subject for another post.
Partial list of Ultimate Play the Game relases for ZX Spectrum:
- Jetpac (1983)
- Pssst (1983)
- Tranz Am (1983)
- Cookie (1983)
- Lunar Jetman (1983)
- Atic Atac (1983)
- Sabre Wulf (1984)
- Underwurlde (1984)
- Knight Lore (1984)
- The Staff of Karnath( 1984)
- Alien 8 (1985)
- Nightshade (1985)
- Gunfright (1985)
- Entombed (1985)
- Blackwyche (1985)
- Imhotep (1985)
- Outlaws (1985)
- Dragon Skulle (1985)
- Cyberun (1986)
- Pentagram (1986)
- Martianoids (1987)
- Bubbler (1987)