Are these the 20 best British games?
19th Jul 2013 | 16:05
An amazing look through some of the iconic moments of gaming
Elite and GTA
As part of a Brit flavoured week of content we wanted a celebration of iconic UK games. After a host of rows within the team we decided to make it the problem of veteran game journalist Adam Hartley. We know lots of you will not agree with the list - so we're dying to hear your angry arguments about whythe likes of Cannon Fodder, Micro Machines or LEGO Star Wars should have made the grade.
How to begin to sort the wheat from the golden wheat of the last 40-odd years of belting videogames designed and developed in the UK?
What follows is a list of what some would suggest are the top 20 Britsoft games of all time, the result of (often heated) conversations with developers, veteran gaming journalists and the true hardcore fraternity in the office.
So many of the devs, publishing execs and games writers we quizzed about their favorite Britsoft titles responded with the same basic question: "where the hell to begin?"
"This is actually quite a tricky one to answer, as I've got many favourite games of all time, just as I have favourite albums of all time," explained Stewart Gilray, CEO of Just Add Water. "Games are almost a 'soundtrack to my life' - so going back to the 80s, it was Brian Bloodaxe on the ZX Spectrum, in the early 90s it was Eliminator, by John M Philips on the Atari ST. Then in the mid 00's it was Grand Theft Auto IV on the PS3. So it's not an easy answer to give."
Jamie Sefton, ex-editor of PC Zone and now Managing Director at Game Republic echoed the same sentiment, telling us that it was "so difficult to choose – so many great British games are worthy of the top 20.
"I was obsessed with the brilliant open-world Elite on the BBC Micro in the 1980s, and fell in love with Rare's GoldenEye and Banjo Kazooie in the 1990s. However, I still play Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto III now – a satirical, funny, violent, addictive masterpiece."
And with that, we begin our journey through what may very well be the top 20 British games of all time.
Elite first appeared on the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron back in 1984, justifying the purchase of these costly brown boxes for a generation of lucky young boys. So were you an intergalactic drug dealer and gunrunner? Or were you a little more morally upstanding in your space-trading habits?
"Elite was a truly brilliant game by David Braben and Ian Bell which showed that games could take place in a sandbox world," recalls TIGA CEO Dr Richard Wilson. "A deep slice of space exploration that remains an undoubted classic."
"David Braben and Ian Bell took the themes of the 1974 classic Star Trader, where you trade stuff as you voyage between planets, stars and galaxies, and turned it into probably the most influential British videogame of all time," adds Automata founder Mel Croucher.
"The use of 3D wire-frame graphics for the spaceship was the first rung on the ladder to all today's eye-melting, ultra-realistic graphics. For that alone, Britain can claim to have invented modern videogaming, but there's more. Elite saw the first dedicated launch event, which took place at Thorpe Park and was organised chaos on a grand scale!"
Elite was also one of the first games to feature a special edition package, with a fan novella called The Dark Wheel. The game sold over half a million copies, which might not sound like a great deal now, but was completely unheard of back then.
"Yet despite all these achievements, Elite tops our list of great British video games simply because it generated a planet named Arse," laughs Croucher!
Mark Baldwin, Community Manager at New Star Games and a Britsoft veteran of 16 years standing adds: "It's really only since I became a community manager that I realised what a massive impact certain British brands have had and still have on people and how culturally important they are to us.
"Elite was a game that just blew you away with the possibilities, nothing else had come close to allowing so much freedom in a game," adds Baldwin. "You really could play it how you liked and it was a game without a defined story or ending and that's what made it stand out at the time and it's what so many games aspire to these days.
"Not many games give you the same sense of wonder that Elite gave you and I just hope that the new kickstarter project lives up to the huge expectations. I think games like Minecraft follow this great rule of creating a universe that is fun to be in and then let the player entertain themselves, you don't need to get all hung up on crafting a brilliant story, just create something where the player can get lost in their own stories and that's why I love Elite."
It is the fact that Elite actually broke a lot of modern day games design rules that still amazes Phil Gaskell, Creative Director of Ripstone.
"The game begins incredibly hard, forcing you to manually dock into space stations by matching their rotation. Slog away shifting minerals and luxury items (or be a naughty boy and trade in slaves and narcotics) and you soon afford enough credits to buy a docking computer. Suddenly life is so much easier! Modern games wouldn't have allowed this early difficulty spike yet it didn't affect the popularity of the game one iota!"
Grand Theft Auto
Controversy ahoy! GTA extended sandbox gameplay massively in a compelling way. Everybody that plays games has their favourite GTA title and moment. If you don't, then you are nothing more than a casual gamer. Fact.
"GTA is an amazing series and it just keeps getting better," says TIGA's Richard Wilson. "People used to dream of this kind of stuff but GTA III made it reality. It's gritty, but it's also tongue-in-cheek and it's about as good a commentary on American life as any other form of media."
"I purchased my first ever 3D card for my PC (a Voodoo 3DFX card) just to play this game in its fully rendered top down glory," adds Phil Gaskell, Creative Director of Ripstone.
"More than 15 years later and I'm still giddy at the thought of GTA V coming out. It's one of those games that clearly has a lot of love and attention spent on it. Dan and Sam Houser's direction and passion for the game is always evident, as is their wicked sense of humour.
"Top Brits Ricky Gervais, Phil Collins, and even Shaun Ryder have all lent their voices to the game. So it's powerfully motivating to know that it was made in Britain, continues to break all sales records on launch, and still drives US lawyer Jack Thompson crazy!"
Total War to Bond
Rome: Total War
Rome: Total War was an epic game, not to mention one that required "an epic effort on the part of the hugely talented creative team" behind this historical videogaming classic, recalls Creative Assembly's Studio Director Mike Simpson.
"We started Rome at the same time as Medieval, with Medieval being an evolution of the Shogun engine, and Rome being a revolution with the whole game being rewritten.
"The most challenging feature to deliver was making the thousands of men on the battlefield all 3D characters rather than 2D sprites. So at a time when the maximum number of 3D characters in other games was maybe 10, we were doing 1000. We pioneered a whole range of techniques to achieve this."
When the game first game out, there was a common reaction amongst gamers and games journalists alike, Simpson recalls.
"Disbelief was a common reaction to early screenshots. People thought they were off-line renders. The epic scale of the battlefields was however matched by the epic scale and depth of the turn based empire building. The combination was unique and gamers loved it.
"The [Total War franchise] customer base grows with every release, and they are a mixture of new and regular customers. It's always our aim to make sure that it's us that beats our previous efforts, not the competition, so we're always looking for ways to push the boundaries and make each game feel new. Fortunately the subject matter gives us a huge helping hand – there is always new content to explore, and it new ways to serve it up. I don't think we'll ever run out of material, or ever get bored making and playing these games."
And neither will we! Computerandvideogames.com digital manager John Houlihan explains the continuing appeal: "Every young lad who ever dreamed of commanding an army of toy soldiers? Well the Total War series actually made that happen.
"Rome's move to 3D was a huge leap forward for the series too, combining the deep strategic board game with epic tactical battles as you commanded Roman legions sweeping across the ancient world. Hail Caesar!"
Many a Football Manager widow blame Sports Interactive for keeping their menfolk addicted to their screen-based paean to the beautiful game.
"Football is a major passion in the UK so Championship Manager - and Football Manager after it - showed just how involved people could get," says Miles Jacobson Studio Director, Sports Interactive. "Divorces aplenty but gamers seem to think it's worth it!
"We've been lucky enough to be able to make games for a long time now and hope to continue to make them for many more years to come. Knowing that the work we love to do is played by so many people around the world and that they choose our games to entertain themselves with keeps us going throughout what is a pretty crazy schedule each year.
"Because we make annual iterations, it also gives us a lot more room to plan. So something like Classic Mode, which was introduced in FM13, was first discussed a few years ago when it became clear that some of the team, mainly those who had had children in the preceding years, were no longer able to devote as much time as they wanted to playing the game.
"So we came up with the idea of a mode where they could play the game much quicker, and do away with some of the more detailed areas of Football Manager – then thought it would be a good idea to release it to the public too! It was a couple of years in the planning before work started on it as something that could be released. When we did eventually release it, it went down very well, getting lapsed players back into the game and freeing up some time for regular managers to spend with their family (or to let them have two FM careers on the go).
"Despite FM13 being our twentieth game, it was also our highest reviewed by the critics, and is officially our best-selling title too. That doesn't mean we're going to pack up our bags now – we're currently working on FM14 (and planning for 15 and 16 too) as well as Classic mode, a new iteration of Football Manager Handheld, and Football Manager Online (which will launch is Asia next year)."
The original N64 version – and its IP-cleansed sequel Perfect Dark – stands as one of the highest achievements in British gaming, according to TIGA's Richard Wilson (and many, many others!).
"The first console first-person shooter. A slice of sheer brilliance that involved that most British of characters, James Bond and which showed that a film franchise can make a good game," Wilson explains.
Patrick Garratt, editor of VG247.com agrees, stating, unequivocally: "GoldenEye is one of the most groundbreaking games to ever be developed in the UK. It proved first-person shooting was possible on console - it was very much a PC thing up to this point - and set up what would develop into one of the video gaming industry's enduring staple genres. It was also amazing, which helped."
"Goldeneye's multiplayer was one of, if not the, highlight of the N64," recalls Richard Wood, Producer at Outplay Entertainment. "I can't begin to contemplate the number of hours I spent running around the Complex laying Proximity mines to the annoyance of the other players. A fantastic title that set the bar for those that followed."
Lara and Ice Cream
"A female heroine in a videogame – that's never going to work?!" was a common refrain in dev studios prior to the release of Core's first ever Tomb Raider title.
Shortly after release, Lara Croft appearing on the cover of style bible, The Face marked the advent of "The PlayStation generation" – and videogames were officially cool. Something we had all known for years, of course…
"It came at the right time and showed what could be done with 3D on a new generation of machines," says TIGA's Richard Wilson. "The use of a female main lead was inspired and it is one of the most recognised British games."
"There was also a bit of luck involved in this," VG247.com's Garratt reminds us. "Lara was originally supposed to be an Indiana Jones-style man, but Core eventually went with a woman as they were concerned about the "closeness" to the film character. The rest is history.
"I think it's important to remember that Tomb Raider wasn't just about having a female lead; the game itself was totally new, blending action and 3D manoeuvring like never before. It played a huge part in the success of PlayStation because of it's success in the third dimension. And let's not forget shooting a T-Rex with twin pistols. Seems obvious now, but back then it was completely thrilling. Absolutely classic game.
Phil Gaskell, Creative Director of Ripstone recalls that he was once told a story about how Lara Croft got her surname, "apparently one of the designers had a bottle of Croft Original on his desk and...well, okay in the cold light of day it does sound like I was being taken for a bit of mug!
"Still there's nothing more British than Core Design's tomb raiding heroine," Gaskell says "We all remember the moment the T-Rex stomped into view (something that will resonate with game makers from the PSOne days as Sony used a t-rex model to showcase their new console).
"What I loved the most though was finding the little control easter eggs, like getting Lara to swan dive, or do a handstand on the edge of a platform. Thank the Lord they didn't cast Harrison Ford in the role or we'd have been denied many an hour staring at a well-modelled digital derrière!"
It is nothing less than criminal that Speedball 2 is yet to get the update respect it truly deserves in over two decades, according to Daniel Boutros, Games Creative Director at Skybound.
"The original is perfect with a d-pad, on the megadrive, with the sound all the way up on the biggest crap old telly you can find," Boutros recalls fondly. "Rugby in a giant pinball table is yet to be bettered."
Andy Payne, CEO of Mastertronic & AppyNation agrees wholeheartedly.
"Speedball 2 Atari ST is simply the best arcade [brutal] sports game there was or has ever been. Relentless and unforgiving, from an era where casual was a football terrace term and had nothing to do with computer and video games."
Editor in chief of TechRadar, Patrick Goss adds: "There was almost no more satisfying moment in gaming than smashing right through from kick off. I think I broke about four Zipsticks playing this game against my friends."
Project Gotham Racing series
One of the greatest racing series was a product of a more recent golden era in Britsoft creativity.
"Bizarre Creations hit the big time with Gotham by tying it into the first Xbox and signing with Microsoft," says VG247.com's Garratt.
"It was a trailblazing arcade racer which showed off the new console's power and cemented Bizarre's name as the premier car studio of the time. The developer met a nasty end at the hands of Activision in later life, but Gotham was gold."
Eggs, lemmings and miners
Very simple but fearsomely addictive. Another game that justified the purchase of the sturdy ol' BBC Micro back in 1983.
"One my earliest gaming memories is playing this game on my ZX Spectrum," says Phil Gaskell, Creative Director of Ripstone.
"The 'Birdie Song' theme tune, floaty jumps, and a crazy duck in the later levels. A magical introduction to a now staple genre. I do think Chuckie Egg 2 was much underrated too!"
Team17's signature game has been ported to so many different platforms that it really couldn't be left out.
It's so popular and remains as addictive as ever. War with worms. Inspired.
"The original is still my favorite. says Skybound's Boutros. "Got a little overwhelmed with all the Iron Donkeys, Chocolate Monkeys and other stuff they added later. I love that they took the classic Tank style game I can't remember the name of and added "lunacy" and mechanical variety."
"A game so ludicrously addictive in multiplayer that it became the source of some genuinely nasty arguments in my household at university," said TechRadar EID Patrick Goss. "At my wedding, my best man was still making jokes about the names I gave to my elite team of worms in his speech."
Was the "E" exaggerated for a reason, nightclub conspiracists wonder? Probably.
Whatever. WipEout was the futuristic racer made in Liverpool that drew a lot from the club scene on Merseyside at that time. It was played in nightclubs across the country and it helped to bring gaming out of the bedroom and established it as a cool pursuit.
"Without question a defining British game, and one very much loved globally," says VG247.com's Garratt. "WipEout was, for many years, synonymous with the PlayStation name, and the latest version remains one of the best Vita titles. Sadly now defunct, the futuristic racer holds a special place int he heart of many an ageing gamer for its neo-Asian sci-fi thrills and hardhouse audio. Badly missed."
"Beautiful. Haven't seen so much attention given to the combination of slick visual design and physical feel so well executed outside of Japanese games at the time this was released," says Skybound's Boutros. "If you told me the Japanese made it, I'd have believed you, save for the fact that the visual style was like a UK graphic design studio did the pretty. Which they did."
A game that involved rescuing lots of lemmings from committing suicide by burrowing and building. A fine example of a challenging puzzle game that kept gamers on their toes.
"Loved the character driven powers, the sounds, the fiendishly tough puzzles and the animation and personality they could squeeze into the dozen pixels they used," says Skybound's Boutros.
"Oh no!" adds Patrick Goss. "A classic puzzler that was infuriating and brilliant."
A crazy and yet inventive game that really only a British mind could produce. Perhaps the greatest and most madcap vision of the harebrained Matthew Smith.
"The entire genre of platform games can be traced back to Manic Miner," argues Automata founder Mel Croucher. "Like Elite, this was inspired by an earlier American creation, the Atari game Miner 2049er, but Matthew Smith turned it into an essentially British experience, featuring poisonous pansies and a form of lethal snot."
"As well as the platform concept, a revolutionary innovation of Manic Miner was the use of in-game music generated by the machine itself, including The Blue Danube Waltz for the title screen, and In The Hall Of The Mountain King, which looped continuously during gameplay.
"As both composers had been dead for a considerable time, there were no royalty issues. Bonus! The game was extremely difficult to complete, and a badly timed run, dodge or jump would kill off the game's hero, amusingly named Willy, and send him back to the start of the game. The game also became celebrated, or notorious, for letting the player cheat and so save themselves several days torture listening to the music.
"Manic Miner was one of the first games I ever played on Spectrum, and, almost unbelievably, still holds up today," says VG247.com's Garratt. "That era was all about jumping, and no one did it better. I never finished it, obviously, but I always loved the descending boot that told me I'd died."
"Nothing says Britsoft like Manic Miner," says digital manager of computerandvideogames.com John Houlihan. "Matthew Smith's iconic platformer was crazy, colourful, gloriously eccentric (penguins and toilets as patrolling enemies?) and also fiendishly challenging. I still can't hear In the Hall of the Mountain King without thinking of the Spectrum version."
Timesplitters to Banjo
Surreal, satirical, and delivering fun the bucket-load, there's no end of reasons why the TimeSplitters series deserves a place on our list.
"It was not about a character, it was about the variety and being able to mix and match characters and backgrounds, kind of like a sandbox," says TimeSplitters series developer Steve Ellis
"That's what we were going for with it - something where variety was the selling point."
But the jewel in the TimeSplitters crown has always been its multiplayer. Free Radical set out to create a sandbox and we built sandcastles for hours.
Plus, monkeys with machine guns. What's not to love?
Sensible World of Soccer
John Hare's Sensi Soccer or Dino Dini's Kick Off, which one would win? There's only one way to find out!!!
"Sensi Soccer gave me hundreds of hours of fun," says Phil Gaskell, Creative Director of Ripstone. "It was a game I always came back to and fought with my kid brother over. In fact I think I invested in a few top of the range Kempston Pro's just for that game!"
The best version of Jon Hare's franchise was SWOS. It had management elements and a pinball table wall of playing with a top down view that recreated the feel of football if not the looks.
"Loved it," says Skybound's Boutros. "Football for people who couldn't give a shit about football – i.e. me! Just a great, fun, slick, simple to play game."
"Sensible Soccer was my introduction to social multi-player gaming," says Mark Baldwin, Community Manager at New Star Games. "Me and my mates would sit around the Amiga and play tournaments, it was rubbish when we had an odd number because someone had to play the AI and nobody wanted to potentially lose to the computer.
"There was some kind of dignity allowed when losing to one of your mates. So many games today concentrate on single player experiences or online multiplayer, but for me there is something special about playing competitive games in the same room, cajoling your friends when they mess a shot up and bragging when you take a whole team on and curl a shot into the top corner. See also Worms and Street fighter for other great examples of social multiplayer games."
Little Big Planet
Lots of user-generated content made sure that this was as much an immersive and interactive experience as a game. It did well. It had truly British humour. We loved it.
Leo Cubbin, Managing Director of Ripstone; previously internal producer of LittleBigPlanet at Sony, tells us how he "had the pleasure of working alongside Media Molecule on LittleBigPlanet and I have to say they were the most diverse and multicultural team I have ever worked with.
"With team members from Egypt, China, Japan, Sweden, Australia and France to name but a few, it makes me chuckle to see it being described as having "British humour"."
From the mighty Rare, Banjo Kazooie made our N64s sing. A much-loved title from a fondly-remembered, sorely-missed British gang.
"Rare were exactly that, they had a rare talent for creating amazing games one after the other," says Phil Gaskell, Creative Director of Ripstone. "I played Banjo for many enjoyable hours, and even deconstructed it when I had to design a 3D platform game myself.
"What I loved about the development of the game was how Kazooie came about. The team added a pair of wings that sprang out of Banjo's backpack to help him perform a 'double-jump', they also added a pair of chicken-like legs that appeared from the bottom of the backpack to help him run fast and the logical conclusion was these could belong to another character, one that actually lived in Banjo's backpack.
"This sort've emergent, somewhat serendipitous game design always inspires me to continue creating."
Molyneux and Conkers
Peter Molyneux's Populous "injected a new genre at a time when there was little else new" recalls TIGA's Richard Wilson.
"The true progenitor of the god game genre and a major influence on every strategy series since," adds computerandvideogames.com's John Houlihan
"Who could resist the lure of smiting as a virtual Almighty and raising volcanoes right underneath your opponent's heartland? One of Peter Molyneux's finest hours."
Codemasters' Dizzy, the genius creation of bedroom coding brothers the Oliver twins, is one of the greatest and most original platformers of the 1980s Britsoft boom era.
The character took his name from the gravity-defying somersaults and rolls players would execute around the game's fairytale-inspired landscape.
"We never cease to be amazed by how much love there still is for Dizzy after all these years. We worked incredibly long hours in those days but loved every minute of it and we're still really proud of the Dizzy series and the place he still has in the affections of so many gamers," said Philip & Andrew Oliver, Co-Founders of Blitz Games Studios and creators of Dizzy, when we informed them one of their very first games had made it onto our shortlist.
Conker's Bad Fur Day
Sweary fun from Rare, with the studio's final title for the N64 the result of four-years' painstaking development.
Conker the Squirrel was a heavy-drinking, foul-mouthed videogame anti-hero desperately trying to stumble home to his long-suffering girlfriend.
We like to think of Conker as the videogame version of Frank Gallagher from Shameless. If Frank was a squirrel, that is). He is one of the most memorable characters in Britsoft history, the likes of which we will unfortunately never see again.
Originally intended as a family game (?!) Conker's Bad Fur Day still fetches upwards of £100 on eBay, so if you still (somehow) have a decent quality original copy tucked away in a bottom drawer somewhere, you're in luck!
Clever, funny and defiantly low-brow, in a South Park kinda way. We want to get our N64 back from the lucky young boy that bought it off us at that car boot in 2004 now…
A true Britsoft classic to top off our definitive top 20. Driver may have been inspired by the early top-down perspective GTAs, but it built the explorable 3D city before Grand Theft Auto III arrived two years later.
"While we considered racing titles such as Destruction Derby and even Blur - which brought down Bizarre Creations despite being a highly decent racer – Reflections' Driver was just a blistering play that evoked the car chase films of the 1960s and 1970s," says TIGA's Richard Wilson.
Conclusions, in-fights and thankless, Herculean tasks
There are clearly many, many important and/or great games that have come out of Britain but these listed above represent those which set the standard.
"It's really only since I became a community manager that I realised what a massive impact certain British brands have had and still have on people and how culturally important they are to us." says Mark Baldwin, Community Manager at New Star Games.
There are so many others worthy of mention in terms of technology, design, art, fun or commercial success that we simply could not include them in the above list. Once you scratch the surface, you start arguing (with yourself, as much as with other hardened gaming vets) that the list really should have included Jetpac, Knight Lore, Deus Ex Machina, Star Fox, Blast Corps, Runescape, Chaos Engine, Rainbow Islands, LEGO Star Wars, Conker's Bad Fur Day, Fable, F1 Grand Prix, Xenon 2, Broken Sword, Micro Machines, Cannon Fodder, Dizzy, Batman: Arkham Asylum…
And then you gradually realise that list-making is a thankless, Herculean task!