When Jetpac and PSSST were released in 1983, very little was known
about Ultimate Play The Game, the creators of these two Spectrum
masterpieces. Based in Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire, Ultimate
was wholly owned by two brothers - Chris and Tim Stamper with Tim's
wife Carol. With one or two other "software engineers"
they set up to create "arcade quality graphics" - superior
to any other game at the time.
Ultimate's first releases were even more surprising in that they
were packed into only 16K of memory. Cookie and Tranz-am quickly
followed with the complex 48K games Lunal Jetman and Atic Atachot
on their heels.
Between 1983 and 1986 Ultimate had an unbroken chain of 14 Spectrum
hits with overall ratings averaging 93% for most of those reviewed
by "CRASH" Magazine. They became the magazine's most highly
praised software house of their time.
During this period the company maintained press silence which gave
them an aura of mysticism. "CRASH" were perhaps the closest
to that elusive interview after running several competitions, but
the interviews never came.
Each Ultimate game was eagerly awaited and if the forth coming release
was delayed for any reason, consumer response was phenomenal.
Knight Lore introduced an entirely new three-dimentional concept
with superb animation called Filmation which was revolutionary in
that it brought about the isometric 3-D arcade adventure.
By the end of 1985 Ultimate's magic seemed to be waning, although
the company's profile remained high until well into 1986, the flair
seemed missing as many CRASH readers' letters referred to the similarity
of the later Ultimate titles.
From small beginnings as two arcade game designers Chris and Tim
Stamper changed the face of Spectrum games and 11 of their greatest
hallmarks are included in this package.
ULTIMATE - The Interview
(CRASH - April 1988)
WHY ULTIMATE FADED
I started with the most obvious burning question: why did Ultimate
disappear about one and a half years ago? Perched on the edge of
a massive desk, Tim Stamper, who acts as the company's business
spokesman, thought for a moment and then corrected me slightly.
"I think for us, as the main development team, possibly 2 years
ago was the time. It wasn't really conductive to company expansion
to carry on producing on the Spectrum - unless we went along the
That's what people said at the time: that Ultimate had gone as far
as it could with the Spectrum. But what about the 1987 games like
Bubbler and Cyberun? Tim insisted that was the post-Stamper Ultimate's
"They were not really our involvement. We said "Ultimate,
if you're developing on the Spectrum, carry on doing that - we're
the majority on the shareholders in Ultimate, so we still take an
active interest in the company."
Chris - the quieter brother, who concentrates on coding - broke
in: "What was the last one we developed as a team? It was Gunfight
I think. Everyone was copying out Knight Lore concept, se we thought
we'd do one as well! Get a little bit of the action!"
But even before Gunfight, Ultimate had come in for magazine critism
- Sabre Wulf is a copy of Atic Atac, Alien 8 is a copy of Kight
Lore, and so on.
"It was funny to read the reviews", recalled Chris. "A
lot of the earlier reviews were actually incorrect. It never really
affects you. You know whether the product's good or bad.
"I think the only critism we would be aware of was the sales
and the sales were very good."
Tim observed: "CRASH always gave us fair reviews, but with
some of the other magazines, if we didn't advertise, the product
got a bad review - and I was actually told by a few of the other
companies that they thought the problem existed as well - and I'm
sure it's still there now."
"So we steered clear of talking to anyone, and if they liked
the product great, and if they didn't I wasn't bothered because
if the sales were there people were buying it."
Most software houses get as much criticism from letter-writing players
as they do from reviews. But Chris said, "We had hardly any
letters written to Ultimate which actually complained. We had tremendous
fan mail, though, 50-60 letters a day and had to have someone fully
employed just to deal with it."
Talk of fan mail prompted Tim to make a point. "I think we
had an oppotunity to capitalise an the sort of fan club Ultimate
created. So many people wanted more information on Ultimate and
sweatshirts and caps and that.
"We could have expanded, like some companies did, with a large
fan club and giveaways and posters to buy, and we could have said
"If you like Ultimate, buy the games, buy the sweatshirts,
but in fact we gave them all away.
"If anyone asked us for o sweatshirt or a cap we said "Well
you can have it... or poters". We were just interested in seeing
the software out there and getting fair reviews."
Today's software houses, anxious to keep buyers happy with bugless
games, regard playtesting as essential. But despite Ultimate's string
of hits, the Stampers never employed hordes of young playtesters
as the old Imagine used to.
"We rely on friends and friends of the family", said Chris,
"usually people a lot younger that ourselves, to play the game.
We like to see their reaction to the game from fresh. It's very
easy for us to see what the problems are when they start to play
the game. Basically we're all arcade players and wer're all arcade
No game is perfect, and with hindsight the Stampers can often see
something they should have done better.
"But when we've finished a game, all we can see is all the
hard work that went into it. It takes a long time before you can
look at it with a different eye, you always remember all the problems
and all the concepts that were thrown out, all the stages of development.
"It's easier to look at a product you haven't worked on, because
you can look at it with an pen mind. It's so difficult fo us to
criticise or comment on our own games."
A mystery in one Ultimate game always annoyed even the label's staunchest
fans - so I demanded the definitive company answer. "Was there
ever a trailer in Lunar Jetman?" I asked.
After cautious silence, Tim replied, "Well I never got far
enough! I once saw a picture in a magazine with a trailer."
Yes, I told him, that was in CRASH. A reader sent it in, but obviously
it was a hoax - or was it? I added that the graphics looked very
authentic. Tim merely laughed.
"I wish they had contacted us!"
And so mystery was Ultimate's fifth name. Was it a conscious policy
to be mysterious? Was it seen as good PR?
"No, it wasn't", said Tim, "That's the way it turned
out, we were so busy producing a few products a year and making
sure they were right. I think while we were full-time Ultimate,
we only had two Christmas mornings off and that's how hard it was.
"We worked seven days a week, 8am till 1 or 2in the morning.
I don't feel it's any good having engineers who only work 9 to 5
because you get a 9 to 5 game, you need a real input.
"And the day a product was released the phone would just be
red hot with all the distributors ringing. It was really bad..."
His voice trailed off.
"I prefer it here without those sorts of pressures", Chris
added. "It's just a development place, the atmosphere for development
we have in this place is excellent. It's a nice rural setting with
chickens all over. It's a farmhouse and we want to keep ot that
way because it gives you something to refresh yourself."
"It's good for development rather than being stuck in the middle
of some suburb or city centre."
The Ultimate software label has been largely dormant since mid-1987
and though the Stampers still have an interest in it, 2 years ago
they formed a new company, Rare Ltd. and moved from Ashby-de-la-Zouch
to the nearby village of Twycross. It's there that the Stampers
are working on a new generation of games and it was there that they
gave CRASH the Ultimate story.
Twycross is a tiny Midlands village perched on the borders of Leicestershire
and Warwickshire, known only for its zoo. Sitting on the western
edge of the village is the very large 18th-century mansion, part
of Manor Farm.
This is the home of Rare, protected by rambling outbuidings, barns
and a crowd of noisy cockerels and chickens. Its an elegant though
rather dilapidated building, gradually being repaired by the Stampers,
and its calm, very country-English exterior belies the power of
the technology within.
The inside is half-finished, but in the board room a row of clocks
on the wall shows the times in Japan and America - all parts of
Rare's international market.
And what illuminates Rare's operation is the Stampers' intimate
working knowledge of their hardware. Very little equipment in the
mansion is as it came from the manufacturer; even the modest Amstrad
PCs have been given vitamins. That's the style of the two former
coin-op designers, of course, and it was their technical knowledge
of the Spectrum as much as their imagination that kept Ultimate
playing the game so long.