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)


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 budget route."
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 work.
"They were not really our involvement. We said "Ultimate, if you're developing on the Spectrum, carry on doing that - we're still
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 addicts."
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.





©2002 ZeDeX82