Mastertronic was a highly prolific publisher of pocket-money-priced software on the ZX Spectrum and other 8-bit platforms (as well as a brief foray into the 16-bit era). It could be argued they published more games than anyone else. (Well, if that's not true, they surely must be a close second?)
If you excuse the oxymoron, it was an absolutely major budget label. Possibly THE biggest budget brand in Spectrum games software, with the likes of Firebird and Alternative following behind. It was home to the Magic Knight series, it published original games by the Darling Brothers, inadvertently having them set up as a competitor later on as budget rival Code Masters.
I've gone through Spectrum Computing's database, looking for ZX Spectrum games on Mastertronic's brands, and there are 234. That includes all the rereleases. They were heavily involved in rereleasing games. My research shows 145 of these ZX Spectrum titles were original, meaning 89 were rereleases. To summarize, 62% original / 38% rereleases.
Mastertronic liked to use more than just its own name. From what I've found, eight brands were in use over the Spectrum's commercial lifetime...
- Bulldog (12 titles - all original) With a mission to be the 'Best of British'.
- Entertainment USA (5 titles - all original) The flipside to Bulldog, this was bringing in an American flavour, like a Netto version of US Gold. I guess from a Commodore 64 perspective (where many original titles came from west of the Atlantic), it seemed like a good idea.
- Mastertronic (104 titles: 82 original, 22 rereleases) The 'vanilla' brand. At first glance, a simple outlet for original games at an attractive two quid price point. Many brilliant original efforts, some of which were developed by Binary Design and Icon Design. Rereleases tended to be low-profile games from fairly obscure publishers.
- Mastertronic Added Dimension aka M.A.D. (32 titles: 29 original, 3 rereleases) Created to justify a three quid price, this was a 'premium' label aimed at being better quality than the usual two quid fare.
- Mastertronic Plus (30 titles: 14 original, 16 rereleases) Seems to be a replacement or a new name for the '...Added Dimension' brand, created at some point in the late 80s. Getting a lot lighter on original titles, probably as the group also had to manage the Melbourne House side of things AND distribute/market Sega consoles across Europe.
- Mastervision (7 titles: 3 original, 4 rereleases) Set up alongside the original Mastertronic brand in the early 80s as an outlet purely for text-based adventures. Got quietly dropped, as a few text adventures would later end up on the Mastertronic brand.
- Ricochet (37 titles - all rereleases) The first label exclusively for rereleases at a budget price? It could well be. An impressive roster of titles that included some rich pickings from Activision and Ultimate.
- Tronix (7 titles - all rereleases) By this time, the parent label had become Virgin Mastertronic Ltd, a visible reminder that Richard Branson put in a massive amount which saved Mastertronic from going under. The shrewd move from the bearded multimillionaire was that Mastertronic had made a good move in obtaining the rights to distribute the Sega Master System and its cartridges across Europe, having convinced Sega in Japan that they had serious skills and resources in marketing/distribution. By this time, for the 8-bit/16-bit computer market, Virgin Mastertronic's original efforts would be only on the Virgin Games brand. There would be no more original material put out at a budget price, so Mastertronic was quietly dropped and in an echo of its name, 'Tronix' is the new brand, exclusively rereleasing the revived Virgin Games' titles at a three quid price.
38 software labels had some of their ZX Spectrum games rereleased by Mastertronic's brands...
18 titles: Virgin Games
10 titles: Activision
9 titles: Melbourne House
4 titles each: Carnell Software; Dinamic Software; Ultimate;
3 titles: Martech
2 titles each: Bubble Bus; Dro Soft; Electric Dreams; Mirrorsoft; R&R Software; US Gold;
1 title each: Abersoft; Amoeba Software; Artic Software; Bug-Byte Software; Creative Sparks; CRL Group; Custom Cables International; Darkstar; Dream Software; English Software; Firebird; Games Workshop; Gamestar; Gremlin Graphics; Incentive Software; Micromega; Microsphere; Mosaic Publishing; Mr Chip Software; Network Adventure Games; New Generation Software; PSS; Software Projects; Spirit Software and Wizard Computer Games.
Right, here's a rough overview of Mastertronic's history. Bear in mind it was a publisher/distributor and wasn't home to in-house developers/programmers. Well, not until later on...
It actually started in 1984, with a few rereleases, beginning with Carnell Software's The Adventures Of St Bernard. One of the company's founders was experienced at putting out certain American films onto the then-fledgling home VHS market. Fuel garages, newsagents, video shops and mini-supermarkets were the outlets they could put product into. Pretty common for videotapes, unheard of for computer games at the time. It was the only option available to them back then, as the computer game wholesale industry wasn't interested due to the two quid price point. They would soon change their minds.
Ever wondered why Spectrum inlays tend to have a yellow demarcation for the platform, whereas Amstrad is orange and the Commodore 64 is red? It was Mastertronic who started that. As we know, earlier in the decade, a lot of what we could now call 'second division' 8-bit machines (BBC, Acorn Electron, the non-64 Commodores, Atari's cassette-based computers), were still commercially viable and were catered for by Mastertronic. A big chunk of MSX software in Britain existed because of the company. Anyway, I'm writing from a ZX Spectrum user's point of view, so I won't concentrate on other machines, but it wouldn't be right to ignore the fact that Mastertronic covered a huge range of other machines.
Text adventures tend to divide people, so Mastertronic decided to mark them as 'Mastervision', the first of quite a few sub-labels they'd create. Buyers who didn't enjoy typing 'EXAMINE ROOM' and 'GO NORTH' could have faith in the main Mastertronic brand. It didn't last too long though.
Games magazines didn't give Mastertronic the same profiles as many full-price software houses. The biggest factor in this could be that the budget publisher rarely advertised in mags, what with rather thin margins on their titles. For a long time, magazines treated budget games as a low priority, always giving a big focus to full price games from prolific software houses.
Masters of code
Over on the Commodore side of things, some young prolific coders, using the name Galactic Software, produced a lot of original games for Mastertronic. Richard and David Darling had huge hits with Chiller, BMX Racers, Master of Magic, Jungle Story, Orbitron, Sub Hunt, Pigs in Space, Space Walk and Last V9 (only the first three of this arbitary list were converted to the Spectrum). The Darling brothers ended up having a 50% stake in Mastertronic. Also raising the perception of quality was the use of music from Rob Hubbard and David Whittaker.
1985 saw the company establish its £2.99 label, Mastertronic Added Dimension, which promised a higher quality over their usual £1.99 output.
Noting that their dedicated racks of games were plastered in Mastertronic branding, the directors had an idea to create false competition. Sub-labels would be set up to make these racks look like they had games from various different companies. Entertainment USA was an imprint designed to convey an American flavour of gaming (inspired by links Mastertronic had built on the C64 scene with Sculptured Software). Bulldog, which began with medieval village wizard war Feud, was for games of a quirky British feel. Ricochet was set up as a dedicated rerelease label, starting with Geoff Capes Strong Man; Brian Jacks Superstar Challenge and Eddie Kidd Jump Challenge - three games which had sold full price by Martech.
Mastertronic's dab hand at handling original and rerelease software at budget prices saw them being courted by US Gold and Hewson to do the same for them, managing sub-brand Americana for US Gold and Rack-It for Hewson.
In 1986, the two Darling brothers sold their stake in Mastertronic, as they wanted to go it alone as a budget software publisher in their own right. I wonder what happened to them?
Sega, arcades and a near collapse
By 1987, sales from pocket-money-priced games had made their mark on the industry, showing there definitely was a demand for it. However, competition in this area had sharply risen, and so individual game sales were sharply declining for Mastertronic as new rivals appeared.
Mastertronic's experience at distribution earned it the right to be sole wholesaler of all computer games to Woolworths and Toys 'R' Us. This was happening while many full price publishers were floundering. One such former titan was Melbourne House, whom Mastertronic bought out.
The company decided to jump into arcade games, in a venture they named 'Arcadia'. The idea was they could use the Commodore Amiga chipset to develop original games for the arcades and then republish for home systems. It was not a good idea, as their financial controller remarked in a 2002 interview with C64 website Lemon64...
"The trouble was that there are huge differences between a game designed to take money on an arcade machine and a game designed to hold interest running on a home computer. Those of us in the company, including myself, who actually played games, knew this. The directors, who did not play games, did not. We committed to buying a huge number of chips and nearly bankrupted the business. Managing this venture was certainly exciting but this is form of excitement that one can do without!"
Having rescued Melbourne House from financial oblivion and only just realising the Arcadia project was a money pit, the group almost ran out of cash. Thankfully, they had made one move in 1987 that proved to be financially astute and was remarkable for establishing a very familiar Japanese brand over to European games players.
Sega was known for a variety of top-quality arcade games. In the mid-eighties, they decided to enter the home console market, launching the SG-1000 console on the same date as Nintendo's Famicom (effectively the NES). While the NES was a huge hit in Japan and North America, the SG-1000 was barely an also-ran. The Japanese company persevered with a retooled version which still didn't do that well,then came up a a much more technically-improved follow up for overseas markets, which was going to be called the SG-1000 Mark 3. Thankfully, a better name prevailed in the branding process - the Sega Master System.
It was hard to take on the might of Nintendo over in North America, but the Master System was objectively technically superior to it. While it didn't make a huge foothold and certainly didn't worry purveyors of moustached Italian plumbers' antics, it certainly held its own. The thing was, Sega didn't have much of a plan for it in Europe. This is where Mastertronic stepped in, getting the rights to distribute the console in this continent.
Mastertronic could well be credited with making the Sega Master System a huge success in Europe. By 1988, the distribution and marketing of the console provided virtually all of the company's profit, and so budget games for home computers was no longer a top priority.
Of course, the success isn't all down to Mastertronic. Rather stupidly, Nintendo had over-priced the NES console for the European market. Both the NES and its games were hugely overpriced and became something of a flop over here. Sure, the nostalgia for the NES when you look at 1980s retrogaming is remarkably high, but that comes from American and Japanese gamers. The NES was an embarrassing flop in this part of the world, hence why the Master System was a lot more attractive here.
Like, er, Virgin
Richard Branson had noticed the moves Mastertronic had made in gaining the European rights to Sega, hence Virgin came into support the cash-strapped company by taking a minority stake in 1987, then moving to buy out the company the following year, mainly for the Sega distribution.
Under Virgin's control, Mastertronic effectively merged with full price label Virgin Games, becoming Virgin Mastertronic.
The Virgin-controlled company managed to get prime time TV coverage for a particular original Mastertronic budget release. Mark Collett was a child who had the idea for a computer game in which you worked in a supermarket, stacking shelves. He sent the idea in to a 'make your wishes come true' show on BBC One.
The resulting game is the 3D isometric Super Trolley. It is absolutely diabolical, although it does meet its aim as being a shelf-stacking simulator, because it's heavily boring. Icon Design developed the game and as a result, Richard Branson guested in the studio to hand over the game from 'his' company. The inlay featured a cartoon caricature of the TV show's host.
Mind you, I guess I really shouldn't be knocking how bad the game is, compared to television host of that show. Already, British readers will know who I am referring to. I don't want to put the spotlight on such a despicable lowlife he is, but if you're really curious about that matter, Kim Justice has an excellent video review which blasts how awful the game is, then moves onto the rather darker subject.
The decline in original games
The company dropped a few brands. Bulldog's last was Scumball, Entertainment USA bowed out with Cage Match. Added Dimension ended with Raw Recruit, which seemed to be inspired by Combat School.
Yet Mastertronic hadn't completely abandoned 'the better quality at £2.99' ethos. A revamp saw the budget house gain a 3D chrome-like 'M' as their logo, with two brands - Mastertronic and Mastertronic Plus, at £1.99 and £2.99 prices respectively. Mastertronic Plus appeared to be carrying off from where Mastertronic Added Dimension ended.
However, the priority on putting out original material at budget price had dissipated. Sales of original titles had hit four-digits, a far cry from the typical 50,000 sales a unit could get in 1986. Rereleases became a lot more common. The gaming market generally moved over to the two main 16-bit computers.
"I delivered final C64 and Spectrum versions [of Turbo Towers] to Mastertronic, they paid for it and then were promptly taken over by Virgin who axed all the budget titles so it never made the streets It was based on the Pulse Warrior code base but involved knocking robots off some sort of high rise - clearing a floor at a time." - former Melbourne House programmer Simon Price, known for Kwah!, Pulse Warrior, Redhawk and Wiz.
Virgin Games's full price efforts became the focus in 1990. The last gasps of Mastertronic would be as 'Tronix', their final brand, resorting solely to rereleasing Virgin Games at a budget price, such as Golden Axe, Silkworm, Viz (the license of an adult humour comic which Richard Branson had a stake in, through Virgin Megastores) and Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Okay, in these polls I exclude rereleases. I'm going to list the rereleases alongside the original stuff, just for completion's sake. To make things really clear, the rereleases are in grey, I do not intend them to be put into the polls.
If I was to put the entirety of Mastertronic's brands up for a single poll, well, that's 145 titles, and the forum's poll only allows for 127 options. I don't think we've had anything like this kind of quantity. I remember Ocean, Activision and US Gold being pretty on output, but none of them went over the 127 limit!
I'm proposing we do it by the brands...
Jackle & Wide
Shard Of Inovar
Bump, Set, Spike!
Los Angeles Swat
1985 - The Day After
Agent X II
Caves Of Doom
Curse Of Sherwood, The
Empire Fights Back, The
Incredible Shrinking Fireman
Lap Of The Gods
One Man And His Droid
Proof Of Destruction
Soul Of A Robot
Speed King 2
Super Nudge 2000
Ticket To Ride
Voyage Into The Unknown
Werewolves Of London
Adventures Of St. Bernard, The from Carnell Software
Apollo 11 from Darkstar
Bullseye (formerly Darts) from Mr Chip Software
Camelot Warriors from Dinamic Software
Chuckman from Custom Cables International
Cid, El fromDro Soft
Formula One Simulator (formerly Formula One) from Spirit Software
Gnasher fromR&R Software
Hundra from Dinamic Software
Kentilla from Micromega
Legend Of The Amazon Women from US Gold
Nonamed from Dinamic Software
Quest For The Golden Eggcup from Network Adventure Games
Quest For The Holy Grail, The from Dream Software
Sailing from Activision
Sky Ranger from Microsphere
Spectipede from R&R Software
Stop Ball from Dro Soft
Tank Trax from Amoeba Software
Video Olympics (formerly Video Olimpic) from Dinamic Software
Wizard's Warriors, The from Abersoft
Xcel from Activision
Mastertronic Added Dimension (aka M.A.D.)
Grand Prix Tennis
How To Be A Hero
Master Of Magic
Play It Again, Sam
Sport Of Kings
Star Wars Droids
Ultimate Combat Mission
Manic Miner from Bug-Byte Software
Delta Wing from Creative Sparks
Action Force from Virgin Games
Advanced Soccer Simulator
Die Alien Slime
Gregory Loses His Clock
Rad Damp Racer
Super Stock Car
Barry McGuigan World Championship Boxing from Gamestar
Continental Circus from Virgin Games
Double Dragon from Melbourne House
Enterprise from Melbourne House
Fighting Warrior from Melbourne House
Fist II: The Legend Continues from Melbourne House
Gemini Wing from Virgin Games
Jonah Barrington's Squash from New Generation Software
Leviathan from English Software
Rescue On Fractalus! from Activision
Shinobi from Virgin Games
Silkworm from Virgin Games
Street Hassle from Melbourne House
Tetris from Mirrorsoft
Xenon from Melbourne House
Yes, Prime Minister from Mosaic Publishing
Legacy Of Light, The
Se-Kaa Of Assiah
Sinbad And The Golden Ship
Black Crystal from Carnell Software
Journey's End from Games Workshop
Volcanic Dungeon from Carnell Software
Wrath Of Magra, The from Carnell Software
Action Reflex from Mirrorsoft
Alien 8 from Ultimate
Aliens from Electric Dreams
Ballblazer from Activision
Brian Jacks Superstar Challenge from Martech
Confuzion from Incentive Software
Covenant, The from PSS
Dan Dare II: Mekon's Revenge from Virgin Games
Dan Dare: Pilot Of The Future from Virgin Games
Eddie Kidd Jump Challenge from Martech
Eidolon, The from Activision
F.A. Cup Football from Virgin Games
Fifth Quadrant, The from Bubble Bus
Geoff Capes Strong Man from Martech
Ghostbusters from Activision
Gobbleman from Artic Software
Growing Pains Of Adrian Mole, The from Virgin Games
Hacker from Activision
Hacker II: The Doomsday Papers from Activision
Helichopper from Firebird
How to Be A Complete Bastard from Virgin Games
Impossible Mission from US Gold
Jet Set Willy II from Software Projects
Jetpac from Ultimate
Knight Lore from Ultimate
Knightmare from Activision
Knuckle Busters from Melbourne House
Nightshade from Ultimate
Rebel from Virgin Games
Starquake from Bubble Bus
Tau Ceti from CRL Group
Tempest from Electric Dreams
Throne Of Fire from Melbourne House
Toy Bizarre from Activision
Trailblazer from Gremlin
Way Of The Exploding Fist, The from Melbourne House
William Wobbler from Wizard Computer Games
Double Dragon II: The Revenge from Virgin Games
Golden Axe from Virgin Games
Italia '90 - World Cup Soccer from Virgin Games
Ivan 'Ironman' Stewart's Super Off Road from Virgin Games
Monty Python's Flying Circus from Virgin Games
Ninja Warriors, The from Virgin Games
Viz - The Computer Game from Virgin Games
You have two weeks to discuss this before I start the polls for Bulldog/Entertainment USA/Mastertronic/Mastertronic Added Dimension/Mastertronic Plus/Mastervision, on Sun 20th October.