Retrospective - Psygnosis 06/11/97

Psygnosis There really IS no such word.

Psygnosis were associated early on with unusual games and for bringing about the adjective 'Psygnosisish'. No, really. To say that Psygnosis were always associated with good games is basically a lie, though. In the foetal stages of the Amiga revolution, Psygnosis produced some really ("displeasing" - Ed.) software but it was always strangely stylish and memorable. I am going to make a leap of faith and presume that a company called Psyclapse was somehow associated with Psygnosis and eventually became part of the company or evolved into Psygnosis itself (It was Psygnosis' offshoot which concentrated on arcade games whilst Psygnosis concentrated more on strategy games, fact fans. - Ed.).

To catalogue all of Psygnosis' and Psyclapse's software would be a mammoth task and far more research than I could be bothered to do for the amount of people actually interested. This was because Psygnosis eventually became more like an Ocean style company and hired many other software houses to produce titles under their name. To their credit however, they always produced quality titles and, until near the end of the Amiga (blasphemy?), didn't make movie tie-ins. I will just go through some highlights of their Amiga days and forget the many 'high quality produce, low playability" titles which probably makes up much of their collection.

THE DESTRUCTIVE YEARS

My first taste of Psygnosis destruction came when my friend got his Amiga at a time when Commodore didn't package the Amiga with any games. Instead, he got a rather dubious mix of failed titles and this included two Psygnosis games called Terrapods and Obliterator (This being the "Tenstar pack" and also contained Wizball, Amegas, Ikari Warriors and Buggy Boy - amongst others. - Ed.) Terrapods brings vivid memories of trying in vain to figure out what the hell you had to do. Well, I still don't know what you had to do and so, apart from describing it as 'a kind of Operation Wolf with no recognisable objects in it', I can say little else about the game. It's amazing how much effort you will put into a game when it's a choice between it and Grid Start. That was the only reason I ever played Goldrunner. I couldn't believe somebody actually requested it at Lazarus (That was me, you clot. - Ed.) But that's beside the point.

Obliterator, on the other hand, was fantastic. The first hallmark of a Psygnosis game was its yearning music and Obliterator had a great musical score. It seemed to put grace, emotion and a strange sense of tragedy into what was basically a platform shoot-em-up. I don't know, maybe it gave you a sense of being alone in space and how highly the odds were stacked against you, or maybe I'm just being an arty prat. What was so ridiculous about Obliterator was the control system. Imagine playing Shinobi with a selection of icons which you had to click to make him move, jump and shoot. It sounds ludicrous but once you had acquired the pixel perfect judgement of a ninja it was strangely rewarding. It was a good game and Psygnosis did a similar game called Barbarian (no, not the one you're thinking of) using the same control system.

At around the same time they also released a game called Menace, which was probably their first notably great game from most people's point of view. Menace was a horizontally-scrolling shoot-em-up, similar to Nemesis/Salamander but with Psygnosis style and musical scores. The graphics were, and still are, great. The playability and difficulty were just right and the end-of-level bosses were awesome. If you can find it, this is a good blaster to use up an hour or two. I particularly liked the voice that told you what power-up you were getting, although, does anybody know what it was actually saying? ("Bonus", fact fans. - Ed.)

THE AMIGA SELLER

I remember the ST/Amiga wars. They were bitter and relentless. If you left for school without knowing some facts about how the Amiga's graphics chip was FAR superior to the ST's then you were DOA. One game that helped change the tide and let the righteous Amiga take its rightful domain as the best 16-bit computer was Shadow of the Beast. It was one of the first 'Killer-Apps' to arrive on the Amiga and, by the time its sequel came out, the Amiga was a huge seller in the UK. No, for a long time it wasn't available on the ST and it was a sore point with any honest ST owner. The music was great, the graphics were gob-smacking and the playability was... OK. You piloted a beastie with a mean punch and kick around gorgeous parallaxed scenery and did battle with enormous sprites. Psygnosis' graphic style was complete and a guaranteed hit was secured if ever there was a sequel. Of course, there was a sequel and it looked better than ever but I'm sure the Terrapods designers were involved somewhere because, without the cheat, you didn't have a snowballs' chance in hell.

After the success of Shadow of the Beast, Psygnosis grew into a more prestigious company and started publishing titles by more software houses. The best move that Psygnosis ever made was to take on a Scottish software house called DMA Design. Along with a competent sequel to Menace called Blood Money, DMA came up with the idea of starring dozens of little lemmings that didn't look like lemmings in a scenario which would bring them much pain and suffering. You had to get the lemmings to their home without letting them (or a certain number of them..) come to any harm by using various ingenious techniques. The game's success was probably the combination of letting honest citizens save their furry little chums and letting dishonest citizens destroy them, and the scenery, in very violent and satisfying ways. Levels could be solved in many ways depending on the player's style and it made a cunning bridge between skill and puzzle solving. It also gave Psygnosis International fame and Lemmings got converted to just about every other computer and console system of the time.

Many annoying sequels were produced but never the ultimate 'Lemmings Massacre', which I think would have sold the most. You can see Lemmings influence in Worms, which has also been hugely successful and was also born on the Amiga.

FINDING A NEW HOME

Time moved on and the Amiga failed to do so because of Commodore's laughably crap management. It all started with the consoles and Psygnosis was no different than any other company when they decided to try their hand at Sega and Nintendo's hardware. Aside from Lemmings, they failed to make much impression and although I don't know the details of Psygnosis at the time, they seemed to degenerate into nothing special. They may have needed some financial help because they were bought out by Sony who are now using them as a sort of in-house development team. Perhaps their final insult to the Amiga was one of their last releases on our beloved machine, which was, not only a movie tie-in, but also the biggest pile of ("Swank" - Ed.) ever conceived. Last Action Hero wasn't a particularly good movie but it made an even less appealing game. Perhaps the only things that gave this title a mention in this article is that a) It really was crap b) It gave Amiga Power a chance to do one of their finest and funniest reviews of all time.

Maybe it was because Sony were using the quality staff or devoting more developing time to their Playstation titles but Psygnosis left the Amiga with a bit of a whimper. It has been great to watch Psygnosis regain their former glory on the Playstation over the last two years and also to see an English games software company doing so well internationally. Wipeout was a stylish game with fantastic music that I think helped games move away from a very poor image. If Psygnosis happens to have a job spare for an AI student who will graduate this year then I will be happy to oblige. Here's to Psygnosis for beating the Japanese companies at a game they can't play, honest to god mature style. Jonathan Withey