- Ludic Cartography. Mapping Gamespaces
- Past Projects
- Preserving Virtual Worlds
- Research and Publication
Looking through boxes and boxes of games all day, certain covers and companies begin to stick out and rise above the tide of their more "normal" and "artisticly void" contemporaries. One such company, Psygnosis, is generally always a pleasure to behold with its colorful complex cover illustrations and equally compelling screenshots. Founded in Liverpool in 1984 by Ian Hetherington and Jonathan Ellis, Psygnosis was known for its intense graphical presentation and technical excellence. The company's logo, a white and purple owl head, became a hallmark of the first generation Playstation and was attached to several seminal titles including the WipeOut series, Destruction Derby, and the less famous Colony Wars. ("But what about Lemmings you dope?", you may ask. Well, I'm ignoring Lemmings, since everyone loves it and I don't have any old copies right now.) Anyway, the story of early Psygnosis is quite interesting; leading out of one company's death and into the beginnings of GTA.
I will now discuss the history and games of Psygnosis while ignoring the fact that this entire post is actually based on my since-childhood infatuation with their logo. That said, the formation of Psygnosis arose out of the downfall of a British software company named Imagine entertainment. In 1983 Imagine had generated a good deal of buzz because it was reputedly developing two "mega-games" for the home PC market. Helmed by a huge team of artists, these two games were to revolutionize the time's paltry understanding of what was possible on a home monitor; they also had ridiculous names and didn't actually exist. The two games, Bandersnatch (being a reference to a fictional creature in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass), and Psyclapse (not being a reference) appeared by name only in numerous advertisements, usually with drooling onlookers, a glowing screen, and no actual game images. Needless to say, the company collapsed under the weight of their assumed awesomeness and revolutionality (yes, I make up words). The whole affair was actually documented in a short, half hour expose by the BBC, which centered on the studio's failure during the video game crash of '84 and its subsequent dismemberment by Ocean Software.
Shortly afterward, the higher management of Imagine founded a new publishing company, Psygnosis, and set out to continue the previous hyperbolic tradition of Imagine; they wanted to make games look goooooood. To accomplish this goal all development centered around a core team of artists, who provided the graphical flourish for titles designed and programed by independent developers. Because of this centralized focus on the art of their games, early Psygnosis titles share a similar aesthetic and a focus on vibrancy that managed to spread across disparate development teams and genres. As a result, huge, ornate sprites became the order of the day along with a generous helping of multilayer parallax, and a complete lack of artistic restraint.
To further bulwark the company's focus on the visual, Psygnosis enlisted artist Roger Dean to design the company's logo and provide cover art for future games. I figure someone around the office was a huge fan of Yes or Asia and loudly shouted, "We should get that guy who draws recreational drug inspired album covers!". Thus Dean's mecha-organic aesthetic (I think of it as H.R. Giger light) became wedded to most of Psygnosis's commercial packaging of the late eighties.
Bulbous heads and mushrooms aside, Psygnosis's first game, Brataccas, actually packed a good deal of graphical umph. It also impressively created a pseudo-persistant world with NPCs and enemies interacting without player stimulus. Combining design ideas from both Bandersnatch and Psyclapse, Brataccas represented a slightly neutered amalgam of the previous mega-games. Aside from the looks and technicality, Brataccas also featured a stunningly terrible control scheme. Players used mouse gestures to navigate the hero around each room, making it nearly impossible to react quickly and not suffer horribly. The pattern of increasing graphical panache and nearly vacant game play would become more and more engrained in the next year's title, Deep Space.
The only Psygnosis title of 1986, Deep Space again featured a vast, complex world, at-the-curve graphics, big action, and incomprehensible controls. Considered an early influence on the 4X space genre, Deep Space also established Psygnosis's signature box stylings; a large, square container with Dean's art framed in red. The next Psygnosis title, Barbarian, also included this design motif and furthered the company's desire to worship all things graphical. Concerned more with presentation than game play, Psygnosis was an early champion of in-game cinematics. Barbarian, a 2D side-scrolling romp, featured a complex (for the time) opening animation that stunned users of the Atari ST and Amiga. Psygnosis had begun gravitating toward the more complex, 16-bit systems of the day in order to augment their wow factor. They would soon design titles to exclusively take advantage of the Commodore Amiga's inherent power.
Barbarian was the first stand out title for Psygnosis, and they followed up on its success by releasing an even more ornate game titled Obliterator. Obliterator included an even more impressive opening sequence, and supplemented the company's feverish graphical obsession. Around the same time, Psygnosis also released a few titles under the Psyclapse label. Ostensibly named for the failed mega-game, the actual reason for the second moniker is unknown. It is generally held that more arcade-y, less complex, and much less convoluted titles, such as shoot-em-ups were attached to the smaller brand, and subsequently smaller boxes. Apparently Psygnosis didn't want their main squeeze diluted by fun games that were actually playable.
Psygnosis's tag line during this time period "Seeing Is Believing" summed up their base belief in visual bling. Apparently the corollary, "Playing Is, Well, Just Forget About Fun...Yeah", got left on some editor's desk. Luckily, my intrepid searching (or boredom at work) led to the discovery of Psygnosis ads in a magazine. Apologies for the light flare, florescent overheads and glossy paper made clear photos difficult.
Continuing with the chronology, nineteen eighty nine featured two landmark titles for the company. The first, Shadow of the Beast, was Psygnosis's biggest hit to date, and the second, Blood Money, allows me to bring up a new topic in about a paragraph or so. Shadow of the Beast again featured art by Dean, was pretty much impossible to play, and looked fantastic. The screenshots highlighted below still manage to impress by current standards, showcasing TRIPLE parallax scrolling and lots of other impressive numbers (just read the box). The game became a de facto demo for many in-store Amiga displays, and was designed to take advantage of the computer's superior hardware.
Now you may be wondering, "Why the elongated box? Lots of extra goodies?" Eh, not really, just a limited-edition, super swank Roger Dean designed T-shirt featuring a titular Beast in the robo-flesh. Yeah, I have no clue what its supposed to be either.
Moving on from hoofed monstrosities, the second game of note, Blood Money, was developed by DMA Designs in the same year. A sequel to the 2D shoot-em-up Menace, Blood Money is only really significant because it represents the early work of DMA Designs, the studio who would later bless the gaming world with Lemmings and the Grand Theft Auto series. The game had all the Psygnosis trademarks, great graphics, great intro animation, and great controls. Okay, so maybe they only got two out of three right, but I don't think their reputation was damaged when they decided to make the game playable.
Psygnosis continued to gain popularity in the new decade, first with the release of Lemmings in 1991, and later on as a Sony-owned Playstation developer. As the Amiga market began dwindling in the early nineties, the company was purchased by Sony in 1993 and began development of console games. I won't go into their Playstation era history here because I don't have any of those materials, and they certainly do not have the proper box art absurdity quotient to garner treatment in this blog. Regardless, Psygnosis folded into Sony completely in 1999, finally eradicating my favorite 20th century game logo and inevitably causing great personal sadness. Below I have placed thumbnails for some more Psygnosis titles that did not fit with the theme of the main post. So enjoy deadly game shows, motor car mayhem, and another look at the owl head logo.
As a side note, I will try to post here weekly from now on. I realized that I have nearly a thousand pictures from the collection and do not see an alternative other than sharing them with everyone out there on the internets. Also, I may post some shorter entries, but they will not be on the front page so as to reserve space for announcements from the HTGG group. Until next time...