For those of a certain age, whatever the early home computer format, one constant was box art bearing scant relation to actual game footage. At best the loading screen might capture the essence of an epic space battle, but then for technical reasons play would feature distant ships on black.
More ambitious developers would refine their techniques for bigger bitmaps, or instead generate semi-abstract graphics on the go, but regardless, smooth colour transitions were only possible if your machine contained a tiny artist posting his work out through a slit above the expansion port.
Fortunately, in 1985 TV Producer, gamer, and secret Fantastic Voyage fan Tim Child did not have the funding to kidnap and miniaturise David Rowe following his latest artwork delivery to computer game publisher Melbourne House. Instead, Tim just asked David to draw some dungeon backgrounds for his new children's game show concept, which became Knightmare. It lasted eight series, by which point a mixture of narrowed viewer demographics and, ironically, competition from better-looking computer games, led to its cancellation in 1994.
This book collects the surviving artwork from the early series, using a two-page spread to present each background. Faxed briefs, sketches, and explanatory text are given on the left page, with the finished piece on the right. Disclaimer: I am one of the people who funded production of this book via Indiegogo, so if you don't want to read my obviously corrupt review then buy your own copy instead.
Tim Child cites "Atic Atac" as one key inspiration towards making a computer-style game on television, for showing what could be done even with limited technology.
Digi readers may if they wish now lump themselves into one of four age groups: I played Atic Atac; I have heard of Ultimate Play The Game; I remember when Rare made games worth getting excited about; Is that a dystopian daytime antiques show?
I'm afraid the latter group is going to be equally baffled as I explain how Knightmare feels something like a survival horror game ten years ahead of time.
Like say, early Resident Evils or Alone in the Darks, Knightmare used fixed camera angles and pre-drawn backgrounds. The dungeon was essentially a large blue box open at the top for lighting, and at the front for a camera. A swanky computer removed all blue pixels from the live feed, then placed what remained over one of David Rowe's dungeon room paintings.
This final image was relayed to the three other contestants in a separate room, acting as advisors to the dungeoneer via an audio link. Their instructions were essential as the dungeoneer wore the "Helmet of Justice", which despite looking large and uncomfortable enough to be an early VR headset, merely left them with just enough vision to pick up puzzle items directly in front of them and avoid tripping over props. Taking this helmet off would only reveal a blue box anyway, but such was the tense atmosphere I was sure sneaky peeks were prevented by the threat of dire consequences.
The production team did not hesitate to arrange the demise of weak contestants. If the dungeoneer was lingering, starvation was their relatively benign motivational tool. Others included lumbering monsters, with their ominous sounds giving nervous viewers adequate time to hide behind a cushion, and advisors precious seconds for planning concise directions to safety.
Monsters couldn't be killed, at best temporarily halted by magic, and neither hiding nor backtracking was possible. The only way was onwards, and frequently over a narrow bridge, which resulted in dungeoneers hastily tumbling into dark voids like extras from ChuckleVision's existential period.
Knightmare was tough, arguably unfair at times, but more flexible than a computer game. A dungeon master kept play moving with hints where necessary, though at least in the early seasons remained almost indifferent to the prospect of success. Breaks in filming between rooms were also used to change the course of adventure, or at least provide interesting deaths once failure was inevitable. There were elements of a skilfully run role-playing session, and careful handling was also evident in the measured response to an attempted tabloid controversy.
Even in the 1980s children were not routinely killed on television at teatime, except for educational purposes in public information films. However, once the show aired, this fuss died down and apologies were issued because care was taken to present each team alive in the real world following their fantasy demise.
Which goes to show, with the right framing you can expose impressionable minds to an in-game life meter represented by a face gradually losing armour then skin until the bare skull underneath crumbles releasing eyeballs to leisurely float past the camera, even if you're not Steven Spielberg.
Though cover art features heavily in my memories of early computer games, I have no idea who made most of it. Perhaps some of the answer lies in how the first name I put to art was Roger Dean, for Shadow of The Beast: I wonder if this wouldn't have been news at the time without his previous reputation for album covers.
Oliver Frey comes to mind next, but for illustrating magazines rather than games, and even with David Rowe I only made the connection through Knightmare. Perhaps the sheer rate of new releases, there were around 10,000 games for the ZX Spectrum alone, meant it was hard to get consistently noticed when typically working on small cassette cases.
Whatever the cause, I'd like to see more of this art properly preserved, as the style of sharp highlights and soft airbrushed gradients has largely disappeared. I'd also like to hear the stories behind some pieces, having for years wondered what became of that burly construction worker antagonist on the first "Dizzy" cover who never appeared in the game.
Things are slicker and generally less interesting today; better digital drawing tools appear largely offset by bigger budgets causing more conservative designs, though a combination of PEGI information and health warnings dull any interesting composition.
That said, the older art style does tend to blend into one after a while. It's easy to dismiss modern shooters for featuring moody man with gun walking at you, but there was probably just as much repetition of colourful shiny spaceships.
So my imaginary games room wall wouldn't be covered with the complete works of David Rowe, though there would be a spot for "Ant Attack", partly on the merits of the game itself. Maybe "Delta", for being an imposing yet slightly enigmatic approach to showing a spaceship. Definitely "Sentinel", because I can't think of how better to capture a rather unique game, which craftily made a virtue of the limited speed forced by the full-screen 3d graphics.
However, today I've chosen this chap cleaning up the mean streets of Manhattan: partly because the pose is off, so the punch more resembles disdainfully stunning a nearby tough into submission with the quality of his timepiece, but mostly because I cannot unsee said tough's resemblance to Bad Influence era Violet Berlin. It's a stretch to say the other one is Mr. Biffo, but there's enough of that dishevelled, hairy tramp look to at least consider it a pre-emptive homage.
I like how the Knightmare book also shows that only basic drawing skills are enough to communicate. On the right hand pages are uniformly crisp and vivid reproductions of highly detailed paintings, then occasionally on the left is the annotated child of MS Paint and Etch A Sketch. It's a sign of mutual confidence that the producer could send such bare instructions and, in most cases, get the desired illustration back first time.
The interesting exception is one room featuring an encounter with a dragon. Initially I couldn't see why the first attempt was rejected by the producer, as the final illustration seemed flat and boring by comparison. However, it all made sense when seen on television, with the simpler approach requiring only a touch of animation and some smoke effects to make it a live threat.
Part of the reason this has been more nostalgia ramble than review is, taking the illustrations out of context and trying to appreciate them as pure fantasy drawings, they appear boxy, repetitive, empty, and flatly lit.
If the technical aspects of the show's production haven't appealed, then this book won't either, and you're better off with Roger Dean or Rodney Matthews. Though I do like the mixture of precise construction and surrealism in the Bomb Rooms.
The flip side is: when understanding the severe constraints on the illustrations, which the concise text explains clearly with only a few embarrassing typos, it's amazing how such varied dungeons were created from little more than repeated use of a blue box.
The emptiness came from the need to ensure collectable items were obvious, and the even lighting allowed each room to be relit as required via a computer-generated overlay. Though some deeper rooms were more organic than the upper-level masonry, all floors were kept flat to avoid trip hazards. This somewhat mollified the HSE when several inspectors died attempting to reach Level 3.
YOUR BLUE ROOM
What really helped generate coherent, believable places was that the compositing technique kept shadows cast by the dungeoneer and props in the blue room. All illustrations were designed using an underlying room grid that matched what the camera would see, so with careful planning, it was possible to partly mask the dungeoneer behind a rock painted in the foreground with a matching flat blue panel in the studio, or even include solid props such as the wells used to reach lower levels.
Once broadcast, though perhaps the low resolution analogue television signal smoothed any rough edges, it remains very hard to see the join between painting and action.
Retrospectively, I think Knightmare was best in the earlier seasons where the dungeon itself was the closest thing to an antagonist. It was different for every quest, partly to prevent teams learning too much from earlier failures. The limited pool of illustrations was stretched through variations in props, lighting, or digitally removing some exits, in much the same way that early computer games would re-use and palette-swap elements of their background graphics.
Though the overall style remained consistent, this shifting layout suggested the dungeon itself was alive, and there was an air of mystery while the dungeon master remained somewhat aloof. That said, my viewing memories are mostly of the later seasons, which added technical innovations such as travel outside the dungeon, and put more emphasis on the characters inside. They also featured the largely self-explanatory Corridor of Blades, and I can't argue with that.
When Knightmare was just a concept, some home computers couldn't even colour individual pixels. By the last season, children with wealthy or easily-swayed parents mumbled something about homework then played Doom instead. The wow-factor was gone, though the challenges remained solidly designed, and Knightmare retained some advantages over computer games: even now they struggle with responding to players like human actors can.
Besides, Knightmare was still more intentionally fun than the dark side of early CD games: barely-interactive videos featuring terrible acting poorly composited on to shoddy backgrounds.
Ultimately, it stopped when the broadcaster only cared about attracting an exclusively young audience. Yet about twenty years later, changing, ageing, demographic fortunes helped persuade YouTube to fund a one-off revival episode. I didn't recognise most of the contestants, introductory banter seemed a little off, the new computer-generated backgrounds with their uniform texturing looked cheap against the original illustrations, then minutes into the dungeon that old mixture of suspense and panic returned.
Clearly funding is still an issue, I'm sure one contestant was chosen partly because they lived near the studio, but there remains great interest in watching other people play games these days. So, if any rich, mad people are reading, despite what the Patreon figures suggest, kindly fund a proper revival of Knightmare, with no regard to target audience other than trusting the remaining team to do what they did best.
Less-rich people can buy something from David Rowe's website, which might be the book itself in physical or digital form, or possibly prints of his computer game work.