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Level 9: Past masters of the adventure game
By Richard Hewison
Anyone who grew up on 8-bit adventure games has played at least a couple of Level 9 adventures. In their hay day (in the early to mid 80s) they were the undisputed kings of adventure games in the U.K. Games like 'Dungeon Adventure' and 'Snowball' earned them accolade after accolade from the public and computer press alike. It is unfortunate that once the 16 bit machines came to the forefront, Level 9's creativity took a dip for the worse - but more on that later.
Level 9 Computing (as it was known back then) began life in 1981. The company initially composed of the three Austin brothers (Mike, Nick and Pete). It quickly progressed from being a hobby to becoming a registered company with assets of just £40 and a Nascom 16k kit computer!
Their first few products were arcade games and utilities like 'Missile Defence', 'Bomber', 'Fantasy', 'Space Invasion' and 'Extension Basic'. Each cassette was individually saved from the computer and sent out by mail order to satisfy the demand generated by the classified ads they ran in the 'Computing Today' magazine.
Having seen a version of 'Colossal Caves' running on a mainframe where he worked, Pete Austin thought that they could fit it onto a 16k machine. This resulted in Level 9's own version which they called 'Colossal Adventure'. It was to be their first commercial release and was written in what they called 'a-code'.
From the outset, they didn't just write the game, but they devised and created a writing system that they could use over and over again to create further games. They also had the awareness to write the system so that it could be used on other machines. In the early days they were only able to produce versions for the BBC and Nascom. In 1983 they converted over to the Spectrum 48k, Commodore 64, Oric, Atari 400/800, Lynx 48k and RML 380Z. A few years further down the road they converted the entire range to date onto the MSX and the Enterprise.
'Colossal Adventure' wasn't quite a direct conversion from the main frame original. One very subtle difference was that the food was moved into the otherwise superfluous forest outside. The major difference was the addition of the 'end game'. In the original adventure, the game finished when you picked up the final treasure and the cave announced that it was closing down. You then had to get out in time before the game ended. Level 9 decided to add an end game so they could boast that the game had 'over 200 locations'. The original only had 130.
'Over 200 locations' would become a familiar quote on the Level 9 packaging. Talking of packaging, it changed considerably over the years. The very first version of 'Colossal Adventure' was distributed in a re-sealable plastic bag with an eight page manual, an advert for their other releases and an envelope and clue request card. The envelope had an illustration on the front showing a man with an olive branch in his hand and a bird homing in on it. The words "Fly back with a clue" were printed in the top left hand corner. The clue card was for individual questions. Only later on did they start offering the complete and comprehensive clue sheets.
'Colossal' was followed by 'Adventure Quest', which was their first attempt at designing a game themselves from scratch. They then rounded the trilogy off with 'Dungeon Adventure'. This became known as their 'Middle Earth' trilogy although they were eventually bundled together under the 'Jewels of Darkness' title by Rainbird in 1988. They were also updated by having graphics added. More on the graphics later!
Level 9 then turned their attentions away from the fantasy setting of Middle Earth and launched themselves into the future by writing 'Snowball', a science fiction adventure with 'over 7,000 locations'. Set in the year 2304 A.D you were cast as secret agent, Kim Kimberley whose mission was to protect the interstar transport known as Snowball 9. Level 9 deliberately chose a sexless name so that the player could imagine themselves as male or female. Thankfully you didn't have to visit all 7,000 locations! They were spread throughout the spaceship on various levels accessed by a lift. The game began completely in the dark, and you were soon puzzling over how to avoid the killer nightingales that roamed the ship. [more]