Rick Dangerous, a lovely sadistic “precursor” to Tomb Raider

In the mid’80s, England was in the midst of an electronic and entertainment boom. Clive Sinclair and his microcomputers and early game pioneers like Lawson and Butler of Imagine Software had turned the video gaming business into a multi-million-pound industry. The youth of cities like Manchester and Liverpool were, like the pop culture generation a decade before conquering new battlefields with a promise of a better future. Wannabe game designers, straight out of moms and dad’s arms, talented programmers, and “creative” business people flocked from all over the kingdom to live out the dream of becoming the next Beatles act on the digital highway.
One of the hopefuls was Jeremy Heath-Smith. Heath-Smith had been in the video games business since its conception in the early ’80s. He had joined Activision as a sales assistant and had learned much about the gaming industry and the publishing business all while trying to push products to small stores all across the UK. After Activision, Heath-Smith joined Gremlin Graphics to help the company publish games for the different home computers at the time.

In 1988, with Gremlin Graphics downsizing and Heath-Smith ready for new endeavors, he assembles a team of former Gremlin employees among those, seasoned programmer and artist Simon Phipps and artist Terry Lloyd, with whom he founds Core Design. Heath-Smith, now with nearly a decade of experience on the business side of the game industry, likely the most anybody in the UK could muster, had big ambitions for spearheading the new company into success. To kickoff Heath-Smith and his team’s grand project, Phipps and Lloyd was asked to come up with original ideas for the company’s first game.

Game development wasn’t new to Phipps, he had been making games since 1982 when, while working at First Byte Computers in Deby, had written his first commercial game. A Lunar Lander clone written in BBC BASIC and published under the store’s First Byte Software label. Two years later while doing his Advanced Level qualifications, Phipps wrote, what he describes as his first real published game, Jet Power Jack for Acorn’s BBC Micro. Phipps’ friend at School Stuart Gregg, who he later would work with at Core Design, encouraged him to send it to a publisher. UK publisher Micro Power agreed to publish his game after a few changes and improvements. Jet Power Pack was later released for the Acorn Electron and ported to the Commodore 64 by Gary Partis.

By late 1987, Phipps had completed his computer studies and was working at a local firm programming desktop publishing software, when he was contacted by his old friend from the First Byte years, Terry Lloyd. Lloyd, now working at Gremlin Graphics Software, needed help with the artwork for the Atari ST version of Masters of the Universe: The Movie.
Phipps was offered and accepted a full-time position at Gremlin Graphics. A year would go by and now he and Lloyd both would be responsible for heralding Core Design to fame and fortune with a brief on a game that would appeal to the masses and that was doable in only a handful of months.
The duo settled on a game-theme inspired by the 1981 blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark. Steven Spielberg’s first installment in the Indiana Jones saga had captivated a whole generation and the intense heart-pumping first five minutes of Harrison Ford being chased by a giant boulder all while dodging poisonous darts and leaping deadly pits was action movie finesse like never before. Phipps and Lloyd wanted to capture the essence of those five minutes and build a game upon it. Armed with the brief the duo managed to get the project greenlit and development started in the summer of 1988 with Gregg, his friend from school, as the programmer.

The premise, a 2D platformer with protagonist Rick Dangerous, a squeezed Indy look-a-like, whose plane crashes down somewhere in the Amazonas. Run, jump, crawl, climb, shoot, and blast your way through deadly labyrinths filled with wild enemies and deadly traps.
The character’s squeezed look, inspired by Colin Swinbourne’s Spectrum game Joe Blade and the art of the late Argentinian cartoonist and animator Guillermo Mordillo, gave the game a unique and playful aesthetic. So much in fact, that even though the game tried to kill you in every thinkable and unthinkable way, it did it while being extremely charming.
After 4 months of work, the game was completed. While 16-bit machines, like the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, and IBM/PC were starting to capture the gaming market, the now-aging 8-bit Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and Amstrad CPC were still regarded as premier home computers for games. To save time in development and making it possible to release the game for different systems at the same time, the game was defined by the mix of limitations of the different systems. The limitations of the Commodore 64 restricted all sprites to 24×21 pixels and the relatively small 256-pixel screen width worked with the ZX Spectrum, and no side-scrolling because of the Atari ST. The 8-bit versions all had 85 screens while the 16-bit counterpart amassed 135 screens.

Phipps, on an old cassette recorder, recorded what is probably the most played sound effect in gaming history, the Waaaahh. Every few seconds Rick was sent flying off the screen to the sound of Phipps’s Waaaaah… Yes, Rick died a lot.
Not only was the game extremely difficult it was at times being downright unfair. Out of nowhere, with no visible clue, a razor-sharp spike popped up nearly splitting you in half. One blink and you fell victim to a two-foot poisonous Amazonian dart shot at the speed of light, piercing your skull. Falling from one screen down to the next surely lead you directly into bone-penetrating spikes, with no chance of avoiding – at least not in the first couple of tries, Rick Dangerous was all about trial and error and a good memory to map out all the traps and elements that was put in place to end Rick’s life.
While the published version of Rick Dangerous was extremely difficult, part of the team’s original level design was even tougher and needed a rework to be more achievable, before being released.

The Commodore 64 version played excellently and was the best of the 8-bit versions, even though I do like the colors on the Amstrad CPC version better.
This is the first time I’ve played Rick Dangerous in nearly 30 years and it clearly shows, though I do still remember some of the first level, avoiding a few dangers

Rick Dangerous was released in 1989 by Microprose, who the same year had acquired Telecomsoft. Telecomsoft had been a division of British Telecom and operated three separate labels in the UK, Firebird, Silverbird, and Rainbird, each with a different marketing strategy. Firebird was the company’s primary identity label, Silverbird for low-budget titles, and Rainbird for high-profile 8-bit and 16-bit games and application software. The Silverbird label was sold off soon after the Microprose acquisition but the Rainbird and Firebird labels continued for a short period of time. Rick Dangerous was published under the Firebird label in the UK and under the Microplay label in the US, Microprose’s domestic label for externally developed titles.

Rick Dangerous for the Commodore 64 and Commodore Amiga. Published in the UK in 1989 under MicroProse’s Firebird label

The Amiga version looked very much like its Commodore 64 counterpart with its small playfield and same size sprites but had better and crispier colors, played smoother and had better sound and music.
The Commodore Amiga version was the version I played back in the days

When released the game received a majority of positive reviews. It was praised for its fun, cute and adventurous platform arcade-style gameplay and quickly became a favorite among players on both the 8-bit Spectrum, Amstrad, and Commodore 64 as well as the 16-bit Commodore Amiga and Atari ST. While some saw the trial by error and “pattern learning” as a frustrating element others saw it as a new challenge where skills would be as important memory. It was indeed a game you could impress your friends with, learn the different levels and traps and you would look like a rockstar, blazing through, avoiding one impossible situation after another. The game achieved turning the most undetermined human being into the most determined, you just wanted to beat the damn thing.

Phipps didn’t know that his published game would come with an illustrated Rick Dangerous cartoon strip from one of his favorite artists, British comic book artist, Ian Gibson. Included in the box was also a poster with instructions on the backside

Rick Dangerous was published in the US by Microplay, Microprose’s label for externally developed software titles

Rick Dangerous became a best seller, maybe helped a bit by the third Indiana Jones movie released the same year, and returned in the sequel Rick Dangerous 2 in 1990. The indy setting was swapped for a Flash Gordon-like “futuristic” 1945 setting. The setting was established at the end of the first game, where Rick learns of an imminent alien invasion. In Rick Dangerous 2 aliens have already landed in London and Rick is off to intercept the non-earthlings.
The sequel played nearly identical to the first installment, but at places seemed more forgiven (still difficult). The option to chose which of the four settings to play from the main menu sure gave some diversity. Instead of tossing the computer, joystick, or both in a nearby lake when a level proved too impossible you could change levels and hopefully blow off some steam that way.
Phipps again did the design and co-did the artwork with Lloyd. All versions played as well as the first title but the Amiga version looked fantastic with superb use of colors, which really added to the cartoonish art style and animation.

Rick Dangerous 2 looked very much like its precursor but used more joyful colors and now with the option to chose from the four different levels from the main menu.
This is the first time I’ve played Rick Dangerous 2 in nearly 30 years and it clearly shows, though I do still remember some of the first level, avoiding a few dangers

At the time of release, Microprose had abandoned its Firebird and Rainbird labels and had instead created its MicroStyle label for externally developed titles in the UK. MicroStyle published Rick Dangerous 2 in 1990 for the same array of 8-bit and 16-bit systems as the first title.

Rick Dangerous 2 was released in 1990 by MicroStyles, Microprose’s new label for externally developed software titles in the UK.
Like the first game, the box included an illustrated Rick Dangerous cartoon strip and a poster with instructions on the backside

Rick Dangerous 2 ends with a cliffhanger, with the Fat Guy (Gibson had introduced the Fat Guy in his cartoon strip that shipped with the first title) escaping via a teleporter device, and Rick following him with the familiar captions What will Rick do next?. Though this may have hinted at another sequel to the story, a third title never materialized.

Limited signed & numbered edition art print by Simon Phipps to celebrate Rick Dangerous’ 30th anniversary

Up through the ’90s Core Design went on to develop a myriad of great games, but the biggest success came in 1996, seven years after the original Rick Dangerous when Toby Gard put his finishing touches to the first Tomb Raider game, initially planned as a modern 3D version of Rick Dangerous, but to stay clear of copyright issues with Lucasfilm and the Indiana Jones franchise, Rick was reworked into a big busted female responding to the name of Lara Croft… probably one of the smartest moves in video game history.
During the production of Tomb Raider, Core Design was sold to CentreGold, which in turn was purchased by Eidos Interactive in May 1996, who ended up becoming the publisher for the title.

Phipps would continue to design games for Core Design for a number of years. He’s now working as an artist and game designer at Three Fields Entertainment.

Simon Phipps, Wikipedia, Eurogamer, Polygon, Arcade-Attack

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