Bizarre Creations: Retrospective
A lament on yet another dead UK codeshop
This is by no means an exhaustive history of the recently disbanded Liverpool-based developer, more a rose-tinted view from this particular writer who tends to get (senti)mental about such matters.
Like many people, the first time I became aware of Bizarre Creations was as a result of the early PlayStation title Formula 1. When it shipped in September 1996, it was an example of what Sony’s already ascendant console could do in the right hands, released into a market alongside such titles as Tekken 2 & Crash Bandicoot. These titles along with the first Tomb Raider game, released that same November soon cemented the grey sandwich toaster as the mass-market favourite over Sega’s ill-fated Saturn.
Formula 1 itself was a technically accomplished game that boasted commentary from the then voice of television coverage, Murray Walker as well as licensed music from shred deities Steve Vai & Joe Satriani. It also featured link cable play and it was this feature that hooked me and many others, though I didn’t go as far as some students I knew who extended a cable from the living room to an upstairs bedroom to allow multiplayer larks without having to lug televisions around. In these days of annual updates, refreshingly it was based on the 1995 season. Thankfully it only spawned one sequel in 1997 that was largely the same game, only with an drivers-eye view and a very silly arcade mode with ridiculous handling.
Next came Fur Fighters, an initially Dreamcast exclusive arcade shooter in which you had to shoot the stuffing out of various cute protagonists. I didn’t enjoy the demo at all, so the game passed me by. I’ve not managed to find anyone else that played it, let alone bought it. It must’ve sold pretty well as there was a PS2 sequel subtitled Viggo’s Revenge.
The game that really cemented Bizarre’s reputation as a premier driving developer was the much-delayed Dreamcast flagship title Metropolis Street Racer. It introduced the Kudos system which would show up in one form or another in all their subsequent driving games as well as real world locations that put Sony’s Gran Turismos to shame. Coupled with a day/night cycle that adjusted itself according to your Dreamcast’s internal clock and a fantastic soundtrack by videogame composer par excellence Richard Jacques, this game no doubt caught Microsoft’s attention and lined up the Liverpool studio for their next title.
Project Gotham Racing was the game in question and just happened to be one of the launch titles for Microsoft’s Xbox alongside Halo, Amped & DOA3. It was the second best selling launch title behind Master Chief’s debut, many gamers (myself included) choosing it over the other games available. It ratcheted up all the features found in MSR to the next level with higher fidelity graphics, a licensed soundtrack & many more cars. Despite the name there’s no Batman tie-in here, the Gotham of the title referring to New York’s prominence in the game.
PGR was followed in late 2003 by a sequel, innovatively named Project Gotham Racing 2. This was more of the same (no bad thing), only now incorporated with online multiplayer via Xbox Live that just happened to be more addictive than KFC batter coated crack. I realised that I was playing too much when I stopped playing one night and even the kebab shops in the next road were closed so I had to go to bed hungry. Not that it mattered. All I wanted to do was play some more. But I had a job so I had to go to sleep. This game also marked the first appearance of a future addiction, hidden away in a corner of the car garages on an unassuming arcade cabinet. It just happened to contain Geometry Wars (more on that later).
Fast forward to the winter of 2005 and the launch of the Xbox 360 (so much for the conventional console lifecycle eh?) and Bizarre once again provided a standout game available from the outset for another Microsoft console. When you consider the other games released at the time, PGR3 is the only one that’s really stood the test of time, graphically at least. Initially I was ambivalent about the 360, but seeing this game running on a huge telly was all the persuasion I needed to put myself in debt again and buy it. A far better soundtrack than the previous two incarnations did away with the needless radio stations unique to each city, doubtless due to licensing costs. Again, Geometry Wars made an appearance, this time in it’s Retro Evolved incarnation.
Microsoft’s fledgling Xbox Live Arcade scheme needed titles and an early favourite soon became the standalone version of Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, still priced to this day at 400MSP. The pricing alone stood out from the crowd and it soon became an essential purchase. The high TrueAchievement ratio is proof of the stiff challenge the game presents, my haul only being three of the twelve. I really must remedy that sometime.
|Boom Boom Rocket
A mixture of the PS2 tech-demo/game Fantavision and one of the less inspiring Eye Toy sub-games, Boom Boom Rocket sees you tapping buttons, rhythm action-style, to detonate fireworks. If that sounds uninspiring, that’s probably because it is, but at least Bizarre had the good sense to set the whole thing to classical music rather than some awful Euro-pop nonsense. So that’s something, right?
Their next release in 2007 was another XBLA offering Boom Boom Rocket, this time published by Electronic Arts. At the time I didn’t give it a fair crack of the whip, writing it off as a half-baked hybrid between Guitar Hero & Dance Dance Revolution. One person who didn’t was our very own Rich. A patch was released allowing use of the now ubiquitous plastic guitar controller, no doubt as a result of the Activision buyout that same year.
The fourth and final installment of the Project Gotham series followed the same year, which continued in much the same vein as PGR3, only this time with stunning dynamic weather and motorbikes. The latter were pretty difficult to control, but proved an entertaining diversion from the usual overpowered Top Gear test track fare. A slew of cleverly thought out achievements added to the package including my favourite ‘Tonight Make Me Unstoppable’ in which you had to listen to a particular Bloc Party track and finish a race in second (I think). Not quite sure why, but it felt fresh compared to the usual driving game fare. Of course, we had another GW appearance in the garages, this time in its Waves incarnation.
Geometry Wars made the leap to Nintendo consoles in the autumn of 2007 in the form of GW Galaxies on the DS & Wii. You’ll forgive me if I give them scant attention ’cause it was a case of nice idea, wrong console from my point of view.
2008 brought the release of The Club, something of a departure from driving games, being as it was an against-the-clock third person score attack shooter. Various stereotypes competed in a tournament across a slew of locations ranging from a labyrinthine mansion to a crumbling ocean liner. For whatever reason, Activision didn’t release the game, publishing duties falling to Sega who didn’t really promote the game at all. In fact I picked it up on launch day for £20. I was glad I did as I was rewarded with a challenging game that sometimes feels harsh, but at the same time doesn’t feel like a chore. Multiplayer was an altogether different manner, seemingly populated by low-lifes who brought a new meaning to the adage ‘never play with randoms’. Now is a different matter, games usually being populated by Achievement whores who’re boosting the game.
Later in 2008 came what many may consider to be Bizarre’s crowning glory, the utterly superb XBLA game Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2 (gasp). It took everything that was good about the original and expanded on it several times over. Six different game modes made an appearance including Evolved, Pacifism (a personal favourite) and Waves (as introduced in PGR4) . Coupled with addictive gameplay, fantastic friends list scoreboards and imaginative achievements (for example Wax On/Off where you had to circumnavigate the perimeter rubbing the walls the whole way), this is to XBLA in 2008 what Chime was two years later. Nothing less than essential.
All of which brings us to 2010 and a handheld gaming landscape transformed by the emergence of iOS devices as a viable gaming platform. Naturally, a version of Geometry Wars arrived for Apple’s dominant smartphones / geek toys and proceeded to sell enough copies to fill Kotick’s bath with yet more money/tank horribly and give Activision’s shareholders coronaries at this aberration on their balance sheet*.
*I’d check, only any kind of reliable sales figures for iThing apps are seemingly hard to come by unless they’re for Cut The Rope or Angry Frakkin Birds.
The studio’s penultimate game was the arcade racer, Blur, released a few months after a well supported multiplayer beta, yet for whatever reason didn’t perform to their parent companies expectations and along with their final game (more on that later) was cited as a reason for the prospective sale of Bizarre to any interested suitors. Check our review here for a little more detail on what we thought, but essentially it was the guts of the PGR series on somewhat more fantastical race circuits that would be more at home in Burnout et al. Lazy reviewers might well have called it Mario Kart with real cars and they’d not be far wrong, most power-ups having an equivalent in Nintendo’s evergreen series.
|007: Blood Stone
A strictly blaverage re-telling of Casino Royale (not that they’d admit it) that mixes the clunky third-person combat of The Club – albeit without the nifty scoring mechanics – with the stiff driving style of PGR. The unforgiving driving sections are somewhat complicated by Hollywood-style devastation and more shit hitting your windscreen than a trip to a safari park. That said, by the worst aspect of the game was the fact that Bond doesn’t sound anything like Daniel Craig, despite actually being voiced by him.
Their final game was the much maligned 007: Blood Stone, purported to be a brand new standalone continuation of the Bond canon, but as Rich observes wasn’t up to much. See our review here. The awkward blend of third person shooting and PGR-style driving didn’t mesh particularly well and the game pretty much tanked at retail, which along with less than stellar sales figures of Blur no doubt contributed to Activision’s decision to attempt to sell off the studio in November 2010.
Sadly no buyers came forward and the studio closed its doors in February 2011. There is however light at the end of the tunnel. Since the studio’s closure two studios have been formed by ex-Bizarre employees: Lucid Games & Hogrocket, the latter featuring Steven Cakebread who created Geometry Wars.
I leave you with a short lament from a friend who loved the PGR series more than anyone else I know.
RIP Bizarre Creations, their demise is a great loss to the industry. Never before had a developer managed to make a racing series that so finely sat in the middle ground between sim and arcade racer, balancing the scoring aspects of arcade racing and forgiving handling model, whilst still requiring accuracy and cornering skill to go fast. And just who else is going to make those infuriating yet horribly addictive cone challenges, one of the few things that’s ever made me throw a controller in rage? Or push me to try and gain every single platinum medal across the entire series, spending hundreds of hours playing. No other racing series, or indeed, any series has ever hooked me quite so thoroughly as PGR, and it’s creators closure shall be much mourned, even if their new overlords led them down a different path, for whilst there are rumours of a new PGR, they’ve got a tough act to follow, and one I suspect they can not top. Nor can one forget Geometry Wars simplistic beauty, brought to the world by PGR too of course, before it’s recognition and promotion to standalone brilliance, I just hope Activision don’t try and run that into the ground. At least it’s creator has now gone on independently, so there is some hope for the future.
This guy maxed PGR3 & PGR4 and I’ve rarely if ever beaten him online from PGR2 onwards. He’s also so laid back that for a game to induce controller rage is pretty unheard of.
We’ll miss you Bizarre, gawd bless you and all who sailed in you.