Combat Crazy: The Genesis of Bizarre Creations

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The late Bizarre Creations is, it’s fair to say, a developer that a lot of people have very fond memories of. And for a variety of reasons.

2021 marks the tenth anniversary of their unceremonious closure at the hands of Activision after the disappointing (to Activision) commercial performance of their excellent “powered-up racing” title Blur. And so I thought it was high time we paid them tribute.

Over the course of this ongoing MegaFeature, we’ll look at Bizarre Creations’ complete back catalogue, stretching from the company’s roots back in the Commodore 64 days, all the way through its classic racing titles on sixth- and seventh-generation consoles, and onwards to its sad demise ten years ago. You might be surprised at some of the lesser-known titles these Liverpool lads put out during their time in the business — and I’m sure we’re all sorry they’re no longer around today. So let’s get started by taking a trip right back to the very beginning.

As with many developers that have weathered the numerous storms of the games industry over time, the company we know today as Bizarre Creations wasn’t initially known by that name — and, like many development outfits in the 8-bit microcomputer era, was a bit of a “bedroom developer” affair.

Powerslave Developments, as the company was known at the time, was set up by Martyn Chudley in the mid-1980s shortly after he left sixth form college — and while he was still very much a fan of Iron Maiden, as the name might suggest. Chudley was initially joined in his venture by a school friend, and the pair decided to put out a game for the popular Commodore 64 home computer.

That first game was Combat Crazy, and was published by Silverbird in 1988. Silverbird was a budget-centric label of Telecomsoft, and Telecomsoft was a division of British Telecom, the UK’s national telecommunications provider in the ’80s; what a strange time in tech history it was. Silverbird typically put out titles around the £1.99-£2.99 mark for 8-bit home computers, and focused mostly on original straight-to-budget titles rather than rereleases of previously full-price games. Combat Crazy was a prime example of this former category.

Looking back on the release of Combat Crazy, Chudley recalls that it was a “total commercial failure” that led to his friend abandoning the Powerslave Developments venture in order to get a “real” job, but he didn’t allow the experience to discourage him. The game itself was solid, after all, and he had clearly developed something of a taste for both game design and computer programming. Indeed, on his modern SmugMug website, Chudley notes that he will likely always class himself as a “computer programmer” despite his new-found love for photography and image creation.

We’ll look more about Chudley’s journey deeper into the depths of the games industry and the subsequent formation of Bizarre Creations as we continue this feature; for now, let’s take a look specifically at Combat Crazy.

Combat Crazy gets off to an immediately confusing start by referring to itself as Warbringer on its title screen, but one is quickly distracted from such trifling matters by the stirring soundtrack — a fine demonstration of the Commodore 64’s legendary SID chip, which is still well-loved by chiptune musicians today for its flexibility and ability to output a wide variety of weird and wonderful synthesised noises.

Said title theme is a relatively early work from Jeroen Tel, one half of the computer music group Maniacs of Noise, who had formed the previous year. Tel would later go on to become a prolific composer for a variety of computer, console and mobile platforms over the years, but his most iconic work will always be from his Commodore 64 years, where his talent was considered on a par with other chiptune giants of the era such as Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway, Ben Daglish and Chris Huelsbeck. And while Combat Crazy itself is not the most well-known title from among the Commodore 64’s vast library of games — particularly in its crowded “straight to budget” sector — its main theme is regarded by many as one of Tel’s most popular works.

Once you’ve had your fill of the auditory massage that is listening to a bit of SID chip music, it’s straight into the game proper; back in the 8-bit microcomputer era, both memory and storage space were at an absolute premium, so introductory sequences or any form of narrative context for games were pretty rare. Game plots, such as they were, tended to be confined to the back of the cassette inlay and perhaps a paragraph or two in the manual if you were lucky — and they tended not to matter all that much, since this was very much an era where mechanics were king.

In Combat Crazy, you take on the role of the last remaining soldier of a platoon that had been sent on a mission to defeat an enemy known only as “Warbringer”. And there’s still a long journey between you and your foe: before the final showdown, you’ll need to traverse a tropical rainforest, an underground labyrinth and Warbringer’s fortress itself — and just to add insult to injury, once you’re victorious, you’re expected to get all the way back too.

What this means in practice is that you need to make your way through three enormous levels, forcibly insert numerous pieces of lead into various orifices of Warbringer’s body, then proceed back through those three levels in reverse before you can finally get the opportunity for some much-needed R&R and trauma counselling. With this being a Commodore 64 game, the more likely outcome is, of course, that your life will reach a premature end through being riddled with bullets, impaled on spikes, drowned, burnt up in lava, blown up by clockwork turtles or any number of other weird and wonderful ways to die.

Combat Crazy unfolds as a side-scrolling platformer in which the path to the next level is anything but straightforward; this most certainly isn’t a simple “left to right” side-scroller. Each level has a very “open” feel to it, but the path you should proceed along is always made abundantly clear by signposts with arrows on them. You don’t have to follow the arrows if you don’t want to, but they offer a reliable means of figuring out if you are at least heading vaguely in the right direction — essential when you consider that these levels twist and turn all over the place, requiring that you seemingly double back on yourself numerous times before reaching the end point. And you’d better hope you found two of the three bomb pieces hidden in the level; without them, you won’t be able to blow the gate to the next area and proceed!

As you explore, you’ll encounter numerous enemies which can usually be blown away with a shot or two from your machine gun. This has infinite ammunition under most circumstances, but blowing up oil drums around the level can sometimes reveal power-ups with limited shots. The “P” power-up increases the power of your shots, making it easier to defeat enemies that would otherwise require multiple hits to kill, while the “A” power-up provides rapid auto-fire, allowing you to shoot and deal damage much more quickly than under normal circumstances. You also have access to a limited number of grenades, which can be thrown using a rather clumsy “crouch and hold then release the fire button” system; these aren’t especially useful in the heat of combat, but can be handy in blowing up land mines and other obstacles that are normally fatal to the touch.

Aside from a number of instant death traps — the aforementioned spikes, lava pits, clockwork turtles and land mines — Combat Crazy keeps things relatively friendly to the player by providing a lengthy health bar, multiple lives, occasional invincibility power-ups in the oil drums and two credits allowing you to continue. Make no mistake, this is still a challenging game where completing even the first level is a significant achievement; it simply doesn’t feel obscenely unfair like many other games from the era.

The Commodore 64’s strengths are brought to the forefront with colourful, detailed visuals and beautifully smooth scrolling in all directions. Sound effects are a little limited and there’s no music during gameplay, which is a bit of a shame — but also nothing unusual for games from the era. In many cases both developers and players found it preferable to have good audible feedback from gameplay rather than an elaborate backing track — plus the difference between the rich audio of the title screen and the sparse sound during gameplay helps mark a hard divide between active “game time” and downtime between attempts.

It’s a pity that Combat Crazy didn’t enjoy much commercial success back in the day, because it’s a solid, well-designed game. It’s fairly likely that its rather generic title and premise put people off from investigating it further back in the day; had the core mechanics been transplanted to a more imaginative setting and narrative context, it may well have ended up being more successful and widely remembered than it is, because its enormous and interesting levels, responsive controls and enjoyable gameplay make for a fun time.

As it stands, Combat Crazy is well worth giving a shot today; while its presentation is obviously somewhat dated by modern standards, the overall slickness of the experience is a potent reminder that the humble Commodore 64 was — and is — capable of great things. Its smooth scrolling, excellent sound and solid sprite handling played a big part in ensuring that for a very long time, Europe seemed much more interested in home computers than in games consoles — after all, why would you buy an NES if you had a perfectly solid games machine where you could also type FOR I=1 to 50:PRINT “FARTS”:NEXT I for hours of fun?

Next up, we hit the 16-bit era, when Chudley and the group that would become Bizarre Creations would really start Raising Hell…

This article is one chapter of a MegaFeature!
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