How two twins and an egg took on Nintendo's Super Mario
Straight outta Blighty.
When you think of NES games, a legendary pair of brothers always springs to mind — Mario and Luigi.
But another fraternal duo, the Oliver twins — Andrew and Philip — should be equally lauded for making the 8-bit gaming system synonymous with addictive side-scrolling platformers. They created the British answer to Super Mario Bros., 1991’s Fantastic Dizzy, which also featured fast side-scrolling gameplay, cartoony characters and fairytale worlds. Unlike Mario, Dizzy had riddles, inventories, a Zelda-like RPG story, and a LOT of egg-based puns.
The creation of the 12th Dizzy iteration (the series began in 1987) is a uniquely British story that shows the sharp distinctions between the video games market in Blighty compared to the US. The UK’s gaming scene in the 1980s was largely homebrew. Until the Oliver twins created Dizzy, they worked from their parents’ house.
The twins won a national game-creation competition in 1983, and subsequently made a wager with their parents: Give us a year to code, and we’ll earn more than you. If they failed, they would have to attend university, in the days before computer programming degrees.
Soon after, Andrew and Philip met two other teenage brothers, Richard and David Darling, who had set up a software firm called Codemasters. The quartet agreed to join forces to produce the Olivers’ games, which included a platformer called Super Robin Hood, the Operation Wolf-style shooter Ghost Hunters and, most successfully, the Dizzy series.
The previous 11 Dizzy games were made for cassette-based computers, such as the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad or Commodore 64, were sold at high street department stores like Woolworths. Retailing at around £3 ($1.50 in 1990), margins on these games were so slim that even buying a stamp to reply to fan mail meant they became unprofitable. Despite their low price tag, these games didn’t cut corners in terms of quality. It took a trip to the US for the Olivers to realize Dizzy’s full potential.
“We’re looking at them going: ‘All of our games are better than that!’”
“People said we had rock-star lifestyles,” Philip tells Inverse on a joint Zoom call with his twin, Andrew. “But no rock star coded the number of hours we did, trust me. So we didn’t get out much. Going to shops then didn’t really show you how big the market was. But it was quite nice that our games were on the shelves. It wasn’t really that big an industry. It felt small, a boutique thing. So we got quite a shock when we went to America.”
The twins arrived at the glitzy CES trade show in Las Vegas and were blown away by the money involved in promoting the NES, which was selling millions of games priced around $45 each. The Olivers immediately realized they could program games for the Nintendo console, as it was very similar to the Commodore 64 they were already familiar with.
"We’re looking at them going: ‘All of our games are better than that!'” Philip recalls.
“Not better,” interrupts Andrew. “But we could definitely get there. We could definitely do similar games. I don’t want to take away from the fact that Mario and Zelda, they’re very nice games.”
“We were looking at Mario thinking ‘you've sold 21 million copies of this?! How on Earth?,” says Philip. “We could write that.”
Moving up in the world
The Oliver twins’ ambitions for Fantastic Dizzy prompted them to move from their bedrooms into Codemasters offices. (For a while, they lived in temporary portacabins while the offices were built.) Now, they had a whole team to work with, including Gavin Raeburn who did the tremendous Fantastic Dizzy music and later went on to found Forza-maker Playground Games.
From there, they established working patterns, and a social life too. They also went to the pub more often, which was one of the reasons the game took longer to finish than the previous ones.
Despite having a bit more fun with it all, the twins still took Fantastic Dizzy very seriously, approaching game development like a Hollywood blockbuster in a way that was decades ahead of its time.
Their approach to storytelling was inspired by an oft-cited aphorism from film director Steven Spielberg, who said all his films started with a reality, usually a family scene, and then went into the extraordinary. This is a common feature of the Olivers’ games. You might control a walking (and swimming) egg but this is a gameworld that is recognizable to anyone familiar with fairy tales and nursery rhymes. In the end they did make a game to match Mario and Zelda, with Fantastic Dizzy winning the 1991 award for best NES graphic adventure from one of the biggest US magazines at the time, Game Players.
Philip says keeping the audience in mind throughout the development process was a key to the success of the Dizzy franchise.
“We were more successful than a lot of 8-bit programmers because a lot of them were tech geeks and wanted to show off to their peers. Right from the start we were thinking about the market and the audience,” he explains. “The games were played by kids. Once people got to 17 or 18, they’re down the pub. So when devising the puzzles for Dizzy we never wanted to make them too hard, and we always wanted to make them linked to stuff an eight-year-old would know.”
The Olivers faced one substantial hurdle in making these homegrown games appeal to US consumers: Codemasters was used to making tapes with cheap imagery and keeping costs low. But NES cartridges could cost $15+ to manufacture, with a long lead time. The UK firm was skittish after historic flops like ET on the Atari 2600, which many industry observers held to be the death knell of the video games industry.
Codemasters’ answer was the Aladdin Deck Enhancer. This large 'hopper' accessory was essentially an adaptor that allowed gamers to play Codeys-made games on Nintendo’s console. The ADE kept cartridge costs down because it replicated many of the chips that came with all NES games.
The ADE was a quintessential early 90s Codemasters product: it made bold claims (enhanced graphics), promised a lot (a library of 24 games, but only seven were released) and was legally dubious (Nintendo was furious).
“They were pretty good games,” says Andrew.
“Yeah, very good games,” agrees Philip. “They even did four games on one little ROM chip for $12.99, whereas the traditional price of any Nintendo games was still $35-$40.”
Fantastic Dizzy, Adventure Dizzy and Micro Machines were the best games released on this format through Canadian rights publisher Camerica, which sold Codemasters’ games in North America. Nintendo took legal action over the ADE’s legality but lost. ADE games were hawked stateside on the Home Shopping Network, a far harder sell than Brits are used to.
“They did these half-hour adverts,” explains Andrew. “Where they just sort of grind you down! One of the reasons why Dizzy went down well on TV was it was considered wholesome.”
In the end, legal issues between Nintendo and Codemasters caused subsequent Oliver and Codemasters NES games to be delayed and even abandoned. Which meant that their most Mario-like game, Dreamworld Pogie, was ditched only to resurface in 2016 after being crowdfunded. The twins set up Blitz Games and even produced a Reservoir Dogs shooter, despite never producing an official version of Dizzy for a Nintendo console.
But with time on their hands due to the Coronavirus lockdown, the Olivers recently got to work on Fast Food Dizzy for the Switch. The game, which does not yet have a firm release date, will allow Nintendo users to create their own maps and riffs on Pac Man. They hope that Fast Food will endear a whole new generation to Dizzy’s universe.
“Dizzy finally officially gets approved by Nintendo!” Andrew triumphantly shouts.
8-Bit Week is an Inverse celebration of the classic — and forgotten — games that pushed the boundaries of interactive entertainment in the 1980s and beyond.