It is notorious as one of the worst game compilations ever and even spawned an annual competition for deliberately awful games.But just how bad was the infamous Cascade Cassette 50, and was it actually a success for its publishers? I chatted to Cascade boss, Guy Wilhelmy to find out...
Cascade Games Limited officially began life in 1983 as an amalgamation of two companies that Guy Wilhelmy had been trading: Cascade and UTS (which stood for Ulrich Technical Services, Ulrich being Guy’s middle name). It was the year before, however, when work had begun on the infamous compilation.
“I started on the first Cassette 50 in 1982 from my kitchen table at home in Harrogate,” begins Guy, “and designed the artwork before finding a graphic artist to convey my ideas into advertisement-standard copy. I had no money and was trying hold down a regular day job, so it was quite a frightening step!”
This was the physical beginning of Cassette 50 – a compilation of 50 games that boasted “out of this world value” on advertisements that would run from 1983 until – amazingly - 1987. The compilation originated on the Apple II where Guy programmed all bar one of the games himself, and ended up on a huge breadth of systems from the Atari 800 to the ZX81. But what prompted him to come up with the original idea? “We’d have to go back all the way to 1978 when I was writing single games for a really early micro computer called the Exidy Sorcerer,” Guy recalls, “and it had always annoyed me that a five minute cassette was nearly the same price as a forty-five minute one; as a result I nearly always used full length cassettes before having the idea of putting more and more games on each cassette to use up the extra tape.” There was of course, an inevitable downside to this, as Guy admits. “Yes, as the quantity of the games went up, the quality had to come down because there just wasn’t enough time to spend on each game.Therefore, in 1982, Cassette 50 became the natural development of this idea as I wanted a product that had so many titles on it that no-one else would try and compete.”
A Field of One
At this point in time, compilations in general were a relatively unknown idea. Publishers released as many single games as possible just to stay in business and the idea of collecting them together to sell as one would have been anathema to most companies, regardless of the quality of the games. And so Cassette 50 was in a field of one and became something of a novelty – a novelty that was soon to pay off for Guy Wilhelmy and Cascade. Part of this success was the porting of the games to other formats in as quick as time as possible.
“Well, porting as such hadn’t been invented at the time but it was killing me staying up all night writing software and then having to work at my job during the day,” continues Guy, “so I built a logic interface to connect the Apple directly to the keyboard of each target micro. Each game took about five minutes to transfer and then only required small changes to the graphic interface to run.” The games’ simplicity became a distinct advantage at this point – they all ran in BASIC and as each computer could understand the rudimentary language, this process was made remarkably simple.“Indeed, machine code differences would have been too great,” says Guy, “and as this method was initially used on the Atari, Oric, Lynx, BBC and Dragon computers, we simply wouldn’t have had time to adapt the code to each machine.” In addition to this, Guy made sure all the original Apple games were written in a standard form taking into account the likely differences between formats. “Mainly this was graphics and sound,” he says, “and it was a lot of work – but I was determined to make it a success.”
Expanding Cassette 50
Even with his self-invented time-saving device, Guy needed help from others with Nigel Stevens assisting with the tiny games required for the ZX81 cassette and Damon Redmond (amongst others) on the Atari 800 version – in addition to minor contributions from third party programmers. In the end it took Guy and Cascade almost a year to complete Cassette 50 for the eight most popular micro computers of the day. Despite this, there were a couple of machines that caused a few headaches: “I can’t recall where the problem lay with the VIC-20 – it may have been to do with my interface having compatibility issues - but its Cassette 50 marked the point where Cascade began to advertise and buy in games from third parties,” states Guy, “and the Spectrum was a pain as well because all the games had to be re-written due to the quirky keyboard on that micro.” As the years rolled on, Cascade regularly updated the games on each computer’s cassette, as well as the new formats for which the compilation was appearing (such as the Commodore 64). This sounded good in theory but presented one major problem for Cascade. “The master tapes were a major headache,” Guy recalls with a shudder, “every time there was a small change to one game, the whole master tape had to be re-made and these were audio, not digital tapes. Not a lot of fun.”
Cassette 50 was also unusual in that it was sold mail-order only. “I just thought it wasn’t a natural product for high street retail,” Guy explains, “although we did distribute in bulk through WH Smiths, Currys and others, usually when they were making a big promotional offer. They seemed to love Cassette 50!” Mainly, however, the compilation was sold via mail-order of which Guy estimates forty percent of sales went overseas. These sales all came of course, from the famous Cascade advertisement which varied little over four years with its effusive claims of amazing value and astounding gaming delights, long before Codemasters had cornered the market in the overuse of superlatives. “I gave a highly specific brief to my graphic artist who was a freelancer living in Harrogate,” says Guy, “and listed all the components I wanted in the advert: planets, rockets, aliens etc and stipulated that it must be very punchy and appealing.”
Better Watch out
It certainly was that and slowly Cassette 50 became the heart of Cascade and the product upon which everything else depended. “We spent around £40,000 developing and launching ACE [a flight simulator that became a critical and commercial hit for Cascade]”, says Guy, “and all that invested capital came from Cassette 50. It’s difficult to be precise but taking into account bulk deals to retailers and distributors, Cassette 50 sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Even today this would be considered a success; back in the Eighties it was just unheard of.”
With sales of Cassette 50 finally beginning to dip, Guy hit upon another unique idea to prolong its life. “I realised at some point that Cascade had become a marketing company rather than a software house and most of the profits were being ploughed back into advertising to keep the company at the forefront,” explains Guy, “and I noticed that kids – particularly boys – were fascinated by the concept of a digital watch that incorporated a calculator.So I just had this crazy idea that we should give away a watch that retailed for £15 away free with a £9.95 compilation and after using a spread-sheet for the first time to crunch the numbers took a massive commercial decision.” This represented a huge calculated (sorry!) risk for Cascade but it was one that paid off as sales of Cassette 50 rose on the back of the calculator watch giveaway. “And at one stage,” concludes Guy, “we were taking up the entire output of a watch factory in Hong Kong!”
Cassette 50 in the 21st Century
Given the time that has passed since, the opinion on Cassette 50 and the community that has built up around it, how does Guy feel about the perception of the compilation today? “Well, it’s a bit of a shame that some feel it wasn’t the best, but it was really a creature of its time and was good value for money back then, considering the original versions came out in 1983.” And at this point we bravely mention the competition that Cassette 50 has inspired (see below). “Like I said that’s a shame, but it doesn’t bother me and I still think it was good value, especially when the watch was added in Also, others were busy copying and ripping off games and if the titles on Cassette 50 had been of a much better quality I am sure this would have happened more often and the games would have required some sort of protection.” It’s obvious that with so many games on one cassette, this would have been impractical and Guy adds: “Eventually I decided not to fight the copycats in court but instead out-gun them with bigger and better adverts – and it worked!” Bearing this in mind, does he have any favourites from the compilation? “Well, I always remember fondly a game called Lunar Lander,” says Guy, but he struggles to come up with any other names, perhaps confirming the nature of most of the games that appeared on Cassette 50.
Looking back, it’s obvious now that Cassette 50 played a much larger role in not only providing funds for other projects, but also as a promotional tool for Cascade. I concluded by asking Guy how he sees the compilation’s role in hindsight. “That’s a tricky question;I suppose in reality it was both a blessing and a curse.I had created a monster on one hand that just wouldn’t lie down; then, on the other hand it sold consistently well for over five years at a time when the lifespan of most computer games was measured in weeks.Cassette 50 managed to outlive them all!”
Ultimately, the compilation may not have been the greatest selection of games, but certainly most gamers from the 80s will have known all about it and it has undeniably left a mark on the history of videogames, for one reason or the other. “I think I’m proud of it,” notes Guy reflectively, “but judging by some of its critics, perhaps I should try and remain most humble!”
The Crap Games Competition
“It was back in early 1996 and someone had just uploaded a .tap file for the whole of Cassette 50 to a ZX Spectrum site that I helped organise.”says Lee Tonks, organiser of the inaugural Spectrum Crap Games Competition. “Everyone then remembered it a little more fondly than they should have and enjoyed laughing about it again. So I flippantly suggested we should do a new one and so the Crap Games Competition was born.” Lee grins as he recalls the qualifications for entry. “The game had to be a bad idea to start with, poorly implemented and annoying in the extreme to have a chance of winning!” So who was the ultimate winner of the first competition? “A guy called Alan Moore won it with a game called Anthea Turner’s National Lottery Simulator, with the reader’s vote going to Iain Scrimgeour’s Dark Room Simulator – a text adventure simulating being stuck in a darkened room!” But what are Lee’s thoughts on the original compilation from Cascade? “Well, what there is to say? The fact they gave away a free digital watch speaks volumes, doesn’t it?”
The Crap Games Competition is still going strong today.You can check it out at www.worldofspectrum.org
Matthew Lewis wrote game number 45, Galaxy Defence which was one of the few third party games on the ZX Spectrum version of Cassette 50. “I was 14 at the time, and saw an ad in our local paper asking for Spectrum games. I don’t think it even had a company name on it, but I’d written this game so off it went.” Matthew didn’t hear anything for a couple of months before a cheque for £10 popped through his letterbox.So what happened next? “Nothing,” he says, “no letter telling me what Cascade were going to do, no free copy of the game, nothing.” In fact, Matthew only eventually realised his game was on sale at all when he received a letter from a Galaxy Defence fan in the West Country. Yet most importantly, what does he think of it now? “I downloaded it and it’s worse than I remembered.In the words of my nine-year-old son: “It’s a bit rubbish Dad!”” Guy Wilhelmy gave us this response to Matthew’s story: “I’m sorry Matthew felt a bit neglected and I wished we’d had more time to stop and think, but everything was moving at such a fast pace and actually cash was always very tight because of our massive advertising spend. At its peak I think we were spending around £250,000 a year on advertising!”
Many thanks to Mark Green for allowing permission to use excerpts from his blog www.pixelatron.com/blog
Cassette 50: The Bad, the Worse and the Ugly
I delved through the full range of games on the ZX Spectrum version to find the best – and worst – of Cassette 50
The Bad: Believe it or not, there are several games on Cassette 50 that could be enjoyed by a forgiving Spectrum gamer. First up I recommend Voyager a high-speed shooter with echoes of Jeff Minter; then there’s Matthew Lewis’ Galaxy Defence which boasts graphics well in advance of the majority of the in-house efforts. Cargo is an okay but limited helicopter game and Mystical Diamonds at least offers 5 different levels compared to the mass of one-screen efforts. Best of the bunch by a considerable distance, however, is Spectrum Cross, a Frogger clone with surprisingly good graphics and decent playability and was another third-party game, this time from Stuart Nicholls.
The Worse: Of course, there’s plenty of stuff you’d want to avoid as well: The Race promises Daley Thompson’s Decathlon-style keyboard-bashing but is in fact a simplistic betting game; Field is an atrocious, empty, one-screen game where you have to avoid the farmer’s dog and an invisible minefield (!) and Barrel Jump is not only laughably shallow but also frustratingly unplayable thanks to its use of the Spectrum’s random feature.
The Ugly: Inferno and Attacker both offer nothing in gameplay in addition to horrible blocky non-graphics. There are further examples but I won't labour the point….
This article originally appeared in issue 2 of Pixel Nation Magazine. Thanks for reading!