Quite possibly one of the strangest goings on behind a Ocean release, coming in the form of the rather bizarre release of Operation Thunderbolt.
It all stems back to Zzap! 64, and issue 57 in particular. Zzap reviewed the game and it seems that it wasn’t complete either. This was confirmed by Paul Hughes, one of the game’s eventual programmers for the final version that was released. Zzap reviewed a half complete version which wasn’t that playable, it just looked bloody good with the sprite multiplexing.
One of the reviewers, Robin Hogg, explained that the review may have been written through “Rose Tinted Specs” at the time. Either way, the game got a rather undeserved high mark, when it wasn’t that particularly great after all.
Paul confirmed that the version seen by Zzap was being coded by junior programmer, Trevor Brown. Apparently the game looked really good but never moved that much. After struggling badly and not progressing much further, Paul and a team including Richard Palmer and Johnny Meegan had to write the game from scratch in no more than 12 days. Incredible, and possibly even more incredible that even though the game wasn’t great, it was written in this time. Trevor Brown was sadly let go in the end.
Most of the music and graphics were reused from the original (with some modifications and simplifications in places), and just coding was done from scratch. The sprites in particular were much more detailed and larger in Trevor’s version, but were possibly too large/detailed to be usable in a busy game like Operation Thunderbolt, hence the issues.
Artist Brian Flanagan, revealed that the game was around 60% complete from around a 6 month period overall. He suggests that a deal was struck by Ocean with Zzap for them to give the game a good mark in exchange for Zzap obtaining exclusive access to one of their big up and coming games. It seems that Trevor’s demo was shown to the Zzap reviewers, and it was deemed good enough to be passed off as a good game from the rolling demos and was therefore “reviewed”.
Robin Hogg however knew nothing of any deal being struck, and feels they just reviewed what they felt was a good game. It was a blip on their normally high standard reviews, but it seems that in the background there was promotions involved for the up and coming Batman licence. You can read Robin’s side of the story also in the “Creator Speaks” page, as well as details from Brian Flanagan.
To be honest, it seems that the guys allocated to the project should not have been in the first place. It was too big a project for two people just starting out in the industry. Had there been someone more senior on the project to supervise and help, Trevor may
well have got the game out and could have established himself at Ocean. In the end, the struggle was too much and it was not to be.
Trevor moved on to pastures new, and has yet to be tracked down to talk about this game and give his side of the story. We would be interested to hear from Trevor and find out more, so if you are out there Trevor, please get in touch!
Of course, it is the controversy over the Zzap score which people will remember more than anything. We would love to get hold of the demos that Trevor produced to see exactly what Zzap saw back at the time and reviewed. Can you help us find them?
Contributions: Paul Hughes, Robin Hogg, Brian Flanagan, Paul Koller, Stephen Stuttard, Ross Sillifant
NOTE: Comments made here are not those of GTW, but by the developers themselves.
Brian Flanagan answers questions about work on Operation Thunderbolt V1…
1) How did you get assigned to the game and what parts did you do?
I was assigned to OT as my first project after being hired at ocean. Before that, I did “work experience” at ocean during my final year of high school, I did a few sprites on operation wolf, learning a lot of stuff from Steve Wahid, John Meegan and Simon Butler.
2) What was the first version really like, was it playable at all?
Barely, if not at all, it was more like a rolling demo of soldiers sliding about, and not much else, the 3D sections weren’t very nice, or pretty!
3) Zzap seems to have seen/played something a heck of a lot better than the released game, what has made them see this potential “Zzap Sizzler” from just a static demo?
They were promised an exclusive preview of another game, for a later issue in return for a favourable review, pretty much the same way publishers bribe / coerce magazines today, nothing new or shocking, It’s not as harsh as the “Give our crap game a good review or we pull advertising” tactic, but it’s still sad.
4) How complete was the game before Trevor was taken off the project?
He’d been on it for a while before I got there (possibly a few months), and in all honesty, they should have got someone on the project to bail him out, I had no idea that the game was so unfinished, being a teenage newbie graphics artist straight out of high school, who also got little to no support, Kind of dumb really.. we were just left to our own devices.
If you want a figure I’d say between 50-60% complete
5) What was Trevor like to work with, and did he work on anything else?
In all honesty, Trev was a nice guy, his programming skills weren’t amazing, but he was a nice guy, he was also treated pretty harshly because he was black, and ridiculed in a pretty, actually.. no VERY racist manner by a fair few members of staff.
No, OT was his last project at ocean, but he once showed up with a bunch of programmers at Warthog one day, not sure why.
To sum up, The game shouldn’t have been helmed by 2 “newbies”. We should have been filling in support duties for another programmer and artist, still.. I guess that’s what producers are for nowadays.
Robin Hogg speaks to GTW about the review of Operation Thunderbolt V1…
I had a feeling Batman would probably be involved somewhere, it was THE game of the time. There was a big launch at Ocean HQ when all and sundry journalists arrived at Manchester. From what I remember, that day involved previewing a number of games including Batman, but it’s news to me that something had been ‘arranged’ with regard to the review.
We got the game and reviewed it, it got a good review and that was it, can’t recall if the Amiga version was in the same issue but that wasn’t as good from what I recall (good 3D scenes I recall but I preferred the C64 version).
Sure we used to discuss forthcoming games with the publishers and how we can make best use of the preview/review in the forthcoming issue (eg Terminator 2 involved a cover tape, lead review, visit to Ocean, interviews with programmers) but a deal involving good reviews for future work does appear a step too far. Hand on heart I can’t say 100% that something like this didn’t go on, but I don’t recall being involved, and despite it being 15+ years ago, I would say that I should be able to remember things like this deal being made.
I can’t say/recall any more on this unless Phil King or Stuart can comment…
Paul Hughes speaks to GTW about work on Operation Thunderbolt V1…
“Oh boy – Yeah I wrote a whole bunch of games – I can shed some light on that one… Here goes…
The original version that appeared in Zzap was a version of the game by a junior programmer called Trevor Brown, it was a total blag as all the raster splits for the sprites were carefully positioned to show nice big sprites but they could barely move! It looked good in screenshots but was totally bogus; a tonne of code that did nothing.
So, Trev got the boot, and they needed a 64 version (as it had already been in development for an unprecedented 6 months), so myself, Rich Palmer and Johnny Meegan got the mad task of writing it – from scratch – IIRC we did it from start to finish and into mastering in around 12 days. Rich and I did the scrolling sections, John did the pseudo 3D bits – the big bummer was they had done some deal to support mice, light guns and light pens as well as keyboard and joystick and the 64’s IO didn’t like a number of combinations (a light pen in port 1, keyboard for the 2nd player – oops IO conflict!).
Anyhow it took 12 days and it sucked big style!”
27/08/20 – Tidied up page and added better screenshots thanks to Mort.