Mastertronic was a wonderful video game publisher – budget games (before the concept of budget games was really conceived) which had a wide distribution network and although not all the titles were of premium quality, there were enough jewels amongst the dross to really differentiate the label.  And of course they were brave enough to launch in the same year as the Great Video Game Crash of 1983. 


Although Mastertronic published their games on a wide range of formats, I only played their C64 games despite owning or having access to other systems.  The boxes were vaguely reminiscent of Max Hedroom – blue or green fractals on a black background whilst the tapes were always grey with a black/white label – one of the first software houses to create their own distinctive brand image.   


Whilst many other software houses at the time looked towards one or two styles of game, Mastertronic did have a broader game range which encouraged other fledgling companies to take their lead such as Ocean Software, Gremlin Graphics etc.  As far as I’m aware, the company were also one of the first to sell game packs of two, three our four games in the same box – I remember getting my hands on Rasterscan, Colony, 180 (and a fourth – Zub??) that way. 


Of course the real reason for the success of the company was the fact that their distribution network was so wide and diverse.  You could pop into your local newsagent and there’d be a tiny shelf upon which were sold any number of Mastertronic titles and as the games were so cheap, they were just about within pocket money range.  Retailers of all types from Woolworths to WH Smiths to Spar would. 


The games were cheap n cheerful, simple affairs which weren’t pretentious and really did what they said on the tin, often developed by a single programmer or two rather than a team.  Of course they didn’t necessarily have a high replayability factor but when you’re talking £1.99 a game (even at 1985 type prices), that didn’t really matter.  As the company was British, a number of British programmers got their big break making games for Mastertronic.  Rob Hubbard’s music often featured in these games. 


On the overall Commodore 64 landscape, the influence of the company cannot be understated.  Many of us will know the theme tune for “One Man & His Droid” as it was reused by other companies for “Beat the Loader”. Most us Commodore owners will have owned at least one of their titles – Spooks, Hollywood or Bust, 1985, Double Dragon 2, Bionic Granny etc.   


Of course the company couldn’t stay out of sight of the big boys and old Beardy himself purchased a large stake renaming it Virgin Mastertronic continuing to release titles for more and more systems including a lucrative tie-up with Sega to sell Master System games.  Alas the company’s individual identity was subsumed within Sega and ceased to trade in the 1990s but Sold Out Software purchased the name and saw budget PC titles released including gems such as Grand Theft Auto, Theme Hospital and Worms. 



Memories for me? 

Playing Colony and not really understanding what the hell was going on – probably because I lost the instructions that came with the game.  Eventually I worked out how to gather the mushrooms (using the left arrow button was discovered by pure chance) but the issue of why I could never recharge the beacon remained a complete mystery until I twigged (many years later) that the solar panels needed to be replaced as the insects chewed through the mushrooms.  



Hollywood or Bust – just going through wave after wave of Policemen on the street defeating them with Custard Pies.  Never mind the main game trying to locate the five hidden Oscars, the sub-game was the best part. 


Spooks – Bloody random maps made it much more difficult to get through the game!  Completed it once and once only twenty years after buying it. 


1985 – Being impressed a C64 game could load within 54 Revs. 


Zub – Seeing the end of game screen and being oh-so utterly disappointed. 


One Man & His Droid – somehow getting right the way to level 9 without a password and then never quite reaching those dizzy heights again. 


Quest for the Holy Grail – Always forgetting to drop the Wedge and being killed by the three-headed night and giving the pink shrubbery to the Knights who say Nic.  Dropping the nuclear powered lantern and destroying the entire solar system (except Pluto).  Weird game. 


They were good games, nothing you’d invest a great deal of time in (except perhaps Holy Grail being a text adventure) but light relief between the more intense games.  I’m not sure many of them would stand up to a conversion process to something more contemporary, not without a radical rethink of the game.  That’s probably for the best however, sometimes you just shouldn’t mess with the classics.