Level 9 - Past Masters of the adventure game?

A history of Level 9 - A personal view by Richard Hewison.


Anyone who grew up on 8 bit adventure games has played at least a couple of Level 9 adventures. In their hay day (in the early to mid 80's) they were the undisputed kings of adventure games in the U.K. Games like'Dungeon Adventure' and 'Snowball' earned them accolade after accolade from the public and computer press alike. It is unfortunate that once the 16 bit machines came to the forefront, Level 9's creativity took a dip for the worse - but more on that later.

Level 9 Computing (as it was known back then) began life in 1981. The company initially composed of the three Austin brothers (Mike, Nick and Pete). It quickly progressed from being a hobby to becoming a registered company with assets of just 9C40 and a Nascom 16k kit computer!

Their first few products were arcade games and utilities like 'Missile Defence', 'Bomber', 'Fantasy', 'Space Invasion' and 'Extension Basic'. Each cassette was individually saved from the computer and sent out by mail order to satisfy the demand generated by the classified ads they ran in the 'Computing Today' magazine.

Having seen a version of 'Colossal Caves' running on a mainframe where he worked, Pete Austin thought that they could fit it onto a 16k machine. This resulted in Level 9's own version which they called 'Colossal Adventure'. It was to be their first commercial release and was written in what they called 'a-code'.

From the outset, they didn't just write the game, but they devised and created a writing system that they could use over and over again to create further games. They also had the awareness to write the system so that it could be used on other machines. In the early days they were only able to produce versions for the BBC and Nascom. In 1983 they converted over to the Spectrum 48k, Commodore 64, Oric, Atari 400/800, Lynx 48k and RML 380Z. A few years further down the road they converted the entire range to date onto the MSX and the Enterprise.

'Colossal Adventure' wasn't quite a direct conversion from the mainframe original. One very subtle difference was that the food was moved into the otherwise superfluous forest outside. The major difference was the addition of the 'end game'. In the original adventure, the game finished when you picked up the final treasure and the cave announced that it was closing down. You then had to get out in time before the game ended. Level 9 decided to add an end game so they could boast that the game had 'over 200 locations'. The original only had 130.

'Over 200 locations' would become a familiar quote on the Level 9 packaging. Talking of packaging, it changed considerably over the years. The very first version of 'Colossal Adventure' was distributed in a re-sealable plastic bag with an 8 page manual, an advert for their other releases and an envelope and clue request card. The envelope had an illustration on the front showing a man with an olive branch in his hand and a bird homing in on it. The words "Fly back with a clue" were printed in the top left hand corner. The clue card was for individual questions. Only later on did they start offering the complete and comprehensive clue sheets.

'Colossal' was followed by 'Adventure Quest', which was their first attempt at designing a game themselves from scratch. They then rounded the trilogy off with 'Dungeon Adventure'. This became known as their 'Middle Earth' trilogy although they were eventually bundled together under the 'Jewels of Darkness' title by Rainbird in 1988. They were also updated by having graphics added. More on the graphics later!

Level 9 then turned their attentions away from the fantasy setting of Middle Earth and launched themselves into the future by writing 'Snowball', a science fiction adventure with 'over 7,000 locations'. Set in the year 2304 A.D you were cast as secret agent, Kim Kimberley whose mission was to protect the interstar transport known as Snowball 9. Level 9 deliberately chose a sexless name so that the player could imagine themselves as male or female. Thankfully you didn't have to visit all 7,000 locations! They were spread throughout the spaceship on various levels accessed by a lift. The game began completely in the dark, and you were soon puzzling over how to avoid the killer nightingales that roamed the ship.

Up until then, the Austin brothers had worked on their own. They had coded and designed each of their adventure releases. However, for their next game they turned to a game designed by a fan of theirs, Sue Gazzard. After a bit of tinkering with the initial premise, 'Lords of Time' was released and went down quite well. As with most of their games, there were numerous references to the number 9 throughout. For example, there were nine time zones to explore.

The packaging was updated in 1983 once sales proved them to be a success. Gone were the plastic bags and in were cardboard boxes with cut out front windows showing the cover of the instruction booklet inside. Distinctive L9 logos covered the window borders. Their distributor, Microdeal, had such a large order for Christmas 1983 that the Austins had to recruit as many of their friends and family as they could to meet the demand which ran into thousands. 1984 was to see another change to the packaging, with black plastic wallets replacing the boxes, each one adorned with a cover illustration and surrounded by the now famous black and white L9 logo's.

They had always planned to return to the Snowball universe and add the second of what they would call the 'Silicon Dreams trilogy'. Part two was called 'Return to Eden' and was (in my own opinion) a very tough game to complete. It also marked a turning point for their games. On selected machines, Level 9 took the decision to add graphics to each and everyone of the locations. Other companies had a few locations with graphics, but the Austins decided to go further. Unfortunately, the graphics weren't particularly inspiring. They consisted of component parts, (rocks, trees etc) that were added to build up a picture. On the spectrum, the usual colour problems occured so the graphics looked very blotchy. They didn't go down too well with the some fans, but at that time it was thought good commercial sense. Although they weren't brilliant by any stretch of the imagination, I felt that they added a needed splash of colour to the display and they had a murky quality all of their own.

'Return to Eden' was released in October 1984 and had a number of almost subliminal political statements embedded into the game design, along with some very tricky problems that had me stumped for months! As with most of their games, there were subtle references to previous games and certain inputs that could be tried too. Try the old 'plover', or 'xyzzy' phrases from 'Colossal' in any of their older games to see what I mean! The title also followed a bit of a biblical theme which was to be followed up in the third and final instalment.

There was also an interesting change in the packaging artwork for 'Eden'. The original design had a robot fighting a carnivorous looking giant plant with a cityscape lurking behind. Possibly due to the similarity between the robot and a certain popular comic book of the time, they changed the artwork to a Godfrey Dowson painting of a different (humanoid looking) robot staring from the jungle towards a gleaming city in the distance. They might also have changed it because the original drawing wasn't particularly good! This lead to Level 9 repackaging all of their earlier releases in the newer plastic wallets and adding cover illustrations by Godfrey Dowson.

Increasing sales during 1984 meant a company re-organisation and the recruitment of new staff. Disk versions began appearing for the first time on the C64 and BBC and they began writing games for the latest additions to the home micro boom, the Amstrad CPC and Memotech machines. Pete Austin became so swamped with on average 100 clue requests a day that he had no time left to design the games, so they decided to change the clue requests from individual problems to a fully comprehensive clue sheet covering everything.

Having tested the water with their first 'illustrated' game, Level 9 went into overdrive with a collection of four more graphic text adventures in two years. The price range varied according to whether they felt the game was as large or difficult as their previous adventures.

Their next graphic release in early 1985 was 'Emerald Isle'. It was only the second of their games to have been initially designed by a freelance contributor. You began the game hanging from a tree in your parachute, and soon found yourself entering a city. From here you would discover a competition where the prize was to become ruler of the island! As with 'Eden' it was quite a tough game to finish, but I spent a good few months on and off battling my way through to the end. The graphics were of the same dubious standard as 'Eden' although they were now taking up practically half of the screen in height and width. One snippet of trivia - 'Emerald Isle' was originally to feature a cannibal cook pot scene. This was removed quite late on in case it was seen to be racist. It was also the last of their adventures written with their 'old' system.

The new system was written in 1985 and it improved on speed and compression and added multi-tasking and a radical new parser. Another change saw the reduction in packaging size to a small black micro cassette box. This debuted with their next release, 'Red Moon'. The theme of 'magik' was strong in this fantasy game, and it had a very atmospheric plot behind it all. The graphics were still dodgy, but this didn't matter when the game was this good. Another new element was introduced into 'Red Moon'. For the first time, a few role playing style stats were implemented into the fighting scenes. This seemed to alienate a few adventure players, whilst others (me included) felt that it gave the game an added depth. It was also the first Level 9 game that I solved without having a full score. In fact, I was quite a few points short when I completed it. Apparently this was a deliberate ploy by the Austins to allow more players to be able to finish their games.

'Red Moon' had only one real fault in my opinion. Iron would inhibit the use of magic, so if you were carrying anything made of iron or an item of that kind was in the same location, you were unable to cast any spells. Unfortunately, the game treated the save game feature as a spell so if you were carrying iron, you couldn't save your game position!

The release of 'Red Moon' in July '85 began Level 9's most intense release schedule yet, with a new game approximately every six months. Late '85 saw the publication of the concluding chapter in the 'Silicon Dreams' trilogy. Following 'Snowball' and 'Return to Eden', 'The Worm in Paradise' wrapped up the series in fine style. Set 100 years after the events in 'Eden', 'Worm' was by far the most political game that Level 9 had released. The themes present throughout the Silicon Dreams trilogy were very 'adult' in style and this is what made them so fascinating.

Appropriately, the game began with you in what turned out to be a very symbolic dream, chasing a giant worm that emerged from a rotten apple which then crashed through a wall to freedom. The dream ended when you climbed onto the back of a sleeping behemoth, took one of it's scales as a shield and approached the acid spitting worm head on, (if you knew which end was the head!). All of the usual robots, droids and technical hazards were there to thwart you, but the thing that finally defeated me was the infuriating Enoch Transport System. It was like a giant hub with differently coloured segments. You had to navigate this system to get to various locations, like flower shops, job centres, unemployment offices etc. Obviously the aim of the game was to save the planet but unfortunately I never got to find out what happened at the end.

By now Level 9 were at the pinnacle of their achievements. In the eyes of the press and their fans, they could do no wrong. Exceptional adventures were still being crammed into a minimum of 32k.

In the mid 80's they also produced a number of licensed adventure games for other publishers. Virgin Games released The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, the second of two games based on the books by Sue Townsend. Mosaic Publishing released the first (The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4) and they also published an adventure based on Terry Jones' 'Erik the Viking' in 1985. Level 9 then followed these up with a game based on that epic of Radio 4 dramas 'The Archers'! The text was allegedly created by the series own script writers to maintain the authenticity. However, I have my doubts that this game was ever released. Both 'Adrian Mole' games and 'The Archers' were multiple choice style games rather than real adventures, whilst 'Erik' had very basic graphics and very terse location descriptions. However, this didn't stop the first 'Mole' game from selling over 165,000 copies!

What turned out to be their last 8 bit only game was released in mid 1986, just six months after 'Worm'. 'The Price of Magik' was the sequel to 'Red Moon' and it continued the theme of 'magik'. A crazed magician had succumbed to the terrible price of magik, and it was your task to become as powerful as him, defeat him and yet avoid the same fate. It was another enjoyable and atmospheric adventure with dozens of objects and two hundred odd locations to explore. It also had a nice feature at the very end. When you had finished, you were given the option of a good or bad ending. In the good ending, your future showed that you would live in a uxurious castle and rule wisely. In the bad ending, you defeat the crazed Myglar but in the process your quest for magik turns you stark raving mad, and you are locked up in a mental asylum!

This was the last time that Level 9 employed their construction kit style location graphics. Having used them in five games, they decided that it was time for a change. The changes though were far more dramatic than even they could have foreseen. The 16 bit revolution entered the fray and Level 9 adventures were sadly never to be the same ever again.

The way ahead for games in 1987 was generally agreed to be on the 16 bit machines like the ST, Amiga and maybe even the IBM PC. With this thought in mind, Level 9 employed the services of John Jones-Steele to write for them a new adventure writing system for their next generation of adventures. Steele was a veteran of programming, having written many 8 bit games in the past, including the Melbourne House text adventures 'Colossal Adventure' and 'Mordon's Quest'. The brief was to devise a system that would allow for 'real' characters to inhabit the game worlds they created, and allow people to recruit them and have many characters performing the same task at once to solve certain puzzles. The game was also to allow digitised paintings for location graphics, and a host of other features.

The original idea for this system was possibly born out of their aborted attempt at setting up a multi-user phone adventure game which they were to call 'Avalon'. It was going to include a thousand computer players and allow many more people on line at once than M.U.D. It was also planned to be much faster than M.U.D, although how they expected to achieve this on networked Amigas was anyone's guess. Why this idea never appeared is not known, but the influences it had on their KAOS system are obvious.

By now, Level 9 had joined forces with Telecomsoft to have their games published under the highly regarded 'Rainbird' label. This freed Level 9 from having to worry about marketing, packaging and distribution of their new games. Whilst the new system was being written they updated their previous two trilogies and gave them pictures (in the form of the old 8 bit graphics) and in some cases, more text. The Middle Earth trilogy of 'Colossal Adventure', 'Adventure Quest' and 'Dungeon Adventure' were released as 'The Jewels of Darkness' and 'Snowball', 'Return to Eden' and 'The Worm in Paradise' were released as the 'Silicon Dreams Trilogy'. These compilation packages were released on all of the major formats, including the 8 bit machines in 1987.

The design for the first of their new style games was well under way. With so many monsters getting the raw end of the deal in adventures, Level 9 decided to let them have their revenge, and from this idea 'Knight Orc' was born. You were cast as an oppressed orc in a magical world which you just had to escape from.

'Knight Orc' was released in the July 1987 and was generally well received by the press. For the first time in a Level 9 adventure, the game was split into three separate parts. The first part (which was really an introduction to the intricacies of the new system) was called 'Loosed Orc'. Part two was 'A kind of Magic' and the final segment was 'Hordes of the Mountain King'. In the first part, you had to collect enough rope to be able to swing across a chasm to get into the next part. The rest of the game had you recruiting characters and collecting spells. The very end had you escaping through the mysterious main door and out into the real world! Moving between part two and three was uniquely devised. By wearing a visor, you moved into part three which revealed that you were really in the modern world. There were objects and puzzles that you could only take or solve by being in part three. By wearing the visor again you would re-enter the fantasy world of part two.

Only veteran Level 9 adventures realised the link between 'Knight Orc' and the earlier 'Silicon Dreams' trilogy. At the end of 'Knight Orc' you were told that no more were you a mere orc slave in Reveline's lifesize adventure game. Reveline's dreams and the visors were an integral part of the 'Silicon Dreams' trilogy, but the link was never obvious unless you had played their previous games.

Pete Austin did a sizeable amount of research into making the magic system and other elements of folk lore consistent in 'Knight Orc'. A deliberate decision was made not to mix and match lore and myths from different sources (countries) so they focused mainly on British mythology. On a personal note, I found 'Knight Orc' to be lacking the atmosphere and puzzles of their earlier games. Once you had sussed out that you had to recruit say twenty characters at different points and get them to perform a task simultaneously, the puzzles became easily solved. Nine times out of ten you would come across a puzzle or obstacle and due to the nature of the system, the way to solve it was immediately apparent. The text wasn't very imaginatively written either. The graphics (on 16 bit) were at least a great improvement over their old 8 bit ones. They had digitised Godfrey Dowson's paintings as location graphics, and had opted out of the idea of having a picture for every location. The only aspect I didn't particularly like was the ugly border they had around each graphic. This would be used in their other 16 bit releases, with a different border for each game. You could reposition the graphic window by using the mouse and dragging the picture up the screen if you wanted to see more of the text without turning the pictures off altogether. For their next release in September '87, Level 9 had reverted to publishing the games on their own. 'Gnome Ranger' made it's first public appearance on sale at the PCW show that year. With text specially written by Peter McBride (who had written the short novellas 'The Darkness Rises' for the 'Jewels' compilation, 'Eden Song' for the 'Silicon Dreams' compilation and 'The Sign of the Orc' which was included with 'Knight Orc') the game was their first real stab at a humorous adventure. It was based around the exploits of Ingrid, the Sloane Gnome. She was banished into the wilderness by her exasperated family and she had to find her way home again.

'Gnome Ranger' was once again written using their new system, which had now been given a name - KAOS. I'm not sure whether this was an acronym or not, but it certainly didn't reflect on the games themselves. As with 'Knight Orc', the game was split into three separate adventures which had to be played in order.

I never really made up my mind whether I liked 'Gnome Ranger' or not. The humour was a nice enough change, but it became quickly tiresome. Any word that began with the letter 'n' had a 'g' added to the front (a bit like gnome really!), so the prompt became 'What gnow?'. The graphics were again digitised paintings on 16 bit, and they were a lot more colourful than those found in the 'Knight Orc'. Unfortunately, the games design was again limited to recruiting characters and performing synchronised actions with other characters. In many ways, their new KAOS system was not very flexible at all. It churned out games with very similar puzzle elements, which made solving them rather easy.

Level 9's next step was to sign up with Mandarin, an affiliate label of Database publications. One of the reasons for the split from Rainbird was because the Austins were apparently not too happy that BT spent more time marketing and promoting the Magnetic Scrolls adventures (The Pawn, Guild of Thieves, Jinxter, Corruption and Fish!) than they did on the Level 9 titles. In two years Level 9 delivered three products for Mandarin, 'Time and Magik', 'Lancelot' and 'Gnome Ranger 2: Ingrid's Back!'. 'Time and Magik' was another updated compilation of three of their previous releases, 'Red Moon', 'The Price of Magik' and 'Lords of Time'. They included the usual digitised graphics and other features. 'Lancelot' was based on the Arthurian legend of Lancelot and his quest for the Holy Grail. A lot of background research had gone into the game, but it was just a shame that they then didn't fill it with good and challenging puzzles! The graphics were now machine drawn renditions as opposed to digitised paintings, but this didn't really make that much difference to the end product. 'Lancelot' was also the most bug ridden game (on the ST) that they had ever released!

By now the KAOS system was really showing its limitations to the full. Every new release played in the same way as the previous one. Puzzles were unimaginative and easily solved if you could work your way around the bugs. 'Lancelot' was a major disappointment to me and a number of other Level 9 fans.

'Gnome Ranger 2: Ingrid's Back!' was an improvement only due to the humour employed in the story. The puzzles were still the same type as before, and there were still serious bugs (although less than in 'Lancelot') which meant that I solved the game ten points short even though I had done exactly the same as someone else who had got a full 1000/1000 points.

Another year went by and then in 1989 Level 9 emerged with what was to be their last adventure release. 'Scapeghost' told the tale of a murdered detective who has three nights to clear his name and get his own back on the gangsters who killed him. The game was designed by Sandra Sharkey but for me anyway it was to be the final nail in the coffin. It suffered from all of the problems the earlier KAOS games had, and sunk without a trace.

The Austins admitted that they just weren't making enough money from adventure games anymore. They had taken steps in late 1988 to move over to completely graphical strategy style products in future. From this idea was born the H.U.G.E systems (wHoley Universal Graphic Environment). The first game to employ this system was 'Champion of the Raj'. Two years after they first began touting it, the game was published by P.S.S. in 1991. It was very much like an Indian version of the Cinemaware game 'Defender of the Crown'. Unfortunately, Level 9's attempt at producing arcade style sections failed to capture the public's imagination and it flopped badly. Magazine reviews were particularly cruel. At about the same time, Level 9 had a brief flirtation with U.S publisher Cinemaware, famous for their 1Mb only Amiga games - TV Sports Football, TV Sports Basketball and the B movie inspired 'It Came from the Desert'. The Austins were commissioned to convert the latter onto the PC in 1990.

The second H.U.G.E game ('Billy the Kid' for Ocean) was abandoned and never saw the light of day. A number of programmers and graphic artists were made redundant in 1991 and this marked the end of an era which had lasted almost a decade. On a personal note it was sad to see a company who I was a big fan of in the early to mid 1980's go so badly wrong once the 16 bit revolution happened a few years later. I firmly believe that the downfall began with the KAOS system. It was just too limiting and restricted the game designs too much. The subject matter took a turn for the worse too. I would have preferred to see a second 'Middle Earth' or 'Silicon Dreams' trilogy, or a third 'Magik' game than any of the titles they produced from 1987 onwards. One day soon I will return to 'Worm' and finish it off, and try and get a full score in 'Red Moon'. I can't say the same for 'Gnome Ranger 2' or 'Scapeghost'.


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