The majority of the movie-loving public already knows the following info, but for those readers who don’t–which includes my octogenarian grandparents, who are frankly fortunate to know their own names at this point–here’s the deal. You know all the movie conventions we take for granted–the fade-in, the close-up, the fact that every other movie starring Harvey Keitel will include an entirely unnecessary shot of his dangly bits? It took decades for those conventions to become established, because the first moviemakers literally had to invent the “grammar” of film as they went along, slowly learning how to tell a compelling story with their wondrous new medium.
The videogame programmers of the 1970s and 1980s, when the videogame industry was in its infancy, faced the same challenge as the film directors of the 1900s, and they developed similar conventions for their wondrous new medium–the joystick, the high score, the fact that every other videogame starring Sonic the Hedgehog will include an entirely unnecessary shot of his pointy bits. But it wasn’t until 1986 that a man named Bob Jacob came up with the clever idea of taking the grammar of film, which had been painstakingly developed over the course of the 20th century, and applying it to a medium with a grammar best classified as Ebonics. Jacob founded Cinemaware, a game company that released a range of award-winning titles which combined brilliant gameplay designs with cinematic scope. For the first time, a game developer brought skillful storytelling and genuine emotion to the videogame experience.
At a time when there was a multitude of computers for which to develop games–long before PCs and Windows became the joint standard–Cinemaware’s platform of choice was the Commodore Amiga. With its then-revolutionary 32-color graphics and stereo sound, the Amiga was the only computer that could come close to delivering Cinemaware’s vision. (Cinemaware would eventually release many of its games for other computers, but the shoddy translations would only highlight the audio/visual shortcomings of those systems in comparison to the Amiga.)
Thanks largely to Commodore’s inept marketing–this was a company that wouldn’t know how to sell Acne-Statin to Edward James Olmos–the Amiga never achieved mainstream success in the U.S. (It flourished in Germany, however, eerily paralleling the career of David Hasselhoff.) By the end of the 1980s, the inexorable shift to PC/Windows had begun; the PC even jumped ahead of the Amiga’s formerly bleeding-edge technology by introducing 256-color graphics and multi-featured stereo sound cards. By the time Cinemaware realized the Amiga had one RAM chip in the grave, it was too late to refocus their efforts onto the PC market. (Cinemaware also committed the folly of being too forward-thinking for its own good, investing millions of dollars into CD-ROM development long before most computer owners knew what the hell a CD-ROM, or Royale with Cheese, was.)
Looking to the booming game-console market for salvation, Cinemaware approached Sega, the manufacturers of the Genesis, and NEC, the manufacturers of the TurboGrafx-16. While Sega scoffed at Cinemaware’s “you give us money, we give you games” proposal, NEC eagerly agreed to the deal–and while the Genesis went on to be one of the most successful game consoles of all time, the TurboGrafx-16 tanked, taking Cinemaware with it.
But as it turns out, there’s a happy ending. A decade after its ignoble flameout, Cinemaware lives again, thanks entirely to the efforts of Lars Fuhrken-Batista, president of the reborn company. We recently conducted email interviews with Jacob and Furhken-Batista to learn more about the glorious past and glorious future of the original interactive-movie studio.
Get the interview with Bob Jacob in part two of THE REBIRTH OF CINEMAWARE>>>