Book review - A Gremlin in the Works by Mark Hardisty

by Paul Morrison

In the time since I announced that I was writing this book, it seems like the whole world read about it, thought "that's a good idea" and started writing similar books of their own.  There have been dozens of them released in that time, all offering different perspectives on our favourite hobby from our favourite era.  I don't really mind that, because the people in question deserve the exposure and their stories need to be heard.  My only worry has been that some of these books would make mine irrelevant and make it pointless to continue.

That's silly, of course, as mine will be different from all the others out there.  Even if some of the content is similar or even repeated, there will be hundreds of unique pages for your reading pleasure.  So no, nothing is going to stop me from completing my book.  Now my main concern is how good these books are, because I'm buying almost all of them!

The latest such publication is A Gremlin in the Works, and it's one I've been anticipating eagerly for a long time.  Author Mark Hardisty has maintained high visibility on social media, which has served to ramp up the expectations of his book over a long period of time.  That could have been dangerous, had the book not lived up to these expectations.  Hang on... am I giving anything away about its quality with that sentence?  Read on and find out...

As you might have guessed, A Gremlin in the Works is a look at Sheffield's finest computer games publisher, Gremlin Graphics.  It's a name that needs no introduction to any of you reading this, as you're certain to have played many of their games.  With such classic series as Monty Mole, Jack the Nipper and, ummm, MASK, along with countless standalone titles of varying quality, the company made its mark on the industry and our hearts.  Their story is one that's been begging to be told, with books on Ocean Software and US Gold already out there.  This has a different author to those publications though, which makes for a very different reading experience.

The first thing that strikes you about the book is its size.  It's MASSIVE!  It's also heavy!  In fact, it's two books, coming as it does in two hardback volumes held in a very fetching (and sturdy) slipcase.  It oozes quality on first appearance, which is usually a good sign.  Never judge a book by its cover (or slipcase), though... the proof, of course, comes with the reading.

I mentioned earlier that the book is split into two volumes.  This is done across the company's timeline, so volume one covers 1983 - 1989 and volume two covers... well, the rest.  Mark tackles his subject chronologically, paying extra attention to any event or game of particular note.  It's a good way of approaching it... if every game, even the duffers, were covered as comprehensively, then the book would probably run to eight or ten volumes.  By singling out the really important games and giving them the coverage they really deserve, the book holds your interest through every page... there's little or no temptation to skip ahead.

The first volume is the one you will probably be most interested in, covering as it does the "classic" 8-bit years.  Here, you'll find all the Monty Mole games, Thing on a Spring, Bounder and Gauntlet, with masses of quotes from all involved.  There's also a lot of behind-the-scenes information, way more than just the technicalities of each game.  The story of the way the Gauntlet licence was obtained is one such gold nugget that you more than likely haven't heard before... and must read to believe.

Volume two leans more towards the 16-bit era, which for many was their entry point into gaming so if you're a little younger than I am then this might be the more interesting read for you, of the two.  Again, it features many familiar names and games, with the likes of Switchblade, Zool and Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge figuring heavily.  The book even carries through into the Playstation era where Gremlin retained a presence, with Loaded and the Actua sports games being especially notable to those of us who were still gaming at that point.  Things reach a conclusion with Gremlin's eventual demise and Mark wraps things up by catching up with what everyone is up to today... a nice way to let readers follow their favourites in the present day.

It's hard to find the superlatives for this book, but it's my job to try, so here goes.  A Gremlin in the Works is, quite simply, the finest book about any aspect of the British computer games industry written to date.  It's unbelievably comprehensive and includes contributions from anyone who was anyone either at or with Gremlin Graphics, as long as they were alive and contactable at the time of writing.  It has screenshots, magazine adverts, design documents, photos galore and any other relevant trivia you could imagine.  There's so much more I could write, but I think I've given you a general idea.  It's better if you go and read it all for yourself.  It is truly a treasure trove of information about one of Britain's best-loved software houses, and it's no exaggeration to say that if you have even the slightest interest in the subject, you MUST own this book.

You can buy A Gremlin in the Works here: A Gremlin in the Works. Rumour has it that there will soon be extra content available...