The Best of Bullfrog Productions
Bullfrog Productions was founded in 1987 by Les Edgar and Peter Molyneux. Edgar’s name might be more familiar to motorsports fans than gamers; he left the industry in 1999 and eventually became chair of TVR Automotive. Molyneux, however, is a name well known in the games industry, and while he has been praised for his visionary approaches to game design, he has been criticized for his quite extensive exaggeration when it comes to hyping games.
With Edgar’s business acumen and Molyneux’s creative ambition, they were able to lead one of the most iconic studios of the 1990s, responsible for several classics regarded as some of the best in their respective genres. These are some of Bullfrog’s most iconic games and series.
Magic Carpet series (1994-1996)
Magic Carpet is a great example of Bullfrog’s unique approach to videogames, and their willingness to play with genre conventions. Magic Carpet took the best of shooters and flight sims, put them in a huge open world, and threw in some pretty advanced design features, such as deformable terrain. The Magic Carpet series was critically acclaimed and very approachable, and while it might not have had the lasting impact of some of Bullfrog’s other games, it was revolutionary in its own right.
Populous series (1989-1998)
One of the earliest examples of Bullfrog’s penchant for pushing design boundaries was the Populous series. The Populous series led to the genre term “god game” and spawned dozens of imitators, best of which was probably Black & White by the successor to Bullfrog, Lionhead Studios. Populous saw the player take on the role of a deity leading his tribes of loyal followers to victory over rival tribes. It was addictive, unique and endlessly replayable, in true Bullfrog style.
Theme Park (1994)
Theme Park is one of the best management sims ever made. It incorporated Bullfrog’s charming humor and aesthetic alongside robust management mechanics, and was highly influential in the management sim genre. While Maxis was taking a big-picture approach to management, with city taxation and infrastructure, Bullfrog was looking at the details – the experience of each theme park visitor mattered, and the player had to consider not only their fun, but their fear of rides, their digestive fortitude (hotdogs and rollercoasters don’t mix) and where they put their rubbish. Theme Park was a huge influence on 1999’s RollerCoaster Tycoon, and dozens of management sims that followed.
Theme Hospital (1997)
Theme Hospital continued Bullfrog’s Theme management series, this time placing players in charge of a series of hospitals. They injected the game with their trademark cheesy humour, and players are required to manage diseases such as Bloated Head Syndrome, TV Personalities, and Slack Tongue Syndrome. Underneath the humour and memorable aesthetic, Theme Hospital is an incredibly deep management sim. Each staff member had their own unique personality that required the player to get to know their names and watch their behavior, while “outbreaks” would provide sudden challenges that would test a hospital’s efficiency. Theme Hospital is one of the most widely loved Bullfrog games, and was finally followed up by a spiritual successor, Two Point Hospital, with several developers from the original game involved in its production.
Dungeon Keeper series (1997-1999)
“Evil is Good” was the tagline for Bullfrog’s 1997 hit Dungeon Keeper. The series incorporated many features of the “god games” like Populous, but instead of a benevolent deity, the player was the evil overlord of a dungeon of monsters and beasts. Dungeon Keeper was unique, addictive, entertaining and full of dark humor. Most memorable of all was the voice acting of Richard Ridings as your mentor, whose deep and gravelly voice gave the series so much of its character. Ridings offered his talents to the series spiritual successor as well, War for the Overworld; he is also known as the voice of Daddy Pig from the children’s TV show Peppa Pig – in my mind, I like to imagine that the player’s evil mentor was actually Daddy Pig’s secret alternate life.
Syndicate series (1993-1996)
For me, 1993’s Syndicate is the most iconic Bullfrog game. It is also an excellent example of the cyberpunk and real-time tactics genres. In Syndicate, players control a multinational corporation in a bleak future, where companies wage war with each other using cyborgs created from kidnapped citizens. Syndicate was dark, violent, and challenging. Syndicate Wars was the 1996 follow-up that added a 3D modelled world, and was also highly regarded, but it is the feel of the original that has stayed with me. Syndicate also received a reboot as a first-person shooter from developer Starbreeze Studios and publisher EA. While it wasn’t a terrible shooter, it was a huge departure from the original series and ultimately disappointing for Syndicate fans. The closest we have come to a follow-up to Syndicate is Satellite Reign by Brisbane-based Australian developer 5 Lives Studios. The studio includes some who had worked on the original series, and it was a critically acclaimed spiritual successor, definitely worth consideration.
In about 1989, Gavin Annand played his first games on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Thus, began a lifetime obsession with games. A gaming addict or connoisseur, depending on your perspective.