Ahead of the Black Mirror Netflix Christmas Special, What Was… Bandersnatch?

Once upon a time, there was a British home computer called the ZX Spectrum. Launched by Clive Sinclair in 1982, it never really travelled beyond our shores but it was so well marketed, priced and timed that they sold millions and for years it was the standard home computer for playing games in the UK, even though there were bigger and better rivals from Commodore, Atari, Acorn and others.

It also formed many homebrew software companies, with games written and published in people's bedrooms, which would grow up to become studios like Rare and Shiny.

One of them was Imagine… The Name Of The Game who overspent everyone on innovative and clever marketing and advertising. For two years, they ran the best ads, had the best marketing and reaped the benefits.

Lots of boys my age remember this as a foldout poster from Your Sinclair. Apologies.

No more was that marketing evident that with what they dubbed 'Mega Games'. Two titles, Psyclapse for the Commodore 64 and Bandersnatch for the Spectrum, with advertising for both running through 1984. Bandersnatch was to be released with a special hardware 'dongle' as Imagine said the game breached the limits of the Spectrum's hardware. It was suggested it would have additional memory and a custom chip for gameplay. It would also stop software piracy dead.

The hype was more than computer gaming in the UK had ever reached and it went mainstream. Whatever Bandersnatch was, however much it was priced (rumoured to be four times the cost of a standard premium game) it would have sold.

However, Imagine folded in August of 1984. Attempts to corner the market by hiring out entire duplicating factories to manufacture their games that stopped competitors bing able to publish their own games. But this led to an oversupply of Imagine games on the market, which after the January slump that followed the 1983 Christmas boom, saw a lot of titles returned to Imagine by stores and distributors. They couldn't pay the bills and went bankrupt.

Attempts to remount the games on other systems, failed. Those who had seen Bandersnatch in progress described it as incredible, which only fuelled the anticipation. It was about a third complete (Psyclapse was never actually coded) when the company went bust. Employees of the publisher had to raid the studio and dodge bailiffs by hiding in the toilets with a server in order to get the Bandersnatch code out of the building.

However, attempts to remount the games on other systems, failed. Some of the programmers from Bandersnatch formed Denton Designs and their first game Gift from the Gods released by Ocean, who had bought the Imagine branding, was called a direct descendant of Bandersnatch, with the central character similar to the one planned. It was also said to have contributed to their overly trippy Frankie Goes To Hollywood game as well. Denton was later purchased by Rage.

While the subsequent Atari ST game Brattacus from Psygnosis, formed by Imagine founders was described as a combination of both games.

But neither touched the legend of what Bandersnatch was – or would have been,

Next week, Netflix will be dropping their first Black Mirror movie, set in 1984, and called Bandersnatch. Charlie Brooker began as a video game journalist. He, like me, had a Spectrum at that time and would have been subject to that marketing. And probably as hyped up as I was.

I wonder how many people are going to get this?

About Rich Johnston

Head writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world. Living in London, father of two. Political cartoonist.

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