The Complete History Of Dizzy
Considering that he’s easily one of the most recognisable 8-bit characters to ever appear on a home computer, Dizzy’s creation came about through necessity rather than deliberate design. While working on the follow-up to their smash hit Super Robin Hood, the Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, began discussing how they could overcome the issues of drawing and animating human characters.
Realising the limited number of pixels that they had access to, the pair hit upon the idea of creating a cartoon character for their next title. “In Ghost Hunters we had this really nicely animated man, but his face was 3×3 pixels with only four colours – there’s not really a lot you can do with that,” recalls Philip Oliver, one half of the famous twins and co-founder of Blitz Games.
Oliver continued, “We quickly decided that our new fictional character needed as big a face as possible in order to show off happy, sad and scared expressions. Since the computers of the day were very slow, the whole character could only be 24 pixels by 32 pixels, which quickly led us to a character that was practically all face, leaving just enough room for some gloves and boots to help him get around and interact with his fantasy world.”
Dizzy was born, and the brothers ensured that he caught the gamer’s attention by having the little tyke bob up and down whenever he moved or stood still. The fact that he looked rather cute as he trotted his way around the screen couldn’t have hurt either. The brothers had a hero, but they still needed a game to put him in, so the ideas for Dizzy’s first adventure began to percolate in the back of their minds while they worked on their next Codemasters game, Grand Prix Simulator.
After completing their enjoyable clone of the coin-op Super Sprint, the twins began work on Dizzy, then subtitled The Ultimate Cartoon Adventure. Desperate to incorporate their new development tool Panda Sprites into the game, they drew their new creation to see what he would look like spinning. Impressed with the results – “It turned him into such a unique character” – they renamed their creation Dizzy, although Philip has now revealed that a rolling character might not have been the best idea.
“On reflection, I do wonder if his rotations were a good idea, since it occasionally led to frustrating gameplay as he’d roll off a platform and die.” Any gamer who has experienced the horrendous bridge that Dizzy has to constantly cross will agree with the above conclusion, but there’s no denying that he was a refreshing new gaming character, and his modus operandi was one of the main reasons that he stood out from countless other games.
Although Dizzy himself was a brand new character, the fantasy-themed world he inhabited felt instantly familiar, giving the gamer the impression that while they’d never been there before, they had a good idea of what to expect. This had been an intentional ploy by the twins, who had already found similar success with the aforementioned Super Robin Hood.
“[When we created Dizzy] we wanted to create an adventure with fantastic places to explore, characters to meet and puzzles to solve,” continues Philip. “We had just had huge commercial success with Super Robin Hood and therefore wanted to use the same platform format since we’d not only already programmed this but knew players liked this type of game.”
Where Robin Hood took its ideas from the legends of Nottingham’s most famous outlaw and was a setting that gamers were familiar with, the twins felt that creating a recognisable world from classic fairytales and fables would work in Dizzy’s favour. “The puzzles were grounded in stories and scenarios that everyone would be familiar with,” continues Philip. “We didn’t want obscure puzzles based on physics or maths because it was important to us that younger players weren’t disadvantaged.We wanted interesting, fun puzzles, so we took inspiration from classic fairytales and fables.”
Dizzy’s whimsical setting, clever puzzles and main character may have impressed critics when he made his 8-bit debut in 1986, but Philip recalls the Darling brothers – then the owners of Codemasters – being less than impressed when it was first demoed to them. “It was really funny,” recalls Philip. “We showed [Dizzy] bouncing around [the castle] in Ghost Hunters and were trying to convince Richard and David that with the right puzzles and backgrounds it would really work. It was a hard vision to sell and I’m not sure they believed it would actually work, but it was no risk for them to let us carry on.”
Despite the Darlings’ trepidation towards the project, Dizzy soon began to win over everyone who played it, although it was something of a slow burner for the twins and Codemasters. “When Dizzy was released, nobody really knew about it and, to be honest, the box artwork was fairly poor,” admits Philip. “It took time for word of mouth to spread and sales to pick up. Once people started to play it, though, they seemed to engage with it and we soon gathered quite a following.”
If it took the public a while to warm to Dizzy, the twins found themselves in a similar situation when it came to a potential sequel. Indeed, when Treasure Island Dizzy was released in 1987 it leapt straight to the top of the software charts. It also proved suitably different to Dizzy’s first outing, and while some of the more frustrating elements of Dizzy had been dispensed with – no falling bridges here – there were nevertheless plenty of subtle changes that made Treasure Island Dizzy easily the hardest game in the series.
By far the biggest problem was the inclusion of a single life. Dizzy featured five lives and allowed you to find more as you progressed through the adventure; Treasure Island Dizzy, on the other hand, was incredibly ruthless and could make for a quite frustrating gaming experience. Another annoyance was the new inventory system that had been employed. While you could now handily hold up to three items at a time, you had no control over what you could drop and simply had to cycle through each one until you got to whatever you wanted to use.
Despite these gameplay changes, Dizzy’s sequel turned out to be a tremendous success for Codemasters and it wasn’t long before the twins turned their attention to his next adventure, even if Treasure Island Dizzy had been something of a gamble. “Codemasters only ever paid royalties, so it was mostly our risk if we wanted to produce another, and it did take us about six months to build up the confidence to do it,” continues Philip.
With Dizzy gaining more and more popularity, the Oliver twins began to experiment with him and released Fast Food, the first of several spin-offs starring the boxing-gloves-wearing hero. Far easier to create than the adventures – Fast Food was turned around in weeks as opposed to months – the spin-offs proved the perfect way of keeping fans craving new Dizzy games happy and also allowed the twins to take a break from his traditional adventures.
“We really liked writing the Dizzy adventure games, but when games were only taking a couple of months to write we didn’t want to produce too many as they’d end up stealing sales from each other and become tiresome for us to keep writing,” explains Philip. “On the other hand, we knew that Dizzy had a massive fan base and so we decided to create other types of games to appeal to these fans and hope that they’d still sell really well if they starred Dizzy.”
While many of the releases certainly proved popular, they weren’t always up to the same high standards as the core franchise. Fast Food in particular was little more than a derivative, albeit perfectly playable, take on Pac-Man, requiring Dizzy to run around a variety of different mazes hunting down snacks and avoiding four monsters by the names Bonzo, Wizza, Pippa and Fido. While it featured cute visuals, amusing cut-scenes and a host of different levels, its slow pace and lack of originality didn’t sit well with critics, and it failed to achieve the same high scores that the Dizzy adventure games managed.
Fantasy World Dizzy came next, and the Oliver twins really hit their stride, with many fans stating that it’s the best instalment in the series. It once again granted you lives – three this time – and featured far more elaborate and clever puzzles while returning to the fairytale theme that had served the original Dizzy so well. Indeed, many of the puzzles were directly inspired by classic tales and fables, with the route to the mythical cloud castle being a particular favourite of Philip’s.
“In Fantasy World Dizzy players were presented with the challenge of reaching the cloud castle with only a cow. The idea was to take the cow to the shopkeeper and in return he’d give you a magic bean. Then you’d place the magic bean beneath the lowest cloud and water it. Obviously you’d need to find a bucket, attach it to the well and get some water before you did that, but once you’d figured this out you’d have grown your own beanstalk and could climb up into the clouds.”
Clever puzzles, familiar locations, a larger playing area and a far better inventory system – you could only carry two items at a time, but could select which one you wanted to use – all combined to create another smash hit for the twins, which coincidentally also happens to be Philip’s favourite game in the series. “Everything just came together really well for Fantasy World Dizzy,” he explains when we asked him about his favourite. “Although the first Dizzy featured lots of new ideas, it did have a few rough edges and very few characters to interact with.
Treasure Island Dizzy, on the other hand, introduced more characters and story but was flawed by having only one life! With Fantasy World Dizzy we felt that we had improved in all areas. It featured a great story, new characters, inspired puzzles and good gameplay. We’re both still really proud of that one.” In addition to being easily the best game in the series, Fantasy World Dizzy is also responsible for introducing the Yolkfolk, Dizzy’s extended friends and family.
Characters ranged from a laid-back hippy named Dylan to a love interest by the name of Daisy and were inspired by a variety of different TV show personalities. “The Yolkfolk were introduced to enable more story threads and interesting characters,” begins Philip about their origins. “Dora, the brainy sister, was inspired by Velma in Scooby-Doo, while Daisy, the ‘love interest’, was a cross between Daphne in Scooby-Doo and Daisy Duke."
"Hippie pal Dylan was based upon Neil from The Young Ones, Phillip continues, "and Dylan the Rabbit in The Magic Roundabout, while Grand Dizzy was our version of Granddad from Only Fools And Horses. Finally, Denzil was the ‘cool dude’ friend who was our take on the Fonz from Happy Days.”
In the same year that Fantasy World Dizzy made its debut, the twins released another spin-off in the form of Kwik Snax. A follow-up to Fast Food, Kwik Snax once again featured a maze design, but this time it was a fair cleverer title, taking inspiration from block-pushing games like Pengo and Sokoban. Dizzy had a set amount of food to collect and would move around the maze, shunting blocks to destroy enemies. It’s a highly enjoyable effort that was released on a variety of different systems.
Interestingly, the Commodore 64 effort is quite a bit different from its peers and has more similarities with Sega’s arcade coin-op Flicky, possibly because it was coded by Jason Benham and not the brothers. Dizzy must travel around mazes collecting little Fluffles and guide them to the exit. The more Fluffles you save at once, the bigger the bonus. While it’s a far better effort than Fast Food, it’s the Oliver twins’ version of Kwik Snax that is definitely the one to go for.
By 1990 the franchise juggernaut that was Dizzy really picked up steam, with no less than a staggering five games getting released throughout the year: Magicland Dizzy arrived in February, puzzle game Dizzy Panic hit two months later, while Dizzy: Prince Of The Yolkfolk was released in August. Spin-off Bubble Dizzy arrived in November, while Spellbound Dizzy became one of Codemasters’ big Christmas releases. By now it was becoming clear that Dizzy was a time-consuming project for just two people, and the brothers made the decision to take on extra help, making Fantasy World Dizzy the last game that they created themselves.
“Games were starting to take longer to write and with only so many hours in each day we had no alternative but to allow others to start producing new games, explains Philip about passing on the torch to Big Red Software. “Before that point we had already commissioned others to do conversions of our games to other formats, so it was the next logical step to allow someone else to create a whole game. Some we liked, particularly Dizzy: Prince Of The Yolkfolk, but some we weren’t so keen on."
"It was tough to give creative input from a distance, Phillip continues, "and it was for this reason that we set up an office and started to employ people. We like to think that it was this experience that helped us to appreciate things from the perspective of our publishers in years to come. Our company, Blitz Games Studios, is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary, and all of the things we experienced in those early days continue to inform how we run things today.”
Although Dizzy had proven to be a big success on home computers, the twins and Codemasters were well aware that there was another lucrative market that Dizzy could potentially move on to, and while the franchise had been selling hundreds of thousands of units in the UK, there were potentially millions to be made by moving into the extremely healthy console market. The Fantastic Adventures Of Dizzy (Fantastic Dizzy outside Europe and Australia) was converted to all the main home consoles of the time as well as the Atari ST, Amiga and PC.
Far too ambitious for the 8-bit home computers, Dizzy’s console outing was an impressive title that combined ideas from a variety of previous Dizzy titles. All of the characters that had appeared in previous retail games were present and correct, the inventory system was even tighter than before, and there were huge locations to explore, many of which had featured in previous Dizzy games.
While its puzzles are a little simplistic and its game design a bit too tough – Dizzy rapidly loses energy on contact with the game’s many enemies – it’s a wonderful little love letter to the series that allowed console owners to fully appreciate an 8-bit computer hero who’s still revered today. The Fantastic Adventures Of Dizzy even had time to feature a selection of fun mini-games, two of which, ‘Dizzy Down The Rapids’ and ‘Bubble Trouble’, were converted into standalone games.
It wasn’t all good news for Dizzy’s first console adventure, however, as legal wranglings between Codemasters and Nintendo over the Game Genie saw the game missing its potentially lucrative Christmas slot, instead getting released the following April. Despite strong scores from magazines at the time, it sold well under the expected sales. Despite the disappointment with Dizzy’s sales, it remained one of Codemasters’ best franchises, and in January 1992 a small team of programmers began work on what would become the last main Dizzy game.
Scheduled for a December release and confined to the usual 8 and 16-bit systems, Crystal Kingdom Dizzy was business as usual, featuring cleverly crafted puzzles, an enjoyable story, and plenty of objects and characters to interact with. The level design and environments were also impressive, with the only thing letting it down being a ridiculously high price tag, despite the fact that the game wasn’t a huge departure from previous budget offerings.
Crystal Kingdom Dizzy may have been the end of Dizzy’s main adventures, but there was still life lurking in the old egg, albeit life born from disaster. The Aladdin Deck Enhancer was released on the NES in 1992. It was a clever little cartridge device that effectively allowed you to increase the amount of RAM by inserting a smaller cartridge into it. Dizzy The Adventurer, an enhanced update of Dizzy: Prince Of The Yolkfolk, was released as a free pack-in, while The Fantastic Adventures Of Dizzy was also released.
Meanwhile the twins and the rest of their team set to work on three additional games for the system: Wonderland Dizzy, Go! Dizzy Go! (which ended up as part of the Quattro Arcade compilation) and Dreamworld Pogie. The tale of Dreamworld Pogie, which reached the alpha stage before it was cancelled, is particularly interesting, as it was the twins’ attempt at a Mario clone.
“We quickly discovered how great [the NES] was for side-scrolling platformers and discovered the original Super Mario Bros. We considered doing an arcade game for Dizzy like this, but felt that he should carry on being the adventurer. Instead we felt we could take Pogie, Dizzy’s pet, and create a great side-scrolling arcade game for him to star in. Sadly it was never completed, as Codemasters decided to cancel all Dizzy games that were in production.”
The Aladdin Deck Enhancer never enjoyed the same success as the Game Genie, and Camerica eventually went bust in 1992. The twins were left with three Dizzy games and no NES to sell them on, so looked at converting the titles to Sega’s Master System. Their plan soon hit a brick wall, however, when Codemasters explained that it wouldn’t be prepared to release them as full-price titles and wanted the brothers to produce a compilation.
Unhappy with the prospect of losing out, but not wanting to lose the games entirely, they set to work on creating a compendium containing Dizzy The Adventurer, Go! Dizzy Go! and Wonderland Dizzy. They hit yet another brick wall when Codemasters revealed that it didn’t want two adventure games on the compilation, so Wonderland Dizzy was dropped entirely and replaced it with Panic! Dizzy instead. The Excellent Dizzy Collection was eventually released in 1993 and the brothers, frazzled with the last year of working with Codemasters, decided to go it alone.
And so one of gaming’s most lovable heroes was laid to rest, never to return… Or will he? “For many years, say from 1995 until 2005, there was no real way to bring Dizzy games back, particularly as his success was largely confined to the UK, and any game that’s released has to be successful in the US if it’s to make its money back. However, with the advent of digital distribution, who knows? There might just be a way to bring him back.The real question is: would people want to see him return?”
We’ve already personally pestered both twins about a Dizzy iPhone game or a release on Xbox Live or WiiWare, mainly because it’s one of our favourite retro franchises. Dizzy may not have done anything revolutionary, but they were great games nonetheless and we’d love to see the character resurrected. “I think the Dizzy games are remembered fondly because people had to think about the worlds and characters we created and, like a good book, people’s imagination was let loose.
"What they were seeing was merely a small window into a fantastic magical world full of adventure, with interesting places, characters and stories to explore. The basic nature of the graphics in those days meant that gameplay was all, so if you gave people fun they’d keep coming back for more. It’s very easy for developers to forget that these days.”