Lost Games: Rollerbabes

In 1991, Cinemaware developed Rollerbabes, a futuristic hybrid sports game that looks like a cross between Speedball and roller derby. It was exhibited at consumer and trade shows, demoed to journalists and a preview feature graced the cover of the October 1991 edition of the UK’s Zero magazine. But Rollerbabes was never released.

Described by Zero, the game is based on a violent futuristic sport with “elements of hockey, wrestling, boxing and a myriad of other ‘cult sports'”. It’s an interesting pitch that merges Cinemaware’s TV Sports line – which mostly included competent but relatively staid renditions of American favourites such as “Football” (it’s a bit like rugby, I gather) and Baseball (rounders to the rest of us) – with the B-movie themes of games like It Came From The Desert.

The player was to control the eponymous Rollerbabes, a conspicuously attractive all-female team, against opposing sides themed as cowboys (The Stud Lites), hairdressers (The Buzzcuts), surfer dudes (The Subhumans) and David Lynch-loving teachers (The Eraserheads). Each team had its own themed arena, strewn with vicious traps and defending players.

The aim was to skate around the defending team’s oval arena and score points by crossing the distance within a time limit, avoiding obstacles, and beating the crap out of the opposing side. To this end, teams also had special moves and the ability to teleport across the area.

In common with other TV Sports games, a sleazy announcer would conduct pre-match and post-match interviews, as well as providing in-game commentary. Players would be able to participate in “dozens of league play, combat and challenge round options, sackfuls of statistics and obligatory management screens”.

The game was initially being made for IBM PC compatibles and was scheduled for release in “late September” 1991, with a promised Commodore Amiga version to follow. Zero noted that the PC version would be released “unfortunately, with EGA graphics only (although carpet slipper wearing owners of VGA monitors will be pleased to hear that the intro sequence will be rendered in all its VGA glory). There’s also an Amiga version in the pipeline, promising more emphasis on the management aspects of the game.”

And that was all she wrote. Rollerbabes was never released. Abandonware France has gleaned a little more info on the game from other reports, including details of a couple of trap types (walls and electric barriers), some extra screenshots and a link to a now-defunct site by artist Jeff Godfrey, who drew various character portraits for the game.

So what happened?

As documented in an excellent company history by Jimmy Maher’s Digital Antiquarian website, the game was one of several to be left unfinished when Cinemaware shut up shop in mid-1991. Maher writes:

“Cinemaware entered 1991 with debts in excess of $1 million, a huge burden for a company that employed less than forty people. Although Cinemaware needed more, not less staff to bring his vision of CD-ROM-based interactive movies to fruition, [Cinemaware boss Bob] Jacob had no choice but to begin laying people off. The death spiral had begun; Cinemaware now lacked the manpower to complete any of the games that might otherwise have saved them.

“Jacob dissolved Cinemaware that summer, auctioning off its technologies and licenses to the highest bidders. Among the late projects that would never come to fruition was the dubious proposition of a TV Sports game called Rollerbabes, tackling the thriving — or rather not — sport of roller derby.”

By the time the game was previewed in issue 24 of Zero,  dated October, but most likely released at some point in August (UK games magazine cover months were going through a period of marked date inflation at the time) Cinemaware had already folded. However, the magazine details a rescue attempt by UK games publisher Mirrorsoft:

“…it’s true that the California-based company had financial difficulties that forced head honcho Bob Jacobs to call it a day and set up his own console development company, called Acme Interactive. In recognition of the fact that Cinemaware was its ‘most popular affiliate label’, Mirrorsoft was understandably a tad upset at the prospect of losing it. As a consequence, a deal was struck whereby the Cinemaware name became the property of Mirrorsoft, with all development to be carried out by Acme. So it came to pass that the label responsible for such titles as Defender of the Crown, Rocket Ranger, It Came From The Desert and the TV Sports series was raised from the dead by Mirrorsoft, the company behind Cinemaware’s UK marketing.”

It was to be a short-lived redemption. As all this was going on, Mirrorsoft, a subsidiary of the Robert Maxwell’s Mirror Group newspaper and media empire, was, like the rest of Maxwell’s holdings, under the shadow of a pensions scandal involving the embezzlement of millions by Maxwell. This came to a head following his death by drowning in November 1991. Facing bankruptcy, Mirror Group sold stocks, subsidiaries and assets, with Mirrorsoft being sold to Acclaim Entertainment in 1992. Acclaim dropped most of the company’s release schedule, focusing on the Arena Entertainment imprint, which saw a handful of releases – primary for Sega consoles – until it was discontinued in 1994.

Maher writes:

“Mirrorsoft, Cinemaware’s longstanding European partner and publisher, wound up acquiring most of the company’s assets, including the name itself. In this state of affairs, Jacob saw opportunity. He moved to Britain and tried to restart Cinemaware, after a fashion, under the name of Acme Interactive, using many of the old Cinemaware properties and licenses, leased back to him by Mirrorsoft. But within a year or so, Acme was acquired by the comic-book publisher Malibu Graphics, where Jacob’s people were combined with new hires to form Malibu Interactive. After a couple of years of modest success on consoles like the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, Malibu Interactive in turn was shut down after their parent company was acquired by Marvel Comics. None of the games that arose out of Jacob’s post-Cinemaware operations were as ambitious or innovative as the games he had made before, and following the Malibu shutdown he went back to his pre-Cinemaware role as a talent agent for the games industry.”

The financial problems that led to the company’s sale to Mirrorsoft are generally attributed to a combination of falling sales due to the economic recession of early 90s, as well as rampant piracy of the company’s Amiga releases in particular, with some claims of internal project management issues at Cinemaware.

In recent years, the Cinemaware brand has been resurrected, beginning with Lars Fuhrken-Batista’s acquisition of the trademark in 2000, with re-released versions of many of their most popular and distinctive games. However, as the revived company was reportedly putting out public calls for any of the games’ original source code in 2007, at this point it’s safe to assume that the original, near-complete source code and assets of Rollerbabes are gone without a trace.

On the off-chance that anyone reading this DOES have a copy of the game or its source, please contact Cinemaware producer Sven Vößing – sven(at)cinemaware.com. In his own words: “We tried a lot of times to get any source or else of Rollerbabes. This would be the holy grail for me. We could finish and release it. The sad thing, most of the sourcecodes and other stuff [for Cinemaware’s games] is still not available.”

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