The Beatles have had a subtle influence on games developers over the last half a century. Jack Yarwood finds out why.
It’s impossible to ignore The Beatles’ influence on both music and film. The Fab Four were responsible for some of the most influential albums of all time, from Abbey Road to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and starred in several important movies, including A Hard Day’s Night, Yellow Submarine, and Let It Be. Their music and films have inspired generations of artists, and led to countless books – all of which aim to document their impact on pop culture at large. But one aspect of Beatlemania that has always remained somewhat underexplored is their influence on video games and their creators.
From hobbyists to professional studios, many developers have paid homage to The Beatles over the decades, but much of that history remains either buried or forgotten. We recently set out to track down as many creators as we could to hear their stories, and try to document The Beatles’ impact on video games as had never been done before. This task had us looking back to the rise of home computers, and early fan projects from the eighties.
The First Beatles Game?
Rich Levin first heard The Beatles’ music when they played The Ed Sullivan Show in New York, on 9 February, 1964. Sat in front of a black and white TV in his aunt’s house in Philadelphia, he didn’t quite understand what he was witnessing at first. But after the band’s 15-minute segment was up, his confusion transformed into a lifelong fascination with the group.
He listened to their records, watched their films, and read everything he could about the Fab Four. Then, in 1983, he created potentially the first Beatles video game – an unofficial text-based quiz called Beat the Beatles for Atari computers. “I wanted a personal computer, because I was into Pac-Man and the arcades,” says Levin. “And I wanted the Atari 800 specifically because it had the best renditions of the arcade games. Pac‑Man looked like Pac-Man. Defender looked like Defender. I didn’t want an Atari 2600 in my house. That’s not computer games to me. So I said to my dad’s boss [who owned a mall kiosk at the time], ‘If you buy me a computer, I’ll program some software.’
“I didn’t mention to him I had no idea how to program,” he adds. “And that I flunked general math and geometry and everything, except for my computer algebra class in high school. […] I’m innumerate. I count on my fingers. But I wanted the computer and he was a wealthy man, so he gave me his Amex card.”
Levin travelled to Sam Goody, a music store that also sold computers, and spent $2500 on an Atari 800, with 48kB of RAM, a cassette drive, no monitor, and no disk drive. He then threw himself into learning BASIC, using a book called Your Atari Computer by Lon Poole, Steven Cook, and Martin McNiff. He knew he had to make a video game, but he wasn’t quite ready for player-missile graphics yet, so he came up with an alternative idea: a quiz game based on his love of The Beatles. “I’m a huge Beatles fan,” Levin says. “A day doesn’t go by that I don’t listen to She Loves You and fairly loud. They were one of those things that make you wonder if there was a god. Because the cosmos came together to create this thing. The stars aligned, and if you follow The Beatles’ story, there are so many turning points that could have gone in different ways, but they didn’t.”
Levin filled his game with facts he thought only hardcore Beatles fans would know, including questions about former members and locations the band once visited – though he also implemented a clue system to give any struggling players a lifeline. He released the finished game, Beat the Beatles, under the name Interactive Software in 1983, collecting money from customers via post and sending off the packaged floppy with a self-booting executable and a hand-typed manual. For promotion, he ran a competition to see who could beat the game first, placed quarter-page ads in A.N.A.L.O.G Computing magazine, and visited fan conventions like Beatles Fest (now known as The Fest for Beatles Fans), where he bought a booth.
“We had the game running, and it created quite a stir,” says Levin. “I remember one guy came up to me and he didn’t understand what the game was. He thought it was an action game – of course, everything back then was shooters. He thought it was like a ‘Kill the Beatles’ kind of game. He brought over a German version of a Beatles album that said Die Beatles and he was [yelling]. I was like, ‘Dude, no. That’s not what it’s about at all.’”
This promotional push lasted for about a year, with the game becoming a successful money-maker for the young developer. Buyers, for the most part, seemed satisfied with the product, but the game wasn’t without its flaws. It contained spelling errors, some oddly phrased questions, and a linear structure that took away from its replay value. Nevertheless, in 1983, it was a one-of-a-kind experience for fans of the band.
“A couple of years ago, I thought, ‘I wonder if there’s any internet memory of Beat the Beatles’,” says Levin. “I did some googling around and I actually found some guys have put it into emulators, so you can still play it. So, I might have the distinction of doing the first Beatles game, but it wasn’t officially licensed. I didn’t even think to do that. I was always worried I was going to be shut down with a copyright claim. But it never happened. It probably never got big enough or made enough money for anybody to care.”
Beatle Quest and Beyond
Following Levin, Japanese developer and publisher Konami released the arcade game Mikie in Europe in 1984. The tale of a Japanese schoolboy collecting hearts to make a love letter for his girlfriend, it was one of the first video games to officially license The Beatles’ music, containing chiptune versions of Beatles songs like Twist and Shout and A Hard Day’s Night.
Hobbyists and developers were beginning to realise the potential of The Beatles in games, and Beatles fanatic Garry Marsh was no exception. In 1985, he licensed the band’s lyrics from their UK publisher Northern Songs for his adventure game, Beatle Quest, for the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. He’d grown up in a one-parent home, listening to his dad’s music, like Bill Haley, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Elvis Presley. So when his dad eventually discovered The Beatles, the young Marsh also became obsessed, collecting memorabilia and sticking their pictures on the living room walls. “I’ve been a Beatles fan ever since I was nine,” Marsh tells us. “I’ve always been fascinated by the lyrics and the stories they tell. At one point, we’re talking 1974, when I was in teacher training college, I really wanted to write a play based on The Beatles’ White Album. Just to take Prudence from Dear Prudence and Martha from Martha My Dear and anybody named in there and make a play based on that double album. And it’s that sort of crazy thinking that fits just as perfectly with the lateral thinking needed to do a text adventure game.”
Created with Quill, a program that allowed users to create text adventures without a lot of complicated coding, Beatle Quest’s story takes place in the year 2953, casting you as Keeper of the Archives, the person in charge of looking after ancient Earth knowledge. Coming across ‘The Four Kings of EMI’ in your research, you enter into a simulation of 1960s Liverpool and begin a quest through several Beatles-inspired locations. You can encounter the rocking horse people from Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and visit the dentist surgery of Doctor Robert. Marsh made sure to fill the game with as many references as he could, resulting in a fun experience for those used to burying their heads in The Beatles’ liner notes. As for what The Beatles thought? “I sent a copy to Paul McCartney and got a letter back that said he didn’t have time to back things, or whatever,” says Marsh. “It was a complimentary copy, but obviously they thought it was something else. I also got some threatening letters from Ringo’s solicitors at the time telling me I couldn’t use the term ‘Beatles’ […] and to cease and desist, which I didn’t.”
After Beatle Quest, Marsh planned to make two sequels to the game, called A Day in the Life and Across the Universe, but they never materialised. Instead, Number 9 Software became Number 9 books, with Marsh writing and publishing a biography of Alf Bracknell, The Beatles’ driver, appropriately titled, Baby, You Can Drive My Car!, in 1990.
Again, there was a lull in the number of people making Beatles games, with our research only coming across one more title in the eighties – an unlicensed Italian adventure game from Lindasoft called I Beatles e il Papiro della Pace (The Beatles and the Papyrus of Peace) for Atari 8-bit computers. The game was the brainchild of Doriano Benaglia, Lindasoft’s founder, with employee Emanuele Bergamini handling the coding, while Fulvio Besana did the design. We spoke to its programmer Emanuele Bergamini, but sadly he didn’t tell us much, besides the fact that Benaglia was his boss at Lindasoft and that it was his idea to make a game based on The Beatles.
In the nineties, it was the same story. There were some occasional homages to The Beatles, such as in 1994’s EarthBound, but nothing substantial. Instead, fans of the band would have to wait until 2009 before the next full-blown Beatles video game – The Beatles: Rock Band.
In 2008, Harmonix together with MTV Games, released Rock Band for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The rhythm game took the successful formula of Harmonix’s earlier hit Guitar Hero and extended it to other areas of performance, such as drums, bass guitar, and vocals. Players would listen to a piece of music and play or sing along, hitting specific notes corresponding to a colour, or matching a pitch illustrated on-screen. The game was another hit for Harmonix, generating $600 million in revenue by 2008.
The studio got to work on various Rock Band sequels and spin-offs in quick succession, with one of these being a licensed version of the game featuring The Beatles’ music. This let fans play through the band’s career, from the Cavern Club to their rooftop gig atop Abbey Road Studios in London, and was a collaboration between The Beatles’ record label Apple Corps and Harmonix.
Chris Foster and Sylvain Dubrofsky were two of the lead designers on the project. For both, it was an education in The Beatles’ back catalogue. Foster, in particular, had only been vaguely aware of The Beatles’ music growing up, but had never owned any records or followed them too closely. Suddenly confronted with working with The Beatles on this new Rock Band title, he threw himself into researching the band and its history.
“Not surprisingly, [after that,] I loved the songs and their story, and was excited to get to help bring that forward to people in a new medium,” Foster says. “Probably the biggest surprise to me – and this is no deep insight, but a strong reaction – was how quickly they evolved. Thirteen albums in seven years, catapulting out of their many years of live performance with an ever-maturing catalogue of material. To realise the speed at which that occurred, paired with reading about their lives at that time, I deeply respected that they not only held themselves together while in the eye of that hurricane, but that they grew and changed so much in that time, as individuals and as a band.”
You might think that due to the relatively short time between the original Rock Band and The Beatles: Rock Band that this new game was just a simple re-release with a Beatles paint job. But you’d be wrong. It required a total rethink of the progression system, exchanging the idea of a struggling band trying to earn money to a more player-focused approach that let you unlock historical essays and Beatles memorabilia. There was also the frustrating issue of harmonies, which feature heavily in The Beatles’ music, whereby multiple singers perform in tandem – something that Rock Band hadn’t tackled extensively in the past. “One of the biggest challenges was adding harmonies to the vocal system,” explains Dubrofsky. “How do you choose what to sing? How is it scored? […] We wanted people to be able to practise these too. So how do you split out the vocals for practice? How do you loop? How do you get help with what tones you need to hit?”
The team turned over these considerations, but even after figuring out all of the above, they still weren’t sure how players would react or who would even use it. “Vocal harmonies are traditionally challenging to sing, and a little fiddly,” says Foster. “We asked ourselves, ‘What sorts of gamers would even consider it a fun experience?’ But the playtesting showed us that, surprisingly, […] with so many voices in the mix, people who were less comfortable taking the stage could sing a little more quietly and feel covered by sounds of the other singers. It created new opportunities for aspiring – if shy – vocalists. And when we had three strangers come in to test the entire playtest, who then closed out the set singing The End while holding hands, we knew we’d pulled off something special.”
When people think of Beatles games today, The Beatles: Rock Band is perhaps the one that most comes to mind. And rightly so: it not only exceeded sales expectations, shifting a quarter of its inventory in the first week, but it also showed the potential in a crossover between The Beatles and video games. Today, it remains the most successful game based on The Beatles, but things have unfortunately gone quiet again, with only a couple of unofficial romhacks and Easter eggs to speak of in the time since, like Willy Meets The Beatles and Adventures in Pepperland. It’s hard not to think of this as somewhat of a wasted opportunity. After all, there’s a lot of untapped potential in the idea of games based on The Beatles’ mythology, from a Her Story-esque detective yarn about combing through albums to uncover hidden messages, to an anthology of fun minigames based on Help!, or even a psychedelic strategy game set inside of the Yellow Submarine. Just imagine the possibilities.