In the history of Italian videogame development, point’n’click adventure games are, perhaps, the quintessential genre.
Yes, even more than soccer games, go figure!
While Sierra Entertainment adventures struggled to find a market in Italy, mainly because they were rarely translated and fairly difficult to approach for a non-English speaker, Lucasarts adventures have always been huge.
Well, except for Loom…
They sold so many copies that Lucasarts, alone, shaped the PC and Amiga videogame market for the entire 90s and probably even later. There’s probably something pathological about Italy’s undying love for adventure games.
It is not a coincidence, then, that the few Italian software houses that thrived in the 90s focused their efforts mainly on PC and home computers; as far as I know there have been no games, made in Italy, for Sega or Nintendo consoles until much later.
Among the point and click adventures released in the 90s, Nippon Safes Inc. and, especially, the Big Red Adventure are regarded as some of the best, well worth the player’s time; they are currently even supported by ScummVM.
Dynabyte was the software house behind both titles and, since there is little information about its history, I used the power of the internet to track down some of the people involved with the development to hear their story and what happened.
E-motion software: that first step is indeed a doozy
It was not easy to pinpoint where the story of Dynabyte software began, but if we have to start somwhere, it might as well be with an… E-motion.
E-motion Software was the company where graphic designer Massimo Magnasciutti and programmer Paolo Costabel first met.
Naturally, being 1991, Massimo recalls they weren’t really a software house; both were working for a multimedia company and managed to get a small team working together with the idea of designing a videogame that catered to their interest in cyberpunk and Blade Runner.
Thus, the idea for Crimetown Depths begins to take shape, originally planned for Amiga, with later conversions for Atari ST and PC. The plot goes that an unnamed intergalactic mercenary is called upon by the Galactic Tyrant to solve the ongoing wars between criminal gangs on the dictator’s homeplanet.
The gameplay would alternate between adventure/exploration (a bit like Barbarian, said Massimo in an interview back then) and shoot em up sequences.
Paolo Costabel says they managed to close a pretty favorable two games agreement with Mirrorsoft, a UK publisher, with E-motion Software transforming into an actual company thanks to new funds and investors.
Imagine an unknown team from Italy suddenly working next to development veterans like The Bitmap Brothers, too good to be true!
And, alas, it was.
The team had little to no previous experience in development, and that – Paolo Costabel concludes – turned out to be a major issue in completing such an ambitious title.
They just kept adding more and more stuff, “what started as a small shoot’em up […] basically became an encyclopedia of features” recalls Alessandro Tento in an inteview with magazine Commodore Gazette. He also recalls various fights with Magnasciutti for how the gameplay was supposed to be designed.
Tento might be a familiar name to some, he later went on to work in Activision as Senior Art director on the Call of Duty and Spyro series, among other things.
Also, according to Massimo, Mirrorsoft assigned them a project manager who didn’t seem to know what he was doing. As soon as the UK publisher found out that Crimetown Dephts would have to be shipped on three floppies, hence fairly expensive to produce, they dropped E-motion Software and the game was canned.
Even though it never saw the light of day, Crimetown still resonates with several Amiga fans for how promising it was shaping up to be.
Magnasciutti tells me that Crimetown Depths was “90% finished”, at least graphically, but they never really managed to get the feeling of the gameplay right.
The demo, or actually the trailer, seems to be the only thing that was completed.
The birth of Dynabyte
After that failed first experience, Magnasciutti and Costabel decide to create a new company.
Dynabyte was founded in 1991 in Genova, as part of the Euclidea company, owned by Lovrano Canepa and Bruno Boz. Together with Magnasciutti and Costabel, there was game designer Christian Cantamessa (who later went on to work for Rockstar on level design for GTA San Andreas and Red Dead Redemption), who left after a few months. Soon after his departure, Marco Caprelli joined in: he recalls first meeting the guys in a computer shop in Genova and, after going to their office, got hired almost immediately.
The team was rounded up with Lovrano Canepa in charge of PR and Bruno Boz as CEO.
Their first idea was a graphical adventure for Amiga, Steve Sailing on the Crime Wave, which became the prototype for the more complex Nippon Safes Inc.
Magnasciutti recalls that, since the point’n’click genre was selling really well, it made sense to try and cash in on Lucasarts fans who were hungry for more. It was a genre also, apparently, easier to work with, rather than – again – trying their hands at a more complicated action or platformer.
Nippon Safes Inc. was developed for Amiga and PC by a three people dev team: Magnasciutti as graphical designer, Costabel handling the programming and Caprelli as musician.
Caprelli still recalls working with the PC beeper to do the music: “one of the worst experiences of my life!”
Paolo tells me that, together with the classic Monkey Island gameplay, he drew ispiration from his love for Japan, hence the idea of an adventure based in “Tyoko” also featuring various national stereotypes.
The adventure runs across three different characters and parallel story-arcs, Massimo recalls the concept came, instead, from playing Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry III.
The project turned out to be quite difficult to finish, with, apparently, a good chunk of the adventure ending up on the cutting floor because the development was running into overtime.
Massimo also feels that the “real” version of Nippon Safes Inc. is the Amiga one: he didn’t like the PC conversion because of several graphical cuts made the game run smoother, he also has no real affection for the added soundtrack that plays continously during gameplay.
Caprelli says he wasn’t crazy about the box art, to him it would have been better to let Magnasciutti handle it, in order to better represent the style of the adventure.
Nippon Safes Inc. is a relatively simple and short point’n’click that shows off the Dynabyte guys’ talents, but was clearly also the result of a small budget and hurried development cycle.
Still, as the company’s first game, after several failed attemps, it features a relatively bug free experience, even though the conversations between the characters are limited, along with a relatively accessible interface.
It still is a competent and fun adventure game.
It was also very well received by the national press – who apparently couldn’t believe an Italian software house’s first title could actually be decent! – and enjoyed a pretty good success in its homecountry, which at the time, meant selling little more than a thousand copies,
Weirdly enough, especially for 1992, Nippon Safes especially resonated with the international magazines.
Costabel tells me that, seeing all that warm reception, they soon ended up regretting doing basically no marketing: the game was translated but never published outside of Italy.
Massimo chimes in, saying that the programmers never saw a dime from all the copies sold.
In 1993, Dynabyte published a title developed by a team from Palermo (Sicily), that had basically no connection with everything they had released up to that point. As Massimo recalls, “they came to us with an already finished product and asked if we could distribute it in northern Italy”.
Striker Occulta Lapis is very rarely talked about, even in its homecountry, as it wasn’t really a videogame. Made to catch on the growing demand for multimedia products, it worked as a sort of interactive comic book novel on CD-Rom: the player would just click to advance the story.
In 1993 not many people in Italy actually owned a CD drive, it was a rarity even to see a stereo featuring a CD player; to no one surprise, it enjoyed limited success.
Massimo himself is not entirely sure if Dynabyte actually distributed the title in stores, Caprelli also barely remembers it and says that it was probably never sold.
After Nippon Safes Inc. and the changes in organisation, Dynabyte tried to further enlarge its portfolio by developing and publishing two drastically different kind of games.
The first was a one-on-one fighting title, Tube Warriors, exclusively developed for AGA Amigas.
It was, again, based in Japan, with all fights taking place in the underground (as the title might suggest), where the player must defeat all the leaders of the other rival gangs so as to take over their territory.
Similarly to Fatal Fury, the characters can alternate between fighting in foreground and background.
Costabel tells me it wasn’t a great idea, since the fighting genre wasn’t something they had experience with and, graphically, it didn’t really make full use of the power of AGAs.
That feature of the Fatal Fury gameplay, though, was later used for an idea for a cyberpunk platformer that Caprelli and Costabel were working on. Marco recalls being hopelessly in love with the look of that prototype, where every sprite had a layer of rust: “We also contacted talented local graffiti artist Talexi to do something cool with him, but that never went beyond the prototype stage”.
Talexi is Alessandro Taini, who worked as Art director for several Ninja Theory’s games, from Heavenly Sword to Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
The other title released in 1994 is Late Night Sexy Tv Show, developed by Massimo Magnasciutti and Maurizio Ghirelli, even though Massimo talks about it like it’s his creature.
As readers of this blog might know, I have a penchant for weird and obscure titles. I frankly would be hard pressed to find a weirder title to come, not only out of Dynabyte, but probably the whole of Italy in the 90s.
LNSTS is, at its core, a quiz show, presented by the sexy host Vera Cyntex, but also featuring some dating simulation gameplay elements.
It was touted to magazines as being developed on a Silicon Graphics machine, which Dynabyte had actually acquired by that point but, for various technical problems, it was never used for the development of said sexy quiz show, nor any other game at all, as far as I know.
Caprelli recalls it was more of a toy for the office, with Giorgio Sommariva also chiming in “it was used mainly to have fun, as far as I know we never used it for any games, even though that machine costed a fortune!”.
Massimo himself confirmed:
Late Night was programmed and designed with a cracked copy of 3D Studio Max on a 486. I didn’t even have the manual for the program so I had to learn through trial and error!
Not only that, but on a preview on Italian magazine The Games Machine, Lovrano Canepa actually talks about LNSTS having an algorithm (reACTOR) that would manage the character’s emotions and reactions in real time.
Even without Silicon Graphics, he did a pretty good job, considering the circumstances. Magnasciutti tells me the idea to develop Late Night Sexy Tv Show came out of a meeting that went something like this:
What’s a surefire topic that is going to sell a game?
Yeah sure, but we don’t know how to program a football game…
Oh yeah, let’s do it
Thus, Massimo started working full time on it, with the objective of “parodying those stupid TV game shows” like Wheel of Fortune.
Basically, the player (or up to four players together) creates a contestant through a simple character creator, then goes on the show to answer typical quiz show-like questions. Guessing correctly grants money, that can be used to further advances one’s career, modifying one’s body (with options like reducing one’s penis size or a surgical defloration) or getting to know the partner, one of the other contestants.
Massimo, apparently, really loved the idea behind Leisure Suit Larry, since winning entails becoming the perfect match for the chosen partner, hence having a turn together in the VR “Orgasmatic” machine. There is also mentions of “cosmosensual fluid”, but frankly, it started to lose me a bit there.
In writing the script the designer decided not to hold back any punches and throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. This is further reinforced by reading the 30 pages manual, entirely written by Massimo, made up to look like a scandal mag, which probably took more time to write than the game itself.
With only five pages dedicated to how the game works, the rest of the mag shares Late Night’s VERY nineties kind of humour: personal ads like “looking for fun? dress up in a chicken suit and go to the central station at 4 AM”, news about canned tuna that makes one change sex, fake interviews to scientists and weirdos and, naturally, offensive jokes on everything under the sun.
While talking about the sales, Massimo recalls that, back then, the important thing was trying to stay on top of the market: “even if your game was terrible, it was important to get it out there. Quantity over quality.”
Late Night didn’t sell – surprisingly! – very well, even though most people I’ve talked to still vividly remember it.
Even though LNSTS ended up being quickly forgotten, it received surprisingly enthusiastic reviews at the time, with The Games Machine giving it a 89 out of 100 [more than Nippon Safes Inc!] saying:
At first it seemed to us another senseless title […] but I would highly recommend it, not only it is very fun, it also lasts a very long time, becoming more and more intriguing and exciting!
I had the honour of playing Late Night Sexy TV Show, being one of the few lucky owners of a complete physical copy and I can proudly say it is the first time that I’ve successfully managed to crash Dosbox. And no saves here!
The gameplay is definitely on the weird side of the spectrum, even though I can’t bring myself to say it is so weird that it’s good, nor that it ever becomes particularly engaging.
Still, I can safely say it is one of the more out-there experiences I’ve had in recent years, especially for something that was actually comercially released. Frankly, I would dare to try it again just to see more weird conversations between the characters.
Massimo also gave me the go-ahead to upload the game on archive.org, so if any of my readers feel like trying it too, here’s the link. Unfortunately, Italian only.
After the successful release of their first title, along with trying to branch out without particular success, Caprelli recalls the guys were unhappy with the way the company was organized, thus the decision to merge Dynabyte into a new company, Ludomedia, while still retaining the brand.
The newborn enterprise would feature several partners (including Caprelli) with Paolo Costabel as the legal representative and Bruno Boz as CEO. Marco, while digging up materials for the article, recalled that the Ludomedia logo was actually designed by his girlfriend at the time, that is one obscure piece of development trivia!
Dynabyte goes international
Magnasciutti leaves Dynabyte not soon after the release of Late Night, finding work somewhere else. He only gets a glimpse of what will be the software house’s big success.
The Big Red Adventure was developed as a direct sequel to Nippon Safes, with the three protagonists returning in a longer more complex adventure.
Giorgio Sommariva recalls joining the team in 1994 and immediately working on TBRA’s graphics. He also mentions four weeks of desperate crunch to finish the adventure in time, with the last part of the game ending up a bit rushed.
Dynabyte, most of all, wanted to make sure to avoid repeating the same publishing mistakes that led to the poor sales of Nippon Safes.
The team went to London’s ECTS to show the game, with Virgin being among the various publishing companies interested, recalls Caprelli, but in the end it was Core Design who won them over.
Costabel himself flew to Derby, England to show a demo of the game to the English company to finalize the publishing deal.
He said the team worked restlessly 72 hours to iron out all the bugs, but it was worth it since the deal was closed: Core Design came to Genova, with Adrian Smith as a producer, to sign the contract.
Caprelli recalls talking with Smith and mentioning the absence of female protagonists in videogames, with the producer revealing they are indeed working on Tomb Raider.
Originally titled Operation Matrioska, Caprelli recalls it was Core that decided to switch to The Big Red Adventure to make it sound more “European”. The adventure was distributed all over the continent; even though it was a sequel of a game that was still available only in Italy, he recalls that, apparently, didn’t seem to bother the publisher.
Sommariva also recalls working on the dialogues and descriptions: “When I was done with the graphics, I either did some testing or writing. Costabel had wrote a script (apparently called Parallaction – ed’s note) that uploaded in-game text that we compiled with the plain DOS editor. Sometimes we added very random stuff, like references to the Sampdoria soccer team or even mentions to former girlfriends!”.
TBRA is a slightly better game than its predecessor, showing a more mature side of Dynabyte along with less bugs and problems, even though the adventure still had pretty limited animations and didn’t feature fleshed-out dialogues.
The Games Machine gave it a 87 out of 100, singling out the team for being “almost on par with Lucasarts and Sierra for the quality of their adventures”.
Unfortunately, even though the publishing deal with Core Design allowed TBRA to sell okay and, at least, made back money, Caprelli says the English publisher didn’t work again with Dynabyte.
Apparently, Core Design wasn’t interested in their next project because it looked too “childish”: by then the PlayStation era had already begun and everything, overnight, became “edgy”.
The Big Red Adventure didn’t, perhaps, make Dynabyte into a household name, but, on the other hand, it is still fondly remembered by many and remains one of Italy’s most famous adventure games.
Tequila goes Boom-boom: The end of Dynabyte
Dynabyte began working on their following project even before TBRA was finished.
It was going to be another point’n’click adventure, sharing the same engine but featuring a simplified interface, along with Disney-like quality cartoon graphics.
While Tequila & Boom-Boom, released in 1995, may have looked like a cartoon, Costabel says he wanted to put in as much Sergio Leone (not a coincidence that the box features a Leone quote: straight to the heart, Ramon!) and spaghetti western in the plot and characters.
Caprelli tells me their objective was basically to make a cartoon version of a Bud Spencer and Terence Hill movie, hence the look of the two main protagonists.
Giorgio Sommariva recalls working for a little while on the adventure shortly before leaving Dynabyte, even though he wasn’t credited in the finished product.
Most of the graphics were drawn by hand by graphic artist Alessandro Belli, and then scanned in, similarly to what Lucasarts was doing with the Curse of Monkey Island.
Costabel refers to it as one of the best titles Dynabyte did, but, weirdly enough, it is probably their least known adventure, even in Italy. The blame falls, again, on various distribution problems which led to Tequila & Boom Boom selling not many copies.
Caprelli remembers that Dynabyte had closed a publishing agreement with Sacis, a company that, at the time, seemed to be on the rise, since it was also distributing Ubi Soft titles like Rayman.
Sacis proved to be the wrong choice: they were a public company with connections to Italian’s national television with, apparently, no real grasp of the videogame market.
Caprelli goes on to say, he is still pretty sure that Dynabyte was more market savvy than Sacis itself!
So, again, Tequila & Boom Boom never really managed to sell well, ending up as being their last commercially released title. Sacis was initially going to distribute the other adventure the software house was developing along Tequila, but that, as we’ll see shortly, never came true.
Right alongside development on Tequila & Boom Boom, Sommariva mentions the team was also working on Blood & Lace (called “Blood & Laces” in a The Games Machine preview).
This was a radically different project from the usual Dynabyte adventures: based on an idea that Marco Caprelli himself got while thinking about the few female heroines in gaming, it starred countess Babara Cagliostro as the protagonist.
Originally Blood & Lace was planned to be yet another 2D point’n’click adventure featuring hand drawn graphics: a gothic horror story using an improved version of the engine behind Tequila & Boom-Boom, with a story between Paris and Italy.
This is how it looked back when the core Dynabyte team was working on it (the credits for the video feature both Caprelli and Costabel):
In 1996, Dynabyte also starts working on the Amiga conversion of The Big Red Adventure, by fans’ demand, even though the homecomputer was on its last leg at the time.
Apparently, A1200 and CD32 conversions were actually part of the initial publishing agreement with Core Design, but that part of the agreement quickly fell through because the market was shrinking rapidly.
Unfortunately, with the company in dire straits, controversies between Bruno Boz and the rest of the team led to a split, with Costabel and Caprelli on one side, and Boz on the other.
Blood & Lace: as Dynabyte drives a bargain with Giunti
Caprelli tells me that, in the end, with Costabel having received an offer to work on the Final Fantasy movie with Squaresoft, plus Riccardo Scarsi and Alessandro Belli both leaving, he found himself as the only one left in the team.
He wasn’t going to stand around pretending the company still existed – he recalls – thus Ludomedia ceases operations in 1997; even if the Dynabyte logo was absorbed by Bruno Boz’s multimedia company Virtual Edge, there was no actual team behind it.
Sommariva tells me that, apparently, Boz tried to continue working on Blood & Lace even after the team’s departure, but that version, apparently planned as a 3D adventure, never went beyond the prototype stage.
Even with the team dissolved, Caprelli did not really give up on the idea for Blood & Lace.
He was later recruited by the publishing company Giunti Editore to form a team to work on multimedia products and games. Blood & Lace was the first idea he pitched.
They gave the go-ahead and, after forming a team, Marco Caprelli starts, again, working on countess Cagliostro’s adventure, only to complete it several years later, in 2001.
Unfortunately, as is the case with titles that take years of development, the finished product looked nothing like the original adventure, instead being transformed into an action game.
Marco tells me the inspiration was, apparently, Tomb Raider even though it plays closer to the usual Resident Evil clone from the early 00s.
Caprelli told me development took two full years, with the Giunti Multimedia Team tasked with rebuilding everything from scratch, keeping only the story from the 1996 version.
They also had no other choice but to create a in-house 3D engine, since Caprelli recalls that, at the time, there was no way to license a 3D engine.
When I ask him if he was satisfied with how Blood & Lace turned out, after five years in the pipeline, he answer with a mixture of both satisfaction and dissatisfaction.
The team was costantly distracted by having to juggle too many things for their employer, never having the time to be completely devoted to the project. Also, Caprelli concludes that they were missing a more hands-on management: Giunti seemed fine in just letting the young team do their thing, usually leaving them alone to work on various projects, never bothering to check up on what they were doing.
By the time Blood & Lace was finished and, finally, hit the stores, Caprelli had already left the team.
To no one’s surprise, the game, also because it came from a publisher that was more accustomed to selling books than videogames, went mostly unnoticed.
Dynabyte is another typical story of Italian videogame development in the 90s: little money, few capitals, management problems and even more distribution and publishing drama.
Still, the team made some very smart decisions, especially in securing a distribution deal with Core Design and successfully publishing an important title like The Big Red Adventure. Perhaps, if Core had stuck with Dynabyte, I would be writing a very different outcome: maybe the software house becoming a success story like Milestone.
When I asked Paolo Costabel if he’s happy with how things turned out, he tells me that the games turned out pretty well and he’s especially proud that the various adventures he created, with the rest of the guys, are still played and enjoyed by many people around the world.
Marco Caprelli also chimes in, saying the team did the best they could to cope with a small market and their talents managed to shine even through all the problems.
Massimo Magnasciutti is more direct, as he’s wont to do, saying “they wanted us to be the Italian Ubisoft, while they didn’t even want to pay for a pizza if we happened to work overtime during the night!”.
Even if one is not a fan of its various releases, it is still remarkable how Dynabyte helped shape professionals that still have essential roles in today’s videogame world, along with being involved with important artists like Talexi.
Dynabyte may be dead and buried, a name that might sound familiar only to videogame historians and adventure fanatics, but its legacy lives strongly on.
Where are they now?
Marco Caprelli, after leaving Giunti Multimedia, became Brand Manager for Ubisoft and has worked, among others, on the Italian marketing for the Assassin’s Creed and Splinter Cell series.
Paolo Costabel, after having worked on the Hollow Man and Final Fantasy: Spirits Within movies as technical director, is now employed at Sony Santa Monica, currently working on the God of War series.
Massimo Magnasciutti is still working as a graphic designer and dabbles in conspiracy theories (nobody’s perfect!); among his various projects, he was adamant that I would mention his Soldier of fortune 2 maps, so here are Prisoner In Portmeirion and Zena on My Mind.
Giorgio Sommariva left Dynabyte and, after working for a brief while with Italian software house WaywardXS, has left the videogame world and currently works in IT.
Many many thanks to Massimo Magnasciutti, Marco Caprelli and Giorgio Sommariva for the materials and information provided, not to mention the time they devoted to my article!
Thanks also to Paolo Costabel for the information and his time.