In the 90s, Italian software houses struggled: from Simulmondo to Trecision, everyone was trying their hardest to stay afloat. The Italian market, despite the overall okay sales numbers, was always small, providing little funds and visibility to those that tried their hand at developing games. Also, even after 1993, piracy was still very much a problem. The studios were desperately trying to find an audience that didn’t really seem interested in supporting the home teams. While most of them would not live to see the year 2000, they left behind an important legacy, with titles still remembered by many all over the world.
Light Shock Software was a different story than most others since original founders Massimiliano Calamai and Francesco Iorio ended up approaching the idea of a software house by picking up other teams’ projects, acting as both developers and producers, supervising and helping them to reach an audience via contracts with international publishers. Light Shock, at times, seemed to resemble more QA than actual development; still, those were not always their original intentions.
Scouting for talent
Francesco Iorio had been studying ever since he was a teenager how to develop video games, his first attempts focused on squeezing as much as possible from the hardware of the Amiga. “We had several interesting projects I was working on with my good friend and high school classmate Matteo Tesser, even though none would ever be truly completed, they were definitely quite impressive for amateur programmers” he recalls. Back then, around 1993, he mentions regularly sending materials to Italian magazine The Games Machine which would provide a monthly column, Talent Scout, dedicated to demos, artworks and, overall, interesting ideas contributed by readers. It is through the magazine that Iorio manages to get in contact with Fabrizio Farenga of Holodream software.
Holodream had already been working for several years: they had released several titles for Riccardo Arioti’ Genias (Warm Up), along with recently signing a publishing agreement with Team17 for F17 Challenge. It was the English publisher who actually asked Holodream if they knew of someone with enough skills to work on a PC conversion of Overdrive, since the original Amiga version had sold decently and they were looking to release it on another platforms. Farenga pitches the idea to Iorio, who accepts, working on it for a while then sending the prototype to Team 17.
The UK publisher seemed to like it and decided to let Holografix, the name decided by Francesco and Matteo for their two-man team, handle the conversion. “But that didn’t last long, as soon as the publisher found out the beta version we subsequently sent still had some bugs, they decided the whole project was going too slow and changed their minds. The DOS conversion ended up being developed by another programmer (Kevin Cook, released in 1995 -ed’s note), even though ours was technically superior!”. Matteo Tesser adds “I remember Team17 did not even send us the source code, so we had to reverse engineer the original from Amiga and that inevitably led to some gameplay issues”.
The Holografix team has given me permission to distribute their version of Overdrive which is now available on web archive. This version was developed by Francesco Iorio and Matteo Tesser, featuring music by Giulio Fornasar and improved 256 color graphics by Raffaele Valensise.
Compared to the original Amiga game and the subsequent DOS version developed by East Point Software features:
– high-res Team 17 logo in 640×400;
– slightly modified maps featuring “Holodream Tools” ads along the track;
– there are four different adversaries on screen, compared to two on the Amiga and PC versions;
– slightly different interface graphics;
– the soundtrack is completely different, using the MIDI format instead of MOD.
Holografix’s version of Overdrive was designed to run at a smooth 60 FPS on a 386SX with standard VGA, while East Point Software’s version requires a slightly more powerful computer to be run at a stable framerate.
A meeting between Tuscany and Veneto
With that interesting possibility of working with Team17 going up in smoke, it is still through The Games Machine that Iorio gets in contact with Massimiliano Calamai. It was 1993, Massimiliano had been in Simulmondo since a couple of years prior as a graphic designer but, by then, had become tired of working on the same interactive comic book titles. He was more than ready to do something else. Calamai had already been in contact with other young upcoming developers, especially Marco Biondi.
The newly formed team of four, Matteo, Marco, Francesco, and Massimiliano, seemed to hit it off right away: Matteo remembers they would spend weekends at each other’s house, alternatively staying in Florence or Belluno. After working for a few months, Massimiliano and Francesco decided to fly to London’s ECTS to show a portfolio of projects to various publishers: images and demos they had been working on. They returned to Italy with great hopes for their work, so much so that in October of that same year they decided to officially create Light Shock software. Marco remembers “legally, only Massimiliano and Francesco were part of the company, since I and Matteo couldn’t do it. But still, relationships between us were still on the same level, there was no real hierarchical organization.”
After the experience at ECTS, The Games Machine would again lend the fledging Light Shock a helping hand: after publishing an interview with the team, they were officially put on the map. Marco remembers “the phone was ringing off the hook all day long, we got sent all kinds of stuff via mail!”. Iorio and Calamai already had plans to develop their games and projects but, as things happen, decided to prioritize titles from other teams that looked promising. Since Iorio had already experienced first-hand how difficult it could be for an inexperienced team to even release a game, despite an agreement with a foreign publisher, he concurred with the others that they should begin working on a couple of these promising projects by other Italian teams. That was the start of Light Shock working in a way that resembled a Quality Assurance team.
They decided to split between working in Belluno (where Iorio lived) and Prato (where Calamai lived) with the other (future) three different teams working in their respective cities. As a homage to SEGA’s “Amusement Machine” teams (AM1, AM2, etc.), the groups working on different titles were called “Production Studios” (PS1, PS2 and PS3), with PS1 identifying Calamai’s and Iorio’s own team.
Hors d'oeuvre: Digital Exterminators' Black Viper
In an interview on Amiga CD32 Player in June of 1995, Iorio would go on boasting that the team was naturally the best in the country at their craft: “We believe that soon the PC market will discover the arcade game […] I saw some titles at ECTS with outstanding graphics but the only thing to do was moving the pointer to shoot at things. […] As for an Italian style, well I guess we believe we can do things better.” He would even go on to make direct references to fellow Italian fighting title Shadow Fighter (by NAPS team) saying that their work-in-progress game, Fightin’ Spirit, looked and played much better.
But still, the first title that the company received and was impressed with, was instead Black Viper.
Black Viper was a shoot ‘em up in development by Digital Exterminators (aka D.E.X.). They were an experienced team who had previously worked on the Nathan Never game, published by Genias, in 1993. Coding was originally handled by Emanuele Viola, who remembers turning down an offer by the same publisher for a sequel to their Nathan Never, because of being paid only half of what was originally promised. He also mentions going as far as suing the publisher for the promised compensation, to no avail. While – he says – Nathan Never took six months of grueling work, Black Viper would actually end up taking a whole three years. In the end, he regrets not taking the offer for the sequel, but he was fifteen years old at the time and “didn’t know better”.
The game was originally developed with Viola’s high school friend Marco Genovesi, while their original plan was developing a beat em up, they somehow ended up with a biking game. They took inspirations from some of their most beloved animated series, like Hokuto No Ken (Fist of the North Star) and Mad Max, with the gameplay being a mixture of Street Hawk and Road Rash. Their project, originally titled Dark Blade, was basically almost finished when they got in contact with Light Shock, but they were lacking a publisher. Marco Genovesi mentions “we did the best we could since we originally designed the game on an Amiga 500, running it at 25FPS, instead of 50, made quite the difference in gameplay. We were just a bunch of highschool friends having fun. By summer of 1994, with the title close to completion, we realized no English publisher would be interested in an Amiga game: the market was dying. When Light Shock came along, it was actually quite a refreshing experience!”.
Light Shock would help with debugging, along with polishing and enhancing the title for release, by changing the original title and, especially, adding a long animated intro sequence exclusive for the Amiga CD32 version, created by Alberto Gelpi. Black Viper would actually end up one of the last official releases for the Amiga console. Marco Biondi remembers that it was the first title considered for release for the publishing agreement with Neo Software Produktions GmbH, an Austrian game development and publishing company. “They had been working very hard on the game and their experience clearly showed in the final product. It was basically ready when D.E.X. approached us. It was really just a matter of making it more attractive for the market,” comments Marco.
Viola remembers working hours and hours with Biondi, hunting down bugs in the code written in assembly and “commented as well as a fifteen years old could have done at the time, working with almost no experience. In the end, we tracked down that very last bug that actually crashed the game at the very last level“. He took his share of the money, which amounted to today’s 500€, “much less than I did with Nathan Never”, and that was that.
But the real star attraction of the publishing agreement with Neo, everyone agrees, was, actually, Fightin’ Spirit.
The main course: Fightin' Spirit
The project for Fightin’ Spirit was born almost by chance, Calamai remembers. While browsing some magazines, he read of a team from the south of Italy, Dynamic Style, working on a SNK-style fighting game called Perpetual Craze. Light Shock phoned them up and, soon enough, Dynamic Style was working with the two producers day and night, ironing out bugs and adding new graphical touches. Graphics were created by Giacinto Platania and programming by Dario Merola, while all the sound effects and voices of the characters were actually created by Light Shock members and a few close friends, recording them in a basement through a cheap head microphone.
The team had done a great job with the graphics, looking as close to an actual SNK beat ’em up as it was possible on the Amiga. “But there was little to no gameplay“, remembers Calamai “so we had to build that up from the ground. In the end, the project pushed the Amiga ECS so much that we had to cut out some of the songs because, otherwise, the game would not have fit on the floppies!”. Marco Biondi adds “the team had put their hearts and souls into Perpetual Craze, they were barely 18 years old by that point, so they were indeed incredibly passionate about the project”. It is fair to say that Fightin’ Spirit is a title “heavily” inspired by classics of the genre, along with being infused with several pop culture references from the 80s and 90s: from the Van-Damme movie Kickboxer to a character designed after Freddie Mercury himself.
Indeed, Perpetual Craze, released on Amiga ECS, AGA, and CD32, ended up being the main attraction of the two titles agreement with Austrian publisher Neo, itself a fledgling company founded only two years before. This time, it was actually the publisher who insisted on changing the name of the fighting title, to the apparently more easily marketable Fightin’ Spirit. But, there was a problem: the game came really at the wrongest time possible. NEO wanted a PC port, otherwise, it would have had little to no interest in publishing it, so much so that, as Calamai recalls “they told us that, if we wanted, we could scout for a new publisher. We could not find anyone, I remember Team17 saying that if we had showed them Perpetual Craze three years before, it would have been a hit! In the end, we had to swallow our pride and stick with NEO.”
Iorio observes that porting the project on PC – even for 1995 – would have hardly been interesting for an international publisher. “A SNK-style beat ‘em up for MS-DOS, back then, would have basically no market to speak of and Dynamic Style was so persistent in wanting to finish and release it on Amiga, that a possible conversion was never even considered.” The Dynamic Style team had actually worked on a prototype that would run on PC, but they would soon give up on finishing it.
After winning the MCW Amiga award for “Game of the year” in 1996, the title was released, being received with mostly fair reviews by magazines like Amiga Cd32 and Amiga Format. Still, to this day, it has been nominated several times by Retro Gamer magazine as one of the best one-on-one fighting games on the Amiga. But again, to no one surprise, it did not go on to sell impressive numbers or, well, to sell anything at all. By the mid-90s, the market for the Commodore home computer had trickled down to very small numbers. Marco Biondi comments “I think if it had been released even three months before, things would have been very different, but we were working as fast as we could”. The same problem would also affect the sales of Black Viper, naturally.
Calamai mentions that Light Shock did everything in their power to check that NEO was acting in good faith “they kept reporting that the game sold nothing and, as much as we could check, these reports seemed to be correct. Fightin Spirit only rewarded us spiritually, since the finished product was indeed a fantastic fighting game; economically we got nothing out of it. It was quite frustrating”. Fightin Spirit would apparently see so much demand in the United Kingdom, that, in 2000, it would be re-released, on CD only, by Alive Mediasoft, which probably would make Light Shock’s hypothesis of Neo not going out of their way to distribute it, much closer to the truth.
While talking about the deal with the Austrian publisher, Iorio confirms that the overall agreement was a disaster: “We got no money out of the whole deal, not even an advance payment. Nothing, really, basically all work on Fightin’ Spirit and Black Viper was done for free, which heavily contributed to the guys’ pretty sour mood, and obviously ours as well. I think, in the end, maybe Neo ended up paying for some of the Amiga CD hardware we were developing the games on, but that was it.”.
Straight with a chaser: Pray for Death
The final title actually released by Light Shock would be Pray for Death, which Calamai mentions as the most significant development work done by the studio in its short three years run. The project was originally developed by Vysio Arte Elettronica, a team led by Carlo Gioventu and Sebastiano Del Gobbo, with Valentino Eugeni as the lead programmer and Mauro Alessandrini. Del Gobbo remembers “most of the work was done by us as a team: modeling and rendering the characters using Lightwave 3D, along with Real3D for the battlefields.”
The three worked a full year on the title, using three different Amiga 4000s, taking direct inspiration from technologically advanced beat’ em up Killer Instinct. At one point, the team actually wanted to rebuild everything from scratch, in order to port the graphics to 640×480, but they desisted cause Pray for Death was already running late. “When we first saw the title, it was still little more than a promising technical demo” remembers Calamai “being impressed, we decided to formally introduce Vysio Arte to Light Shock. In addition to the original team, further work on the title, development, QA, etc. was performed by me, Iorio, Marco Biondi, and our other developers.”
Calamai notes that Killer Instinct was supported by a seriously powerful hardware in the arcades, a powerhouse that could hardly be replicated on an average mid-90s personal computer. Thus they had to work around the limitations of the platform, in order to maintain the graphically impressive work done by Vysio, while also trying to keep it running with a decent performance. First showed at ECTS in 1995, they got the attention of several companies, among them Virgin and Sony. The Japanese company wanted the title to be ready for Christmas of that same year, in order to launch it on their recently launched console, the PlayStation.
“Unfortunately this turned out to be completely impossible” remembers Iorio, “the title was only halfway ready, even if we hired more programmers to help us, we would have never finished it in the four months that Sony allowed us.” Calamai continues “consider also that the Playstation didn’t have enough memory to run Pray for Death as it had been developed for PC. It was a case of 1 MB of RAM versus 16. It was originally designed to be run on a much more powerful platform, we thought it was tailor-made for the computer. I remember the backgrounds were rendered by leaving the computers to work overnight, with each one taking up to twelve hours.” Iorio further explains “we added several pre-rendered frames and a moving camera to make the backgrounds look as they were actually rotating in a 3D space, in a way that actually resembled the effect present in Killer Instinct II.”
In the end, what would be the final Light Shock title was published by Virgin Interactive, which soon would be undergoing a major reassessment. “At least we were paid a small advance, which was basically all spent on buying more powerful machines to get the game developed as quickly as possible, along with paying the huge telephone bills to transfer data with 14400baud modems (the fastest at the time) and shipping stacks of floppy disks” mentions Iorio.
Marco Biondi remembers that Pray for Death took the most work out of all the titles, especially because Virgin seemed keen on hunting down each and every bug. “We would be faxed pages and pages of things to fix. The weirdest one was probably the bug that would cause the game to crash after 37 minutes of being paused! How did they catch that, I’m still wondering to this day. Trying to actually replicate and fix it, well was kind of a nightmare”. At that point, also, Biondi was basically in charge of all PR and marketing, since he was the best English speaker of the team.
Matteo Tesser’s most vivid memory about his work on the fighting game was having to create a compression algorithm from scratch, together with Marco Biondi, working nights to get the introduction video to fit on a single CD. “Back then, there was no way to compress a video file, so I just went ahead and wrote something that could be considered a sort of white paper to the original MPEG algorithm. While it would not really transform frequencies, it would compress them, it was barely held together with glue, but in the end we managed to get it working long enough for the video to run fine and be of the right file size. To this day, I’m amazed at the stuff we were able to do without guides or outside help!”
At one point, the team also had to deal with a shortage of writable CDs in Italy, because of the ongoing war against piracy. “In the end, I had no choice but to phone Virgin and tell them we were unable to send them the prototype”, mentions Biondi “and right the next day, there came a huge stack of blank CDs! We were saved!”. Going back to the publishing agreement, Calamai comments: “Virgin basically made us a part of their overall team, which on one hand was a pretty lucky event, but on the other, this meant we were not able to really decide anything on our own anymore.” Pray for Death was released to mostly lukewarm and mediocre reviews by the press, but Del Gobbo is still happy about it: “we were paid very little which disappointed us, but it was really exciting to see our game being published internationally by Virgin”.
Apparently, according to Carlo Gioventu, Virgin sold 30k copies of Pray for Death in one week, selling out in very little time, but then the publisher seemed to have no plans to reprint it. He goes on blaming the agreement between Light Shock and Virgin, and how the English publisher seemed more interested in promoting their huge 1996 releases like Broken Sword, rather than a game that already made back the little money Virgin had actually invested in it.
Light Shock after 1996: unreleased games and future plans
In 1996, with Virgin folding up and changing their organisation to be sold to Electronic Arts, Light Shock was caught in the whirlwind. “We had already talked with the executives at Virgin for what we were supposed to be working on after Pray for Death, but in the end, all the conversations just stopped” Iorio mentions. Virgin, under new management, decided to cut down the most recent and less experienced teams on board, and naturally the Italian studio was among the first to be axed. Light Shock would close its doors in late 1996, while trying their hands with a PlayStation development kit on a couple of potential titles. Iorio and Calamai also remember wanting to head in two different directions, so that – along with the lack of funds and a publisher – contributed to them wanting to devote their time to different endeavors.
But what of the original projects in the works at Light Shock? Biondi remembers WIN: an acronym for Working in the Night, since they developed and played it during the long nights. It was a top down racing game in the vein of Micromachines that the team would play via LAN. “We couldn’t really release that as it was, so in the end it was a project I worked on for a web release years later.
While working as Holografix, Matteo Tesser and Francesco Iorio had also been devoting their time on Q-Star System, a classic 2D shoot em up set in space. Holografix worked on it from 1992 until 1994, along with some further work also done together with Massimiliano Calamai, during their years at Light Shock Software. The two early Holografix demo versions of Q-Star System are now freely available, thanks to Iorio and Tesser.
Among the other projects that never saw the light of day there was Run Ball, almost entirely made by Massimiliano Calamai on his own, was a take on the SNK Windjammers gameplay style, but with a more Mortal Kombat flavour and in-your-face style. The title was only partially completed, with only one character fully animated and designed, an Amiga-based tool for managing player animations and backgrounds, and a small demo running on PC. Another project was a top-down racing game, called Usa Racing in the early preview on Amiga Power then later renamed by Cesare Di Mauro, the main programmer, to World Racing. Work on that one didn’t go pretty far because – again – apparently no publisher was interested in publishing a top down racer, on Amiga or PC, so it was abandoned.
“Thinking back now, I’m almost scared by what we managed to accomplish with Light Shock: we really pushed the limits of the technology at the time. I would probably never be brave enough to even remotely consider doing anything like this today! To this day, it was one of the best times of my life.” recalls Calamai. Marco Genovesi mentions that Light Shock and his team were about stories of teenagers fighting against overwhelming odds armed only with their dreams and talent, creating something out of nothing. “I see the beauty in that and I bet that if we were in an eighties movie this would also have a happy ending.”
Unfortunately, the final months in the software house were marred by discussions and people being particularly angry with both Iorio and Calamai. “I think everyone’s young age (I was the oldest at 24!) led them to believe their games were so beautiful, fun to play, and unique that they were supposed to sell like hotcakes. So, when they ended up registering poor sales, the blame rested on management and the contract with Neo and Virgin. I really hope that by now everyone has calmed down but, otherwise, I’m plenty available to talk!” concludes Biondi.
The history of Light Shock is also another that seems to be characterized by passionate people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. All the different teams were working on platforms that, while still having many fans in Italy, were basically already obsolete in most other countries. To make matters worse, they were not very interested in selling the games in Italy but clearly had their eye on the foreign market, ending up striking a publishing agreement with Neo that left everyone unsatisfied.
Despite their clear talents, the teams were still mostly made up of young bright-eyed kids, barely of legal working age. Despite their dedication, they clearly were not interested in looking at the market in order to decide if a certain title could be successful or not. As passionate projects, they burned bright for just a very brief time, like a light in the dark, but those two seconds, were indeed something to behold.
Light Shock continues still in someway, with some of the previous members still working in some capacity in the gaming industry:
Massimiliano Calamai, after collaborating with Artematica, still works in the gaming industry.
Francesco Iorio has worked in Revolution Software, being lead programmer on Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon, among other things, and now lives in Canada.
Marco Biondi lives in Firenze and works in IT, Matteo Tesser also works in IT.
Sources & References
Interviews with Marco Biondi, Massimiliano Calamai, Francesco Iorio and Matteo Tesser conducted via Skype between 2020 and 2021.
Magazines: The Games Machine, Amiga Power, Amiga CD32 Player.
Dreamkatcha’s “A Trip Down Light Shock Lane” on archive.org
Many thanks to all my interviewees for their time and providing some of the games for the article and to Dreamkatcha for the amazing work on the retrospective.