Retro Gaming: When Mastertronic Went To Vegas…

While many cite their main influences when it comes to retro gaming as the Sega and Nintendo systems of the 90s, my main love of gaming really took shape at the beginning of the 1980s thanks to Commodore. While I had other consoles and handheld gaming devices prior to that, it was my first computer – the Commodore Vic 20 – and subsequently the Commodore 64 that really influenced my gaming habits for the rest of my life. Back then in my formative days, there were a few developers and publishers that took me along that gaming journey of discovery and none more so that budget publisher Mastertronic.

Mastertronic truly revolutionised the games industry, and rubbed a few people up the wrong way while they were at it. Rather that sticking to the same retail approach taken by every other publisher, the directors used their years of experience in distribution and set up a network that allowed them to penetrate new markets that weren’t traditionally open to selling video games. With aggressive pricing, structured in a way that was able to hit a pocket money price range while still being able to offer strong dealer margins and still be profitable, they were able to release games at a remarkably low price of just £1.99 for almost every major 8-bit computer back in the 1980s. It’s no wonder that they quickly garnered a loyal following amongst younger gamers desperate to make the most of their pocket money without having to badger their parents on a weekly basis. Even today, their games are remembered fondly as collectors and developers share their memories together.

Early games were licensed from other publishers and most titles to start were already written when brought to the company allowing them to be acquired relatively inexpensively but it meant that they could release a steadly flow of games quickly covering almost every subject matter imaginable from arcade shoot-em-ups to platform games, racing games to simulators, beat-up-ups to puzzle games. Right from the very beginning though, Mastertronic jumped in and let all of us hungry gamers experience all of the thrills of Las Vegas from the safety of our living rooms…

Vegas Jackpot was the second game to be released by Mastertronic back in 1984 on no less than seven different platforms making it the most widely released of all of their releases. Originally released by Mr Chip Software, it’s a straight forward four-reel slots game. While the sound was quite limited, even on the Commodore 64 version, it was bright and colourful and was fun to play. There wasn’t a great deal of depth to the gameplay understandably, but it was an admirable game recreating the physical machines of the day and certainly a good start for the company.

Fast forward two years to 1986 and Mastertronic launched their Entertainment USA sub-label, intended to showcase games developed in America by Sculptured Software. As part of this short-lived range we were treated to Las Vegas Video Poker. Again, released on a diverse range of platforms, as the title says it’s a video poker simulator presenting players with a digital recreation of the Five Card Draw variation on the game. As you’d expect, creating a simulation of an arcade poker machine it doesn’t play in the same way a traditional game of Five Card Draw would if you were playing against human (or AI) opponents so hands that would normally win in a regular game won’t here. This does prove frustrating initially as you think you have a winning hand only to see your stake disappear right before your eyes. Once you get used to the revised rules and new winning hands, it’s another fun release and still holds up well today for a quick fun game or two.

Las Vegas and Mastertronic parted ways at this point – or at least where the UK was concerned. The next two releases were both exclusively released in America. First up was Vegas Casino featuring several traditional casino games exclusively for the PC on disk (yes, this was before games were sold on CD, DVD or digitally folks!). While not the first time that traditional casino games had been seen on the PC (or any other platform for that matter), it was the first time that Mastertronic gave players the chance to experience the type of games people play “in the flesh” or can find commonly today on New Zealand online casino sites.

Its sequel Vegas Casino 2 followed released this time in two different formats – on 3.5″ floppy disk for the PC and as a dual format 5.25″ floppy disk for the Commodore 64 and PC. This brought more traditional casino games to the Mastertronic range for the 8-bit machines for the first time. Despite both games shipping on disk and thus having the potential to offer far more than the earlier cassette releases seen, they were relatively limited in terms of what they offered and it did disappoint somewhat.

Certainly, when it came to the sole offering for the Commodore 64 out of the two – Vegas Casino 2 – it only offered two of the more well known casino games in the form of Roulette and Craps making no use of the huge (at the time) 170kb of storage available on the disk. If publishers such as Epyx could offer a complete series of olympic sporting events on a single disk in their Summer Games series, I wonder why this was so lacking. It has to be said though that both titles, being exclusive to the American market makes then of interest to the more serious collectors because of their relative scarcity.

Perhaps at the end of the day the genre was too niche for Mastertronic to continue to support but when it came to Las Vegas themed titles they didn’t continue after this point. It seemed to be a strange decision as the Amiga and Atari ST were both making inroads into the market across Europe at the time Vegas Casino 2 was launched and either could have been an ideal platform to support for future releases. Certainly, rival budget publisher Codemasters didn’t shy away from releasing casino themed games for the Amiga with the release of Advanced Fruit Machine Simulator in 1991. Who knows what may have happened if Mastertronic had continued as well…

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