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#MadeInFrance 08 : Watch for the Snake - The History of Cobra Soft
Par Hoagie 08/11/2019 0 commentaire
When a foreign article on the history of French computer games pops up, it usually mentions the same names : Infogrames, Cryo, Delphine Software, Coktel Vision... Cobra Soft is often omitted, maybe because their games don't match the "French touch" cliché (yet they are very French in essence), but mainly because many of their games weren't translated or exported. It's a shame, because Cobra Soft was one of the most innovative and respected software houses of the '80s in France, in terms of licensing, marketing and packaging. Their Mobygames page is incomplete, they don't have an English Wikipedia page, and the French one is just a list of their releases. It couldn't last ! So here is a long - but not exhaustive - retrospective of this company and its heritage.
The early days and the first successful crime (1985)
Cobra Soft was an emanation of ARG, a small printing company founded by Bertrand Brocard in Chalon-sur-Saône, in the east of France. Brocard started to learn computer engineering with a TRS-80, then a ZX80, a ZX81, and an Oric-1 (a British computer more popular in France than in its home country). He wrote a few small business softwares, but after a few unsuccessful attempts to find a publisher, he decided to sell them himself and opened a shop to sell Oric computers. He sympathized with one of his clients, Gilles Bertin, who was pretty competent in programming - he programmed the missing part of the Forth language on the badly duplicated tape he bought. The two men decided to develop business and educational software and computer games under the label Cobra Soft. Bertrand Brocard, the main designer, and Gilles Bertin would be joined later by the programmers Jacky Adolphe and Roland Morla, a former technician in telecommunications specialized in checkers computer games, and the graphic artists Christian Descombes and Nathalie Delance.
Second picture : Bertrand Brocard, Gilles Bertin and Christian Descombes
Cobra Soft was officially launched in 1985, and two of their first games were quickly successful : «Cobra Pinball», a nice pinball game, and « Meurtre à grande vitesse» ("High-Speed Murder"), the first game of their "Meurtres" serie. You have to solve the murder of a senator in a TGV (the iconic orange high-speed train, one of French technological highlights of the early '80s). You can walk from one car to another, ask questions to passengers... As the popularity of Oric was declining, both games were ported to Amstrad CPC and Thomson computers, and it was a wise move : 20000 units of « Meurtre à grande vitesse» were sold, and «Cobra Pinball» shared the Tilt d'or award of the best pinball game with «Macadam Bumper».
A whole box of crimes (1986-1987)
To design «Meurtres sur l'Atlantique» ("Murder on the Atlantic"), the sequel of « Meurtre à grande vitesse», Bertrand Brocard studied some archives of the French Navy. This time, the murder occurs on a luxury ocean liner, the Bourgogne, during a cruise to New York in 1938. To solve it, you will have to check the hundreds of rooms of the liner, gather the testimonies of the 40 passengers, uncrypt some coded messages... The scene is not static : some passengers may appear only after a while, the elevators can stop working... Following the model of «Eureka !», Cobra Soft launched a competition to win a cruise on the Mediterranean Sea. But the most striking part of «Meurtres sur l'Atlantique» was its packaging. The software was sold in a cardboard file with several physical documents : a newspaper, some handwritten or anonymous letters, a telegram, some business cards, a plan of the boat with the list of the passengers... It's important to mention that Bertrand Brocard had not played any Infocom game before he designed these documents. «Meurtres sur l'Atlantique» won the Tilt d'or award of adventure game of the year. It was translated in English and German, and ports for C64, IBM PC, Amiga and ST were made by Intracorp for the North American market.
In a totally different genre, «HMS Cobra - Convois pour Mourmansk» is a naval simulation. You control the destroyer HMS Cobra to protect a convoy from Reykjavik to Murmansk in 1943. You can choose the day of departure (from June to December, the days are shorter), the route, the distance between ships, and you must avoid or fight the Nazi assaults coming from Germany or Norway. «HMS Cobra» was sold in a huge boardgame-sized box with a map of the North sea, a protractor, a ruler, a complete list of the opposing armies, the 270-page book "La Bataille des convois de Mourmansk" by Jean-Jacques Antier, and a little bonus action game similar to «Beach-Head».
Cobra Soft was now one of the most promising software houses in France, but, like ERE Informatique, they had little experience in distribution (they relied on mail order as well as sales in shops), and it threatened their sustainability. That's why both companies resorted to the same solution : they formed an alliance with Infogrames. The programming team of Cobra Soft renamed itself Hitech Productions and sold the intellectual property of the name "Cobra Soft" to Infogrames, who became their main distributor and marketer. It means all futures products labelled "Cobra Soft" are made by the same team (except the range "Cobra présente" of localized British games, used without Brocard's consent), but they also made a few games for other publishers as Hitech Productions.
With this deal in their pocket, Cobra Soft released in 1987 «Histoire d'or», a small adventure game in the Far West, and «Meurtres en série» ("Serial Murders"), the new episode of the serie "Meurtres". The gameplay was updated once again and has now similarities with «Mortville Manor». Several murders were committed in the Sark island. You disembark on the island at 11:00 AM, and you have eight hours to solve the mystery. You can walk around the island, walk on the roads, or use your bicycle : the faster the transport, the slower the day passes by. There are more than 30 people to talk to, and their statements may evolve during the day. To finish the gam, you must answer correctly a list of questions. The software also includes a small action game and a feature to digitalize a picture of your face and integrate it in the game ! But once again, it's its packaging that made «Meurtres en série» a landmark in French computer gaming. The game was sold in a small wooden crate full of physical clues : a clay tablet with a mysterious message, a fake dynamite stick, a woman's stocking, a playing card, a cork, some handwritten letters, pictures and plans... Fun fact : the crates Cobra Soft had ordered to store the game were not completely dry when they received it. The team filled the crates, wrapped them with plastic film and sent them to shops and clients. A few days later, these clients opened their crate and found its content more or less attacked by mold - some of them thought it was intended ! Infogrames had to replace the damaged content, and it wasn't cheap. «Meurtres en série» didn't win a Tilt d'or award, but Cobra Soft won a special Tilt d'or for their whole contribution to the French computer game industry.
An audio recording of a design session of Meurtres en série, illustrated with a picture of the content of the crate
The Cessna affair (1987)
« Meurtre à grande vitesse» showed that Cobra Soft could use current affairs and technologies as sources of inspiration for their games. In 1985, they published «Dossier G.», a kind of serious game with funny quizzes about the sinking of Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior ship on 10 July 1985 by the French intelligence service, only four months after the affair started ! But they broke this record two years later. On 28 May 1987, Mathias Rust, a 19 year-old West German engineer, illegally landed on Moscow's Red Square, seven hours after his take-off in Helsinki. The team of Cobra Soft (or Hitech Productions, in this case), immediately saw the opportunity : they took the code of «Canadair», a small side-scrolling simulation of a Canadair Roland Morla was making for France Image Logiciel, changed the sprites and some of the background, added a few Soviet planes, a new goal (you must of course land on the Red Square without being detected or shot down), named it «Cessna Over Moscow» and sent a press release only TWO WEEKS after Rust's feat (as this press article proves it). They also called anonymously some major French TV channels and radio stations to announce the release of the game, and soon Bertrand Brocard was interviewed in several TV news bulletins. It quickly fell into Rust's family's ears, and a French court forced Hitech Productions to stop the fabrication of «Cessna Over Moscow», yet the first 4000 units of the game for Amstrad CPC could still be sold.
The licensing era (1987-1988)
The year 1987marked the start in France of a craze for adaptations of Franco-Belgian comics on computers, and Cobra Soft could not ignore it, but they first took a different path : they chose to adapt Claude Zidi's "Les Ripoux" ("My New Partner"), one of the best and most successful French comedy films of the '80s, and the first one to win the César award of Best Movie of the year. It turned out that Zidi's kids were fans of computer games and knew Cobra Soft, and Thierry Lhermitte, one of the two main actors, was also fond of computers, and later Internet, so the negociations were easy. «Les Ripoux» thus became the first adaptation of a French movie into a video game - and the only one until «The City of Lost Children» in 1997. The game does not follow exactly the plot, just the general theme : as a veteran, yet bent, cop who complete his revenues with kickbacks, you want to earn enough money to retire and buy your own bar. In some ways, «Les Ripoux» is a precursor of «GTA» : once you've received your daily assignments (three streets and a subway station to watch), you can walk freely in the streets of the 18th district of Paris. Like in «Meurtres en série», there are four ways to move (walk, car, car with siren, subway). There are many thugs and dubious shoppers in the city, and if you arrange a dialogue in the good order with one of them, you have the ability to extort a weekly amount of money from him. You can train yourself at the shooting range, or bet some money at shell game or in horse races. If there is a hold-up, you must find the bank, run after the thug, and if you catch him, you can keep a part of the loot for yourself to sell it later. Watch out however : you must also improve your professional rating and avoid the Internal affairs who would love to catch you red-handed. To fit all these ideas in a single CPC floppy disk, the programming team had to compress the data and reduce the action screen to a small monochrome square, with a central white pixel as your character ! The main part of the screen shows six typical views of the 18th district. «Les Ripoux» is a very original game, and its manual is a spoof of the free newspaper printed on cheap paper with a map of the district, lots of clues, interesting addresses, and fake classified ads of programmers trying to sell their obsolete computers - Alice or Squale, anyone ? After the computer game, the Hitech Productions team also designed the boardgame published by Schmidt, and in the other way they adapted Schmidt's Maxi Bourse, a stock market boardgame, to «home computers».
Now it's 1988, and it's time for comics. Cobra Soft adapted Edgar P. Jacobs' classic "La Marque Jaune" ("The Yellow M"). It's a mix of 5 mini-games (mainly mazes and races) displayed on a screen cut like a comics page. The graphics are very faithful to Jacobs' style. The game was sold with a special edition of the comic. The other foray of Cobra Soft into the comics world was "Turlogh le rôdeur", a project in two parts. The first one was an interactive comic book published by Delcourt, working the same way than "Make Your Own Adventure" books, and the second part was the computer game. It was the first and last RPG for Cobra Soft, and it didn't get very good reviews.
Back on the crime scene (1988)
Cobra Soft released two other games in 1988. The first one is «Action Service» (or «Combat Course» in North America), a boot camp multi-game similar to «Combat School» where you can make your way through obstacles, throw explosives, fight hand-to-hand, and make your own levels with the construction kit. Much more interesting is «Meurtres à Venise» (or «Murders in Venice», as you may know it, because this one was translated in English and German), the first game of the "Meurtres" serie designed specifically for 16-bits computers. Now it's a terrorist group who threatens to sink the whole city of Venice with a bomb. Like he did for several other games, Bertrand Brocard took a trip to Venice to take pictures of the city and catch its atmosphere. The result is a large reproduction of the city over several scrolling screens, with lots of places and people to talk to (whose faces are employees of Infogrames and Cobra Soft). The game has a fully icon-driven interface and includes several useful tools : a notepad, an agenda to note the timetables of the suspects, a camera to take pics of locations or faces and show them to characters, a kit to disguise oneself and lure characters, and a defusing kit that you should train yourself on before you find the real bomb ! «Meurtres à Venise» was sold in a conventional box with, as usual, lots of items : a film roll, letters, newspaper articles, tickets... It's also the last game to display the "Cobra Soft" trademark : facing severe financial trouble, Infogrames wanted to relocate Cobra Soft in Lyon, but the team refused and decided to keep on working under the name Hitech Productions. Cobra Soft was now an empty shell, exactly like ERE Informatique (whose team quit to form Cryo), but Hitech Productions still worked with Infogrames for their next productions.
The last crime before closure (1989-1990)
After that, Cobra Soft, er, sorry, Hitech Productions decided to come back to the boardgame adaptation field with a very special product. Here, I must mention Ludodélire, a small but highly-regarded French boardgame house who made "Tempête sur l'échiquier" ("Knightmare Chess"), a deck of cards of special moves to spice up your chess games, "Formule Dé", a great Formula 1 boardgame reproducing the circuits of Monaco and Zandvoort (many more circuits were available as extensions), "Terrain Vague", a wargame with kids in a vacant lot illustrated by Jacques Tardi, "SuperGang", a Mafia game, "Manhattan", a strategic skyscraper building game, and, last but in no way least, "Full Metal Planète", a futuristic wargame on a distant planet where the land is subject to tides. At each turn, the level of the tide can change : deluged land units and aground naval units are blocked until the water level changes. The most appreciated quality of this game was that all units were crafted in metal. "Full Metal Planète" ran out of print long ago, but it still has lots of fans, and there was even an online petition to support its reedition. It's this game that Hitech Productions decided to adapt on home computers. «Full Metal Planète» may not have the charm of the board and its lovely metallic units, but it's still pretty good and it can be played against the computer. The box of the IBM PC version, released a few months after the Amiga and ST versions, contained a tutorial video on VHS hosted by Gérard Mathieu, co-founder of Ludodélire and one of the three creators of the boardgame, as the colonel Tex Flytox in his bunker. «Full Metal Planète» was distributed in North America by Draconian, a subsidiary of Data East, and it was nominated by Computer Gaming World for the Strategy Game of the Year award.
Guess what came next ? Exactly, a new "murder" ! After a train, a boat, an island and a city, here comes... Space, the final frontier ! Bertrand Brocard spent a few days at Patrick Baudry's Space Camp to learn about life in weightless conditions. In «Murders in Space», you're sent in an orbital station to solve an assassination attempt. The game uses a smaller scale than its predecessors : the station is made of eight screens, and it is inhabited by eight astronauts. As compensation, the designers resorted to traditional tricks of the adventure game formula. First, you can use some devices of the station in mini-games : docking a shuttle, making a medicine with a mechanical arm, programming a cryogenization cell, going out of the station with a spacesuit... Of course, all of these devices are useful to finish the game. Second, the state of the station changes every hour, and the spationauts quickly start to die one by one, like in Laura Bow games. However, instead of watching them die helplessly and trying to stay alive, your goal is to anticipate and save their lives. And once again, there is a list of questions to fulfill. Need I say that the box was full of scientifical documents linked to the plot ?
Life after Cobra Soft
Unfortunately, «Murders in Space» was the last game made by the Cobra Soft / Hitech Productions team. Another "murder" game, «Hitech Murders», was considered, but abandoned. But it was not the end for Bertrand Brocard. He joined Infogrames to manage their subsidiary IWP (and later Studio B), supervised their line of products for the Philips CD-i and CD-ROM, and directed or designed some of them : «International Tennis Open», «Astérix : Le Défi de César», «Les Schtroumpfs : le téléportaschtroumpf»... In 1999, a new idea came to his mind : an international campus of video games in Lyon to host a museum of video games, an exhibition center, a business incubator... Unfortunately, because of the lack of investors, the project was reduced several times, then cancelled. Instead, Bertrand Brocard opened in 2003 the official website of Cobra Soft (now down), and, in 2014 its Facebook page, on which he started to upload lots of his personal archives. Brocard is indeed one of the very few veterans of the French video game industry who carefully kept and preserved all kinds of archives of his activities : design documents, bills, complete copies of his games... Finally, in 2016, he co-founded the CNJV (Conservatoire National du Jeu Vidéo), an association whose goal is to archive any kind of material related to the history of French video games (hardware, software, magazines, documents) and to make it available for historians, academics, students and journalists. Of course, the CNJV has all Brocard's personal archives of his days at Cobra Soft and Infogrames; last year, it was offered the archives of late graphic artist Dominique Sablons. The CNJV also organizes events and symposiums on the history and preservation of video games - the next one will take place at the Cité des Sciences et de lindustrie in Paris on 13th December. You can check their Twitter and Facebook accounts for more info. Supported by many actors of the industry, the action of the CNJV shows once again Bertrand Brocard's dedication to the French video game scene and its preservation. In two words : merci Bertrand !
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