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#MadeInFrance 10 : Tequilas & Tomahawks - The History of Coktel Vision

Par Hoagie 31/03/2020 3 commentaires

There are many French software houses whose history is not very well known out of France. Coktel Vision seems to be one of them, even if they have a pretty good reputation among French PC gamers. The CM of The Retro Spirit asked us to write such a history on Twitter, so here it is !

titre The first years on 8-bit computers (1985-1987)

Coktel Vision was founded by Roland Oskian, an engineer at Matra Espace, the space division of Matra, where he had patented a system of solar sail. He grew tired of his job, even if it paid well, and his passion for gaming motivated him to start his own company in Boulogne-Billancourt (to the west of Paris), in 1984, with a friend of his. It was one year after the "big bang" of the French computer game industry, and just before the plan "Informatique pour tous". Logically, Coktel Vision started to make games and educational software on the most popular platforms at this time : the French Thomson computers, and the skyrocketing Amstrad CPC. The games were made in-house, with Oskian's Wife, Catherine (also known as "Kaki Chapoullié"), making the graphics and the covers. Some of their first games are «Business+», a business management game, «Poséïdon», an adventure game, «Votez pour moi», a presidential election simulation, «San Pablo», a Mexican village management game, «Momie Blues», a 3D labyrinth game, «Fantôme City», a shooting game in the Far-West, «Bolchoï», a choregraphy maker and «La Malédiction de Thaar». Among their first educational software, we can notice «Balade au pays de Big Ben» and «Enigme à Oxford», two English learning software, and their German and Spanish counterparts, «Balade outre-Rhin», «Enigme à Munich» and «Enigme à Madrid»; they featured an audio tape containing all the texts of the software to perfect your accent. «Carte d'Europe» and «Equations / inéquations» were co-published with the book publisher Nathan, marking the start of a long collaboration. All these software received mixed reviews (some of them were bashed by the trashy newspaper Hebdogiciel), but the revenue of Coktel Vision doubled in 1986 to reach 6 millions francs (with 1.3 millions of profits).

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Business+ (CPC)
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Votez pour moi (CPC)
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San Pablo (TO5)
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Balade au pays de Big Ben (TO7)
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James Debug : Le Mystère de l'île perdue (TO8)
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Mewilo (CPC)

One of the distinctive features of Coktel Vision was the number of women in their team. The «Balade» and «Enigme» software were made by Béatrice Franzi and Francine Didier; Marianne Rougeulle designed the trilogy of action games James DebugLe Mystère de l'île perdue», «Le Grand Saut» and «Le Mystère de Paris»), «20000 Leagues Under the Sea», and the Objectif and «MicroBrevet» software. And of course, the most famous of them, Muriel Tramis, a former engineer at the space company Aérospatiale, joined the company and released her first game, «Mewilo», in 1987. «Mewilo» is an edutainment game based in Martinique island, Muriel Tramis' birthplace, in 1902, juste before the eruption of the volcano of Mount Pelée. Detailing the West Indian culture and history, it features texts written by Patrick Chamoiseau, a local novellist, and the package contained a local recipe, the catalou, and an audio tape by the Martinican band Malavoi. «Mewilo» was a real cultural achievement for French software; on 18th November 1987, Muriel Tramis earned the silver medal offered by the city of Paris, and 10 days later the FNAC Forum des Halles (a big hardware and culture shop in the center of Paris) hosted a competition for the best score at «Mewilo» with a cruise to Martinique for the winner. Coktel Vision signed distribution deals with Mindscape in the US, Firebird in the UK, and Bomico in Germany, and «Mewilo» was translated in English and German (with the German ad insisting twice on the fact that prime minister and mayor of Paris Jacques Chirac praised the game, which may not even be true). The company was now definitely on the right track.

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Muriel Tramis' award, and musical show at the Mewilo competition

titre The 16-bit computers and the launch of Tomahawk (1987-1989)

In 1987, the Atari ST was gaining popularity, and the IBM PC had a significant part of the market. It was time for Coktel Vision to start working on these 16-bit systems. Roland Oskian founded Inférence MDO with Mathieu Marciacq and Arnaud Delrue, the latter being a graduate of Supélec university. Inférence was based in Bordeaux, in the south-west of France, 500 km away from Paris ! Loriciels et Silmarils had small teams out of Paris too, but these teams worked independently on their own games. Here, Inférence handled all the programming, while the design and graphics stayed in Boulogne. Designers and programmers first talked about the projects through phone conferences, then the artists made the graphics and sent them to Bordeaux (by mail, and later by modem). This uncommon organization was certainly motivated by the fact that there were two universities in Bordeaux with computeer enginering and electronics curriculums (Bordeaux-1 and Supinfo), and Coktel Vision could work with them to find newly graduated programmers.

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People of the Boulogne team in 1988 and 1989

During this period, the adaptation of Franco-Belgian comics on computers was trendy among the French software publishers (especially at Infogrames - it almost killed them). Between 1987 and 1989, Coktel Vision and Nathan released two adaptations of Lucky Luke («Nitroglycérine» and «La Mascotte»), one of Blueberry («Le Spectre aux balles d'or») and three of Astérix («Astérix and the Magic Carpet», «Astérix et la potion magique» and «Astérix : Operation Getafix»). They even penned a deal with Disney to use some of their characters in edutainment games («Les Trois petits cochons s'amusent», «Picsou chasseur de trésors» et «Les Castors Juniors dans la forêt»)) and computer games («The Jungle Book», «Oliver & Company»). These games are either interactive comic books or simple games for kids.

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Blueberry : Le Spectre aux balles d'or (TO8)
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Astérix : Operation Getafix (PC)
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Les Castors Juniors dans la forêt (ST)
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La Bosse des maths (PC)
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Freedom (ST)
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Emmanuelle (Amiga)

Amid some edutainment software («Au Nom de l'hermine», «La Bosse des maths») and a few forgettable games, Tomahawk released Muriel Tramis's new game, «Freedom : Rebels in the Darkness». Reminiscent of Cinemaware games («Defender of the Crown» in particular), «Freedom» recounts the revolt of a black slave colony in the West Indies. You must win over the other slaves, organize the revolts, fight the guards and their dogs. Once again scenarized by Patrick Chamoiseau, «Freedom» was praised in the French press for its originality. Another Muriel Tramis's game was released in 1988, and this one was definitely not for kids : «Emmanuelle», the adaptation of Emmanuelle Arsan's erotic novel, popularized by Just Jaeckin's movie and Pierre Bachelet's title song. On a Brazilian coast (not in Thailand, unlike the book), you have to find ways to approach a few women, get some objects and fight a few thugs to finally have a chance to seduce Emmanuelle. Some people (especially in US) may find it bold for a renowned game company to make an erotic computer game, while some others may already be aware of the uninhibited mentality of the French. Well, it's hardly exaggerated to say that naked or topless women were casual in the '80s, from the Myriam posters to the shower gel ads, from the strip-teases in Cocoricocoboy aired in prime-time before the news to the topless jokes in Palace (and let's not even talk about the porn movie the first Saturday of each month at midnight on the private channel Canal+). Same things with comics for teenagers or adults and computer games, where it was common to see sexy women, with or without top - remember the issue of Tilt magazine about erotic computer games with an illustration of three women playing together ? So it wasn't surprising to see finally an explicit erotic computer game made in France; what was surprising, however, was that it was designed by a woman. «Emmanuelle» caused some agitation in the gaming press (especially among the sex maniacs at Micro News), but it was hard to justify its release next to educational games. Coktel Vision settled the problem with a new label, Tomahawk, for most of their computer games; the edutainment and software for kids would still be sold under the Coktel Vision name.

titre The blue era (1989-1990)

Yes, I call it the blue era because most of these games had a blue / violet graphical tone. This period started with three events : the move of the headquarters from Boulogne to Meudon, the recruiting of renowned boardgame designer François Nédelec as the head of game department and designer, and the release of the MDO Intersound, an external sound card pluggable on the parallel port to enhance the sound of PC games. This peripheral was used only by Coktel Vision games, so it's safe to say that it didn't sell a lot. The games released during this era were uneven : some average racing games («African Raiders», «Skidoo», «Paris Dakar 1990»), a fighting game («No Exit»), a succession of action sequences in 2D and 3D («Cougar Force»), and Muriel Tramis's new erotic game, «Geisha», another mix of puzzle and action sequences with digitized sexy pics. More interesting are «Legend of Djel», a fantasy graphic adventure, «Galactic Empire», the adaptation of François Nédelec's sci-fi role-playing game and their first attempt to make polygonal 3D, and «E.S.S.», a space shuttle management game. This subject was pretty obvious - remember Roland Oskian worked in a space company before - and it was the first step towards a new technology. Unlike «Infogrames» and Loriciels, Coktel Vision chose to not invest in game consoles, even if it looked profitable (OK, they ported «No Exit» on GX4000, it must have taught them a lesson); instead, they invested in a Getris graphic station and CD-ROM tools, and I think they were the first French game company to do so. In late 1991, the released «E.S.S. Mega», an enhanced version of the game, whose CD-ROM version contained many digitized pics and footages from the archives of space exploration and a CD audio soundtrack.

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Paris Dakar 1990 (PC)
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Geisha (PC)
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Legend of Djel (PC)
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Galactic Empire (PC)
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E.S.S. Mega (PC)
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Adi (PC)

In the educational field (which made up 60% of their revenue in France in 1989), Coktel Vision released «Intrigue à la Renaissance» and «Premiers Pas en anglais», but the best was yet to come. They noticed that lots of series of educational software were just boring quizzes, with few incentive to succeed. To remedy this and try to become leaders of this market, they launched a whole new project, directed by Muriel Tramis, called A.D.I. ("Accompagnement Didacticiel Intelligent", or "Intelligent Educational Support"). It was based on an environment designed for kids, with the help of ergonomists, child psychologists and teachers, featuring some tools like a calculator, a diary, and a few didactic sections. Each subject was divided in small courses and series of exercises, and each answer was followed by a little animation, instead of just "right" or "wrong". Each achieved exercise gave one point, and the more points you got, the more little games were made available. And to make the software even more welcoming, an extraterrestrial named Adi, animated with the vectorial technique used in «Galactic Empire», was displayed on the left side of the screen, talking to you, offering help or telling jokes. Another strong point of the series was its modular architecture : you could either buy a typical cardboard box containing the environment for one class and one subject, or a cheaper plastic case with only one subject, if you already owned the environment. The series «Adi» for primary and secondary school was released in the Fall of 1990 on Amiga, ST and PC; it was soon shown in big sales stands in the major computer and cultural shops like the FNAC. It immediately received rave reviews in the computer press, and Tilt awarded it best educational software of the year. The success was impressive : in 18 months, more than 100000 units were sold, an unprecedented score for this kind of software. It was ported on Amstrad CPC and Philips CD-i, and it had its own newsletter. «Adi» was a milestone in educational software, like «Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego dans le Monde» and «Math Blaster», and the springboard Coktel Vision needed to join the first division of the French computer gaming industry.

titre The orange era (1991-1993)

Since 1988, Coktel Vision had progressively reduced the spectrum of game genres they developed. After the blue era came a new generation of games in warmer yellow / orange tones that were mostly adventure games and fully exploited the 256 colours of the VGA mode. And which game could represent this new generation better than «Gobliiins» ? Created by Pierre Gilhodes and co-designed by Muriel Tramis, this adventure/puzzle game starring three goblins with distinct abilities (use an object, hit ou use magic) was the beginning of Coktel Vision's most beloved franchise, and Pierre Gilhodes's angular and cartoonish style became one of their trademarks. Next to this trilogy, we find «Fascination», the first adventure of the sexy heroin Doralice, «Bargon Attack», the adaptation of the comics published in Micro News, and «Ween : the Prophecy», the spiritual sequel of «Legend of Djel». «A.G.E.» was the sequel of «Galactic Empire», and «Inca» was a weird mixture of space opera and South American culture, of shooting and puzzle sequences. It may not be of everyone's taste but, like «Dune», it demonstrated French computer artists' mastery of VGA graphics and SoundBlaster music. In 1993, «Lost in Time», the sequel of «Fascination», removed the sexy elements and added some time travels to the age of slavery in West Indian colonies. It used almost exclusively digitized graphics and animations and was so big (11 to 12 floppy disks) that it was sold in two parts or a single CD-ROM.

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Gobliiins (PC)
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Gobliins 2 (PC)
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Fascination (PC)
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Bargon Attack (PC)
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Ween : The Prophecy (PC)
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Inca (PC)

Muriel Tramis talks about Lost in Time at 2:14 (Micro Kid's, 30/05/1993)

On the educational field, Coktel Vision didn't falter. They launched the Once Upon a Time, three interactive tales for kids (the fourth one, "Alladin and the Magic Lamp", was advertised but unreleased). Adi the extraterrestrial was joined by his younger cousin Adibou in «Adibou» (or «A.J.'s World of Discovery» in the USA), a collection of small games for younger kids (4-7 years old). It helped the series sell 160000 units in 1992 and about 200000 units in 1993. In 1993, Coktel Vision owned 35% of the educational software market in Europe and topped it in France (with 65% of the market), Spain and Italy. Their revenue grew from 30 millions francs in 1992 to 75 millions francs one year later.

These successive achievements didn't fall in deaf ears : in January 1992, at the CES of Las Vegas, Roland Oskian was told that Ken Williams, the boss of Sierra, wanted to talk to him. Williams actually praised his work, and after months of negotiations, it was announced at the next CES in Chicago that Sierra became the official publisher and distributor of Coktel Vision in North America. However, not all their products were accepted : «Bargon Attack» was rejected (probably too French), so was «Fascination» (according to Muriel Tramis, Ken Williams said that it didn't fit with the familial image of the company who published «Leisure Suit Larry»), and it seems the adaptation of «Adi» was dropped too because I can't find any proof of its release in the USA. Well, anyway, it went so well that the 20th October 1993, Sierra officially bought Coktel Vision for 5 millions $ to make it its European headquarters. And it was great news, because the European distribution of Sierra had never been satisfying : they weren't advertised at all in the French press, and they were almost never translated (except «Leisure Suit Larry 3» and «Willy Beamish»). It was about time !

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Announcement of the deal between Sierra and Coktel Vision in InterAction Vol. 5 Num. 3 (Fall 1992)

titre The CD-ROM era (1993-1996)

With Sierra to back them, Coktel Vision was now unstoppable, and their educational line could keep on growing. In 1993, the second generation of «Adi» started to be released on floppy disks. Adi was still displayed in its vectorial form, but the desktop was now in a sunny high resolution with music, it featured many new tools (graphics and animation utilities, a "Powerpoint for kids"), and you could create several profiles of children. One year later, the MPC CD-ROM versions came out with a whole new artistic direction : Adi and the desktop had a new cartoonish look, Adi now had a voice, and the mini-games were levels of other Coktel Vision games. And in 1995, the English learning applications came out : two CD-ROMs for each class, with lots of FMV sequences. 1994 was also the year of Playtoons, a range of eight comics construction kits, two of which starring the Franco-Belgian comics legends Spirou and Fantasio.

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Adi 2 (PC floppy disk)
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Adi 2 (PC CD-ROM)
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Playtoons : Micmac à Champignac (PC)
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Playtoons : La Pierre de Wakan (PC)
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Woodruff and the Schnibble of Azimuth (PC)
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The Last Dynasty (PC)

On the other hand, with the Sierra products to manage and the increasing development times of CD-ROM games, the number of releases developed by Coktel Vision fell dramatically. «Inca II : Wiracocha» didn't impress as much as its predecessor, and the FMV sequences were cheesier than in «Lost in Time». «Woodruff and the Schnibble of Azimuth», Pierre Gilhodes's last game, was a nice and loony adventure game in the same vein than the Gobliiins trilogy, with more dialogues but without the collaborative puzzles. «The Last Dynasty» tried to be the French answer to «Wing Commander III» and to mix once again different kinds of gameplay (here, some adventure parts in the space station between two missions), but the FMV parts were cheesy to the max, with cheap costumes and ham actors. And in 1996 came Muriel Tramis' last game, «Urban Runner», a FMV thriller and adventure game with a few quick time events. The production value of the videos was superior to «The Last Dynasty» (it wasn't difficult), but it still looked like a French TV film, with employees of Coktel Vision in the casting (including Charles Callet's last appearance before his death in late 1995). «Urban Runner» was a flop and led Coktel Vision to stop the development of computer games.

Report on the shooting of Urban Runner at 5:42 (Micro Kid's, 5/11/1995)

titre The last years

Well, it was over for computer games, but certainly not for educational software ! In 1996, the new generation of «Adibou» was released. It wasn't just a collection of small games, but a little world for kids with lots of funny things to interact with. Adibou was still the main character, with his little red cap, and he had several new friends : Plop, a dog on suction pad, Bouzigouloum, a grumpy and awkward creature, and three robots : Robitoc the gardener, Bizbi the handyman and Kicook the cook. Kids could grow their own garden, make some cakes, play with a ball, watch TV, and, of course, learn reading and counting. Was «Adibou 2» successful ? I'll just give you a few facts and let you draw your own conclusions :
  • Some of the boxes contained a soft toy of one of the characters.
  • In 1998 and 1999, three new modules came out : sciences, English and music.
  • 2000 saw the arrival on Earth of Adiboud'chou, the third and youngest cousin of the family, for very young kids (18 months to 3 years). Between 2000 and 2007, he became the main character of nine games.
  • In 2001, the third generation of Adibou was released. At that time, 350000 units of «Adibou» were sold EACH YEAR in Europe.
  • The same year, an Adibou audio CD was released with songs for kids (20000 units sold), as well as a series of comics and games published by Nathan (300000 units sold), and early-learning books by Hemma (500000 units sold).
  • Several spin-off games were released : «Adibou et l'ombre verte» (2001, developed by Kalisto), «Adibou et le secret de Paziral» (2003, developed by Neko Entertainment), «Adibou et les voleurs d'énergie» (2004).
  • There were also several tie-in products : soft toys, schoolbags, watches... And a special keyboard for kids Adiboud'chou, too.
  • Adibou also had its own magazine, "Adibou magazine", in 2003.
  • In 2005, a channel Adibou TV was launched on the TV network Canalsat.
  • And in 2007, an animated TV series, "Adibou : Aventure dans le corps humain".
Well, you get the picture. Adibou became one of the most bankable characters of the French gaming industry. Add to this the fourth generation of «Adi» (the third one was the MPC) in 1997, with a whole new Adi fully in 3D, as usual a tremendous success, and you'll understand how Coktel Vision's decision to focus on educational software was wise. However, in the meantime, Sierra was in financial trouble and was bought by Havas Interactive in 1999. Six years later, in 2005, Coktel Vision was bought by Mindscape. New incarnations of Adi were launched in 2000 and 2005 on PC, and in 2008 on Nintendo DS, but for the latter Adi looked like a teenager and hadn't the slightest connection with the original Adi (except maybe the pointed ears). Coktel Vision was officially closed in 2011.

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Adibou 2 (PC)
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Adi 4 (PC)

titre What have they become ?

Roland Oskian left Coktel Vision in 1997 to found a new company, Gibcom Multimedia. This company created virtual multiplayer worlds for kids : KiPulKai in 2002 and Boaki in 2009.

In 1998, Arnaud Delrue, Mathieu Marciacq and Philippe Lamarque founded Hortus Soft, an online website hosting magazines and games for children.

In 2009, Pierre Gilhodes finished the fourth episode of Gobliiins, with the three original goblins rendered in 3D.

In 2003, Muriel Tramis founded Avantilles, a software development studio based in Fort-de-France in Martinique. It closed in 2017. She was appointed Chevalier de la légion d'honneur on 14th July, 2018.
Les commentaires

le 31/03/2020 19:35
Interesting, even fascinating, page of the history of French gaming industry. Congratulations, Hoagie, Coktel Vision deserved this tribute. Now, IMHO, this article should be the tenth in the MadeinFrance series, since we already had a #9 (#MadeInFrance 09 : Hebdogiciel, the kamikaze seahorse - 16/02/2020). NB : comme ça, nous serons deux à être cloués au pilori de la loi Toubon, na!
le 31/03/2020 19:36
J'avais pourtant mis un espace entre na et le point d'exclamation.
le 01/04/2020 10:28
Thanks for noticing that (damn copy/paste) !
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