Gamechanger – Mean 18 Ultimate Golf

The mini-LP box for Mean 18 Ultimate Golf by Microsmiths, published by Accolade, 1986.

The mini-LP box for Mean 18 Ultimate Golf by Microsmiths, published by Accolade, 1986.

At the height of the early 1980’s U.S. video game market, almost every company wanted to get in on the action. Parker Brothers, famous for their board games, were alarmed since sales of their stalwart franchises plummeted as kids ran to play video games in arcades and on home systems.  Rather than sit on their hands, the company’s leadership decided they were going to make a huge debut in the industry by licensing the rights to make video games based on the incredibly popular “Star Wars” franchise.  In 1982, a young programmer named Rex Bradford helped develop two of these games – “Empire Strikes Back” and “Jedi Arena” for the Atari VCS/2600.  The very next year the U.S. video game market crashed and Parker Brothers went back to their board games shortly thereafter.

The back of the mini-LP box for Mean 18.

The back of the mini-LP box for Mean 18.

After Parker Brothers Video Games went under, Rex Bradford and another programmer, Mark Lesser, partnered to create a software development company named Microsmiths.  Between 1984 and 1986, Microsmiths was highly sought after for the quality of their work porting existing software.  For example, the company ported “Pitfall II” from the Atari VCS/2600 to the Apple II.  It was during this time that Bradford, a long-time golfer and junior champion, began working on a game of his own in his spare time.  A young programmer eager to do some breakthrough work, his personal passion for the game of golf embedded itself into one of the most important sports video games ever released – 1.

The ‘common ancestor’ for all modern golf video games, Mean 18 Ultimate Golf introduced no less than three groundbreaking features, and is – at least – tied for another.  At the time Mean 18 came out, golf video games were often played from a top-down perspective.  Mean 18, on the other hand, has a behind-the-golfer perspective, making it the first “3D” golf game.  According to Bradford, the technology for the game was put together on-the-fly.  Without knowing anything about 3D graphics, he was still able to put create an algorithm that drew a flat, 2D course in 3D.   To be fair, Access Software’s Leaderboard was released the same week as Mean 18, and also offers a behind-the-golfer perspective.  We’ll assess this breakthrough as a tie.

The title screen for Mean 18 Ultimate Golf.

The title screen for Mean 18 Ultimate Golf.

Mean 18, however, stands alone as the Gamechanger due to the rest of it’s groundbreaking features.  Bradford admitted to me that he does not exactly remember the inspiration for the 3-Click Swing Power-Meter.  He knew that he wanted a mechanic that allowed players to miss time their shots, leading to hooks or slices, as well as something that allowed for the possibility of an over-swing.  His ‘powerbar’ solves all of these beautifully.  The 3-Click Swing Meter was was quickly adopted by every golf game and exists as an option to this day.  It’s rumored that Electronic Arts had spent a great deal of money developing their own golf game, one with ‘advanced’ swing mechanics involving using both the keyboard and mouse in combination.  Realizing the elegance and simplicity of Bradford’s 3-Click system, they completely scrapped their work and had to start over.  As a result, EA would not release their own golf game until PGA Tour Golf in 1990.

1st Tee at Pebble Beach on Mean 18, 3-Click Meter on the left.

1st Tee at Pebble Beach on Mean 18, 3-Click Meter on the left.

In an email exchange with Rex Bradford about the development of Mean 18, he told me;

I was inspired by Bill Budge‘s Pinball Construction Set. Also, this was the days before paint programs. So I wrote my own crude paint program to do some art, and wrote my own crude animation program to do the golfer animations.  Then I started using my paint program to do the courses, and it was natural to turn that into something everybody could use.

Giving the users the power to build and play their own courses was an unheard at the time, and another new feature quickly copied by every competitor.  In the age of DLC and In-App purchases, including a Course Editor with a golf video game has become a bit passé, sadly.  But, at the time, it was huge.  Lastly, Mean 18’s user-created courses would include no copy-protection, so they could be freely traded – another ‘first’ for golf video games.  Throughout the late 1980’s, it was common to find Mean 18 user-created courses for download on local BBS’es, as well as early information services such as CompuServe and GEnie.

Promotional 'Mean 18 golf ball' photo from inside the mini-LP box for Mean 18.

Promotional ‘Mean 18 golf ball’ photo from inside the mini-LP box for Mean 18.

Mean 18 was a huge hit for Accolade and was ported to every major computer and video game system of the era.  Several competitors emerged, including titles such as; Leaderboard (which became the ‘Links’ series), Greg Norman Golf, PGA Tour, etc.  The arrival of these competitors, and their high quality, drove Accolade to re-brand their golf game series in partnership with legendary golfer Jack Nicholas.  The “Mean 18” franchise was, unfortunately, retired.  A quiet and unworthy end for the Software Publisher Association’s 1986 winner for Best Simulation and a true gamechanger – 2.

References   [ + ]

1, 2. eBay Referral Link

Mike Knotts

Mike Knotts was born in 1968 in a small town in southern Indiana. Even when very young, Mike showed a love for all-things technical and sci-fi. Moving with his family to California in the early 80's, he eventually graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in History. Rather than put that to good use, Mike continued to pursue his passion for technology by working for early, regional ISP's in the mid 1990's. He currently resides in the Pacific Northwest, where he works as a project manager for an Internet startup. Mike is a co-founder of Geekometry.

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