When people talk about the history of Ultimate Play the Game and Rare, Carole Stamper (neé: Ward) is barely mentioned. But between Ultimate’s founding in 1982 to the Stamper family’s eventual departure from Rare in 2007, she was a constant figure behind the scenes.
In the early days of Ultimate, she not only served as a director and company secretary, but also worked on the graphics for some of the studio’s most popular games, like Jetpac, Knight Lore, and Atic Atac, alongside her then boyfriend (and future husband) Tim Stamper. In 1985, when Ashby Computers and Graphics Limited sold Ultimate and started a brand-new software house called Rare Ltd, she was again among the list of directors, this time taking on responsibilities like recruiting new talent, liaising with license holders, and assigning projects to staff.
But while the industry has come together several times in the past to recognize the achievements of her husband Tim and her brother-in-law Chris, often referred to collectively as The Stamper Brothers, Carole’s involvement in Rare and Ultimate has remained somewhat undocumented. As a result, I wanted to try and find out more about this important figure, so I reached out to the Stamper family (who unfortunately didn’t respond to my emails) and those who worked at the two companies, as well as scoured through old magazines. This took me all the way back to the beginning of Ultimate Play the Game.
The ‘Ultimate’ Story
In 1982, Carole founded the companies Ashby Computers and Graphics Ltd, and Ultimate Play the Game, alongside Tim Stamper, Chris Stamper, and the engineer John Lathbury, setting up an office in the cottage on The Green in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, in the UK. All four had previously worked in the arcade industry, with the three men having worked together at the arcade firm Associated Leisure, before joining another company named Zilec Electronics. However, they soon found themselves wanting to go it alone, and recruited Carole, who was Tim’s girlfriend at the time and had been trained in graphic design.
Under the name Ashby Computers and Graphics, “the gang of four” developed some final arcade titles for clients like Jaleco and Bally Midway, and then invested the profits from these games back into this new venture called Ultimate. But Ultimate wasn’t going to be another arcade developer. Chris and the other directors realized that the price of producing arcade games was going up and that companies like SEGA were investing millions into expensive laser-disc systems; they just couldn’t compete. Instead, the four directors chose the ZX Spectrum home computer as their development platform of choice, citing the lack of quality games being produced and their familiarity with the Z80 processor.
In early interviews, they touted themselves as the “most experienced arcade video game design team in Britain,” with company records also revealing an even split between artists (Tim and Carole) and programmers (Chris and John). Though it’s not known exactly what role each person performed on each game, Popular Computing Weekly and other publications at the time claimed all four directors worked together on every project, and functioned without the use of any freelance programmers.
As Carole told the magazine in a rare interview, “People will buy an Ultimate Game because they know it will be good. We have to guarantee a high standard of programming — and we do that by writing all the programs ourselves.”
A String of Hits
Ultimate released its very first game, Jetpac, in May 1983. The game focused on an astronaut collecting rocket parts to rebuild his ship, while avoiding hazards like flying saucers and darts, and was an instant hit with critics. Publications like CRASH, Home Computing Weekly, and Computer Video and Games praised the graphics and controls, with journalists and fans eager to see what Ultimate would come out with next.
Just one month later, in June, Ultimate released PSSST. The game follows a robot named Robbie who must protect a prized plant from interstellar space insects, with players collecting different pesticides and other bonus items, such as fly swatters and fertilizers, to keep the plant growing, and ward off the unwanted visitors.
PSSST was another hit for the company, and Ultimate kept the hits coming over the next couple of years, with more games including Tranz Am, Cookie, Atic Atac, and the Sabreman series. As with Jetpac, critics again heaped praise upon these new titles, with Ultimate at one point achieving an unbroken chain of 14 hit Spectrum games whose CRASH rating totalled over 93% (source: The Games Machine).
Soon, journalists wanted to know more about the identity of Ultimate’s owners and the inner workings of the company. But Ultimate rarely responded to press enquiries, preferring to let their games do most, if not all of, the talking. In a 1985 article for Commodore User, named “Fortress Ultimate”, one journalist described Ultimate’s aversion to the media, with the following: “If you thought getting inside the obelisk in Staff of Karnath was tough then let me assure you that extracting information from Ultimate Play the Game is infinitely more difficult. The leading games people have a simple way of dealing with press enquiries — a one word reply, NO.”
For a few years, the press simply assumed this silence was a part of an elaborate marketing campaign, but Tim later denied this in an interview with CRASH, giving an alternative explanation: “No it wasn’t. That’s the way it turned out, we were so busy producing a few products a year and making sure they were right. I think while we were full-time Ultimate, we only had two Christmas mornings off, and that’s how hard it was. We worked seven days a week, 8am til 1 or 2 in the morning, I don’t feel it’s any good having engineers who only work 9 to 5 because you get a 9-to-5 game, you need real input. And the day a product was released the phone would just be red hot with all the distributors ringing. It was really bad…”
Ultimate Becomes Rare
As a result of this, we still don’t know much about the story behind each individual game or what each members’ contributions were. All we know for certain is that together, the four created some of the most beloved titles for the ZX Spectrum. Nevertheless, we’re able to piece together some things that were happening behind the scenes from magazines like Commodore User, CRASH, and The Games Machine.
In 1985, Carole Ward married Tim Stamper in a wedding ceremony in Leicestershire, and Ashby Computers and Graphics Ltd sold the Ultimate brand to British publisher U.S. Gold for an undisclosed amount. Ultimate continued releasing games under this new ownership, like Martianoids and Bubbler. However, some fans and critics felt they didn’t match up to Ultimate’s earlier output.
Later on, Tim Stamper elaborated in interviews with CRASH and The Games Machine that they were not involved with any of these later titles and that the last game they worked on personally was 1985’s Gunfright — an isometric western where players control a Sheriff named Quickdraw and must hunt down a gang of outlaws in a small town. Ultimate’s story was coming to an end, but another story was just about to begin.
In 1985, Ashby Computers and Graphics Ltd started trading under a new name — Rare Ltd — with the goal being to reverse engineer and produce games for the Nintendo Famicom. This was a system the Stampers had reportedly acquired two years earlier, in 1983, with Nintendo challenging the company to reverse-engineer the hardware if they wanted to develop games for it.
Carole, Chris, and Tim set up a new studio, without Lathbury, at Manor Farmhouse in Twycross, an old, dilapidated farm building. There, they got to work on making games for the Nintendo Entertainment System, after the developers Dave and Bob Thomas helped the Stampers reverse-engineer the console. It was shortly after this, in 1988, the studio expanded to 13 full-time staff, with Carole shifting into a more business-related role after giving birth to her and Tim’s son, Joe.
While Tim and Chris continued working on games, including R.C. Pro-Am and Cobra Triangle, Carole only received a few more credits during her time at Rare, including on the pinball game Pin-Bot, where she was responsible for researching the music from the original Williams’ machine.
Instead, she took on other responsibilities, such as interviewing staff members, assigning projects, and working closely with licence holders. The former Rare developers I spoke to for this piece spoke highly of her presence at the company and her ability to set people at ease and create a warm and welcoming environment. They refer to Rare during the late 80s and early 90s as a small family business, with a sense of camaraderie from the top-down, and describe it as a place where creatives were given a strong sense of identity and pride in what the company was trying to achieve.
Perhaps, because of this, Rare went on to become a beloved British games developer and eventually eclipsed Ultimate’s success, with hits like Donkey Kong Country, Killer Instinct, and Perfect Dark. After selling to Microsoft in 2002, Carole, Tim, and Chris stepped down from their roles as directors, but stayed around to help manage the studio until 2007 when they left Rare for good.
For a few years, they left the industry entirely, but they have since re-emerged with a new company, Fortune Fish Ltd. Carole and Tim’s son, Joe, is behind this new venture, along with Tim, Chris, and another director named Philip Popejoy. Carole is a shareholder, but as far as I know has no active involvement.
Despite being a self-proclaimed Rare fanatic, I have to admit it was only recently that I found out about Carole Stamper’s contributions to the two companies, and it’s a shame that this was the case. It would be great to hear her story in her own words, and find out more about her work, what it was like working at Ultimate, and her role in building Rare from the ground up, along with her husband and brother-in-law. Regardless, I feel we should still celebrate and draw attention to her successes, to ensure she isn’t written out or forgotten about by future generations.