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ZENOBI: The Last Great Dinosaur

By Alex Waddington

For adventure fans, October 1st 1997 was a very sad day. As the clock chimed midnight at the end of September, Zenobi Software effectively ceased trading as a software house. No more new releases, no more colourful publicity sheets, no more Balrog and no more Cat.

For those of you not familiar with the Spectrum adventure scene, Zenobi Software were the first big 'independent' adventure software house.

Operating part-time from late 1982 until late 1985, proprietor John Wilson (aka the Rochdale Balrog) went full-time in early 1986. Since then he has enjoyed 12 years of highly successful trading - Zenobi was voted Mail Order Software Company Of The Year in 1988 and 1989.

John says he would have liked to continue for another 12 years but the market for Spectrum adventures has "gone down the tube".

And John says the illegal distribution of Zenobi emulator snapshots was the final nail in his company's coffin.

"Recent events concerning the infamous internet and the actions of certain groups actively engaged in the internet have lead to some very heated exchanges," he told Classix.

"Said groups have been issuing copies of Zenobi titles to anybody with access to their activities and without any prior permission being granted by us or any royalties being paid to the respective authors.

"Now it seems that these groups have plans to issue a number of CD-ROMS - featuring Spectrum titles - and that in an effort to include Zenobi titles in their ranks they plan either to 'archive' or 'encrypt' said titles prior to placing them on the CD-ROM.

"If this is correct and they are THAT eager to rip-off Zenobi then let them get on with it. The Cat and I are heartily sick of all this hassle and have told the groups so.

"We have also added that if they wish to contact the various authors and seek their express permission in regard to the respective titles then we will not stand in their way.

"The authors of course will waive all rights to any royalty payments from Zenobi - but being as how some authors are already working in cahoots with the groups that should not be a problem."

If he sounds bitter it's probably because he is. He continued to pump out new releases long after the big software companies abandoned 8-Bit for more lucrative markets. And this is the thanks he gets.

But not all in the Spectrum world are sympathetic and some even accuse him of hypocrisy - but that's a different matter.

Zenobi has always been run as a business and not a hobby. If you consider the Spectrum died commercially over 10 years ago, it's amazing the company has survived so long.

"Zenobi has been our only source of income for the past 12 years and as such has kept us busy throughout the period.

"It will be strange not to spend the vast part of the day duplicating tapes and processing orders."

John says enthusiasm for the Spectrum still exists but for him that's simply not enough.

"There is an ever-growing wave of nostalgia but that is fuelled by a need for a free product and that sort of business does not pay the bills or the rent.

"Each game cost us in the region of £50 just to get off the ground and that money was not being recouped from sales. It is all down to simple economics - sad but true!

"Emulation is nice but not a viable option."

Zenobi have released hundreds of titles over the past 12 years, with each one going through a vigorous play-testing.

John says each game was tested by a minimum of THREE people and some games required 10 or 12 testings - a total which runs into thousands.

Each testing required a blank tape, a jiffy-bag and a first class stamp. The cost was always borne by Zenobi and never the author - "that was our policy and that was how we conducted things".

"The recent fall in revenue means that we can no longer afford to do this and being as how we refuse to publish games that have not been fully play-tested, we have no other alternative but to stop producing new titles."

For Zenobi fans wishing to snap up souvenirs, the good news is John (and of course, the Cat) intend to honour any future orders until stocks of blank media run out.

However, John has also hinted that customers able to provide their own media and cover any additional costs may be able to 'order' software well into the next millenium.

"I have no intention of going anywhere and the master copies of the games are just gathering dust in the corner of the room, so we might as well find some use for them," he said.

For loyal customers, John has one last special treat in store - a CD-ROM containing every title ever released by Zenobi.

The CD will ONLY be available to customers who have purchased over 100 games and will cost just £20.

The games will be in snapshot (.SNA or .Z80) format and will work on most standard Spectrum emulators on the PC or Amiga.

John estimates the 'real' cost of the CD to be about £1000 and calls it a "once in a lifetime opportunity".

As he settles down for a "lengthy sabbatical" in deepest darkest Lancashire, John says he enjoyed the "cut and thrust" of big business and declares Zenobi were the "lantern" which lit the way for new authors.

But he warns the end of Zenobi means the end of an era

"There does not appear to be much hope anybody hoping to earn a living from selling Spectrum / 8-Bit games.

"Just note the numbers of firms that have turned up their toes in the past couple of years - and one or two of the survivors have even been unfortunate enough to have had all their machines and equipment burgled in the past couple of weeks.

"So maybe Zenobi is the last great dinosaur around."

Zenobi Software can be contacted at: 26 Spotland Tops, Cutgate, Rochdale, Lancashire, OL12 7NX.


"....they were the most reliable maintainers of the Spectrum adventuring scene for years and will be sadly missed." David Ledbury, Persona.

"In all my dealings with John I thought he was a very organised and professional man. He was definitely Mr Adventure." Andy Davis, Alchemist Research.

"I would like to openly pay tribute to John Wilson. This man virtually moulded the Spectrum adventure scene. Some of the all time great games came from his imagination." Andy Ryals, Spectrum hacker.

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