There was a popular saying at Hi-Tech Expressions, the Manhattan-based video game publisher and developer: “To work at Hi-Tech, you have to play an instrument.”
Like most sayings, it was a slight exaggeration. The management at the company never expected applicants to crack out a guitar and jam out in order to get a job working in the office. But that didn’t stop them from hiring a spectacular number of musicians throughout the years, all of whom worked on Hi-Tech’s vast library of licensed games, which ranged from Barbie, to The Hunt for Red October, to Tom & Jerry. Some of these employees’ careers were only fleeting — a way for musicians to bring some money when their touring schedules were on hold. But others went on to become big names at another New York company called Acclaim, where they produced hits like NBA Jam, The Alien Trilogy, and Mortal Kombat II. I spoke to former Hi-Tech employees to find out more about the untold history of the publisher, how it became a hub for New York musicians, and how it all started with a simple greeting card program.
From Thoughtware to Hi-Tech
In 1986, the Florida-based company Thoughtware Inc. established a new division in New York called Thoughtware Expressions after the surprise success of its Christmas greeting card program JingleDisk. JingleDisk was an application that featured several animated Christmas scenarios to get players in the holiday spirit, and also gave people the ability to print their own personalised greeting cards. It was a surprise success for the company, and Thoughtware wanted more.
The company set up the New York division to work on similar card-making products, under the leadership of Thoughtware executive vice president Hank Kaplan. But none of them sold quite as well as JingleDisk, and so just two years after Thoughtware Expressions started, in 1988, the company rebranded itself to Hi-Tech Expressions and changed direction once again. The studio began publishing video games, starting with re-releases of old Sesame Street games on MS-DOS and NES and continuing with Software Toolworks’ The Chessmaster for Nintendo’s first home console.
Around this time, Kaplan wanted to expand beyond distributing other peoples’ games to producing his own, so he tasked his son, Barry, with hiring people who were familiar with the video game market. Barry brought onboard musicians like Asif Chaudhri and Billy Pidgeon as producers for the company, who in turn recommended the New York saxophonist Danny Ray for a role in product support.
“We were all hanging around in the same New York scene… out of CBGBs, The Peppermint Lounge, and Max’s Kansas City,” says Danny Ray. “Barry didn’t really work there, but he consulted with his dad because he knew more about video games. His dad was a business guy. He once told me he didn’t know anything about computer-anything. He said, ‘I put things in boxes and I sell them, if they’re done or they’re not done… If it’s not done, I apologize to the person who bought it and send them a complete working copy.'”
When Ray joined the company, his band The Backbones had just broken up in an explosive fight and he was playing occasionally with guitarist Sylvain Sylvain of The New York Dolls. However, with a child on the way and rent due, he knew he needed something a little more stable and had to put the music aside for a while. As he recalls, he mostly answered phones for the first year or two he was at Hi-Tech, an exercise that typically involved asking people if their computer was unplugged.
“After about a month, I realized these people weren’t plugging in their machines,” says Ray. “You didn’t have consoles like you have now and people would put their computers down and use them for paper weight or put them in the closet. Nobody knew what to do with them… People would call up for help and I would ask them whether they had plugged in. Nine times out of ten they didn’t.”
The Senders and Co.
After Ray joined the company, several other musicians also came onboard in various roles. This included ‘Wild’ Bill Thompson and Phil Marcade from The Senders, the performer and street personality John Spacely (who appeared in Sid and Nancy and Len Kowalski’s Gringo: Story of a Junkie), Billy Southard from the LA punk group UXA, drummer Jason Schreiber of All About Chad, and the vocalist Brijette West (later of NY Loose).
The Senders, in particular, were a New York institution at the time. They had come out of the same New York scene that had produced The Ramones, The Heartbreakers, and Blondie, and had been a staple of the legendary venue Max’s Kansas City. Phil Marcade, the band’s vocalist, had helped Debbie Harry pen the French lyrics for Blondie’s cover of Randy and the Rainbows ‘Denis’ in 1977, was close personal friends with Heartbreakers’ frontman Johnny Thunders, and was allegedly responsible for helping Nancy Spungen’s cat kick its heroin addiction. Thompson meanwhile was a huge computer nerd, an incredible guitar player, and had known Danny Ray for years; all of which made him a shoe-in for a job as a Hi-Tech tester.
“Billy and me went back before video games to hexagonal strategy games and things like that,” says Ray. “It’s part of the reason I brought Billy to Hi-Tech because he had that background. We bonded in our early twenties over R’n’B and soul music. I remember we held each other’s hands and went to late night jam sessions in bars most people wouldn’t go into. The first time we did that, it was out in Long Island, in Hampstead. I remember it was right near the bus station and it was really seedy. This guy Little Buster was doing a late-night jam session. We walk in, everybody turns, and then goes back to what they were doing. We were like, ‘Well, we’ve never done this before.’ But, by the time we both sat in, we were friends with everyone in the room.”
It was Thompson who suggested Marcade join the company too. The small detail that Phil Marcade knew nothing about computers didn’t seem to matter all that much.
“They hired me only because Bill recommended me,” Phil tells me over email. “My job was to answer the phone when people called the number that was printed on the box because they couldn’t make it work. Of course, I was the last person in the world they wanted to talk to! Most people who called me there for my helpful knowledge knew way more about computers than I did and often seemed puzzled by my crappy answers. Like the guy who asked me if the game would work on a PC and I answered ‘A PC? what the fuck is a PC?!’”
This kind of anarchic atmosphere was a common theme inside the company, given the characters who walked through its doors. Ray recalls one notable incident in the middle of a meeting with Nintendo of Japan when an employee who had gone out the night before emerged from under the meeting room table to the shock of everyone in the room.
“They’d fallen asleep under the table and woken up in the middle of the Nintendo session,” says Ray. “You have to understand at the time Japanese businessmen were extremely straight and narrow. They dressed in black suits and black ties, and were very proper. And this guy just pops up out of the middle of the table. I think that might give you an idea of the way the place kind of ran itself.”
Big Bird, Barbies, and Basketball
Despite Hi-Tech’s chaotic atmosphere, it racked up an impressive library of licensed titles in a short period of time. While Billy Pidgeon worked on a Sesame Street tie-in called Big Bird’s Hide and Speak, Kaplan promoted Ray and assigned him to work as a producer on a new Barbie game for the NES with the New Jersey company Imagineering.
“The idea at the time was – and it sounds so sexist now – that it was the first all-girls game,” Ray recalls. “Today girls are playing online shoot ‘em ups online and are as good as anybody. But at the time, the machines were considered boys’ stuff. They wanted to bring both in, so they used the Barbie license. I ended up flying back and forth to Mattel to hold their hand, because they had never had any of their characters move or throw things or do any action or anything. Their idea of a game was Barbie can jump. It was like ‘And that’s it?’”
What they ended up making was a Barbie puzzle platformer. Barbie moved from one side of the screen to the other, throwing objects to solve light environmental puzzles and unlock bonus items. There are even boss fights, usually in the form of inanimate objects like ovens and ball pens that throw obstacles at you which you need to avoid. When it was released in 1991, critics were surprisingly positive about the game, and sales were strong, so much so that several companies started approaching Ray to move elsewhere, including the Glen Cove-based Acclaim, which he would later join.
Besides Barbie, Hi-Tech worked on numerous other licensed projects, including ports of Ninja Gaiden and Street Fighter II for MS-DOS, more children’s games based on The Flintstones and Tom and Jerry, two officially-licensed (and unusual) Mega Man titles, and an adaptation of the submarine spy thriller The Hunt for Red October for several machines.
Seth Rosenfeld, another one of Hi-Tech’s producers, remembers, “When I got there, they were in progress on the first two SNES games — Tom & Jerry and Hunt for Red October, which were both late and terrible (developer was RSP, who later went on to ‘Postal’ fame under the name Running with Scissors). Remember the Super Scope? I try not to. From there, I worked on Mickey’s Ultimate Challenge, Mickey’s Safari in Letterland, Number World, and We’re Back, along with another Mickey game from Visual Concepts, which was never completed/released. We also took on Beethoven’s Second, Baby’s Day Out, another Tom & Jerry game (Frantic Antics), and Bobby’s World.”
It seemed like if there was money in a licence, Hi-Tech would consider making a game about it. In 1991, for example, they briefly entertained the idea of working on a Twin Peaks game for the NES. The project was teased in magazines at the time like Nintendo Power, GamePro, and Game Players, and according to that coverage would have focused on season two of the show and featured multiple different endings depending on how you played. Hi-Tech never showed off any assets or artwork from the game before its cancelation and those I spoke to who worked at the company remember very little about it. Sadly, this means we’re deprived of seeing what an 8-bit Kyle Machlachan might have looked like.
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Hi-Tech Expressions released over 50 games on various consoles between the years of 1989 and 1994, before eventually closing its doors in 1995 after the departure of founder Hank Kaplan who left to become the president and COO of Phillips Media Software. At this point, most of the talent had already left the studio to work at Acclaim. It was here that the likes of Danny Ray, Asif Chaudhri, and Billy Pidgeon worked on hit games like NBA Jam, Alien³, The Alien Trilogy and Mortal Kombat II.
“We were all kind of out of our minds,” says Danny Ray. “We loved computers, we loved games, and most of all, we loved music. And we all needed extra money, because we weren’t making enough money at the time. As we worked through the day, it was close enough quarters that we’d play music, and we’d share a lot of stuff that we found on the net. We were all into all kinds of crazy stuff. The whole crew had that in common. It was a bit like a clubhouse.
“Billy Southard was a longtime methadone user, and obviously had a lot of challenges, but he was super-smart, sweet, generous, and an all around good person who would help customers with their printing/drivers issues over the phone one-on-one in a way that no one does anymore,” recalls Rosenfeld. “He was really into gospel and turned me onto that kind of music and the spirituality it brings. Thompson and I smoked packs and packs of cigarettes in the halls outside Hi-Tech talking about Ultima games, Wizardry and really any CRPG of the day — that was his passion outside of music. When I met him he was just a big nerd to me, and I didn’t realize how brilliant a blues guitarist he was until a few years later. He could really play — probably better than anyone I’ve seen live. As for Barry Kaplan, he was in a weird place being the son of the owner and trying to make this work when I think his passion was for music.”
At a glance, Hi-Tech Impressions may not seem like the most exciting game studio of the 90s, but it went on to leave an incredible mark on the industry — not just for the games it released, or the games it didn’t, but for the long list of personalities who came through its doors. Many of these names went on to bigger and brighter things in the games industry, and others have sadly passed in the years since. In a very literal sense, Hi-Tech were the first Rockstars of gaming, and they embody the heady, chaotic days of commercial game development — before games became too big and expensive to be produced by a wild pack of moonlighting musicians.