Dropzone creator Archer MacLean dies aged 60

Archer MacLean
(Image credit: MacLean family)

Archer MacLean, the UK developer best-known for Dropzone and International Karate, has died at the age of 60. The news broke over the festive period, with many former colleagues and friends taking to social media to pay tribute to both the man and his body of work. 

MacLean was a prominent figure in UK development in the 1980s and 1990s, with his debut title Dropzone inspired by Defender but super-smooth and with enough twists to the shmup formula that it received rave reviews and was ported to multiple platforms (MacLean would later work on a sequel called Super Dropzone for the SNES, which was amazing). An even bigger hit was International Karate, a fighting game that at the time felt like a free-flowing combat system that improved on the likes of Karate Champ (the makers of which sued, ultimately unsuccessfully, with a US appeals court ruling that no one developer could monopolise an entire sport). 

International Karate+ would follow before Jimmy White's Whirlwind Snooker, which in 1991 was a jaw-dropping game. It wasn't the first 3D snooker title but it blew what had come before out of the water—a simulation of the game that genuinely felt it was getting close to the real thing

Jimmy White's Whirlwind Snooker was as core to the Amiga as you get, and no less an authority than PC Gamer magazine would declare it to be the 37th best computer game of all time (in 1994). It became such a prominent title on the UK scene that here is some footage of former snooker pro John Parrot being challenged to play it on GamesMaster.

MacLean would go on to make several more snooker titles in this vein over the '90s, with this being the first time his name started to appear on the boxes as a selling point. His later work included Archer MacLean's Mercury, an excellent PSP launch title, while his last release was the 2009 Wii game Wheelspin.

In recent years MacLean had stepped back from frontline development, though kept a few links with the industry. He contributed a regular column to PCG stablemate Retro Gamer, which posted a tribute: "Terribly sad news about the recent passing of Archer Maclean. He made some truly sensational games, from IK+ to Archer Maclean's Pool, and used to write wonderful columns for the magazine. Our thoughts go out to all his friends and family."

"The world has lost a truly exceptional human," writes Kim Parker Adcock. "Archer Maclean was my friend, a very dear friend with whom I have a million hilarious memories, he was the funnest mate in the world! We lost touch in 2016 not long after he met Dave at Develop, won a lifetime achievement award, and was still fighting legal battles with his previous publisher. Shocking that someone with such a gift was stiffed: I hope they're ashamed, but I doubt it.

" [...] He came and stayed with the boys and I, sorry about the shitty spare bed that nearly broke your back! If you look at the characters in Jimmy White's Pool you'll find Side Spin Kim... Rest in eternal peace Archywarchy."

Many developers and industry figures have paid tribute to MacLean.

You can't overstate what the name "Archer MacLean" on a game box once meant. He was a designer who worked at a time when replayability was crucial, and his best-remembered titles not only delivered the up-front polish and spectacle but continued to deliver on repeat visits.

They were games that had a charm and personality also, creating this sense of the puckish mind that lay behind them. In Jimmy White's Whirlwind Snooker, for example, if you really took your time over a shot then the most unusual thing would happen: The ball would sprout arms and a face and stick its tongue out at you. Or hold up a sign saying "get on with it".

Did this make sense amidst a serious simulation with snooker's golden boy on the box? Not really, but it gave the game these rakish moments of surprise and delight that, at the time, seemed to me to be little shards of Jimmy White's personality peeping through the code. But it wasn't Jimmy White pulling those faces, making you laugh, making you want to show this thing off to your dad and mates: It was always Archer MacLean.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."