The-Commodore-Zone Speech Box - Electronic Speech Systems (ESS)

In the early 80’s a number of speech hardware products were manufactured for the Commodore 64. One of the best was the “Commodore Magic Voice module” which allowed your Commodore 64 to speak words. Although this hardware at the time was in some ways a revelation - one of the inherent problems with it and also similar speech products is that any software which supported it meant that the Commodore user had to also own the hardware. With limited software support and cost this simply was not a viable option for most users.

However, with the huge success of computer games in the early 80’s a company which started in the 1970's suddenly appeared on the Commodore 64 scene called Electronic Speech Systems (ESS). This amazing and innovative company enabled a Commodore 64 to speak using software code and did not require any special hardware. What was even more impressive was the quality of the speech which was really very good (especially when you consider the small memory requirements). Some of the first computer games to employ it were the legendary Impossible Mission and Ghostbusters. The speech really added something to the games, and at the time astounded Commodore 64 users.

I can remember when I first heard the speech on Impossible Mission, "Another visitor, stay a while, stay forever!” – to say my jaw dropped would be an understatement. Infact some users were so mesmerised by the speech that they actually forgot about playing the game!! And would just enter rooms to hear the speech from the evil mad professor Elvin! like “Destroy him my robots”.

The introduction screen on Ghostbusters by Activision is an absolute classic with the speech “ghostbusters”, and who can forget the evil laugh! shortly followed by a super rendition of the Ghostbusters theme tune. During the game there was other speech like “he slimed me”.

The games not only employed the speech to great effect but in my opinion they really added something to the game.

Impossible Mission
Impossible Mission by Epyx

Kennedy Approach
Kennedy Approach by Microprose

Due to the processing required to generate the speech, an unfortunate side-effect was the speech would interrupt any on screen action. For example, in the game Impossible Mission, notice how the introductory "Another Visitor" or "Destroy Him My Robots" speech would halt the game so you could not continue until the speech finished. Therefore, it was important to incorporate the speech in places which benefited the game, rather than compromise it.

Interestingly, most C64 gamers did not observe this quirk, either because of the way the speech was integrated into the game, or because the fascination with the speech trumped the side-effect.

A game which illustrated this point, was Activision's Ghostbusters, the speech helped to heighten the atmosphere and added another dimension to the game that made it more in-keeping with the highly successful film that it was based on.

Another game that showed the genius of incorporating speech synthesis properly, was in the long-forgotten, Kennedy Approach by Microprose. This game was about Air Traffic Control. It used a lot of speech in an unusual and clever way that took advantage of an ESS software speech technique - which meant the Airline pilots and the Air Traffic Control voices sounded distinct. The game was quite a simple concept, but the addition of speech meant it was realised in a way, that a few years before (without the ESS software technology) would of been impossible to imagine.

These games were certainly a great introduction to what the company ESS could do. It is also not surprising that the games Impossible Mission and Ghostbusters were hugely successful. In fact, Ghostbusters went on to be one of the best selling computer games in history, especially when you take into account the sales of other home computer formats.

In my opinion what ESS achieved with their revolutionary software technique was stunning and this company has been overlooked by some for far too long. Its time they had there rightful place in the history and success of the Commodore 64. This page is dedicated to this company.

Please find below a rare article that appeared in the November 1985 issue of Commodore User magazine about the ESS company - the text is reproduced in full.

On the last page of this article we have added a unique speech box feature to allow you to hear most of the speech that ESS created for many games during the 80’s. Also included is the ESS sample demo's that were distributed at the time - one of my personal favourite speech samples is from a long forgotten demo which include a small sample of JFK’s (President John F Kennedy’s) famous speech with the words “Ask not what your country can do for you”. Read, listen and Enjoy!

If you would like to comment on Speech Box or anything on this page - please use the comment/rating feature available, or talk about it in the discussion forum.

Thank you to the following websites which were used for sourcing some images that appear in this article:
Moby Games.