Robert Hampton

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12th August 2012

PRESS PLAY ON TAPE

In my previous post I waxed lyrical about the C64 as it celebrated its 30th anniversary.

But what made the Commodore 64 so popular? A big factor must have been the huge library of games. There’s no way of knowing the exact number of games released for the system, but it almost certainly numbers in the thousands.

Here I list some of the key games in the system’s history.

Jupiter Lander (Commodore, 1982)

This was one of the very first C64 games and it was a straightforward port, with enhanced graphics, of an earlier VIC-20 game (which was, in turn, a rip-off of Atari’s Lunar Lander). It was made available on cartridge, despite the extra manufacturing expense compared to tape, as Commodore believed (incorrectly) that long load times from tape would put off consumers.

It’s a straightforward game – land your ship on one of the landing pads. Guide your ship into the opening while applying the correct amount of thrust. If you come down too fast, you will miss out on bonus points.

Although fun (and of some historical interest), it’s an incredibly simple game. Once you’ve got the hang of landing the ship, there isn’t really much more to it. However, things would get a lot better for C64 gamers…

Manic Miner (Software Projects, 1983)

Many of the earliest British titles were straight ports of Spectrum games. Manic Miner is one of the all time icons of Spectrum gaming, and it was inevitable that a C64 port would appear.

The Commodore version looks, sounds and plays almost identically to the Spectrum original, and therein lies the problem: it does not take any advantage of the myriad features of the C64 which would make it such a great games platform over the following ten years. Many early games demonstrate this problem and it would be a while before developers were pushing the machine to its limits.

It’s still a good game, but with a bit of work on the sound and graphics, it could have been a great advert for the C64. Still, Manic Miner is much better than the follow up, Jet Set Willy which again followed the Spectrum version too closely, by containing a bug which made the game impossible to finish.

Ghostbusters (Activision, 1984)

Movie tie-ins soon became big business, although there were hurdles to overcome. Film studios were uncertain of the wisdom of allowing their movies to be made into games. Software developers, meanwhile, were reluctant to take a chance on licensing films that could turn out to be box office failures.

Games based on films acquired a reputation for being of dubious quality and derivative. Sometimes the only feature setting the game apart from the crowd was the fact that the main sprite looked like Bruce Willis, if you squinted hard enough.

Ghostbusters was different. Developed by coding genius and Activision co-founder David Crane, it combined a driving section with action scenes involving ghost catching, as well as various bits of business involving the Marshmallow Man. This odd blend of elements came about because the game was developed in a hurry to meet the film’s release date. An existing prototype game (Car Wars) was used as the basis for Ghostbusters to speed up coding time.

The original C64 game was ported to multiple platforms, with varying degrees of success (the NES port in particular is generally considered to be dreadful). Nearly all of them featured the amazing karaoke sing along at the start and synthesised speech. (“Ghostbusters! Mwahahaha!”)

Impossible Mission (Epyx, 1984)

Widely-regarded as one of the all-time best C64 games, recently discovered by a new generation thanks to a remake for the Nintendo DS.

You play a secret agent on a mission to infiltrate the underground stronghold of Dr Elvin Atombender. He is about to launch a nuclear missile attack, according to the game’s instruction manaul, to exact revenge on the world, because his attempt to max out the score counter on the game Giggling Penguin Invaders From Outer Space In The Vicinity Of Ursa Minor was thwarted at the last second by a power failure. I kid you not.

To beat the game, you have to assemble passwords from puzzle pieces scattered throughout the levels, all the time avoiding the deadly robots which will home in on you the second you enter the room. There are multiple puzzles to solve and a big game map (which is randomised every time you play) to explore.

Impossible Mission used synthesised speech, a gimmick employed by many games of the era. It didn’t really add much to the game, but at the time people thought it was amazing. Dr Atombender’s sinister “Stay a while, stay forever!”, uttered when a player entered a room, has entered gaming folklore.

I have this game in my collection, but haven’t played it for years. I have a vague recollection that my 8-year-old self didn’t have the patience for the puzzle-solving and map making that were necessary to complete the game. I think I need to revisit this one.

Paradroid (Hewson, 1985)

A lot of 8-bit games combined puzzle solving with action, and this is a good example.

Set on board a spaceship filled with out-of-control robots, you control a robot tasked with shutting the rogue droids down. Each robot has a power level from 001 to 999. You start with a droid at power level 001, so to get very far in the game, you need to take over more powerful androids.

This is achieved by “linking” with them and playing a minigame. Win the game and you gain control of that droid and all its abilities.

One criticism of the game was that there was no proper ending. Solve the last level, and you’re dumped back at the beginning with a slightly higher difficulty level – not much of a reward for someone who had spent hours playing through the game.

Shoot’Em-Up Construction Kit (Sensible Software, 1987)

Not strictly a game itself (although it came with some very playable example games) but worthy of inclusion here as one of the most famous bits of C64 software of all time. SEUCK (as it was universally known) was a complete games designing program. It contained utilities for designing sprites, backgrounds, sound effects and spaceships, blending them together to make a complete game. Once done, you could save the finished product to dazzle your friends with (as long as your friends liked vertical scrolling shooters).

Shoot'Em-Up Construction Kit Shoot'Em-Up Construction Kit

Shoot'Em-Up Construction Kit Shoot'Em-Up Construction Kit

It naturally proved extremely popular with games players who wanted to produce the next smash hit game but were too lazy to learn 6502 assembler. It gained an even wider audience a couple of years after its original release, thanks to its inclusion in Commodore’s Light Fantastic software bundle that came with every new C64 in the late 1980s.

Although SEUCK took away the hard work of coding, potential games designers still needed to give some thought to level design, graphics and gameplay. It took a lot of care and dedication to make the most of the software kit to its best ability, and not everyone took the time to do this. Spare a thought for games publishers, not to mention the covertape compilers at Zzap!64 and Commodore Format, who were inundated with terrible games created with the kit.

I wonder if any games designers of today took their first steps with the Kit?

Lemmings (Psygnosis, 1994)

By the early 1990s, the 16-bit consoles and computers were well-established and wowing everyone with their graphical superiority. We poor people still using 8-bit machines had to rely on software companies porting the games back to the older platforms, hoping that the gameplay survived intact despite the more limited the graphical and sound capabilities. The C64 adaptation of the Amiga classic was delayed numerous times, finally reaching the shelves of the few shops still stocking C64 games in 1994.

The delay was due to the developers trying to work out how to display 100 Lemming sprites on screen at once, something the C64 couldn’t do. That the programmers were able to work around the problem is a shining demonstration of how to squeeze the most from limited hardware.

C64 Lemmings is not as good as the Amiga original, but it’s an impressive achievement on an 8-bit machine.

Mayhem in Monsterland (Apex Computer Productions, 1993)

As I pointed out a few posts back, it’s not worthy of a score of 100%, but it is still a very accomplished game. A platform game very much in the Super Mario mould, with the fast pace and colourful scenery that were standard on console games but thought impossible to achieve on the C64. Every trick in the book is exploited to make this game look and sound amazing.

Compare with the slow blocky graphics of Manic Miner, released a decade earlier, and then consider that they were running on identical hardware.

The C64 market was on its last legs at the time (indeed, this game was available only through mail order because few shops were still stocking Commodore games) but Mayhem was a fine swansong.

If you have a Wii and are so inclined, Mayhem is available on the Virtual Console. If you still have your actual C64 kicking around, you can buy a special 15th anniversary edition, on tape or 5¼ inch floppy, from retro-gaming specialists Psytronik.

C64anabalt (RGCD, 2012)

Mainstream software developers abandoned the C64 around 1993/4, but a loyal band of enthusiasts continue to develop new software and hardware. Thanks to them, you can connect a C64 to an Ethernet network, use an SD memory card to store games, or even use it as a Twitter client.

New games continue to be developed for the platform, including C64anabalt, a port of the mobile/Flash game Canabalt. It’s a nice reversal of the trend for old 8-bit titles to be reimagined as Flash games or iPhone apps. You can buy it on cartridge to be played on a real C64, or alternatively download the image to use in an emulator.

It’s a deceptively simple and addictive game, requiring only the fire button on the joystick to play. Like Mayhem, it pushes the C64 to its limit, employing fast scrolling that was considered impossible. With more new games set to be released in the future, there is definitely life in the beige beast yet.

With thousands of titles released over the course of the C64’s life, any list like this can never hope to be comprehensive. What games have I missed off the list?

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