24. February 2014

The Commodore 64 was one of the best 8-bit gaming home computers of the 1980s and although I had never used it exclusively for playing games, I certainly made no effort to avoid them. There was a huge amount of garbage out there and the old preconception that computer games were only violent and nothing else was at least a little true, but there were also a lot of exceptions. Of course everybody back then traded some games via the schoolyard exchange and while I had a lot of original games, some others were only available via slightly illicit means because at the end of the 1980s many older games were already out of print for a long time. I tried many of the different genres and while there were a lot disappointments, I still found some real jewels in the relatively short  time the C64 was my main computer between 1989 and 1990. Here are some of these games, which continue to be my favourites until today. I’m really happy that the games themselves and even the hardware to play them on still exists.

Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (1988) – Lucasfilm Games’ second adventure and my first – and it could not have been a better choice. Apart from the couple of dreadful cassette games I got when I didn’t have a floppy drive in the beginning, this was my very first game on the C64. I had read a so-called Long Play, basically a walkthrough, in the German 64’er Magazin about it and was fascinated – the clickable verb interface, the four playable characters and the epic storytelling with its many locations made it an adventure in the best sense of the word. The crazy tale of the tabloid newspaper editor who has to fend off an alien invasion with the help of an archaeologist and two students who have flown to Mars in a VW minibus was a brilliant science-fiction satire with lots of locations all around and even off the world – and equally crazy, but still logical puzzles. I actually never played the C64 version, one of the first 8-bit-incarnations of Zak McKracken, all the way to the end – I only managed that with the Amiga version, where I also first encountered Zak’s marvellous predecessor Maniac Mansion.

The Great Giana Sisters (1987) – Rainbow Arts’ (in)famous platform-jumper was basically a clone of Super Mario Brothers and they got in such a lot of trouble for it that they needed to take the game off the shelves shortly after it was released. But copies spread like crazy in the and that is how I actually came by it. It was extremely fun, but also quite challenging – fortunately my version of the game had a trainer with the possibility of getting infinite lives. The graphics were very playful for its time and the music by none other than Chris Huelsbeck made the whole game all the more fun. This was not a violent shoot-em-up orgy, but a really harmless and fun concept. The whole game with all 32 levels is only about 40 kilobytes big! The Amiga version with its higher-resolution graphics was good too, but only the C64 version had that very special magic making it a timeless classic that spawned many official and unofficial sequels until today. One of the direct sequels was Hard’n’Heavy, which actually started out as Giana Sisters II, but had to be revamped for legal reasons in a science-fiction style.

Last Ninja II (1988) – I discovered this then relatively new game, released only a couple of months before I got my C64, again through the 64’er Magazin, where a review and a long play was published in some of the first issues I bought. The cross between beat-em-up action and adventure puzzle with an isometric view had absolutely stunning graphics and fantastic music, but it was hardly as cerebral as Zak McKracken or other classic adventures. The controls were notoriously difficult, often making pixel-perfect jumping acrobatics necessary and the scheme of first having to beat up the baddie of the screen and then collecting some almost random item you needed later was often frustrating even with a walkthrough guide. In the end the surprisingly detailed graphics made Last Ninja II worth playing, but because of the violence angle I never bothered with the predecessor and the third game of the series, which didn’t turn out to be a huge loss since part 2 was the best of the series. For more about the games including walkthroughs and downloads, check out the Last Ninja Archives.

Epyx Games (1984-1988) – It all began with Summer Games in the Olympic year of 1984 and then Epyx had followed with Summer Games II, Winter Games, World Games, California Games and as a swansong for the 1988 Olympics The Games: Summer Edition and Winter Edition. These multi-event sports simulations were known as the joystick jigglers or even killers, because of the often fast repetitive motion required with the control stick. But actually, many of the mini-games were quite good and a lot of fun especially with several players involved, because you could register the contestants at the beginning and then take turns. The computer would even give scores out! I didn’t have all of the games, but California Games was one of the first and later I found some of the other ones in bargain bins – some of my other favourites were The Games: Summer Edition and World Games. The Digital Antiquarian has two amazing articles about the history of Epyx and the programming of Summer Games on the C64.

Spherical (1989) – One of the later games from German publisher Rainbow Arts, this was another worthwhile recommendation from the 64’er Magazin. The game principle was refreshingly different from the usual platformer or scroller – here you are a block-building wizard who has to guide a magic ball to an exit through many different obstacles. With levels in the high double digits and a 2-player-mode with even more different levels, this was a game certainly worth its money – you could spend a lot of time with it! Although the graphics of the C64 version were not as good as in the simultaneously released Amiga port, the music, again by Chris Huelsbeck and Ramiro Vaca, was surprisingly much better in the 8-bit-version. The game also came with a nice manual containing a detailed backstory, some hints and very funny illustrations. Only years later I found out that Spherical was actually based on the older game Solomon’s Key, but Rainbow Arts it actually improved a lot on the original idea and introduced a radically different gameplay.

Pirates! (1987) – The first of many simulation strategy games from Sid Meier may seem basic today, but it was surprisingly sophisticated for its time. The combination of trading, sailing, battles, fencing and even politics made Pirates! a surprisingly varied game with lots of possibilities and a basically endless game if you were careful enough. But after some time, it got a little dull because there was only so much you were able to do in the game and the different modules became rather repetetive despite the partly randomized environment. It was nevertheless an amazing precursor of much more advanced strategy games and even the Amiga and PC versions of Pirates! improved on the C64 original.

Katakis (1988) – I was never really a fan of these quick-reaction side-scroller shooters, but gave Katakis a fair chance. I never got much far into the game, being not very good at it, but the graphics and sound were admittedly great, especially for the C64. Katakis is basically Rainbow Arts’ version of the japanese space shooter R-Type and like with Giana Sisters, they again got into copyright trouble with it. Later it was released in a slightly modified version as Denaris, but Activision loved Katakis so much that they contracted Rainbow Arts to do the C64 port of R-Type! Bob Pape, programmer of the ZX Spectrum port of R-Type tells about this story in his free e-book It’s Behind You!.

Turrican I / II (1990/91) were all Manfred Trenz’ creation, who had earlier worked on Giana Sisters and the infamous Katakis, Denaris and R-Type versions for the C64. Turrican returned to the platformer genre and was basically a gun-and-run game in a science-fiction-inspired scenario. The levels were exceptionally large and the graphics and animation astonishing for the 8-bit-machine. Although the Amiga versions were even more complex and had much better sound and graphics, both Turrican games were first programmed by Manfred Trenz himself for the C64 and then Factor 5 did the Amiga conversions. I actually saw Turrican first on the Amiga and only later tried the C64 versions, so I am a little biased towards the 16-bit-incarnation, but for the technical achievements alone, both Turrican games are fantastic in 8 bit. For more on the Turrican games, have a look at Hardcore Gaming 101’s Turrican pages with lots of information.

Pit Stop I/II (1983/84) – What would the C64 have been without car racing games? Pit Stop was one of the very first and the original was still very basic with graphics more reminiscent of the Atari VCS game console, but Pit Stop II brought all that what was fun: a two-player mode, prettier graphics and at least halfway realistic gameplay which included the titular break to change the tires! Pit Stop II might be simple by today’s standards, but in 1984 it was amazing and especially fun to play with two people. There were also C64 ports of Atari’s arcade racer Pole Position released in 1984 and 1988, of which Pit Stop was arguably a sort of clone, but Epyx’ effort was much more smooth and definitely more playable. There were maybe dozens or even hundreds of car racing games for the C64, but they all owed at least a little something to Pit Stop.

Test Drive I/II (1987/89) took the racing genre to a whole new level and made it a full simulation with real cars. While Pit Stop, Pole Position & Co had rather simple and almost static graphics, Distinctive Software’s Test Drive let you drive on real streets with real cars – five different ones in the first game and two in the sequel dubbed The Duel, which also had several scenery and car expansion discs. The drawback was that the C64 simply did not have the power to render the graphics really smoothly, so sometimes both games were a little like a slideshow – but once you got used to the jerky animation, both Test Drive games could be fun even on the C64. Although the Amiga versions were also not completely smooth, they definitively had the edge on the 8-bit incarnations. The same developer group also released the excellent Formula One racing simulation Grand Prix Circuit in 1988 between working on the Test Drive games, but for some reason I had never played it either on the C64 or Amiga.

Boulder Dash (1984) was originally not even a C64 game, but first appeared for the Atari 800. The deceptively simple dig-and-collect game had a very basic look, but proved to be so addictive and fun that it soon became a major hit. Literally dashing through the boulder-infested earth, collecting all the gems and getting to the exit before time runs out was surprisingly challenging and a good example how a simple concept could be a whole lot of fun. There were many sequels with new levels, but it was almost forgotten by the time I got my C64 at the end of the 1980s, when other more sophisticated games had long taken over. I only discovered it tucked away on some collection disc and didn’t even think much of it at first! Peter Liepa, the original programmer of the game has a little website about it and there is also a more detailed dutch fan website.

Lode Runner (1983) was also not indigenous to the C64, but available on many different 8-bit platforms from the start. The graphics were simple and almost abstract, but the gameplay was innovative for its time: the player only controls a figure in a brick-and-ladder maze, collecting gold pieces and running from guards, but the fascinating element were the complexity of the mazes and the accompanying puzzles the player has to solve. The game came with 150 levels with mounting difficulty, but it also provided a level editor – one of the first instances in video game history a game allowed the player to create new content. Because of its simplicity, Lode Runner quickly became very popular and like Boulder Dash is still one of the most amazing early computer games of all time. I really can’t remember where I got my copy from – only that I certainly didn’t have an original because it was not sold in computer shops around here anywhere and even the one mail-order firm I sometimes ordered from never had it.

Marble Madness (1986) was another bargain bin discovery for me sometime in 1990, but I had heard about the game long before. It was originally a coin-op arcade game made by Atari in 1984 in which you had to guide a marble through an isometric landscape, taking care not to fall off at the sides. The abstract concept was something completely new, but the stunning graphics and the unique trackball controls made it a big hit for Atari. However, soon clones for home computer systems like Gyroscope and Spindizzy began to appear before Atari had a chance to do their own version. Marble Madness was finally converted to many 8 and 16-bit machines in 1986 by Electronic Arts and while not all of these versions were successful, the C64 and Amiga ports were especially remarkable because they were surprisingly close to the arcade original – with one exception: there was, of course, no trackball control, but the joystick worked quite well with the game.

64’er Game Collections – Two computer magazines from the German Markt & Technik publisher, the 64’er Magazin and Happy Computer regularly featured games sent in by their readers. In the early years, the games were published as printed listings, but you could also order the programs on floppy disks, which were later included in the magazine itself. Starting in 1987, the best of these games were published in several collections as bookware, meaning that you got a disk with twelve to twenty games in a nice, 100-page hardcover book containing detailed descriptions and hints. There were six editions published, but I only had the first four because the last two only came out after I had switched to the Amiga. The games were, apart from some exceptions, quite good considering they were all made by hobby programmers – some of them were even unofficial clones of well-known commercial games. Many more games were also published in regular special issues of the 64’er Magazin, the Sonderhefte, which were always sold with a floppy disk. All six books as PDFs plus images of the floppy disks are available at this website.

So, these were my favourite C64 games back in 1989 and 1990 – what were YOUR favourites? I know there are lots of classics like Paradroid, Impossible Mission, Wizball and others missing, but I only discovered those years later when the first archives appeared on the internet. Today, you can get almost all of these games on the web, where several websites are dedicated to the preservation of this long-ago game culture. Lemon64 and Gamebase64 are the best databases for information about C64 games and the Arnold FTP server has been online for well over a decade. Technically, these websites are not really legal, but so far there have been only few complaints about the free availability of games which are between twenty and thirty years old!

The joystick in the article’s photo is a no-frills black-and-red Competition Pro 5000 – I had, and still have, several of these in different colours and only one of them ever broke. They were manufactured by a dutch company and became very popular in Europe because they were extremely sturdy and used microswitches for precision, something which most other joysticks did not have. Apart from the standard model with two buttons, there were several other variants in different colours and later there was also a miniature version of about 2/3 size for PCs with a soundcard gameport. Even today the Competition Pro is still sold with an USB plug and another one with an original 7-pin connector also seems to be available. Original Competition Pro joysticks from the 1980s and 1990s can still be found on eBay and since they rarely break and are easily repairable, a vintage one is often the better choice. There are even adapters around for connecting the 7-pin plugs to a USB port. Below is a little montage of my four Competition Pro joysticks:

From left to right: 5000 | Extra | Star with blue case | Star with green case

Kategorie: Commodore, Computer
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