8bitdo Zero Bluetooth Gamepad [Review]

As you might expect from someone who writes a blog on the subject, I enjoy playing games. One of the best developments over the past 10 years or so has been the re-emergence of smaller, indie games, thanks to the Apple and Google Play Stores.

The creation of those have seen an explosion of titles for gaming on the go, as well as opening up the possibility of playing older games via emulation on your tablet or phone. Yet great though this is, one constant gripe (from me at least) has been the issue of virtual controls which make some games far more difficult than they would be with a physical controller.

Of course, solutions do exist in the shape of physical Bluetooth controllers. I own an iCade, for example, for my iOS games, but that’s only effective up to a point. For a start, it’s only supported by a relatively small number of games and secondly, whilst it works fine in the home, it’s rather too big and bulky for true mobile gaming.

That’s not a problem you are going to have with the 8bidDo Zero Bluetooth controller which is at totally the other end of the scale. Measuring just 2.75 inches by 1.5 inches it’s the very definition of portable. It will easily slip into a pocket or attach to your keys, weighing little more than a standard USB stick. Perfect for adding a physical controller to your mobile phone without adding much to the stuff you have to carry around with you all day.

8bitdo zero

Although it’s tiny, it’s well thought out and is a fully-formed controller with everything you’d expect – a D-Pad on the left hand side, four buttons on the right, shoulder buttons, and Start and Select buttons. Initial fears that the controller might be a little too small soon disappear. The buttons are surprisingly well-spaced and it feels comfortable and natural to hold. The buttons are also well enough defined that it’s easy to quickly find the one you need, without accidentally pressing the wrong thing. It would be nice if the buttons were differentiated by colour (they are all white with white labels) to make life a bit easier, but you can’t have everything. Most important of all, the controller is responsive with no lag between pressing and the corresponding action being carried out on screen.

Battery life is also impressive. Using it on average for around 45-60 minutes a day most weekdays, I’ve found that I generally only need to charge it up about once a month. If only my phone and iPad were that good at power consumption!

The biggest issue with the 8bitDo Zero is the setup. Pairing it with other Bluetooth devices is straightforward enough, but getting it to work properly with different platforms takes a bit of working out. There are two issues: firstly, each device requires a different combination of key presses to start it up in the correct mode (to enable it as a gamepad with Android devices, for example, you press the Start button; to start it in iCade compatible mode, it’s Start +A). These take a bit of getting used to and, if you start it up in the wrong mode, you’ll find your controller either not responding at all or doing all sorts of weird and wonderful things when you try and use it.

The second issue is the instructions, which are… well, perhaps brief is the kindest word to use. They are also really badly translated and hard to interpret. I spent ages trying to get the controller set up and was starting to get really frustrated and/or become convinced that I’d bought a dud unit. Happily, a search on that there new-fangled inter-web thingy eventually revealed that other people had experienced exactly the same problems, and provided far clearer instructions which helped me to finally get it up and running properly.

The only other issues I’ve experienced is that the controller doesn’t necessarily work with every game on every platform, so there’s a bit of trial and error involved sometimes to see if your game is compatible or not (I’ve still to get it working properly with my PC, for example, but I’ve been successful in getting it to work with some emulators). In addition, I’ve yet to investigate whether it’s possible to re-map the controls for particular games (given the difficulties I had setting it up, I’ll just stick with the default options for now!), so you might find a bit more fiddling is necessary for some titles.

Given the price (around £8-10 is standard), the 8bitDo Zero is a really neat solution if you want a small, lightweight but fully featured physical controller to help you with your mobile gaming. It’s a shame the set-up process is a little convoluted, as I suspect some users may give up in frustration, but once you get over this hurdle, it’s definitely a worthwhile purchase.

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The Shape of Things to Come

Christmas is a time for families, fun, food and, of course, presents (which sadly don’t start with an “f” and so ruined my wonderfully alliterative opening sentence).

Because the wonderful Mrs RetroReactiv8 tolerates (even if she doesn’t exactly understand) my passion for old computing stuff, she made sure that Santa shoved quite a few retrogaming goodies down my stocking.

Here’s a sneak preview of some of the things I got.

  • Recreated ZX Spectrum – bluetooth keyboard for tablets, complete with a number of old Speccy games.
  • 100 best video games that never existed (book) – a wacky look at some ideas for games that maybe should (but never did) get made.
  • A guide to Spectrum Games 1982-1984 (book) –  a pretty comprehensive tour of two years in the gaming life of Sir Clive’s little machine.

Look forward to reviews of these over the coming weeks as I’ve had chance to read/test them out!

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline [Book Review]

Ready_Player_One

When it comes to books and films, computer games often don’t translate well as subject matter. For every Tron, there’s a Super Mario Brothers, for every Game Boy, an Assassin’s Creed.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline bucks that trend, successfully tapping into the gaming culture (particularly 80s retro gaming) whilst telling an excellent story.

Set in a bleak, dystopian future (is there any other kind?!), it tells the tale of Wade Watts, aka Parzival, a young man who seeks refuge from his awful personal life in a realistic online virtual reality world, called The OASIS (think Second Life on mega steroids). When the creator of The OASIS dies, he leaves a message stating that several riddles and challenges (“easter eggs”) have been hidden inside his world. Whoever manages to find and decipher them will inherit his entire fortune and company.

What follows is an excellent, multi-layered book that is equal parts thriller, mystery and homage to 80s culture (particularly gaming). The story itself is gripping and interesting enough even for non-gamers, although you will certainly get a lot more out of it if you are a fan of 80s arcade games. The sense of an unequal fight between a mega corporation prepared to use all sorts of dirty tricks to win and gain control of the company and the loose, uneasy alliance between Parzival and a small band of other “gunters” (“egg hunters”) is well-told. Whilst the David vs Goliath plotline isn’t particularly original and the final outcome not exactly surprising, these don’t stop making the book a real pleasure to read.

Where the book really succeeds is in creating not just one, but two imaginary worlds. The society in which Wade lives reminded me very much of the one Stephen King created in The Running Man (the book, not the film) – a society sharply divided between the haves and have-nots, where the mass population is left to fend for itself or die. It feels like a very real, unpleasant world, where big corporations rule and the quest for profit takes priority over anything else (sound familiar?). It has more than a few passing resemblances to 21st century society now and it’s not hard to see how we could end up creating this very future if we are not careful.

The world of the OASIS, on the other hand, feels much more appealing and it’s not hard to see why some people choose to spend most of their time in it. It’s essentially a cross between a VR world and an RPG game, with quests complete, skill levels to build and billions of worlds to explore. Any gamer worth their salt will read this and hope that someone builds something like the OASIS very soon, rather than the insipid VR simulations we’ve had to date.

The detail that Cline adds to both of these worlds is incredible. Within both worlds, he creates a superb atmosphere and it doesn’t take long to establish them as “real places” in the reader’s mind. This sense of plausibility is essential, because without it, the narrative would fall apart.

Using the two worlds as a solid foundation, Cline crafts an excellent book around the disconnect between reality and VR. OK, so the plot is little more than a glorified treasure hunt, but it’s so interesting, imaginative and well-written that this lack or originality becomes irrelevant. For older readers or anyone interested in retro gaming or 80s culture, it has an added dimension, referencing the films, music and (particularly) the games of that era. Crucially, these pop culture references don’t feel forced. Like the imaginary worlds, they are an integral part of the plot and critical to the solution of the riddles. Even those sections which initially appear to be diversions (a lengthy account in which Parzival attempts to play the perfect game of Pac Man, for example) eventually become relevant and it’s at these points that you see how cleverly crafted and well-told the story is. The book may be fairly lengthy, but there are few wasted words, and everything that is on the page either adds to the depth and richness of the worlds, or drives the plot forward.

It’s clear that Cline is something of a geek, and the book will really appeal to retro gamers. It’s packed with references to old hardware and games and will provide a real nostalgia blast for anyone over the age of 40. Some of the references are pretty obscure (there were several games that I’d never heard of or played) and it’s clear that Cline has done a tremendous amount of research for the book (or is a serious uber-geek!). For younger gamers who maybe don’t get all the gaming history references, the plot’s RPG-like elements will still be appealing and the plot will be just as strong.

It’s quite a long time since I enjoyed a book as much as Ready Player One. It’s a stunning work of imagination that is very different from most of the uninspired, derivative and copycat books you usually see on the shelves. Not surprisingly, it’s currently being made into a film under the auspices of Steven Spielberg. In theory, this should be a Good Thing, since both they dystopian future and VR world lend themselves to the highly visual medium of cinema. Given Hollywood’s track record with films based around games, though, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Do yourself a favour and read this before it becomes next year’s trendy “must read” book and/or Hollywood ruin it.

Top 10 Adventure Games – Part 2

Introduction

Now that the dust has settled on the controversy of Part 1 (or, more accurately, now that I have time to sit down and write Part 2, it’s time to conclude my Top 10 adventure games of all time. Here we go, starting at number 5…

5. The Hobbit (Commodore 64)

The Hobbit

It was a bit buggy (though not as buggy as the Lord of the Rings sequels), a bit frustrating (critical non-playing characters could go off and get themselves killed, making completing the game impossible) and utterly brilliant.

The Hobbit felt like the first adventure game where characters had a life of their own and weren’t just hanging around waiting for you to do stuff. The game itself was an excellent adaption of the book, but introduced enough other puzzles so that the book didn’t act as a walkthrough. The parser felt very advanced for its time and the ability to “talk” to other characters was a revelation. Be honest: who didn’t spend half their time telling Thorin to do very un-dwarf like things to Gandalf?

4. Loom (Amiga)

Loom Amiga

Underlining the heresy already committed in Part 1 by not having Monkey Island in its customary number 1 slot is the fact that I think Loom is actually LucasArts’s best adventure game.

Loom was different to most other adventure games. Rather than using the traditional point and click method of selecting actions and objects from an inventory, Loom’s interface was based around your ability to discover, learn and cast musical spells which could then be used to manipulate other objects and progress the game. Initial concerns that this might limit the range of puzzles soon disappear thanks to some brilliant game design and innovative puzzles. I revisted Loom recently and it’s just as good 25 years later.

3. Beneath a Steel Sky (Amiga)

BASS

I’ve played and loved all of Revolution Software’s output, but Beneath a Steel Sky is special. The Dave Gibbons graphics, the dystopian sci-fi setting, the lovable little robot Joey, the wry, sarcastic sense of humour and the clever puzzles all make for a great game. The only downside was that the Amiga version came on something like 15 floppy disks. Indeed, the constant disk-swapping was such a pain that I went out and bought a hard disk for my Amiga, just so I could play it – so this £20 (or whatever) title ended up costing me around £150! It was worth every penny, though (and, in fairness, the hard disk turned out to be one of my best Amiga purchases).

2. Toonstruck (PC)

toonstruck-cover

This is one of the few adventure games that has previously featured on this blog. Hugely overlooked and under-rated, it’s a madcap cartoon-style graphic adventure featuring a digitized Christopher Lloyd, a psychotic, balloon-obsessed clown and sheep-on-cow S&M. How can you not like it? OK, the first part (essentially a treasure hunt to find a variety of objects) is a lot more fun and part 2 feels rather rushed and anti-climactic, but this is a game that will make you laugh, scratch your head and frustrate in equal measure – all positive attributes for an adventure game, I feel!

And so, we reach the coveted Number One slot, which goes to…

 

1. Broken Sword (PC)

Broken Sword PC box

It’s testament to how good Revolution Software’s games are that they occupy two of the top three spots. All of the (to date) 5 entries in the Broken Sword series is a great game, but it’s the original that deserves top spot. From the cinematic opening to the globe-trotting exploits of heroes George and Nicole, the game hardly puts a foot wrong. The wry humour is the perfect counterpoint to the sometimes darker plot elements; the story is incredibly deep and well-researched (it’s essentially the Da Vinci Code long before Dan Brown put finger to word processor) and the for the most part, the puzzles are well-crafted.

If it wasn’t for THAT goat, it would be damn close to the perfect adventure…

Conclusion

So, there we are. My Top 10 adventures of all time. Congratulations to Revolution Software for securing the number one spot and dominating the Top 3.

What do the rest of you think? Agree? Disagree? Glaring omissions? Your Personal Top 10? You know what to do – stick your comments in the box below!

Special thanks to @Catflap for giving me the idea for this post.

Top 10 Adventure Games Part 1

Introduction

After my (relatively) recent blog posts listing my top C64 games (Part 1 and Part 2) from each year I owned the machine, regular reader Catflap noted the absence of any adventure games. This was a strange omission (and one I was aware of when compiling the list), since adventure games have always been one of my favourite genres. Oddly, looking back on the rest of my blog, the genre is also seriously underrepresented.

It’s time to put that right with this – the first of two posts listing my top 10 adventure games, across any platform I’ve owned. And, in an attempt to stir up further controversy, I’ve even ranked them this time. Part 1 will countdown from 10-6, whilst Part 2 will feature my Top 5. So now, you can not only argue about which games I’ve included or missed, you can also call me a fool for the order I’ve put them in!

Off we go – let the arguments begin!

10. Twin Kingdom Valley (Commodore 64)

Twin Kingdom Valley cover

This is partly here for nostalgia reasons. It was the very first adventure game I ever played and so effectively was my gateway to the genre. I never really got anywhere with the game and can vividly remember dying many, many times or getting hopelessly lost in the tunnels beneath one of the early locations (with a lamp that rapidly ran out of oil, plunging you into darkness). Despite these frustrations, there was something about it that hooked me from the start and kept me coming back for more. If I ever progressed further than about 2% into the game, I’d be amazed, but it was a great game and the one that began my lifelong love of adventure games.

9. Gremlins (Commodore 64)

Gremlins

At a time when most licenses were converted into lazy platform games, Gremlins dared to try something different – turning it into a graphic adventure. The game’s plot followed the film pretty closely taking in its major locations and set pieces, whilst adding in additional puzzles and elements to stop it becoming too easy. The graphics and parser were pretty rudimentary, but they captured the spirit of the film… and how can you not love a game where you get to recreate the memorable Gremlin-in-a-blender and Gremlin-in-a-microwave scenes?

8. The Boggit (Commodore 64)

The Boggit

Back in the 80s, Delta 4 produced a number of spoof adventures, written using The Quill game creation software. The Boggit (no prizes for guessing which famous book was being spoofed) was easily my favourite. Sure, much of the humour might have been a bit schoolboy-ish, but hey, I WAS a schoolboy when I first played it and I found it pretty funny. If it had just been a pastiche, there’s no way The Boggit would have made it onto this list. However, it was also a pretty good adventure game in its own right, with some challenging puzzles complementing the silly sense of humour.

7. Seabase Delta (Commodore 64)

SeaBase Delta cassett

This is one of the few adventure games which has featured previously in this blog. Released as a budget title by Firebird, it was a cracker that kept me going for weeks. Its real strength was a simple plot that really had a sense of progression and a finely balanced difficulty level which (bubble gum/chicken puzzle aside) meant that I never experienced the same level of frustration I often came across in other adventures when you hit a puzzle that you just couldn’t solve. It’s a shame it was let down by such a poor ending, but that’s not enough to deny it a well-earned place on this list.

6. The Secret of Monkey Island (Amiga/PC)

Monkey Island

Here’s where the controversy really starts. I’m sure a lot of people would expect to see this a lot higher up the list. Indeed, I suspect that it would make most people’s top 3 at least. Controversially, thought, it’s not even going to be my most highly rated LucasArts game!

Monkey Island does, of course, deserve to be on the list. It’s a brilliantly constructed, bizarre and funny take on the pirate adventure. I still annoy my wife by occasionally shouting out “I’m Guybrush Threepwood – Mighty Pirate!” and surely there is no-one in the world that doesn’t enjoy the inspired Insult Swordfighting. The characters were fantastic, the music and effects impressive and the whole thing felt like a real step-up from the old 8 bit adventures. The reason that it doesn’t score more highly is because I’ve always felt that the bizarre humour can get in the way of the actual game, resulting in a some obtuse and frustrating puzzles that reduced you to doing anything you could possibly think of, in the hopes of randomly hitting on the right solution (or, more likely in my case, resorting to magazine hints or a walkthru’).

 

End of Part 1

So, on that bombshell, let’s end Part 1 and wait for the dust to settle before we return with Part 2.

(By the way: if anyone can guess which LucasArts game finishes higher than Monkey Island, you will win the free gift of having our genius acknowledged in the next post. I know. What more could you wish for?)

C64 Games of the Year Part 2: 1987-1992

Introduction

Now the dust has settled after the controversy of Part 1, here’s the final part in my run down of top C64 games from 1982-1991.

Moving into the second part of the decade of the machine’s life, the number of quality releases declined significantly as budget titles started to come to dominate. To off-set that, though, the quality of the best games increased dramatically, as programmers really understood how to get the best out of the machine.

1987

1987 was one of the hardest years to pick the winning games. Airborne Ranger, Pirates! and Barbarian all narrowly missed out on places, as they were pipped to the post by the following.

Honourable mention

California Games: The pinnacle of Epyx’s Games series (discuss!). They took everything they had learned from Summer Games and Winter Games (impressive graphics, short events, easy-to-learn controls) and applied it to this collection of slightly more obscure sports. I’d never heard of it before I played this title, but I quickly became master of the hackey sack!

Kikstart II: I might have bemoaned the growth of budget games in the introduction, but there were some real gems that easily beat many full-price offerings. Shaun Southern’s KikStart II was one. Offering a computerised spin on the BBC TV series of (almost) the same name, it had two player split screen racing, loads of built-in courses and a course creator – all for just £2. What a bargain!

Runner up: The Last Ninja

From a gameplay perspective, System 3’s game might not have offered much new, but it felt like a game changer in all other regards. The graphics were stunning, the animation fluid and the music incredible. This was a game that really pushed the boundaries of what the C64 could handle. The sequel might arguably have been a better game, but it’s always the original that sticks in my mind.

Winner: Bubble Bobble

Bubble Bobble title

In any other year, The Last Ninja would have taken the crown but it was unfortunate to be released in the same year as Bubble Bobble. Software Creations managed to cram a virtually arcade perfect conversion into the C64. Whilst not as graphically impressive as the Last Ninja, it offered much more addictive game play and for me that will always win out over impressive presentation. Brilliantly designed and superbly executed, this would be a strong contender for my best C64 game EVER, never mind just 1987.

1988

Honourable mention:

Barbarian II: Palace Software’s hack and slash original narrowly missed out on a place in 1987, so it’s time to redress that. Whilst many people disagree, I’ve always had a soft spot for the sequel. The exploration-based game play added more variety, whilst the various monsters (which could dispatch the unwary Barbarian/Barbarianette(?!) in impressively gory fashion) made for a less repetitive game. I wouldn’t say the sequel is better than the original but, judged on its own merits, it’s as good.

The Shoot em Up Construction Kit (SEUCK): I’ve written in another post about how I always longed to program my own games, but suffered from a crippling lack of brains/talent/knowledge/time. Sensible Software’s sublime SEUCK gave me the tools to create my very own, commercial quality shoot em ups. Of course, it never happened, but that was my fault, not SEUCK’s, and I still had a lot of fun messing around with it. The 4 decent games written and supplied with SEUCK as part of the package showed what could be done in capable hands.

The downside was that, once released, it led to poor quality SEUCK-authored games flooding the market. Bad SEUCK games became as ubiquitous as budget titles.

Runner Up: Star Wars

The original arcade machine was released in 1983, so why the hell did we have to wait 5 years for this home conversion? Still, at least it was worth the wait: the game perfectly captured the feel of both the arcade game and the film and really made you feel like you were Luke Skywalker. OK, so the gameplay could slow down a little at times (the C64 was never the best at vector graphics) and the gameplay could become repetitive, but it was still a belter.

Winner: Armalyte

armalyte_(kixx) (1)

Continuing the trend for 1988, another shoot em up takes top spot. Armalyte was clearly inspired by R-Type, but it remained very much its own game. Visually and aurally impressive, challenging and utterly addictive, it was a brilliant example of how well the C64 did shoot em ups and remains one of my favourite examples of the genre to this day.

1989

This is where it starts to get tougher as developers and gamers began to drift towards the 16 bits and new games started to dry up. There will still some great games, though.

Honourable mention

Speedball: The sequel was the more rounded game, but the original was a great title in its own right. Many games had tried to crack the futuristic violent sports genre, but few had got it right. Speedball did, nailing the balance between violence and sport– taking a player out with a heavy tackle was just as satisfying as scoring a goal.

The Untouchables: Ocean were often criticised for applying the same formula to their film licenses, but when it worked as well as this, who cares? The Untouchables blended several different genres (platform game, chase game, Operation Wolf-style shooter) into a series of entertaining mini games. Although Batman the Movie was released the same year, this was the better game, as it relied less on flashy presentation and was more suited to the 8 bits.

Runner up: Project Firestart

One of the earliest examples I played of what would become known as Survival Horror. Project Firestart saw you the lone survivor of spaceship where something sinister had happened. All the crew were dead and you had to find out why and avoid the same fate. Oozing atmosphere, this was a cracking game which never quite got the accolades it deserved due to its relatively late, low profile release.

Winner: Turbo Outrun

Turbo Outrun

After the massive disappointment of US Gold’s Outrun conversion, Probe Software’s Turbo Outrun set the record straight. Taking part in an illegal road race across America, you had to finish the stages within tight time limits, whilst escaping from cops trying to do you for speeding. A blistering racing game with the exhilarating sense of speed that the original conversion lacked, combined with a superb soundtrack from Jeroen Tel. The cassette version a multi-load nightmare, but the disk version was fantastic.

1990

Another tough year. Whilst only a small number of games (8) made the shortlist, they were all quality releases. In the end, a somewhat eclectic mix of titles that made it through to the final 4.

Honourable mentions:

International 3D Tennis: Using wireframe graphics for a tennis game wasn’t the most obvious design decision, but once you got used to the slightly odd, sparse aesthetics, it worked surprisingly well. Sensible Software’s attempt to do for tennis what they’d already done for football wasn’t quite as successful, but they still served up a fun, challenging and addictive game that (like many games) really took off when played against a friend.

Sport of Kings:  A real leftfield choice, especially since I’ve never placed a bet on a horse in my life! Yet, this horse betting simulator from Mastertronic was surprisingly good fun (with the added bonus that you didn’t lose any real money!). As in real life, you had to look at the form, assess the track and decide whether you wanted to bet on an outright win or a place before deciding how much money you were prepared to risk. The algorithms behind the results were pretty simple by today’s standards, but myself and a friend wiled away many happy hours risking our virtual cash.

Runner up: Die Hard

A superb take on the film saw you roaming the corridors of Nakatomi Plaza trying to free the hostages, kill the bad guys and stay alive. It would have been so easy to turn this into a routine Contra-style shoot em up but the developers took a much more thoughtful approach, where stealth would get you far further than blasting. It was as tough as old boots – you only got one life (albeit measured by a health bar, rather than a single shot proving fatal), but (just like the film), you felt a real sense of achievement every time you got that little bit further.

Winner: Rainbow Islands

Rainbow Islands title

There could only be one winner for 1990. This Bubble Bobble sequel, programmed by Graftgold, was, like its predecessor, not arcade perfect, was pretty damn close. The bright colours, jaunty tune and cutesy enemies could have made for a vomit-inducing experience, but the excellent, well balanced gameplay was the perfect antidote.

1991

By the time 1991 rolled around, I was buying fewer and fewer games. I had my eye on upgrading to an Amiga, so all my spare cash was set aside for that. As such, there’s just one title makes my list for 1991, so by default it’s also the winner.

Winner: Speedball II

speedball_2

The original got an honourable mention back in 1989, but the sequel does even better. It took the first game and improved it: more polished, more fun, more challenging. The expanded teams, player rosters and competitions added to the challenge, whilst recapturing everything that was so good about the original.

1992

In this, the last year that I owned my C64, just two games make the shortlist and it was so hard to separate them that they both end up joint winners. A fitting way perhaps to end my ownership of a machine that produced so many great games.

Joint winners

Creatures 2

creatures_2

The only reason Creatures didn’t feature in 1990 was because I knew it would get a second chance later. Creatures 2 took the really good bits from the first game (particularly the torture screens) and added more whilst ironing out a few of the kinks that sometimes made the original frustrating. The supremely talented Rowland Brothers crafted a brilliant platform game with graphics to match any of the much-vaunted console platformers of the day.

First Samurai

first_samurai_thumb

Another great game from some of the talented team behind The Last Ninja (hence the pun-title). Sales might not have been as good as the Amiga counterpart, but that didn’t reduce the quality of this brilliant, challenging platform game that looked and sounded incredible on what was by now pretty ancient hardware.

So, there you go: a run-down of my top games for the entire period that I owned a C64. Part one (1982-1986) caused a few cries of “but what about…” (yes, Catflap I’m looking at you!), but that just serves to underline how many superb games were released.

So, now it’s over to you to again agree, disagree, suggest some of your own favourites or just reminisce over some of the titles I’ve listed.

C64 Games of the Year Part One: 1982-1986

Introduction

To make up for the lack of recent postings, this blog entry is a bit longer than normal. It was inspired by an article in Retro Gamer magazine which celebrated the 35th anniversary of the ZX Spectrum by picking the best game released for the machine in each of those 35 years.

Shamelessly stealing the idea, I decide to pick out the best Commodore 64 games for the period 1982-1992, the 10 years that I owned the machine. The post is split into two parts – one covering 1982-1986, the second 1987-1992.

The games selected are the “best” from my point of view. They aren’t not necessarily the “best” in terms of either critical acclaim or commercial success. Some will be titles you might expect to find in such a list; others are a little more left-field. Feel free to disagree with my choices in the comments below, but remember: these are my personal choices, so naturally reflect my own biases!

For each year, there will be a winner, a runner up and up to two “honorable mentions” games which I really, really liked but which didn’t quite make the final two.

So without more ado, let’s hop into our time travel machine and go all the way back to 1982

1982

1982 was something of a lean year for gaming releases, since it was pretty early in the machine’s career, but there were still a few of note.

Honorable mention:

Jupiter Lander – a decent (if ultimately limited and repetitive) version of the arcade game, released by Commodore

Runner up: Choplifter

A rather advanced title for its time which saw you piloting a helicopter to rescue people and taken them to safety, whilst avoiding enemy fire. The rescue element added a whole new level to what would otherwise have a been a run of the mill shooter.

Winner: Radar Rat Race

The first proper C64 game I owned. A close family friend bought me the cartridge version the same Christmas I got my machine, so it’s a game that brings back very happy memories. You took control of a rat trying to escape from other rats and cats whilst eating as much cheese as possible. It was a pretty decent game too, despite the annoying repetition of “Three Blind Mice”.

Rat Race Cover

1983

If 1982 was a bit of lean year, 1983 was brought a bumper crop of games. It was the year that led me to allow “honorable mentions” since there were so many great games from this year that limiting myself to 2 seemed impossible.

Honorable mentions:

Attack of the Mutant Camels: The very first game I bought myself, the first game to reviewed on this blog and the game that started a life-long love affair with the games of Jeff Minter. A quirky title for sure, but a great shoot ‘em up.

Siren City: At a time most games were still arcade clones, Siren City offered something a little different. You took on the role of a police officer patrolling the streets of the titular city and chasing down criminals. Not even the rather cumbersome controls could ruin this fun and innovative title.

Runner up: Forbidden Forest

Another highly innovative game. The chunky graphics, bombastic sound and music, gory deaths and incredible atmosphere made for a game that remained totally addictive no matter how many times you beat it. An inferior sequel followed.

Winner: Blue Max

This isometric flying/shooting game was essentially a Zaxxon clone, but for my money improved on the original. The perspective and controls took a little time to get used to, but the rewards for persevering were great. A challenging and fun game this was one of the few titles I’ve ever been any good at.

Blue_Max_Title

1984

Honorable Mentions:

High Noon: A simple, but effective single screen Western-based shooter from Ocean. Full of quirky humour (the dancing girls, the undertaker taking away the dead bodies) and a brilliant rendition of the High Noon theme tune. Another game I was actually pretty good at, it did become repetitive after a while, but rarely stopped being fun.

Chuckie Egg: This might be heresy, but as a platform game, I’d put Chuckie Egg ahead of Manic Miner because it was more playable and less frustrating. A game I continued to play for as long as I had my C64.

Runner Up: Ghostbusters

It might have been little more than a pretty simple set of mini games based around the film, but Ghostbusters captured the spirit of its celluliod  namesake. From the opening shout of “Ghostbusters, Mwa ha ha ha ha ha!” and the bouncy ball singalong theme tune to the final showdown with the Marshmallow Man, this was an all-too-rare example of a licence done well.

Winner: Bruce Lee

What can I say? Bruce Lee was an addictive and brilliantly playable platform/fighting game that just oozed quality. Full of variety and with a two player mode to boot, this is the game that stands out for me in another year that had some real quality titles.

Bruce Lee - cover

1985

1985 was a bumper year for sports titles, with all of my picks for this year coming from that category.

Honorable mentions:

Way of the Exploding Fist: When this karate game burst arrived on the scene, it was a revelation. The presentation was head and shoulders above many other games, and it was a great fighting game to boot. Only the arrival of International Karate+ two years later could take its crown as the machine’s best martial arts game.

Frank Bruno’s Boxing: A thinly-veiled rip-off of Punch-Out!! that was impressive, fun and frustrating all at once. The larger than life characters looked great on the 64 and it provided a tough challenge. OK, it became quite repetitive and sometimes felt unfair, but I can remember grimly playing it for hours on end, determined to take Frank to the very top (as in real life, I don’t think he ever made it, sadly)

Runner-up: Graham Gooch’s Test Cricket

I’ve never really been a fan of cricket in either real life or on a computer, but something about this game just captivated me. Although control was limited to either the bowler or batter, it was a pretty decent interpretation of the sport. Like the real thing, the more you practiced, the better you got; but the emphasis on arcade style fun over serious simulation made it fun for casual players.

Winner: Barry McGuigan’s World Championship Boxing

Barry’s already been given the full review treatment on RetroReactiv8, and this remains my favourite boxing game to this day. Successfully combining basic simulation and arcade elements it saw the player take control of training and the actual fight as you made your bid for the top.

cover

1986

Honorable mentions:

Killed Until Dead: The first of two slightly left-field choices, this was a pseudo graphic adventure set in the world of amateur sleuthing. Featuring a number of different tales, you had to identify the murderer by piecing together the clues picked up from talking to different characters. Featuring parodies of real life crime writers, this was an amusing, entertaining and quirky game, let down only by being a bit too easy.

Dandy: all-too-often dismissed as a Gauntlet clone (it actually pre-dates it), Dandy plays much better than the official conversion – it’s faster, less buggy and generally more fun. I’m not sure it ever got an official stand-alone release (I only ever saw it on compilations) which is a real shame as it’s a very overlooked title.

Runner up: Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future

Dan Dare was one of the games that changed my perception of what computer games could be. It wasn’t terribly innovative in terms of basic game play (standard find/collect/use objects game mechanics), but it’s presentation was outstanding. Mimicking the panel style presentation of a real comic book it was one of the few early games that really felt like “a playable cartoon.”

Winner: Leaderboard

Leaderboard successfully turned people (like myself) who hate golf in real life into avid computer golfers. The controls were so right that they are still pretty much still used today, whilst the game itself was challenging but fun. World Class Leaderboard might have been a more accomplished game overall, but it was the original game that was the real revelation.

Leaderboard title screen

Note: all the games release dates are taken from the Gamebase64 website, so don’t shout at me if you dispute them!