The Commodore 64 was the pinnacle of 8 bit gaming (Spectrum and Amstrad owners may dispute this, but what do they know?!) and this book is a loving tribute to some of the fantastic games which were available for the Commodore’s beige wonder.
Even before you open the front cover, you get the feeling that this book is going to be something a little different. Although a paperback, it is presented in a “letterbox” format, so that pages are wider than they are tall. This works surprisingly well, giving the book a unique look and feel, as well as being entirely suitable to the content.
There’s also a different approach when it comes to how the book is organised. Rather than listing games alphabetically, they are organised chronologically, with each section devoted to some of the games published in that year. Each section also starts with a brief summary of how the Commodore 64 fared that year, giving some useful context charting the rise and fall of the machine.
This approach also allows you to see the evolution of the machine and appreciate how, as times passed, programmers began to really understand the machine and squeeze the best out of it. The early games are pretty simplistic, both in terms of graphics and gameplay. As the book progresses, you can see them becoming more complex leading to some truly incredible games that five years earlier would have been deemed impossible.
Although only a page is devoted to each game, the amount of information is generally about right. Each entry provides a summary of the gameplay, together with some reflections on how good (or not!) it was. In many cases, the review scores awarded by gaming magazines of the day are also noted, helping you to see how well (or badly) games have stood the test of time.
Andrew Fisher’s prose is light, but informative and it’s a great book to flick through when you fancy wallowing in a bit of nostalgia. The single page per game format is sometimes a little frustrating and there are times when you feel you would like a little more space devoted to certain influential titles, but on the whole the balance is about right.
It’s also great to look at. Each page is in full colour with at least one screenshot. This brightens up the book as well as refreshing your memory about the game in question. Occasionally, the text can be a little difficult to read, due to colour clash between the text and background colour (this is a C64 book, not a Spectrum one!) but I didn’t find it too much of an issue.
It’s slightly disappointing that there is only the vaguest of indications as to how the games were selected for inclusion. It’s not the best games (some are distinctly mediocre), nor those from certain publishers or certain eras, or even iconic or deeply influential ones from certain genres. In fact, it appears to be the ones the author feels like writing about. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does lead to some notable omissions, with some titles that you might expect not included. On the plus side, though, you might get to find out about some titles that originally passed you by, since the author moves beyond the usual suspects.
Sadly, the book does hit a couple of bum notes with regard to style. The slightly garish colour scheme is one, but it is compounded by “witty” titles being given for each page. Often, these consist of bad puns or in-jokes that you will only get if you are familiar with the game and, to be honest, I found them a bit weak. The other annoyance is the tendency to type random words in bold. At first, I thought that this was only used when the author was referring to specific programmers, software houses or game titles. In fact, it is rather arbitrary with no logic behind it. See how annoying that last paragraph was to read? Now imagine a whole book written in that style!
As it’s a niche product, The Commodore 64 book is not particularly cheap. I had to get it from the US-based Hiive publishing (who sadly no longer appear to be around) and including shipping to the UK, it cost around £30. Copies are currently available from Amazon.com (not UK), costing around $21. Even so, I’d consider it well worth the money for C64 or retro gaming fans.
The Commodore 64 Book might not present anything that your average 8 bit gamer won’t already know or couldn’t find out on the internet for free but as a nostalgic look back at the first computer I ever owned, I enjoyed it. The light, but informative writing style, the wide (and different) selection of games included and the sheer blast from the past nostalgia makes this a good buy for gamers of a certain age.