C64 Mini Review

Sometimes the Gaming Gods both smile on you and curse you at the same time. When I saw that the C64 Mini was due to be released on 29 March, it was great timing as far as I was concerned. I took the rebirth of my beloved C64 on the day after my birthday as an omen and dropped many *ahem* subtle hints to the lovely Mrs. RetroReactiv8, who did indeed pre-order one as a slightly delayed birthday gift.

Of course, those same Gaming Gods couldn’t bear me to be entirely happy, so whilst my C64 Mini was indeed delivered on 29 March, I wasn’t in when it arrived. Sadly, it was taken back the post office depot, where it spent a long, lonely Easter Bank Holiday weekend before I could rescue it. Four days knowing my Mini was less than a mile away, yet unobtainable, was like some sort of torture.

Happily, though, it was definitely worth the wait because one or two niggles aside, it’s easily one of my best retro gaming purchases.

C64 Mini - box

It’s clear that this product is aimed firmly at capturing that nostalgia element and boy does it succeed. The whole thing came in a great looking box with the contents well packed. It really did take me back to that Christmas in about 1983 when I first unwrapped my original C64. I felt that same tingle of excitement as I carefully unpacked all the bits and this continued when I saw the actual device. I hesitate to use the word “cute” about a piece of hardware, but there is something undeniably attractive about it. The phrase “small but perfectly formed” could have been invented for the C64 Mini. It’s a great looking device that looks perfectly at home alongside some of my larger consoles.

C64 mini - top down

From a setup point of view, it’s well designed too. Plug in the HDMI cable (supplied) and attach the USB power cable and away you go. It’s slightly odd that the device comes with a power cable but not a plug to put it in (presumably to cut costs), but most people are likely to have a plug lying around that can be used. Cables are sufficiently long so that you can attach it to your TV and sit a decent length back it (essential for my ageing gamer’s eyes!). The design has been really well thought out and it truly is plug and play – mine was up and running less than a minute after removing it from the box.

The selection screen for the games is also great, presenting them in a rotating carousel that includes the original box artwork and a brief explanation of the game’s plot/aims. It would have been nice to see the instructions for each game included on this screen rather than just on the website (particularly for the Games series, where each event has different controls) and I don’t really understand why this approach was taken, but it’s not that big a deal. You can also access BASIC from the carousel, giving you the chance to relearn your advanced programming skills by typing things like:

10 Print “Spectrum owners smell”

20 Goto 10

However nice it all looks, though, the bottom line rests on how good the included games are. Previous devices like this have had two key weaknesses: the selection of games has ranged from excellent to makeweight titles whilst the locked down systems have prevented the addition of any further titles. Not so the Mini C64.

Firstly, the included titles are very strong. You get 64 (what else?!) pre-packed games and it’s hard to spot a weak one amongst them. Sure, there are some that I like more than others and some that I’ve no doubt I’ll rarely play, but this is down to personal preference rather than quality (all the included games scored highly in various magazines in their original incarnations). There are plenty of titles fully deserving the description “classic”: Pitstop II, California/World Games/Summer Games II, Uridium, Armalyte, Monty Mole, Boulder Dash… I could go on. Indeed, I spent the first 10 minutes just scrolling and getting more and more excited at the range of games. You can argue till the cows come home that this game or that game should have been included, but at the end of the day, within the complex restrictions of licensing and rights, the developers have assembled an excellent collection.

Anyway, this is where the Mini C64’s other advantage kicks in. Unlike similar retro systems (Recreated ZX Spectrum, Mini NES/SNES), you can actually add your own games via a USB stick. Admittedly, the process for doing so is currently a little cumbersome. You can only use .d64 (disk image) files and you can only store one game on a single memory stick and need to rename it to a specific filename before the system will recognise it,. However Retro Games Ltd have promised to make this easier via a future firmware update, so hopefully this is a short term irritation, rather than a long-term problem. In any case, certain clever people have already provided information online as to how to get round this whilst you’re waiting for the fix. Essentially, though, the ability to load up games of your own opens up the system, allowing you to play pretty much any C64 game.

In my brief experience to date, emulation works well. I’ve not yet played the full range of games, so can’t say that it’s flawless, but certainly I’ve been impressed so far. I’ve seen a few complaints online that certain games run too fast or suffer from a bit of lag, but either I’ve not experienced this or am not familiar enough with the original games to spot it.

The big disappointment is the joystick included with the package. It’s modelled on the Competition Pro (nothing wrong with that) but is sadly nowhere near the same quality. It’s pretty obvious that this is where corners have been cut to reduce production costs. It’s perhaps not as bad as some people are making out online, but it’s a long (long) way from being great. For a “modern” joystick, it’s surprisingly uncomfortable to hold – after just 10 minutes my hand was aching like it used to when I played on my friend’s old Atari 2600. It’s also not as responsive as you’d hope or expect. It’s OK for some titles, but any game that requires finesse or twitch responses will be a struggle. I lost count of the number of times I lost a life on some games because it just doesn’t allow the pixel perfect positioning needed by so many old games. It’s a shame because the rest of the package is excellent, but the joystick lets it down badly.

It’s true that other USB controllers and joysticks can be attached via the in-built USB ports, but it seems to be very hit and miss as to which ones will work. I’d strongly advise you to look on the forums on the Mini C64 website for advice on compatible devices before you buy.

Joystick issues aside, though, Retro Computers Ltd have assembled a very impressive package. Most of the issues I have are minor ones that could be easily addressed through future updates. Like all these devices, you could argue that £65-£75 is a lot when you could set up an emulator on your laptop for free, but there’s definitely a greater sense of nostalgia playing the games on a replica machine. And at the end of the day, for your £65 you get 64 ready to play games, plus the option to add in others. Personally, I consider that money well spent.

Retro Games Ltd should be applauded. They have delivered a product that has appeal for both the existing C64 community and more casual gamers who want a blast from the past. As a dyed-in-the-wool C64 fan (and former owner) you could say I’m biased, but I am waaaaaaay more impressed by this device than any other similar consoles that I own. Retro Games Ltd., I salute you.

 

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Top Ten Tunes in Games – Part 2

After last time’s sequence of audio delights, it’s time for Part 2 of my Top 10 Tunes in computer games. If you want to remind yourself of the rules for selection, then take a look back at Part 1. Otherwise, let’s just get straight on with it.

6. The Last Ninja (Commodore 64)

[Full RetroReactiv8 review here]

The Last Ninja game was a revolution in itself, graphically light years ahead of anything else available at the time, and a good game to boot. The music certainly didn’t let the side down either. Each level had its own music, as did the inter-level loading screens. That’s a lot of tunes – all the more impressive when you consider there wasn’t a bad one amongst them. However, the one that always comes to my mind when I think of this game is the opening level – the Wastelands. Well-paced, perfectly suited to the game and exciting, it underlined what a truly special game The Last Ninja was.

7. Loco (Commodore 64)

Tony Crowther’s train-based game featured a cracking tune from Ben Daglish that made the game almost worth buying just for the music. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized this wasn’t an original composition, but was taken from a Jean-Michelle Jarre album. Indeed, when I heard it performed by him, I wondered why he was playing the Loco tune! Either way, it’s a great tune and this was a great adaptation.

8. Parallax (Commodore 64)

Like many of his contemporaries, Martin Galway produced some amazing sounds on the Commodore 64 and one of his best was the title music for Sensible Software’s first proper title. It’s incredibly atmospheric: the ominous start sets the tone and the reverse arpeggios build on it, with layer upon layer slowly being added to create a complex, overlapping tune. This was a stunning achievement, even with the C64’s renowned SID chip.

9. Rainbow Islands (Amiga)

[Full RetroReactiv8 review here]

Heavily inspired by “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, Steve Turner’s chirpy, jolly tune perfectly suited the cutesy look and feel of Bub and Bob’s second game. The only downside it was pretty short and looped endlessly, so some people found it slightly annoying during longer gaming sessions. Not me; I loved it!

10. Thing on a Spring (Commodore 64)

As Catflap rightly pointed out in his comment on Part 1, it would have been a crime if a Rob Hubbard tune hadn’t featured, but I bet I had you worried for a minute, didn’t I? Out of all his great compositions, Thing on a Spring is the one I’ve gone for. Whilst I never really got into the game itself, it was always worth loading up just to listen to that jolly, bouncy tune which never got old. Of course these days, thanks to the joys of YouTube, you don’t have to wait 20 minutes for the game to load and can listen to it pretty much any time!

The Also-Rans

As I pointed out in the introduction to Part 1, whittling this list down to just 10 entries was an incredibly difficult task – I could easily have done a top 50 or even a Top 100. Eventually, what guided me to my final selection was trying to include a range of composers, rather than having too many compositions by a single person. This meant that some great music didn’t quite make the final cut for a variety of reasons, including:

Commando – another Rob Hubbard classic. It was really tough to leave this one out, as I love it and it’s probably the one I immediately think of when someone mentions Rob Hubbard’s name. At the end of the day, though, Thing on a Spring got the nod because it’s just so goddamn jolly!

Head Over Heels (Commodore 64) – A great piece of music that was mainly disqualified on the grounds that it wasn’t an original piece, with Peter Clarke ripping off Mozart for the main tune. Since I’d already included Loco and wanted to focus more on original music in this feature, Head over Heels had to go.

Trap Door (Commodore 64) – I’ve already mentioned the great music in my full review of this game. It fell victim to the chop mainly because it’s pretty short and most of the game didn’t have much music. Still a great adaptation of the theme tune, though.

Toonstruck (PC). This point and click adventure was filled with great tunes, and few were better than the opening title screen. It mainly lost its place due to my decision to exclude CD-based tunes and only include those from the 8 and 16 bit eras. Unlucky, Flux Wildly!

Top Ten Tunes in games – Part 1

Although I do them only rarely, my Top 10 features (Top 10 C64 games, Part 1 and Part 2; Top 10 Adventure Games, Part 1 and Part 2) tend to be quite popular, so I thought I’d do another one: this time based around game music.

From early on music has been an important part of the gaming experience. Good music sticks in your memory (I can still recall all the tunes in this feature clearly, even though I’ve not played some of the games for years); bad music has you reaching for the mute button to save your ears and your sanity. Gaming musicians deserve to be considered legends of the industry in exactly the same way that programmers are and it’s about time this blog recognised their contribution.

The trouble was, as soon as I started making my list, I knew it was going to be difficult. In the 35 years or so that I’ve been a gamer, there has been some truly outstanding music and whittling it down was hard. To make life easier, I set some ground rules.

RULE 1: No music from CD-based games. This era produced some fabulous music, but the retrogamer in me has always admired the incredible music programmers in the pre-CD age managed to put together despite having so little memory or storage to work with.

RULE 2: 8 and 16-bit games only. Effectively, Rule 1 forces this decision, but I’m happy to go with it, since I’ve always thought of chip tunes as the purest form of computer game music.

RULE 3: Commodore 64 and Amiga Games are your friend. Again, this follows logically from Rules 1 and 2. They were the systems I had growing up, so they are the games I’m most familiar with.

Even with these rules, selecting a final 10 was almost borderline impossible. My first “shortlist” had over 100 candidates (and I thought I was being ruthless when I selected it!). Every time I thought I’d settled on the final 10, I’d have doubts: “But what about ‘x’” or “Surely ‘y’ deserves a place.” In the end, it came down to these titles. They are in no order (other than alphabetical) – selecting them was difficult enough – trying to rank them would have been the end of me!

So here we go with the first 5.

(Note: where possible I’ve provided links to YouTube videos containing the music, which will open in a separate window. I’ve had no hand in making these, so thanks to the various YouTubers for making them available.)

1. Aladdin (Amiga)

[Full Retroreactiv8 review here]

The music throughout Aladdin was incredible. A different tune for every level, with most (all?) adapted from the film’s music. Composers Donald Griffin and Tommy Tallarico did an incredible job throughout. The standout moment, however, had to be the title screen when your Amiga suddenly started singing along to A Whole New World. OK, it was only about lines or so, but I had never heard such a thing in a commercial Amiga game before and it was simply breathtaking. I remember subsequently playing the Megadrive version (generally held to be a slightly superior game) and being massively disappointed that it didn’t feature the singing. 1-0 to Commodore’s Mighty Machine!

2. Battle Valley (Commodore 64)

As I mentioned in my review of Hewson Consultants’ Hints and Tips for Videogame Pioneers audio CD, Battle Valley brings back very specific memories of an early trip to London where I bought the game in the old Virgin Megastore. Misty-eyed memories aside, it’s the tune by Jeroen Tel that really makes the game standout out. From the strident opening chords, it grabs you by the unmentionables and demands to be listened to. The game itself was a decent, value-for-money budget title, but the tune was worthy of a Triple A full price release.

3. Bubble Bobble (Commodore 64)

[Full RetroReactiv8 review here]

Looked at from a logical point of view, this wasn’t a great piece of music. It was lightweight, rather tinkly and repetitive. But that’s the point: it was perfectly suited to the game and after just a few minutes, it was almost impossible not to be singing along to it. The amount I played Bubble Bobble, I’m sure it annoyed the hell out of my mum, but I thought (and still do) that it was a great tune to accompany one of the C64’s best games.

4. Cannon Fodder (Amiga)

If Aladdin was impressive for fitting in four lines of singing, Cannon Fodder was something else, giving us a whole song. Composed by the late, great Richard Joseph and Sensible Software’s Jon Hare, the song was simply brilliant – catchy, quirky and perfectly suited to the game (fun, but with slightly darker overtones). Even allowing for the increased technical capabilities of the Amiga, it was still an achievement to cram a whole song into the game. Sure it added to the loading times, but it was worth every extra second.

5. Forbidden Forest (Commodore 64)

[Full RetroReactiv8 review here]

One of my earliest C64 gaming memories, but a timeless classic. The blocky graphics, varied enemies and slightly unnerving gameplay made it different to anything else out there, and the music was no exception. Two pieces stand out in particular: the title screen music with its energetic, slightly ominous feel and the archer’s victory dance tune. Both superb compositions that really made the C64 sing.

 

So we get to the end of Part One. If there are any of your personal favourites missing from the list, don’t shout at me just yet – they might feature in Part 2 (unless of course they being with A-F, in which case you can shout!)

Paul Woakes: a tribute

I was sad to see a tweet earlier today from ex-ZZap! writer Julian Rignall announcing that he had just heard that Paul Woakes, author of the Mercenary games died last year, unknown to most in the retro gaming community.

I was going to post a review today. Instead, I thought it would be more appropriate to post a short tribute to Paul and his games. I didn’t know him personally and haven’t played all of his games, but I do feel that news of his death deserves to be noted. I’m sure there will be many other tributes posted online over the course of the next few days, many by people far better placed to comment on his influence. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here’s my personal tribute.

Unlike many of my friends, I wasn’t massively into Mercenary, but even at the age of around 14 I could see what an incredible title it was. At a time when most games were linear, allowing you only to undertake pre-determined actions and go where the programmer had decided, Mercenary offered far greater freedom to explore. The game had a plot and goals, but how you achieved this, and how long it took was entirely up to you. This was a revolutionary concept at the time and the incredible world Woakes created made for an immersive experience where players would often (literally and metaphorically) get lost for hours.

It’s also clear from his games that he was an incredibly talented programmer. Mercenary really pushed the boundaries of gaming at the time, cramming an entire planet into less than 64k of memory – whilst still running at a fair old speed and offering complex and nuanced gameplay. Received wisdom (then and now) said the Commodore 64 wasn’t good with vector graphics. Woakes certainly proved that wrong. The clarity and fluidity of the graphics remain deeply impressive today – more so when you remember the limited technology and tools programmers back then had to work with.

Whilst he is probably (deservedly) be best remembered for the Mercenary series, he was certainly no one-trick pony. Encounter was a blisteringly fast game inspired by the arcade classic Battlezone (scoring a deserved 90% in Zzap! Issue 5) that is my personal favourite of Paul Woakes’ games and still stands up today as a fast-paced, addictive and challenging game.

Equally of note was his creation of the Novaload system, which sped up the loading of games from tapes and made possible some limited entertainment (such as music being played during loading) to keep young gamers’ minds occupied during those often tortuous loading times.

The start of 2018 hasn’t been a good one. Last month we lost the talented Bob Wakelin, whose iconic and varied art graced many cassette covers and magazine adverts, today we learn of the death of Paul Woakes. Sadly, we are going to have to get used to news like this. Like us, our gaming heroes from the 80s are growing older and starting to succumb to the ravages of time.

That’s why retro gaming sites are so important – they help to keep alive the memories of the great games of the era, and the incredibly talented programmers, artists and musicians who created them.

Trap Door (C64) Review

Trap Door title screen

Piranha Software may only have existed for a short period, but they used their time well to release some cracking games that generally made good use of the licensed properties they secured.

One of their best s was also one of their earliest – Trap Door – based on the animated kid’s TV programme of the same name. I’d never watched the programme, but as soon as I saw the Zzap!64 review, I knew I had to have it.

You played as Berk, unfortunate general dogs body to the ill-tempered Thing. Gameplay was pretty simple. Thing shouted down what he wanted you to eat and you had to make the meal, making use of the objects that were lying around and also opening the titular Trap Door to release. Some of these would be the ingredients you needed to make Thing’s meal; others would just cause a nuisance and had to be returned to the Trap Door before you could continue. Fail to prepare a meal in time and Thing would get Very Angry Indeed, which was not good for poor old Berk.

Being a fairly shallow sort of 15-year-old at the time of its release, it’s fair to say that the first thing that attracted me to the game was the graphics. It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time I think most of us were convinced that Trap Door’s huge bold and bright graphics could only have been achieved by some sort of witchcraft. They gave the game an instant visual appeal and set it apart from pretty much every other title of the time. I mean, just look at them. They’re HUUUUUUUGE!!!

Trap Door game screen 2 USE THIS ONE

The music was also highly impressive. This is one of a small number of games where I would sit watching the title screen and listening to the music for several minutes before I hit Start. Composer David Dunn did a great job of converting the cartoon music into a C64 chip tune. Indeed, I can remember – several months after this game was released – seeing the cartoon on TV for the first time, and being disappointed that it was subtly different to the game. I’d argue that Dunn’s rendition is far superior and if anyone thinks otherwise, I’ll shove them down the Trap Door.

Superficial wow factor aside, Don Priestley’s adaptation had a solid game behind it too. Sure, you could argue that the big graphics didn’t leave much room for a complex game and so it wasn’t anything revolutionary (it was essentially a puzzle game that involved collecting and using the right items in the right way), but boy was it addictive. Once you started playing, whole hours could swiftly disappear and, no matter how many times you failed (and you would, repeatedly), you kept hitting that fire button to try again (after a brief pause to listen to the title screen music several times, of course).

In good old 8-bit tradition, the game was both tough and frustrating. The things that emerged from the Trap Door were not necessarily the things that you needed to complete your task, and games often consisted of you frantically (usually vainly) trying to re-capture something that had emerged in the hope that next time, the right thing would appear. From memory, I don’t think I ever successfully served up a single meal to Thing (let alone the multiple meals required to beat the game.) I seem to remember that I once managed to collect two out of the three required ingredients and NEARLY managed to get hold of third, but ran out of time. Such was the game’s toughness that I honestly think that that is the closest I ever came to success.

It didn’t matter though. Trap Door was just so much damn fun, so good to look at and listen to, that I just kept playing regardless of how inept I made Berk look. The game also had a sense of humour that helped alleviate the frustration somewhat. Whilst Berk’s “friend” Boney (a skull) would give you helpful hints about what to do, you could also pick him up and drop him down the Trap Door. This didn’t achieve anything useful, but it did sometimes make you feel a little better about your constant, abject failure.

Trap Door was a cracking game and showed how, with a little bit of imagination, a licensed game could be both a decent game, yet faithful to its source material, rather than just knocking up a series of mini-games based around key scenes (yes, Ocean Software, I’m looking at you). It was an all-too-rare example of a licence done well. It’s just a shame it didn’t do well enough commercially to keep Piranha afloat.

I never played any of Piranha’s other “big character” games (Flunky, Popeye) or indeed this game’s sequel (Through the Trap Door). I had no need to – Trap Door gave me everything I needed. And maybe that also explains why Piranha lasted just two short years before folding – no-one bought their subsequent games because they were all too busy trying to collect the damn ingredients needed to make Thing’s dinner.

Well, it’s a thought…

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.

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.