Commodore: the inside story by David John Pleasance [Book Review]

Commodore - the inside story

How a firm as big as Commodore managed to self-destruct so spectacularly has always intrigued me. I can remember reading the Amiga press at the time and wondering (as both a C64 and Amiga owner) how such a big, successful company could go bust. I’ve heard various tales over the years, but David Pleasance’s book, Commodore: The Inside Story, is the first I’ve read from the perspective of someone who was there for much of Commodore’s rise and fall.

The book is divided into two sections. The first is Pleasance’s recollections of his time at Commodore, recounting company’s successes (and latterly) many mistakes. The second contains contributions from various people associated with Commodore or the computer industry, including R J Mical whose name will need no explanation to Commodore aficionados.

It makes for a fascinating read. In the first section, Pleasance manages a good balance between the autobiographical (early chapters focus on his somewhat varied pre-Commodore career) and broader Commodore-related things. He is an engaging storyteller and (crucially) pulls no punches when it comes to his version of why the company failed. He is deeply critical of the Commodore US management, but also quick to praise some of the contributions of his fellow Commodore UK staff. Given the somewhat sad subject matter, the whole tone of the book is surprisingly optimistic. It would have been too easy to make this a negative, depressing, moan-laden read but Pleasance resists this, recognizing where mistakes were made but also highlighting the good times.

Another of the book’s strengths is in the level of detail provided. It’s much more than a superficial overview, without being too detailed. There’s a good mix of personal anecdotes and straightforward story-telling and you really get a sense of the highs and lows of working at Commodore during the period.

There were times when I thought Pleasance was using the benefit of hindsight to pinpoint what went wrong, or saying if only Commodore had listened to him, things would have turned out very differently. There’s a danger this could have come across as arrogant and egotistical, but when you read the second section many of the other contributors make exactly the same points – which suggests that they contain a strong element of truth. One thing Pleasance and many contributors are all united in is their belief that the ultimate responsibility Commodore’s demise should be laid at the feet of Mehdi Ali – the man who presided over Commodore’s transition from a multi-million dollar company to bankruptcy (an “achievement” recognized in one online biography as a period in which he “achieved a major operational turnaround”. Well, I guess that’s one way of putting it.

The hardest part to read was the one dealing with the failed management buyout of Commodore by Pleasance and others. I remember this period vividly. Pleasance and colleagues heroically kept Commodore UK going for around 18 months after the demise of its parent company and tried to put together a package that would keep the brand alive. I remember avidly reading Amiga Power and CU Amiga every month, hoping that there would be some positive news that their bid had been successful and being devastated when I heard that the bid had been withdrawn. For me, that was when the Amiga really died (at least commercially). This part of the story was new to me and learning of the skullduggery that effectively scuppered the bid left a really nasty taste in the mouth. Commodore came so close to surviving as a viable company, that you really are left thinking about how different the computer industry might be today if it had survived.

After the enjoyment of part one, I was slightly surprised to find I enjoyed reading part two just as much. Here the content is more varied (some people recount personal memories of working at Commodore, some recall how certain things were achieved with the Amiga, others are just collections of anecdotes associated with the company and its products.). Like the first part, though, it’s rarely anything less than interesting. It’s true that there were some chapters which were too technical for me (I’ve always had a strong interest in computers but my eyes glaze over as soon as anyone starts talking tech!) Such chapters are, however, in the minority, and even the most technically based chapters still contain plenty of interesting memories.

One of the book’s biggest let-downs was a relative dearth of period images and photographs. I had hoped it would provide a treasure trove of unseen or rare insider photos, Commodore memorabilia or unusual items, packed with pics of the Commodore offices at their peak or the Commodore staff in action. Whilst there is some (particularly in the latter part of the book) I would have liked more.

The wait for this Kickstarter funded book ended up being considerably longer than originally anticipated (originally due for publication in December 2017, it finally found its way into backers’ hands in September 2018), but it was absolutely worth the wait. It’s well-written, interesting and doesn’t pull its punches. You could argue that it’s only one man’s personal account and that other people might present things differently, but that doesn’t stop it from being a great read.

For my part, it mostly confirmed the view I’ve always had of David Pleasance – that he was one of the good guys in this tale. It’s just a shame it couldn’t have had a happier ending.

Available for £30 from Downtime Publishing (hardback)


Zzap!64 Annual 2019 [review]

Zzap 2018 cover.jpg

(c) Fusion Retro Books 2018

Like so many C64 owners, I was an avid Zzap!64 reader in the 80s. My first issue (attracted by the stunning Oli Frey artwork) was number 17 (1986) and from the first page, I was hooked. I bought it on a monthly basis, initially from the shops then as a loyal subscriber until just before the title morphed into Commodore Force.

Sadly, all good things come to end. With the end of the 8 bit era, I thought I’d seen the last of Zzap!64. It turns out (as with so many things in my life), I was wrong.

Hopes were raised in 2017 when Crash Magazine was successfully re-invented as a Kickstarter-funded annual from Chris Wilkins and Fusion Retro Books. The success of that brought a similar (also wildly popular) 2018 Kickstarter campaign for Crash’s younger, better looking sister. History was repeating itself – Crash came first, closely followed by Zzap!

The big question, of course, was could the new book live up to the hype? As many 8 bit fans will know, the Newsfield mags are still fondly remembered, and the team would face a tough challenge producing the magazine we all remembered (sometimes with a hint of rose tinted glasses), whilst updating it for the modern market.

Early signs were good. In addition to Chris Wilkins, original editor and artist Roger Kean and Oli Frey were on board and former Zzap! Writers Julian Rignall and Robin Hogg (along, of course, with the ever-mysterious Lloyd Mangram) also signed up. The fact that there was no Gary Penn disappointed some, but it was a strong line-up.

Then came the fateful day when the actual item was delivered. I opened it up nervously and carefully – exactly as I previously did with the magazine and my initial reaction was…

“What sorcery is this?” Apart from the fact that the book was hardcover and not magazine format, I could have time-travelled back over 30 years. The Oli Frey cover art was as fresh and exciting, the flashes on the front cover promised exciting articles inside and the layouts looked spot on.

Then I started reading it, and that’s when things went… even better (ha! Bet you thought it was all going to go horribly wrong there, didn’t you!). The writing, from both old hands and newcomers alike, is excellent. It captures the style and sense of fun of the old Zzap! without following it too slavishly or feeling outdated. Just like the old days (in a way that perhaps hasn’t been seen since the demise of Amiga Power), the enthusiasm of the reviewers creates that sense of common interest with the reader, re-kindling that old Zzap! community spirit.

The layout of the mag is also spot on. It’s instantly, recognisably a “Newsfield” publication, but given a slight tweak so that it doesn’t look too old-fashioned or dated. The colours are right, the text layout faithful and (most important of all!) Rockford and Thingy appear in the margins.

The content is a good balance between retrospective and new stuff. One of my concerns before I got hold of the book was that it might read like a C64-themed issue of Retro Gamer magazine, and I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted. Once again, I was wrong (spot a theme here?!). There are certainly some articles looking back at the old Zzap! days (Jaz Rignall’s retrospective of early Zzap! Gold Medal winners and his views on them today is particularly interesting), but there are also plenty of new reviews of games that have been released for the C64 over the past decade or so. Just like the Zzap! of old, these make up the bulk of the magazine and are as readable and informative as ever.

I do have a number of small gripes. First up is the pen portraits of the reviewers as they give their individual verdicts on games. In the old days, each reviewer had several portraits, indicating whether they thought the game was incredible, terrible or just average. I used to love flicking through the mag looking at these, as you could see at a glance which games were worthy of consideration and which were stinkers (or sometimes, where the opinions of reviewers differed drastically). In Zzap! 2018, the reviewers have only one portrait, so you can’t gauge opinions at a glance.

Next up is the lack of prices on game reviews, which used to feature in the original. I guess the reason for this is that, in the digital age, prices can fluctuate wildly, so any price provided could be completely wrong by the time the reader has the book. However, I’d like to have seen an indicative price, even if this was qualified by a disclaimer stating “prices correct at the time of printing”. It’s just a tiny area where the accuracy with the original mag isn’t quite there.

My two last criticisms are by far the most serious and, frankly, everyone involved in the book should hang their heads in shame. Firstly: where is my cover tape packed with free games and the latest demos? And secondly, I used to get Zzap!64 coming through my letterbox every month. Now I have to wait a whole year at least until the next instalment. Come on guys; get your fingers out. What are you playing at?!

Seriously, though, this is almost the perfect retro product. It provides a huge blast of nostalgia, but has been sympathetically modernised. It’s as informative and entertaining as ever, without falling prey to the worst excesses of silly humour that marred later editions. Most crucially, it really captures the old Zzap!64 spirit and creates that connection with its readers – just like the old days.

Zzap! Lives!

Available from Fusion Retro Books for £15

Fruit Machine Simulator (C64) Review

Fruit Machine Simulator

Sometimes as a gamer, you just have to stick to your views, regardless of the prevailing opinion. There are games which the gaming press and fellow gamers rave about which I just can’t get on with; then there are other games which are generally panned but which you secretly like playing.

Few games sum this up better than Fruit Machine Simulator from Codemasters. Perhaps growing weary of the company’s tendency to stick the word “simulator” on every game they released, the title was almost universally panned across the major formats. Zzap!64 gave the C64 version 18%, Crash scored the Spectrum version 30% (although Sinclair User and Your Sinclair were a little kinder) whilst Amstrad Action notoriously gave that machine’s version a big fat 0.

Most of the criticisms of the game related to the fact that you couldn’t win any actual money which, they argued, rendered the game pointless. Whilst there’s an element of truth about this, I think the magazines were being slightly unkind. If you look at it in the light of cold hard logic, aren’t all games pointless? If you complete a Mario game, what do you actually “get”? You certainly don’t get to marry Peach in real life. If you blast your way to the end of R-Type, you haven’t really saved the universe, have you? So in that sense, Fruit Machine Simulator is neither more nor less pointless than any other game.

Secondly, for those of us who didn’t live near an arcade or who perhaps had little disposable income, Fruit Machine Simulator offered the chance to experience the fun of spinning the slots without the risk of losing all your money. Yes, you won nothing, but neither did you lose anything.

Judged on its own merits, Fruit Machine Simulator was a fun little title and, given its £1.99 price tag, represented good value for money. It featured all the usual things you would expect from a fruit machine: nudges, holds and mini-games of skill and chance. Supporting up to 4 players, it also meant that you could play with your mates and introduced a competitive element. To get over the fact that you couldn’t win real money, we used to make up our own challenges: the first to reach a pre-determined amount of cash; the person with the biggest amount after a fixed number of spins; a rule that you had to gamble on every game of skill and the winner was the one who successfully hit the jackpot first and so on. With a bit of imagination, Fruit Machine Simulator was every bit as fun as its real life counterparts.

The gameplay was well-balanced too. It was more generous with its win lines and payouts than real fruit machines and those small, regular wins kept you playing. At the same time, it wasn’t so easy that it became dull. It wasn’t a realistic “simulation” (which of Codemasters’ titles was?), but the win:lose ratio was enough to get you hooked. Just like a real fruit machine, every time the wheels spun in such a way that you ALMOST hit a big payout, you became convinced that you were just a couple of spins away from a huge score and that encouraged you to play on. Despite the lack of any tangible goals, I always found Fruit Machine Simulator to be an addictive little game and never really understood the criticisms of the gaming press.

The game still stands up well today. Because it was never dependent for its appeal on graphics or sound  (which were pretty basic and so have stood the test of time better) and because the basic concept was so simple and timeless, the game hasn’t aged badly and I still find it as much fun to play now as I did back in 87.

I can do no better than to close with the words of Sinclair User (one of the few magazines to treat it kindly, with an 8/10 review): “It sounds daft, but this is easily the best fruit machine simulator ever and the whole thing is idiotically addictive”.

Attack of the Flickering Skeletons by Stuart Ashen [Book Review]

Attack of the Flickering Skeletons - cover

Not too long ago, I reviewed Stuart Ashen’s book Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of – a book which probably should carry a government health warning for its embarrassing tendency to make you uncontrollably laugh out loud in public. Now he’s back with more of the same in the intruiguingly (if long-winded) titled Attack of the Flickering Skeletons: More Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.

Quite sensibly working on the premise of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, the book mostly provides more of the same. Pretty much the same rules are applied when it comes to game selection (none of the usual suspects like ET or C64 Chase HQ, computers only; no consoles) but (perhaps depressingly) this still leaves a very broad selection of games from which to choose.

The format, too, is on the same lines. Ashen reviews a number of games in his own inimitable style, pointing out why they were so bad and generally giving them the mockery they deserve. This is backed up with full colour pages containing lots of images, making the book visually appealing, as well as funny. To give Ashen a break (and presumably allow him to go off and play something half decent), there are also occasional contributions from other gaming people (such as fellow YouTubers or former game developers). And just in case you think Ashen is unfairly picking on certain games, he also includes some review scores, showing his views were also shared by professional reviewers at the time the games were released.

On the whole, this format works well. The book looks good, there’s a varied selection of games across multiple systems (8 and 16 bit) and the short, pithy entries are very readable. Ashen has a way with words and manages to write about some fairly mundane things in a funny and engaging way…

…And yet, despite all these positives, I didn’t enjoy Flickering Skeletons anywhere near as much as the first book, and I’m not really sure why. Possibly it’s because I read both books fairly close together so maybe I’d just had enough by that point and should have left a longer gap before reading the sequel. Possibly it’s because I was more familiar with Ashen’s style so wasn’t caught quite so unawares by his sometimes wacky, sometimes wry observations, meaning they elicited fewer belly laughs. Possibly it’s because you could argue that this book is essentially “The Second Most Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of” and the titles that really deserved ridicule had already received their comeuppance in the first book (although given how much dross was released, this is probably not the strongest argument!)

Don’t get me wrong: Flickering Skeletons is not a bad book by any means; in fact it’s a great one. It’s just that the bar was set so high by the first book that it was always going to be a tough ask to follow it up. It’s not that I didn’t find it funny – I smiled and sniggered my way through it; I read out occasional short snippets to Mrs RetroReactiv8 and even she (as a non-gamer) smiled at some of the absurdities. But there’s the thing: I only smiled and sniggered; with the first book I frequently laughed out loud. I only read occasional snippets to Mrs RR8; with the previous book I read whole chunks or even complete entries. Somehow, it just felt a little bit less than the first one in every department.

Do I regret buying it? Not for a second. Would I recommend it for purchase? Absolutely. Just be aware that (for whatever reason) you might not find it quite as hilarious as the first entry. If you bear that in mind, you’ll be fine. And just to emphasise the point that this is not even close to being a bad book: if a third title in the series were to be announced, I would pre-order it like a shot.

Attack of the Flickering Skeletons is available from Amazon for around £8 (hardback) or £6 (Kindle).

Galencia (PC/Steam) review

Galencia title screen

If you’re plugged into the world of the C64, you’ve probably been hearing quite a bit of buzz recently around Galencia, a Galaxians-inspired game from Jason Aldred. The game received a physical release for the original hardware, but for those of us who no longer have a C64, it’s now available for PC via Steam – the first C64 game to be released on the platform!

It’s hard to imagine that anyone reading this blog won’t be familiar with Galaxians, but just in case, I’ll go through the basics. Based on the early 80s arcade game, it’s best described as What Space Invaders Did Next. The screen fills with alien invaders who fly on from the side. However, instead of moving their way from side to side down the screen, some of these aliens peel off and fly around whilst taking potshots at you. This instantly makes them more dangerous: their flight paths can be unpredictable and hitting a moving target is inevitably harder than hitting a static/slow-moving one. This, then, is the basis for Galencia.

There are two important things to say about Galencia from the outset. Firstly (and most critically), it’s a great game, highly polished and very addictive. Secondly, it is essentially a new C64 version of Galaxians. All the gameplay elements you’d expect (swooping aliens, tractor beam aliens who can capture your ship, double ship bonus if you free a trapped ship) are present and correct. Beyond a bit of spit and polish here and there, it’s an update, not a reboot. If you come to it expecting a solid version of Galaxians complete with retro graphics and sound, you’ll not be disappointed; if you’re looking for a major overhaul (along the lines of Space Invaders Infinite), then it might not be the game for you.

Right, that’s the managing expectation stuff done, so let’s get on with the review.

The bottom line is Galencia is good; very good. The graphics are generally a decent size and full of character, capturing the look and feel of the original, whilst bringing in plenty of new design elements. There’s nice variety between different types and more are introduced as the game progresses (my favourites so far are the ones that look like flying skulls). They are well-animated although there have been times when I’ve felt they were perhaps on the small side, making them trickier to hit. The chatty “mission control” head that talks to your pilot via speech bubbles is a nice extra graphical touch that adds to the game’s character.

Sound is equally 8 bit, but that’s not a criticism from me. A great chip tune accompanies the action, with sound effects fairly minimal, but effective. In these days of overblown full, orchestral scores and sound effects loud enough to damage your walls, it’s good to get back to basics with a catchy chip tune and limited effects.

So far, it’s all been good news, but I’ve saved the best until last: the gameplay is spot-on. It’s surprising how much the simple act of adding swooping aliens and a tractor beam adds to the Space Invaders formula and it’s been perfectly implemented here. The game is certainly challenging, but it never feels unfair. When you die, it’s your fault: you didn’t move fast enough, you crashed into an alien or a bullet; it’s not because the game has “cheated”. As such (unlike many modern games where you get an achievement just for starting the game), it feels like a real success when you get onto the high score table or beat your own best score. It also feels incredibly tense as aliens are unpredictable and so no two games are ever the same. It’s not unusual for me to come away from Galencia with sweaty palms – more so than when I’ve played a “proper” horror game like Resident Evil. When you’re down to your last life, desperately hanging on to get to the next level/beat your high score/secure an extra life, it’s surprising how tense the game can be.

Because the gameplay has been so well implemented, it’s also lost none of the addictive qualities Galaxians introduced all those years ago. Games (at least when I play it!) tend to be fairly short. This makes it perfect for gaming when you don’t have a lot of time. Except it’s not, because there’s no such things as “a few quick games” as far as Galencia is concerned. As soon as you lose your last life, you check your score, find it wanting and instantly hitting Fire to have another go. As with all the best games, it’s not unusual to sit down to play for “just 10 minutes” before looking at the clock to realise over an hour has passed.

If there are criticisms, they are small ones. As far as I can see, the game can’t be run full screen, but runs in a small(ish) window. Presumably this is because it’s running on Steam via a modified version of the Vice 64 emulator. Secondly, controller support is very limited. It doesn’t work with my Xbox 360 controller (which is supported by most Steam games) and the only option is to use the keyboard. That said, whilst controller support might be nice, using the keyboard is more authentic, so will appeal to purists.

[Quick update: You can safely ignore these minor quibbles. A couple of hours after posting this review, the game’s programmer, Jason Aldred got in touch to say that pressing Alt & Enter will toggle full-screen mode on and off, whilst pressing J or K will select Joystick or Keyboard control, so it now works fine with my Xbox 360 controller (although actually, this has just proved that I prefer the keyboard input anyway!)]

Best of all, Galencia is stupidly cheap – less than £3 for a superb version of Galaxians – it’s a game that will offer hours and hours of fun and has endless replay value, thanks to the score-chasing objective of the game. My only real concern for Galencia (on Steam) is that modern gamers will dismiss it based on the screenshots or ignore it as “old-fashioned and boring”. If you’re a retro gamer on the lookout for a new version of classic game, thought, it’s definitely one to consider.

It’s probably my favourite C64 version of Galaxians apart from Galaxi-i-Birds. High praise indeed!

The Good, The Bad and the Mediocre

When it comes to reviewing old games on retrogaming blogs, things tend to fall into two camps, focussing on the really good games or the really bad ones. RetroReactiv8 is no exception to this. Although I mostly try and focus on the positive side of retrogaming, I do occasionally venture into stinker territory and highlight really bad or particularly disappointing games.

And therein lies a bit of a problem. If you knew nothing about retrogaming and read many of these blogs, you’d assume that every game in the 80s was either utterly brilliant or completely crap. The truth, of course, is that the vast majority were just mediocre – the only reason that we don’t remember them or talk about them is because so many were instantly forgettable.

This was brought home to me recently when I was looking at some of the compilations available for the C64 Mini from the excellent Freeze 64 website. Some of these are collections from particular publishers (Ocean, Interceptor Software, Super Soft etc.). As I was looking through these collections, there were so many titles that either I couldn’t remember at all or which only vaguely rang a bell – even those by big name publishers like US Gold. Some were games that I’d never actually owned or played, so that could be forgiven; others were titles that I did know about back in the day, but which were so “meh” I’d dismissed all memory of them.

So being the keen, investigative blog that RetroReactiv8 is, I decided to do a bit of research. I took three well-known 80s publishers (US Gold, Melbourne House and Ocean), looked at the games that were on the Freeze64 compilations and cross-referenced these with their original Zzap!64 scores (look, I was bored and don’t particularly like football, OK?)

Here’s what I found.

Of the 34 US Gold games available from Freeze 64 that Zzap! reviewed, the average score was 54%. Only 2 games got above 90% and only 6 were ranked at 80%+. Equally, though, only 6 titles featured in what I would call the truly awful range (0-30%). So, only 12/34 were either really good or really bad. However, 17 (50%) secured a spot in the mediocrity range (41-70%). (The remaining titles scored either 30-40% or 70-80% in case you think my maths is a bit out!)

Melbourne House proved even better at being mediocre. Of the 21 titles on their compilation that Zzap! reviewed, only 4 were real stinkers (although Inspector Gadget gets the distinction of being the worst game – just 9%, lower even than US Gold’s infamous World Cup Carnival). Just two titles were ranked at 80% or above, whilst 12 (57%) fell into that “mediocre” bracket.

See what I’m saying?

Only Ocean – arguably the biggest publisher by the end of the 8 bit era – bucked this trend. It had a marginally higher rating of excellent games (39%) to mediocre ones (32%) and managed to secure 6 games in the top 91-100% bracket. Even so, to have over a third of your output rated as “mediocre” still supports the idea that, like modern systems, the C64 suffered from a ton of shovel ware.

Of course, this is a hugely unscientific post: it’s based on only a small percentage of the overall output of each of these publishers, so a more thorough study of all of their games (which I really can’t be bothered doing!) might reveal this blog post to be a lie. Even so, it shows what selective memory we have when it comes to retrogaming. The really great stuff and the really bad stuff sticks in our mind; but these games were actually in the minority when stacked against most releases, which were just instantly forgettable. Not good enough to be remembered; not bad enough to be infamous.

So there we go: Mediocre games never die. They were just lying, waiting to be reborn on the C64 Mini!

Book Preview: 8 Bit on a Budget by Kieren Hawken

On RetroReactiv8, I tend to focus on reviews (either of old games or new retro-related products.), rather than highlighting upcoming products. Occasionally, though, I like to get behind projects I think look interesting – the excellent Hyper Sentinel was one; the (hopefully) forthcoming book Virtual Cities another.

8 Bit on a Budget, written by regular Retro Gamer contributor Kieren Hawken is the latest to catch my eye. It’s a book that celebrates the best of budget label releases – that phenomenon of the mid-late 80s where games were suddenly available at pocket money prices. Of course, many budget games were awful (Bionic Granny – I’m looking at you), but a significant number – whether original releases (Dizzy, Thrust) or re-releases of previously full priced (Bubble Bobble, Cybernoid) titles were excellent – better than some full-priced games

The book is being published by Unbound, which operates on a crowd-funding model. In order to guarantee a minimum number of pre-orders, people interested in the title can pledge their support. Once the funding target is reached, the book will be published.

You can find out more on the Unbound website. The campaign seems to be struggling a little at the moment – it’s been stuck on about 5% for a while now – so if you think this sounds like a book for you, why not pledge your support and promote it a bit on your own blogs or social media channels?