The Commodore 64 at 40: back to the future of video games | Games


For some period between the winter of 1983 and the summer of 1986, my life was completely dominated by the Commodore 64. The seminal home computer, launched 40 years ago this month, featured an 8-bit microprocessor, a huge 64k of memory and an array of graphics and sound chips designed by engineers at Commodore’s MOS Technology subsidiary to power state-of-the-art arcade games. This does not happen. Instead, Commodore President Jack Tramiel ordered the team to build a personal computer designed to destroy the Atari XL and Apple II. So that’s what they did.

I knew none of this when my father brought home a C64 one afternoon a year after the machine was launched. Ours came with a Dixons cassette containing several small demonstration programs and a copy of Crazy Kong, a version of Nintendo’s Donkey Kong, written entirely in Basic, and rather mediocre. I played it to death anyway. That Christmas I asked for some really good games, which would include the legendary multi-level shooter Beach Head, the inventive platformer Lode Runner and the football game International Soccer, one of the few titles coming on a cartridge rather than a cassette.

At that time, programmers were still learning about the machine. Offering twice the memory of most rivals, its hardware can also handle seamless scrolling allowing natural movement around larger game maps and eight multi-color sprites on screen simultaneously. The superlative SID sound chip acted as a built-in synthesizer, allowing specialist computer musicians such as Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway to produce chip music of great beauty and complexity – some of which was celebrated at a concert orchestral Commodore 64 a few years ago. We take it for granted now, but it was also a plug-and-play machine – unlike many other computers of the time, it didn’t need an adapter to connect to your TV, or a a special interface for connecting a controller. It was ready, right out of the box, like a video game console: a vital advancement for home computing.

The 8-Bit Symphony Commodore 64 Orchestral Concert Photo: Jason Moon

During my first few months as a C64 owner, I was buying early gaming magazines such as Personal Computer Games and Computer and Video Games, obsessing over news and previews, writing endless wish lists. A new next door neighbor moved in: his name was James (he is now better known as the actor Jimi Mistry) and he also had a C64. We got to know each other by swapping games – I remember he had Jordan Mechner’s beautiful martial arts adventure Karateka, which would go on to make the Prince of Persia titles, and I marveled at his atmospheric cinematography. It hinted at a future in which interactive stories would be more than “the knight saves the princess.”

1984 was the explosive year. Games such as Bruce Lee, Boulder Dash, Summer Games and Pitstop II followed in quick succession, showing the visual and tonal variety of C64 titles. It’s hard now to sum up the impact of seeing the ultra-smooth character animation in the spy game Impossible Mission or hearing the synthesized voice in Ghostbusters. I became part of a small collective of C64 owners in my town; we swapped games, read each other’s magazines and went on software-finding excursions around downtown Stockport – Debenhams, Dixons, WH Smith, Boots, a few specialist computer shops in little side streets. When Mastertronic began selling budget games through video rental stores and newsagents, our search broadened. My mother used to take me to Wythenshawe Library, where they rented games for 10 pence a week. You can also submit cards requesting new titles. The staff got to know me quite well.

I loved the fluidity of C64 games – the genres we’re very familiar with now were still blurry and malleable. The Sentinel was a puzzle game, but also a kind of sci-fi horror; Spindizzy was an exploration game, but also a puzzle; Gribbly’s Day Out was a platform game but also an arcade adventure. These games built surreal, yet geometrically naturalistic worlds in an early sort of 3D, the pixel-sharp visuals cleverly suggesting reflective surfaces and flowing water.

Jaddua McAdam, 13, at home in Sydney, Australia, programs his Commodore 64, October 7, 1983
Jaddua McAdam, 13, at her home in Sydney, Australia, programming her Commodore 64 in October 1983. Photo: Fairfax Media Archives/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

The game I played the most with my dad was Leaderboard, a golf simulation on a series of island courses that popped up on the screen as you watched. I still vividly remember sitting with my dad on our playing bench silently watching the fairways lock in front of us. It was programmed by Bruce Carver, one of the star creators of the time, who also directed Beach Head and Raid Over Moscow. Carver was part of a generation of programmers and designers who really began to develop theory and practice on how to create compulsive home video games. “There’s a lot of thought going into what’s going to be the most playable screen,” he said in an interview with Computer! magazine in 1985. “You want to get this user to the point where his hands start to sweat, and he’s still making decisions about what he’s going to shoot or what he’s going to do.

“If you always have the same thing for him, he’s going to get bored very quickly, so you exercise his mind, you give him options… We try to put them very subtly throughout the game, so it’s not not really obvious, but it retains interest for a long time.

This was important because we were seeing a definite separation between the philosophy of the fast arcade and the longevity of home console and video game design. Between 1985 and 1987, the C64 was in its absolute splendor. Titles such as Wizball, Sid Meier’s Pirates!, International Karate and The Last Ninja, were predictors of the video game industry to come, with sprite animations, immersive worlds and intricate narratives.

Of course, this kind of thing happened on the Spectrum too, but I really associate this machine with the early 1980s. alternative comedy, experimental synth pop, recession and unemployment. It was counter-cultural and idiosyncratic. The Commodore 64, however, is mid-’80s: sleek, flashy visuals, MTV and pastel-colored positivity. In many ways, that was the absolute best indicator of where the games were headed: towards the mainstream. And in technological terms, the Spectrum was a dead end, but the C64 led us to the Amiga, laying the foundation for the era of point-and-click adventures, turn-based strategy games, and platformers. expansive adventure. Its Compunet online system and thriving demo scene also fueled the gaming industry with talent, ideas and a sense of community for years to come.

Laying the foundations… the Commodore C64
Laying the foundations… the Commodore C64. Photography: INTERFOTO/Alamy

The games I played on the C64 at that time in my life left an indelible mark on me – perhaps because they were pretty much all I thought about during those impressionable years. Paradroid, Thing on a Spring, California Games, Dropzone… these experiences provided access to rich little worlds, captured in a multitude of colors on the tiny CRT TV in our kitchen. They were where I wanted to be and maybe, in many ways, where I still am.

The marvelous book Commodore 64: A Visual Compendium, a cleverly curated selection of C64 screenshots and images, contains a quote from graphic designer Paul Docherty that truly captures the times: “Painting in pixels has never been so magical for me than when I was sitting in a dark room with just a joystick connected to the C64 and the CRT glowing in front of me.

He was talking about the experience of making games for the machine. But like millions of others at that time, I felt the same way playing them.


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