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Now on Virtual Console: My childhood

posted on February 27th, 2009 by jay
Now Playing: Red Dead Revolver

This Monday the Virtual Console got its first batch of Commodore 64 titles (in the states). Though I haven’t played the released games, it was a momentous occasion for me because the C64 was home to my first gaming experiences. While the other kids were playing their Nintendos, I was learning run “*” ,8,1 (only with the shortcut of “u” plus the shift key that yielded some bizarre symbol I don’t remember).

The majority of American gamers likely haven’t even touched a Commodore so VC sales will probably be pretty slow. Honestly, I’m not sure they deserve to be brisk – most of the titles I remember were fun at the time but seem archaic and shallow now. Still, I feel a responsibility to present a list of favorites just in case the planets align and Nintendo releases good C64 games and you happen to find yourself with five bucks to burn.

There is a robust lineup of classics for the computer that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. Many of them were on other systems as well but that doesn’t negate their awesomeness.

World Games

Epyx’s Games series stands out as they still appeal to me despite my distaste for sports games. You likely know California Games, but Summer, Winter and World Games were also excellent. Each individual event may be shallow but so many were offered it took a significant amount of time and patience to really master any of these games.

Defender of the Crown was an excellent strategy game, despite what reviews of the PS2 remake lead you to believe. Like the also-classic Pirates!, it melded a handful of mini games into a cohesive package that was more than the sum of its parts.

Defender of the Crown

Landmark adventure games like Planetfall and Maniac Mansion had C64 entries, as did Spy Hunter and the Metroid-esque Impossible Mission (complete with no game ruining bug!). Many games that are something of a joke today actually deserve their fame – in other words, Spy Hunter is actually very good.

Will Wright’s excellent shooter Raid on Bungeling Bay and Jordan Mechner’s seminal Karateka both appeared on the C64, as did some games from my favorite criminally under-worshiped designer, Paul Reiche III. The Third designed the Archon series (playable through link), Mail Order Monsters – all available on the Commodore – as well as the Star Control games.

Archon II

A childhood favorite of mine was always Racing Destruction Set, which allowed you to design courses and focused on fighting with other racers. I just now learned that there was a SNES remake called RPM Racing, and the sequel to that was the well known Rock & Roll Racing by Blizzard. The original game wasn’t made by the same people, but it’s validating to know others saw the potential in Racing Destruction Set.

Here are some more classics:

Beach Head II
Bruce Lee (playable through link)
Great Giana Sisters (playable through link)
Hard Hat Mack (playable through link)
Jumpman
Space Taxi

The Great Giana Sisters

Then there were many games that seemed great but don’t really stand the test of time. BC II (based off the terrible Christian themed comic) focused on collecting clams. In an odd way it could be considered one of the earliest survival games – as you searched for clams, the bad guy, Grog, searched for you. The music reflected his distance and it got quite intense as he closed in. There’s a chance that the 25 years since BC II’s release the game has lost its teeth, but as a kid I found it terrifying.

Dan Dare was some British comic hero who found himself in a pretty nice action adventure game. The combat was terrible but the puzzle solving gave me my first taste of real adventure gaming. Using the knife to cut a reed off a vine, then using that reed as a snorkel to pass through shallow water seemed like game design only Jesus himself could have come up with.

Dan Dare

There were also a handful of games I never entirely understood, possibly because I was small and stupid, and have always seemed mysterious to me. The text adventure (now with pictures!) Mindshadow is apparently winnable in seven minutes if you know what you’re doing, but I didn’t and so I’d mostly just drown in quicksand every time I played.

Origin Systems, of Ultima fame, released some complicated pseudo RPGs I could never wrap my head around. Auto Duel was based on a board game and seemed like it should be awesome, what with cars with flamethrowers, but always just left me confused. Then there was Moebius, a strange action RPG game I never made much progress in. I still think back to these titles from time to time – they occupy a hard to describe place in my psyche where nostalgia, wonder and mystery all meet and mingle with loss, longing and a slight sense of failure.

Moebius

Finally there are the games I’d recommend if only for the music. The C64 had a soundchip I’ve yet to really hear duplicated (at least in games). It’s not easy to describe but listen to the music from Commando, Dragon’s Lair II, Rambo, or the Last V8 and you’ll understand. The music may still seem like bleeps and bloops to the untrained ear, but if you know what an NES soundchip sounds like you should notice a large difference.

Back in the 80’s developers were free to make very simple, focused games. Instead of designing a platformer that also included stealth and driving and flying and turn based battles, people programmed games that were tightly bound to a single mechanic or idea. Break Street was a game about break dancing. You were given a single screen and the only object of the game was to manipulate your dancer. New games are, on average, better than old but there is something inspiring about the strange niche ideas designers once explored.

Break Street

These Commodore games bring me back in time to an era when even though I owned a ton of games I still gave each one its due. My brother was the actual C64 owner and he was a master pirate so we had a hundred or so games, yet I managed to really get into almost every one. Today I own hundreds of games I paid for but can’t find the time or energy to play. I miss those days of childhood when time seemed infinite and thus we were willing to struggle through abstruse titles even if we had a dozen more waiting to be played. Games were something to be experienced, contemplated, cracked, and understood as opposed to pure entertainment we expect to titillate us immediately and continuously.

Now and then I am struck by how bloated games have become – I grow wary of pompous discussions about game narratives, immersion and art, even though I often participate enthusiastically. Revisiting the roots of our hobby helps clear my head and refocus on what makes games good. I have linked to pages that allow you to play a few of these C64 games right in your browser and I recommend you sit down with one and give it an honest chance. It won’t be pretty, but it there may just be some awesome gameplay on that floppy.

7 Comments

  1. christian said on February 27, 2009:

    While I played it in the 90’s during my childhood, I too had my gaming start on the C64 (and NES). We got the thing when I was a baby, and then my folks unearthed it when my father’s cousin gave him several shoeboxes of floppies. I thought that he also gave us the computer along with it, and only recently was I told that it had been sitting in the closet for years. Not like it would have mattered, since I would have been too young to use it.

    So many memories! Aside, from some Sesame Street games and Fisher Price Bowling, here are some of my favorites that weren’t strictly meant for kids:

    Zaxxon
    Marble Madness
    Carmen Sandiego
    Zork 1-3
    Impossible Mission
    H.E.R.O.
    Kikstart (this is my fondest on the list. This provided my best memories of my brother and I playing multiplayer)

    We had so many other games as well which I did not play because we could not figure out what command would run it. We’d put each game through the suite of 6 or so commands we knew, and sometimes, but rarely, it would be correct. If only I knew how to read the instructions…

  2. AK said on February 27, 2009:

    Thanks for a great post. I especially enjoyed your conclusion.

    I also have fond memories of the C64, even though I didn’t own one until I started collecting a few years ago. There are some amazing games on all of the old 8-bit computers, a reminder of the true reasons for the “Video Game Crash of 1983” that was really a consumer shift to computers and computer gaming.

  3. pat said on February 27, 2009:

    the catholic school i went to had c64s in the “computer lab” up until i graduated in 1996. since wiki informs me they discontinued the machine in 1994 i would say we were a bit behind the curve at blessed sarcrament. since i only ever used on in school i never really played games on one. the closest thing i can remember is some program where you had to get a mouse to eat cheese or escape a maze or something by entering commands (may have been called something like algernon). maybe i should play some of these browser versions jay links to.

    speaking to the larger point (the bloat), i would say that while some games do handle this genre-creep quite well, it frequently waters down the experience. for some reason i always think of the jak and daxter series when having this conversation; the first game was a straight platformer while the sequels had guns and stores and cities and talking to people. i felt like they got an action game in my platformer.

  4. chris said on February 27, 2009:

    Yes indeed… Commodore 64 was among the machines that taught me how to read back in the day.

    Though I don’t have memories of that many games, I do distinctly remember the Movie Monster Game, Pit Stop 1 & 2, JumpMan, and Friday the 13th (which was pretty decent for being a movie cash-in!). It didn’t get me started on the story-driven games I love today, but it was quite the machine for its time. Good point that the games were so focused; it’s something I never thought about, but even games that are arguably pretty focused today have other elements- for example, Shadow of the Colossus may have great variety in what you can do, but there is only one “focus”. Nevertheless it has vaguely RPG-like elements included. The question is just whether that sort of thing dilutes the game, or merely broadens its appeal.

  5. DeeMer said on March 2, 2009:

    My father owned a C64 when I was just a wee lad. Until I destroyed it in a spiteful attack against “Stickybear Opposites,” it was a good place to spend time until my NES collection filled out. The games I can recall the most are “Mail Order Monsters” which I could NEVER figure out, some underground helicopter rescue game, and an interactive fiction game involving some slime monster I could never kill w/in the required three turns.

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  7. pat said on January 21, 2011:

    sometimes i dont mind spam comments because they move old articles on to the front page. this one for example. some of you who havent been here since inception (everyone except jay and myself at this point i think) would do well to check out some of the random articles (written mostly by jay) that appear at the bottom of the main page. some of the old stuff would likely be dated, and thus only interesting in a time-capsule sense, but something like this never goes out of style.

    closer to on topic – its funny to me how transparent a rip off of super mario bros great giana sisters is. the titles even share the same format: intensifier italian name siblings.

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