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

FFor a period between the winter of 1983 and the summer of 1986, my life was completely dominated by the Commodore 64. The seminal home computer, released 40 years ago this month, featured an 8-bit microprocessor, a whopping 64k memory, and a graphics and sound chipset that were designed by engineers at Commodore’s MOS Technology subsidiary to power next-generation arcade games. That didn’t happen. Instead, Commodore president Jack Tramiel directed the team to build a home computer designed to crush the Atari XL and Apple II. So that’s what they did.

I didn’t know any of this when my dad brought home a C64 one afternoon a year after the machine’s launch. Ours came with a Dixons cassette with a number of small demo programs and a copy of Crazy Kong, a version of Nintendo’s Donkey Kong, written entirely in Basic and pretty mediocre. I played it to death anyway. That Christmas, I ordered some real good games, which would include the legendary multi-stage shooter Beach Head, the nifty platformer Lode Runner, and the soccer game International Soccer, one of the few titles to come on a cartridge in instead of a cassette tape.

At that time, the programmers were still getting familiar with the machine. Offering twice the memory of most rivals, its hardware could also handle continuous scrolling allowing natural movement around larger game maps and eight multicolored sprites on screen simultaneously. The superlative SID sound chip acted as an integrated synthesizer, enabling specialist computer musicians such as Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway to produce beautifully complex chip music, some of which was celebrated at a Commodore 64 orchestral concert a few years ago. years. We take it for granted now, but this too was 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 special interface to connect a controller. It was ready, right out of the box, like a video game console: a vital step for home computing.

Concert Orchestral 8-Bit Symphony Commodore 64
The Concert Orchestral 8-Bit Symphony Commodore 64 Cinematography: Jason Luna

During my first few months as a C64 owner, I was buying the early gaming magazines like PC Games and Computer & Video Games, obsessing over news and trailers, and writing endless wish lists. He moved in a new next door neighbor: his name was James (he’s now better known as actor Jimi Mistry) and he also had a C64. We met exchanging games: I remember having the beautiful martial arts adventure Karateka by Jordan Mechner, who would go on to do the Prince of Persia titles, and was struck by the atmospheric cinematography of it. It hinted at a future where interactive stories would be more than “the knight saves the princess.”

1984 was the explosive year. Games like Bruce Lee, Boulder Dash, Summer Games, and Pitstop II appeared in quick succession, showcasing the visual and tonal variety of C64 titles. Now it’s hard 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 traded games, read the magazines, and went on software-hunting jaunts around Stockport town centre: Debenhams, Dixons, WH Smith, Boots, a couple of computer specialist stores in little laneways. When Mastertronic started selling inexpensive games at video rental stores and kiosks, our search broadened. My mother used to take me to the Wythenshawe Library, where they rented sets for 10 pence a week. She can also send cards requesting new titles. The staff there got to know me pretty well.

I loved the fluidity of C64 games – the genres we now know so well 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, albeit geometrically naturalistic, worlds in an early kind of 3D, the sharp pixel images cleverly suggesting reflective surfaces and flowing water.

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

The game I played the most with my father was Leaderboard, a golf simulator set in a series of island courses that were drawn on the screen as you watched. I can still vividly remember sitting with my father on our gaming bench silently staring at the blocked streets in front of us. It was programmed by Bruce Carver, one of the star creators of the time, who also did Beach Head and Raid Over Moscow. Carver was part of a generation of programmers and designers who really began to develop a theory and practice of how to create compulsive home video games. “A lot of thought has gone into what the most playable screen will be,” he said in an interview with Computer! magazine in 1985. “You want to get that user to the point where his hands start to sweat, and he’s always making decisions about what he’s going to shoot, or what he’s going to do.

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

This was important because we were seeing a definite divide, between the quick delivery arcade philosophy and the longevity of home console and video game design. Between 1985 and 1987, the C64 was in its absolute pomp. Titles like Wizball, Sid Meier’s Pirates!, International Karate, and The Last Ninja were prophetic indicators of the games industry to come, with sprite animations, immersive worlds, and complex narratives.

Of course, this sort of thing was happening on the Spectrum as well, but I really associate that machine with the early 1980s. Its indie aesthetics, bizarre Python-esque humor, glitchy, splattered visuals – they’re all reminiscent of the era of alternative comedy, experimental synth pop, recession and unemployment. It was countercultural and idiosyncratic. The Commodore 64, however, is from the mid-’80s: sleek, flashy visuals, MTV, and pastel positivity. In many ways, it was the absolute best indicator of where gaming was headed: into the mainstream. And in terms of technology, the Spectrum was a dead end, but the C64 ushered us into the Amiga, laying the foundation for the era of point-and-click adventures, turn-based strategy games, and expansive adventure platformers. Its Compunet educational online system and thriving demo scene also fueled the games industry with talent, ideas, and a sense of community for years to come.

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

The games I played on the C64 during that time of my life have left an indelible mark on me, perhaps because they were pretty much everything 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 small CRT TV in our kitchen. They were where I wanted to be and possibly, in many ways, where I still am.

The wonderful book Commodore 64: A Visual Compendium, a cleverly curated selection of C64 screenshots and images, contains a quote from graphic artist Paul Docherty that truly captures the era: “Painting in pixels was never more magical to me than when I was sitting in a dark room with just a joystick connected to the C64 and the cathode ray tube shining in front of me.”

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

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