We need to build computers for the masses, not the classes.
-Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore International
It’s the Console Challenge, Day Three!
Happy Sunday, NPCs! Welcome to our third entry in this month-long challenge. Before the N64 there was the C64 and my good friend and fellow wordsmith the Deviot is here to tell us all about this foundational device. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone better suited to the task. The Deviot is a veritable font of information. I have never had a conversation with him where I failed to learn something from him. Fans of the Commodore 64 would be delighted to visit his blog Comma Eight Comma One. You can also find him on Twitter @TheDeviot.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… the Deviot. Put on your thinking caps and don’t forget to tell us about your top C64 games in the comments below!
Seven must-have games for your Commodore 64
Recently, the folks over at The Well-Red Mage started prattling on about retro platforms, and what makes them so great. So much so, that they’re spotlighting several machines, and some of the best games on each. Throughout the event you’ll see the usual suspects. The mighty NES. The Sega Genesis. The Super NES. But they wanted to go beyond the three that are hot amongst collectors right now. They wanted the world to remember that there was an industry before Super Mario Bros. revitalized consoles in North America on the Nintendo Entertainment System. So I’ve been given the opportunity to mention one of the greatest contenders of all time: The Commodore 64.
I’ve talked at length about the C64. I even wrote a quick guide on the computer, and what to look for when buying one. What makes the C64 so awesome? Where does one begin? It has an iconic sound thanks to the Sound Interface Device or SID as it’s commonly known. When you listen to chiptunes on a Commodore 64 there really is nothing else like it. There’s also the many screen modes it could run under, giving developers a multitude of options when designing games on it. And while the 16 color graphics may have been exceeded by the NES, and other computers, or consoles, developers worked wonders with them. So much so that many of the games NES, 7800, and Master System collectors hold dear, also appeared on the C64. Sometimes the C64 versions were better than the versions on these machines. Other times, not so much.
The Commodore 64 was one of the most successful computers of all time, being sold from 1983 until 1994 when the company went belly up. After the North American video game market crash, many of the companies who had been making games for consoles like the Atari 2600, 5200, Mattel Intellivision, and ColecoVision were migrating to home computers. At the same time companies making deeper experiences on the IBM-PC format found they could port these experiences to the other home computers of the day. On top of this, there was a wellspring of independent talent out there. The C64 was easily the king of the hill in North America, though Atari, Coleco, Texas Instruments, and others put up valiant home computers of their own. In Europe it had a neck and neck war with the ZX Spectrum, and some other big formats nipping at their heels. Home computer formats were all the rage in Europe, and so as a result, some of the Commodore 64’s big games were European exclusives. As such some of the experiences won’t run properly on an American C64. But don’t go thinking everything on this list is going to be an expensive importing endeavor. There were plenty of great games in North America as well. And with things like the C64 Mini gaining some popularity, you may not have to make room for a PAL TV, C64, and power converter just yet.
Anyway, a lot of lists claim to be top, or best ever titles. I’m not claiming these are the best ever. But they are games I think you should check out if you’re ever afforded the opportunity. Also, it is a computer, and there are a lot of homebrewers out there today, still creating some independent games for it! There is also the glorious Demoscene, where audio/visual projects are made to continually push the iconic computer to its technical limits. But those are topics for perhaps another day. Here are seven of the C64’s games that come highly recommended.
#7. Forbidden Forest
Designed by composer Paul Norman, and published by Cosmi, this game is one of the best horror-themed games of all time. Sure, by today’s standards you might not find the blocky sprites imposing. But look deeper and there are many impressive features you can still appreciate today. The game can best be described in contemporary terms as a Boss Rush game. Each stage is a confrontation with a different kind of creature. First there’s a wave of killer spiders. Then there’s a giant man-eating bee. Then giant frogs. Then a dragon. Then a phantom, and his army of endless skeletons. A giant python, and then the dreaded Demogorgon. Based on the difficulty, the number of bosses increases. You also have a set number of arrows to work with. I probably should have mentioned you’re an archer, and you have to reload between shots. Also you have to stop moving to reload, allowing these enemies ample time to try to murder you. Forbidden Forest is also one of the earliest games to feature parallax scrolling. There’s an excellent sequel to this one, but the original is still one of the most memorable experiences on the machine. There were ports to other machines too, but the C64 original was never bested.
#6. After Burner (North American version)
There were many solid Sega arcade port efforts I could mention here. Alien Syndrome, Golden Axe, Zaxxon, Shinobi, Crackdown, and Outrun immediately come to mind. But we’re going with After Burner. Specifically the North American version. This one was published by Mindscape, and most of the features found in the Master System version appeared here. The boss plane, the refueling sections, the cutscenes, all here. It also controls beautifully, allowing you to easily pull off the arcade game’s barrel rolls. It also gave you two ways to shoot missiles as a workaround to the Commodore 64’s use of a single button joystick. You could hold down the fire button, or you could press the spacebar. But that’s not even the best part. That honor goes to the excellent rendition of Climax done by Jeroen Tel (Maniacs Of Noise) It’s so good in fact, you won’t want to play until the entire medley ends several minutes after booting up. In Europe, Activision had the publishing rights, and their version of After Burner is largely regarded as terrible. This is one game worth getting for the music alone. The excellent port of the arcade game is icing on the cake.
#5. Ultima series
I’m cheating a little here by not narrowing it down to one specific entry. But the Ultima games on the C64 are all wonderful iterations. Their only crimes are the long loading times. But beyond that, they’re just as good as the IBM-PC compatible versions, and the SID renditions of their soundtracks are great. And being on a computer, they’re easier to navigate than the ports to the NES or the SMS, even if those versions are respectable efforts.
#4. Mail Order Monsters
Mail Order Monsters was Pokémon before there was Pokémon. While you won’t be finding electrical mice, or water blasting turtles in the woods, and capturing them in orbs, you do find monsters. Also you do pit them against other monsters. But in a glorious convergence of RPG stat building, and action mechanics. Start out by buying a monster to command. You can buy a giant redwood. Or a flaming lion. Or one of several other monsters. Then you send that monster out to compete in a variety of modes. If you’re victorious you can take your prize money, and buy upgrades for your monster. Give your flame lion a giant mace. Give your redwood a powerful vine attack. Then save your character to a disk, and bring it to a friend’s. Where you can then pit your monsters against one another for supremacy. Mail Order Monsters is awesome.
#3. Beach-Head II: The Dictator Strikes Back
The original Beach-Head was a pretty fun affair, going through several battle scenes of arcade action. But the sequel is one of the best head to head experiences available. One player takes control of the allied army, while the other takes control of the dictator’s forces. Each of the four stages is a wonderfully done take on an action movie scene. It’s amazing. The first stage involves the heroes storming the villains’ base. The first player has to get their soldiers inside, while the second player has to mow them down. The second stage sees the heroes taking control of a turret to give the hostages cover as they try to escape. As this is going on the dictator’s forces try to take out the hostages. The third stage sees player one piloting a perilous helicopter escape, as the second player controls enemy tanks, doors, and obstacles in an attempt to shoot down the helicopter. Things culminate in a knife-throwing battle between the leader of the heroic army, and the dictator himself. The early voice samples in this were impressive at release, and are charming today. Highly recommended to anyone who wants a fun competitive game.
Rainbow Arts and Factor 5 were both known for entries in this long-running action platformer series. It also has a lot of exploration in the vein of Metroid though not to the same degree. While many people know about Turrican games on the Sega Genesis, and Super NES, they may not know this series started on the Commodore 64. Whether you get this or the sequel, it is one of the best times you’ll have on the platform. Unfortunately for North American owners, this is one of the games that was fairly common throughout Europe, but very limited in North America. So finding an NTSC compatible version is likely going to be an expensive endeavor. Still, If you are game for hunting down rare games, Turrican or Turrican II are worth it. Not too many series blend the action of a Contra game, with the exploration of a Metroidvania, and do it nearly as well. If you can’t swing the high price of an NTSC release, or the expense of importing a European C64 setup, you could conceivably play the Sega Genesis port, which isn’t too bad. One of the best sequels would appear on the Genesis later so there is that.
#1. The Great Giana Sisters
You probably knew this was coming up. The background is legendary now. Rainbow Arts and Armin Gessert filled a void on computers by giving home computer owners a Super Mario Bros. clone. But almost as fast as it hit the C64, and a handful of other computers, it disappeared. Presumably to avoid any entanglements with Nintendo. Which led to it becoming one of the rarest games on the C64. But Giana and Maria do have differences. The sisters’ jumping mechanics are different. The dream world features far more power ups than the Mushroom Kingdom, and warping is done completely differently. Still, it is similar enough it is easy to see why there were fears of reprisal. Be that as it may, this is one of the most entertaining, well-crafted platformers you will ever play. The liberties it takes with the SMB formula give it a unique enough feel, and playing through it is still glorious. Characters have their own unique style. It’s one of the most impressive looking games on the C64. It also has some of composer Chris Huelsbeck’s most fondly remembered chiptunes. Collecting it is a very expensive endeavor today, but should you find a copy you will have one of the most entertaining games for the computer, and one of the most historically significant video games ever made. So much so, that Nintendo even allowed a direct sequel to appear on the Nintendo DS.
So there you have it. Seven really great games to look out for. Of course this just scratches the surface as there were THOUSANDS of games commercially produced for the Commodore 64. Some quick honorable mentions go to Rocket Ranger, Airborne Ranger, Jumpman, Boulder Dash, Impossible Mission, Countdown To Shutdown, Fast Tracks, and Toy Bizarre. Honestly, I could go on forever mentioning C64 games. But hopefully this list showed off some of the reasons why you ought to consider collecting for one of the greatest home computers ever made.