fIn the period between the winter of 1983 and the summer of 1986, my life was completely dominated by the Commodore 64, a set of graphics and sound chips developed by the engineers at Commodore subsidiary MOS Technology to power cutting-edge arcade games. That didn’t happen. Instead, Commodore President Jack Tramiel ordered the team to build a home computer that would crush the Atari XL and Apple II. So that’s what they did.
I didn’t know about it when my dad brought home a C64 one afternoon a year after its launch. Ours came with a Dixons cartridge with a bunch of small demo programs and a copy of Crazy Kong, a version of Nintendo’s Donkey Kong that was written entirely in Basic and was pretty mediocre. I played it to death anyway. This Christmas I asked for some really good games, including legendary multi-stage shooter Beach Head, inventive platformer Lode Runner, and football game International Soccer, one of the few titles that comes on cartridge rather than cartridge .
At that time, programmers were still working with the machine. The hardware offers twice the memory of most competitors and can also handle seamless scrolling, allowing for natural movement on larger game maps and eight multicolored sprites on screen at once. The superlative SID sound chip acted as a built-in synthesizer, enabling 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 Commodore 64 orchestra concert a few years ago. We take it for granted today, but this was also a plug-and-play machine – unlike many other computers of the era, it didn’t require an adapter to plug it into your television, or a special interface to plug in a controller . It was ready to use, like a video game console: a crucial step forward for home computing.
During my first few months as a C64 owner, I bought early gaming magazines like Personal Computer Games and Computer and Video Games, obsessed with news and previews, and wrote endless wish lists. A new neighbor next door moved in: his name was James (he is now better known as actor Jimi Mistry) and he also had a C64. We met by swapping games – I remember he had the beautiful martial arts adventure Karateka directed by Jordan Mechner, who would go on to do the Prince of Persia titles, and I was blown away by its atmospheric cinematography. It hinted at a future where interactive stories would be more than knight saves princess.
1984 was the explosive year. Games like Bruce Lee, Boulder Dash, Summer Games and Pitstop II came out in quick succession, showcasing the visual and sonic richness of C64 titles. It’s now difficult to summarize the effect when 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-hunting excursions in downtown Stockport – Debenhams, Dixons, WH Smith, Boots, a few computer shops down back streets. When Mastertronic started selling cheap games in video stores and newsagents, our search broadened. My mother used to take me to the Wythenshawe library where they rented games for 10p a week. You can also submit cards requesting new titles. The people there got to know me pretty well.
I loved the fluidity of C64 games – the genres we know really well now were still fuzzy and malleable. The Sentinel was a puzzle game, but also a kind of sci-fi horror; Spindizzy was an exploration game, but it was also a puzzle game; Gribbly’s Day Out was a platformer, but also an arcade adventure. These games built surreal but geometrically naturalistic worlds in an early brand of 3D, with the sharp pixel visuals deftly suggesting reflective surfaces and flowing water.
The game I played most with my dad was Leaderboard, a golf simulation set on a series of island courses that was drawn on the screen while you watched. I can still clearly remember sitting with my father at our casino and watching the fairways in front of us in silence. It was programmed by Bruce Carver, one of the star creators of the era who also made Beach Head and Raid Over Moscow. Carver was among a generation of programmers and designers who really began to develop a theory and practice on how to create compulsive home video games. “There’s a lot of thought going into which screen is going to be the most playable,” he said in an interview with Computer! Magazine in 1985. “You want to get this user to the point where their hands start to sweat and they’re constantly making decisions about what they’re going to shoot at or what they’re going to do.
“If you always have the same thing for him, he’ll get bored very quickly, so you get his mind working, you give him options… We’re trying to get those all through the game very subtly, so it’s not really obvious, but.” it retains interest for a long time.”
This was important because we saw a definite disconnect between the arcade philosophy of fast flipping and the longevity of home console and video game design. Between 1985 and 1987 the C64 was in its absolute glory. Titles like Wizball, Sid Meier’s Pirates!, International Karate and The Last Ninja were prescient indicators of the coming games industry with sprite animations, immersive worlds and complex narratives.
Of course something like that happened with the Spectrum too, but I really associate this machine with the early 1980s. Its indie aesthetic, bizarre, python-esque humor, glittery, splattered graphics — they all hark back to the era of alternative comedy, experimental synth-pop, recession and unemployment. It was countercultural and idiosyncratic. The Commodore 64, on the other hand, is mid-80s: sleek, flashy looks, MTV, and pastel-colored positivity. In many ways, it’s been the absolute best indicator of where games are going: going mainstream. And technologically, the Spectrum was a dead end, but the C64 led us to the Amiga and laid the foundation for the era of point-n-click adventure, turn-based strategy, and sprawling adventure platformers. The formative online system Compunet and the thriving demo scene continued to provide the games industry with talent, ideas and a sense of community for years to come.
The games I played on the C64 during that era of my life left an indelible mark on me – perhaps because they were pretty much all I thought about during those impressive 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 possibly where I still am in many ways.
The wonderful book Commodore 64: A Visual Compendium, an intelligently curated selection of C64 screenshots and images, includes a quote from graphic artist Paul Docherty that really captures the era: “Painting in pixels has never been more magical to me than it was in my day A darkened room with just a joystick connected to the C64 and the cathode ray tube in front of me lit up.”
He spoke about the experience of making games for the machine. But like millions of others at the time, I felt the same when I played them.