From the dramatic opening bars of Midnight Resistance to the calming simplicity of Bounder, here’s a look at some of the coolest stuff from the festive season of 1990.
Because Commodore Format is often remembered as a magazine that arrived late to the 8-bit party, it’s sometimes forgotten that for its first two years Steve Jarratt, Andy Dyer and the rest were reviewing some of the most accomplished titles that the C64 ever had.
By the end of the 1990s, it would be all about Sony’s Playstation. And that’s how we tend to define the era. But in 1990 itself, the box-fresh new decade was yet to find its groove. We were still hungover and thinking like the 1980s. Heck, it virtually was the 1980s: Margaret Thatcher was still the Prime Minister for the first three issues of CF. The Berlin Wall had only just fallen, and Kylie and Jason were huge. We hadn’t had Oasis and Blur or the rise of Sky TV yet. None of the stuff that made the 90s had actually happened. We were a long way off thinking about CD-ROMS as standard and the term “next gen” wasn’t a thing. Most 8 bit users didn’t even own a floppy disk drive.
Summing up – the Commodore 64 was still massive.
That Christmas, there were over 25 new games planned for the machine. And whilst the end of the decade would be about those CDs, Commodore itself was excited about its new cartridge based console, the GS. Spooked by the rise of the NES – and beaten into submission by it entirely in the US – Commodore thought they could make their 8-bit machine more attractive by presenting it as a games only offering with instant loading times. Those games also plugged right into the back of any standard C64, and some of the titles (see Ocean’s advert up there – Ed) looked set to be phenomenal. It was one of the most exciting Christmases for the machine in ages. And anyone in doubt of the Bread Bin’s incredible and continued popularity – seven years after release! – only had to see that every single major Hollywood release of the season was also appearing on the Commdore 64. Five of them, in fact.
So, then. Beginning in November of 1990 and taking in issues 2, 3 and 4 of Commodore Format, here’s a look at the very best of what you might say was the C64’s last truly great Christmas.
SHADOW OF THE BEAST
Psygnosis’ “wow” game for the Amiga, so the urban myth goes, had been written to a very specific order – they wanted to produce something that was so graphically spectacular it would drop jaws when people saw it running in a shop window. It wasn’t exactly famous for being particularly fun to play, though, so when Ocean announced a C64 version plenty wondered exactly what the point was.
It turned out to be pretty straightforward: this time around, Beast would demonstrate what could be achieved on a Commodore 64 if the game was on one of the new generation of cartridges. What would have been an arduous multiload on tape or disk booted up in seconds – and whilst it still didn’t exactly play brilliantly (walk > punch > crouch > walk > punch), the visuals and the thumping soundtrack laughed in the face of anything on the NES. The message was clear – the C64 isn’t dead yet.
CF SAID: “A stunning demo of what’s possible on the ‘humble’ C64. There won’t be too many disappointed buyers”. (70%, issue 4. Read review)
The late John Ferrari’s flick screen platformer never seems to get a mention in roundups or retrospectives. It rarely makes any top ten lists. Which is a shame: it’s fun! You play Maximus Mouse who, for some reason, has lost his flag. It’s a big deal in his world, so off you go to find it. On each stage you leap around collecting ACME crates, each of which has the parts for a vehicle inside. Once you have them all, you’ve got the transport you need to level up. Complete all four stages to reach the moon and you’ll find your lost flag! It’s a beautiful looking cartoon affair, with some lovely touches – like when Maximus is able to use his tail as a helicopter style propeller. Its cuteness belies a sometimes harsh difficulty level and maddening collision detection, but if you ignored this game at the time in favour of its label-mate Creatures, perhaps now is the time to give it a go!
CF SAID: “Nothing less than long term enjoyment.” (80%, issue 4. Read review)
The spine tingling opening bars of music from level one of Midnight Resistance crash in the second you press fire to start this immense shooter. And those notes are a massive, era-defining moment for the many fans of the Commodore 64 who utterly adore this game. It’s fairly simple stuff: run right, shoot stuff and collect keys. Use the keys to buy bigger guns. Off you go on the rampage again. But the graphics are so chunkily beautiful. The enemies – swooping helicopters, tanks that cause the whole screen to shake – are so huge. The music is so unbelievably accomplished and meaty (even compared to the Amiga version). And the carnage is such a lot of fun. There is a lack of variety but you just don’t really notice! Commodore Format included level 1 as a demo on PowerPack 3. It only takes about 90 seconds to smash through it. But it says an awful lot about the game that at least once a month a reader posts on our Facebook page to say it’s their favourite Commodore Format moment ever. This game freakin’ rocks.
CF SAID: “Hectic blasting action! Really gets the blood pounding.” (80%, issue 2. Read review)
In this classy coin op conversion, you slay your way through the fantasy medieval village of Yuria to retrieve the stolen golden axe (aha!) and stop Death Adder taking over your ‘hood. On the way to his temple hideaway you have to murderously rampage through a forest, the neighbouring Turtle Village and across Eagle Island. To protect yourself you can slash, kick and piledrive Death Adder’s henchmen. You can also collect potions along the way – mix up enough and you can destroy everything on a screen. If you find a sleeping dragon you can mount it for extra fire power – literally. Those things will fry your enemies with a jab of the, er, fire button!
Golden Axe is beautifully atmospheric. From the gorgeous Jereon Tel soundtrack to the detailed backdrops and the cool animation, there is an attention to detail here so often lacking in C64 conversions. There’s no two player mode, and the number of enemies on screen at once are limited, but to fit this game into the Commie at all is pretty impressive.
CF SAID: “As accurate a conversion as possible…gorgeous”. (Issue 3, 88%. Read review)
THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (AND OTHER MOVIE GAMES)
As we were saying – this christmas was huge for movie convos! The Commodore got its own version of five blockbusters this Yule. There was the Tom Cruise flick Days Of Thunder (awful at 43%). Robocop 2 and Navy SEALS, meanwhile, were another two slick cartridge offerings from Ocean. The Spy Who Loved Me was the James Bond movie of the moment, but it’s The Hunt For Red October that was perhaps forgotten in the avalanche.
It’s a good game. There are five levels, each representing a part of the film. It follows the plot exactly, starting out with you – as a CIA agent – being helicoptered onto the top of a submarine and ending in the reactor room of the sub for the final showdown. The Cold War plot really ages it, and there’s nothing particularly new on show – it’s run, shoot, then an Operation Wolf sort of bit and run some more – but it’s all so polished you’ll have great fun. You probably didn’t get this one at the time. Give it a go.
CF SAID: “One of the most accurate film licenses to date”. (87%, issue 4. Read review)
…ON THE POWERPACK
And so to the games we know you all definitely got in winter 1990. And what a christmas present! Commodore Format 4’s covertape was one of the finest the magazine ever had. Bounder sees you playing a…er…tennis ball. But it’s great, honest. You have to navigate the landscape to the rhythm of the ball’s bounce and mind the gaps. Fall down one and you lose a life. It’s simple but it’s fun – a tennis ball sim! – and the parallax scrolling is lovely.
Beyond The Forbidden Forest, meanwhile, is anything but lovely. It’s bloody terrifying. The graphics might be chunky but they’re atmospheric and expertly use colour to portray…well…dread. The music is chilling, too, and you can well imagine that the sense of fear it created on its release in 1985 was akin to that you get when you play The Last Of Us today.
No doubt plenty of kids got new games at Christmas this year, but it’s a fair bet loads of them loved these freebies more than any of them. There was even a chance to see what all the fuss was about with demos of Robocop 2 and Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (the latter being a rolling and unplayable demo, much to the confusion of many a teen sitting there trying to steer the car).
It wasn’t just Ocean who were set on releasing stuff for the C64GS this Christmas. System 3 ran double page spreads promising beefed up versions of four games. Only Last Ninja Remix and Myth would make it into the shops, though, and in such limited quantities that today they can sell for upwards of 100 quid on auction sites.
Domark released Cyberball and Badlands to lukewarm reception and didn’t bother again. Dinamic said they’d only be producing games on cartridge from 1991 but actually abandoned the C64 entirely. Codemasters couldn’t make the numbers work – Dizzy could never be budget on the GS. And so it went on. The whole C64GS release was, ultimately, a disaster – even if some of the games were good. Read more about it in our chats with Mevlut Dinc and Steve Jarratt.
So was this the Commodore’s last great Christmas? Certainly in terms of quantity you could argue it. There are so many games we haven’t touched on in this feature – go out and seek Strider 2, Spiderman, Plotting and the curious puzzler Helter Skelter. You’ll find reviews of them all in CF‘s 3 and 4 (the official Christmas issue). Fire up your emulator and enjoy the holiday season of 1990! CF