Murder!, Fuzzball and Batman Returns – here is the fate of three more C64 Games That Weren’t…
Last time, we talked Chuck Rock, Beavers! and Parasol Stars. All magnificent looking C64 games, never to see the light of day. If you didn’t read it, check out part one here. Here in part two, we’ve got three more Games That Weren’t from the Commodore Format years – including the most sought after lost C64 game of all time! Words by Neil Grayson with Frank Gasking.
- System 3, 1992
- Death by: WH Smith
What was it all about? System 3 were the understated kings of the C64 until the bitter commercial end. Formed in 1982, they’re still going 36 years later! These days, they’re doing stuff like Super Putty Squad for the Nintendo Switch. But in the ’80s they had a handful of incredibly classy games for the Commodore including Myth, the Last Ninja series and – coming into the early ’90s – the technical masterclass that is the chase ’em up Turbocharge. “Understated” and “handful” are the operative words here: as CF said at the time, System 3 were all about quality over quantity, separating them from the factory line production of the likes of US Gold. Everybody always looked forward to a new System 3 game. Fuzzball was to be their 8-bit swansong, chalked in for release in the Autumn of ’92. It was pretty simple but wonderfully executed stuff: you’re the fuzzball of the title, turned so by an evil wizard. You navigate platforms bi-directionally, collecting diamonds and killing other fuzzballs across 50 levels in your quest to be turned back into a human.
What did CF say? Issue 24 went mad for Fuzzball. Editors at Future Publishing were encouraged to find a monthly event on which to hang every issue of their magazine, and Fuzzball was chosen for September 1992. The game had the front cover, a two page preview and a coveted demo on the Power Pack. It’s from that demo we can see what Fuzzball was actually like (we’ve discovered that the music here, by the way, is the work of Dutch C64 legend Jeroen Tel):
CF‘s preview notes that it’s about more than merely shooting at your fellow fuzzies. Once you’ve killed a critter, they turn into a bouncing ball. You’ve got a limited time to collide with that or the fuzz regenerates. So there’s timing and planning involved here; a bit of depth beyond your usual running and shooting. James Leach was impressed, remembering that System 3 had been a bit quiet since Turbocharge but Fuzzball looked set to maintain the publisher’s 100% Corker record with Commodore Format.
What happened? One thing is for sure: Fuzzball for the Commodore 64 was definitely as good as finished. The official line from System 3 was that they were spooked at the prospect of manufacturing a C64 cassette game just as WH Smith and Boots were clearing 8-bit titles from the shelves to make room for more profitable console carts. This is the reason games fall off so dramatically for the C64 in the UK around mid ’92: there were still people wanting to buy the games, but the high street had moved on. That’s not all there is to the story, though. It’s long been rumoured programmer Miles Barry wasn’t paid for Fuzzball and put on to coding SNES Putty Squad to make up for the fact. That’s actually not true: in fact, Miles had also been working at the time on Football Manager 3 for Prism and was being threatened with legal action if he didn’t come back and finish it. The programming was then picked up by Jed Adams. But Fuzzball still faced a delay until the other side of the lucrative christmas period as a result – and with more C64 owners set to swap their Commie for a more powerful machine in that time, it’s possible this is what sealed Fuzzball‘s fate.
Chances of finding it: Interesting one, this. System 3, as we said up there, are still on the go. They’re very proud of their heritage; so much so, they have a page about their micro computer glory years on the website. It’s also long been rumoured they have literally everything stored on an in-house archive system, but if that’s where Fuzzball is System 3 are keeping quiet about the fact. Bedroom enthusiasts have rummaged around CF‘s two-level demo code and found traces of every level up to number 17 – and at one point, around 2012, it seemed as if a sort-of version of Fuzzball might be unofficially released using what was there. Alas, that’s not happened yet – but that’s not stopping anybody else having a go. Could you?
5. BATMAN RETURNS
- Konami, 1993
- Death by: The Japanese
What was it all about? This was set to be the C64 version of the 1992 superhero film directed by Tim Burton. It’s the one where Michael Keaton is Batman, but you probably remember it for Michelle Pfeiffer’s latex-clad turn as Catwoman. Konami spent serious money getting the rights for the Nintendo machines and 16-bit computers; late in the day, they decided to chance a C64 version to try and recoup as much as they could. It was farmed out along with the Amiga version to Liverpool’s Denton Designs. From that 16-bit version, you can see it was to be a beat ’em up arcade adventure with a lot of jumping and collecting weapons. Fairly standard stuff for the time, but a popular genre:
What did CF say? This was Spring 1993, and games were becoming as rare as hen’s teeth. The prospect of a Batman game sent the mag into a frenzy, giving it the front cover, a two-page preview and a centrefold poster. “What stood out most was the smooth animation of the main sprite as it performed a bewildering range of moves, the most impressive being a low sweep kick – great for tripping up the odd penguin”, says CF‘s preview. The subscriber newsletter goes further, noting how Batman’s cape billows as he jumps or crouches. “Batman has a chance to be one of the major releases of the year”.
What happened? Piecing together issue 30’s preview – from March 1993 – and the same issue’s subscriber newsletter, it’s safe to say Commodore Format had only seen a very empty version of level one. Batman was running around it, but there were no enemies yet. A bit of digging suggests that the game was much further along in development than that, mind. Here’s the chief coder, Denton Design’s Roy Bannon:
“If you’ve seen the Amiga version, it was going to be the same. The C64 had a complete level 1 (gameplay tested), a level 2 (not gameplay tested), and level 3 (graphically and basically coded complete). Levels 4 and 5 weren’t started. The game was canned when the powers [Konami head office in Japan – Ed] that be decided Batman Returns on the C64 was no longer a commercially viable product. In other words no-one thought they could make any serious money out of it.”
The game’s graphic designer, Paul Salmon, remembers that the complicated fighting sequences were coming along really well. Catwoman was there, too, if this diary of a game in rival mag Commodore Force is anything to go by. She’d hop around Batman and generally make a nuisance of herself. Roy shared her “thought process” on the C64 version:
AM I DOING A FIGHTING SEQUENCE? NO
IS BATMAN FAIRLY CLOSE? YES
IS HE CLOSE ENOUGH TO SCRATCH? NO
IS HE CLOSE ENOUGH TO BACKFLIP AT? YES
IS HE ABOVE, BELOW, LEFT OR RIGHT OF ME? LEFT
INITIATE THE LEFT BACKFLIP SEQUENCE
This diary was published in September 1993, a full six months after CF‘s initial preview and front cover. Save for one bizarre final installment in which the entire team of programmers take a trip to the seaside – presumably to fill up some space in Commodore Force that had already been earmarked for the Batman diary – the game was never heard of again. Safe to say, then, it was abandoned that Autumn. It could have been the last ever film license on the Commie – that accolade instead went to Alternative’s Suburban Commando. Happily, we can at least bring you some stills of what could’ve been – including some enemies and a Catwoman absent from CF‘s demo:
Chances of finding it: It doesn’t look like anything ever left the Denton offices on Merseyside. And the demo CF received? Famously, Future Publishing used to literally burn things it didn’t need once a year and that’s almost certainly what happened to Batman. These screens are likely all we’ll ever know. (We love to end a section on a downer – Ed).
- US Gold, 1990
- Death by: Real-life mystery
What was it all about? Murder! was US Gold’s 1990 detective game. It’s the 1940’s and at Grantley Manor, somebody has been killed. It’s your job to find out who, within two hours, before the rest of Scotland Yard turn up. Think of it as an interactive whodunnit, not unlike Cluedo. There are guests to question, suspects to tail and conclusions to draw. Murder! was finished, and reviewed in all three British C64 magazines at the time. CF scored it at 82%, but the rest of the press loved it even more. ZZAP! 64 rated Murder! at 93% (higher than the Amiga version!) and Your Commodore at 92%.
What did CF say? Andy Dyer reviewed this one in Commodore Format’s first ever issue. He enthuses over the game’s quality, especially the “period, monochrome graphics” and the “hushed whispers, dripping taps and owl hoots” from the SID chip all creating “an eerie ambience”. Most impressively, the date could be changed at the start of every game which in turn would alter the crime committed. Over 3 million different investigations were possible, says Andy, although after about 10 you might start to find them a bit same-y.
What happened? Bob Kenrick was head of production with US Gold at the time and he remembers that the decision was taken to cancel the C64 release, but the years have defeated him and he can’t remember why. Fittingly enough, it’s become its own mystery. Murder! is now probably the most sought after lost C64 game of all time.
“Well, it was definitely finished”, says C64 Murder! coder Chris Walsh. “For both tape and disk. It was a single load. I spent countless nights trying to cram it into 64K. It was the same as the Amiga version. It used the same logic, definitely.”
“The graphics were a pain to convert, though” remembers the game’s artist Jason Kingsley [they were ported from the Amiga – Ed]. “I remember using a joystick and the single fire button to place pixels and change their colour. But it was the same game, same logic as the Amiga.”
So we know from the programmers themselves that it was finished. Indeed, they were staggered to discover it hadn’t been released. We also have reviews of the finished code, and advertisements from the games press which mention the C64 version. There are even C64 instructions in the all-formats manual which came with the finished Amiga and ST game. Literally everything was done, it seems, save for the physical manufacturing of the C64 version. What can have driven the publishers to halt production?
Well, we can discount US Gold getting cold feet. To an extent. This was 1990, remember, and the C64 was still doing very well commercially in the UK. US Gold also continued to release Commodore games long after this (indeed, right up until 1992, over 50% of C64 full price games in any month could be from US Gold). That said, the C64 version was penciled in for a slightly later release than on the 16-bits. The Amiga and ST versions weren’t selling well. Could that be why they canned the C64 one? It’s not impossible, but in 1990 seems unlikely. Especially with such good reviews across the board.
So what else might account for Murder! vanishing into the ether? There’s a bit of chatter online that mastering the finished game could have been the problem. In short, it’s easy to put a game on a disk and send it to a magazine for review. But that’s a world apart from creating the final mastertape or disk complete with copy protection and fastloader. It’s not an explanation we especially buy into, though. Mastering is tricky, but US Gold were doing it all the time: there were people they employed to do that as their living. And the programmer knows the day will come when their game needs to be mastered. It just doesn’t seem likely.
The fate of Murder! will probably never be known. Whilst we’d love there to be some sort of juicy story attached, the fact that Bob Kenrick remembers it being cancelled but can’t remember why probably points to something utterly mundane. It’s the Whodunnit with an unknown fate of its own.
Chances of finding it Neither Chris Walsh nor Jason Kingsley have a copy of their great lost game, and every other link back to the old US Gold has drawn a blank, too. Famed Goldies publicist Danielle Woodyatt tells us that she clearly remembers doing a murder mystery weekend for journalists to celebrate the game’s release and that copies were probably handed out to them, but it does seem like those were for the 16-bits. CF reviewer Andy Dyer doesn’t have a copy and though Your Commodore reviewer Rik Henderson has kept a lot of stuff from back in the day he can’t find Murder! in his garage either. If you want to play it, it’s easy to get on the Amiga or ST and it’s engaging enough for a few hours, but shows its age. Uncovering the C64 version would probably be something of an anticlimax – but what we’d give for that moment. Bah. CF