On the 30th anniversary of Commodore Format’s first issue, we’re telling the story behind Commodore’s first half baked effort to crack the console market. The C64 Games System was the magazine’s first cover story in October 1990, but the machine was dead a few months later. Strap in, friends, ‘cos this story’s good. And by good we mean terrible. Part one: Words by Neil Grayson, with photography from Thomas Gutmeier. #CFis30

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It’s 1989, and Commodore UK have decided that they have a problem. Their best-selling product ever, the C64, has unique competition in Britain. On one side, consoles like the NES and Master System have the potential to gnaw away at its 8-bit market with instant loading and “must have” titles like Mario. On the other, there’s very direct competition from the Spectrum and Amstrad CPC range. The cheap micro computers were especially popular in Britain, and essentially forced Commodore to keep bundling its C64 with a cassette deck in the market just to keep it at a competitive price point (a disk drive, always Commodore’s preferred medium in the rest of the world, would have significantly increased the computer’s cost).

Tethered to cassette, games were limited and made the C64 look weaker than it was. Commodore’s PR manager Andrew Ball said at the time that tapes were the C64‘s “biggest problem. Games are now bigger, and cassettes are a frustrating slow medium. They’re also unreliable and a favourite format for pirates. The C2N (the official cassette deck that came  with the C64 – Ed) crosses more counters to and from repair than they ever do being sold”.

Commodore UK wanted three things: to compete with the lower end console market, to ditch tapes and to stay competitive with the other 8-bit micros at the same time.

Enter Commodore International.

They understood that the C64 was looking old hat, but couldn’t really understand why its British operation was getting so freaked out. Privately, its engineers had been working on a machine called the C65, which in the late ’80s was very different to the prototypes that surfaced in the ’90s. It was going to have a heavily marketed cartridge port and Nintendo style controllers, as well as technology  that could link up machines for multi-player games. Even better, they were aiming for compatability with the C64. It had been due to be released to developers by September 1989, but multiple chip problems meant it was heavily delayed. Still, Commodore felt that this system was the best solution to the UK company’s problem and that the C64 should be allowed its big sleep.

THE DAY THE GS WAS BORN

In Spring 1990, Commodore UK’s marketing manager Kelly Sumner and Commodore International engineer Jeff Porter met at the company’s West Chester, Pennsylvania office to talk about the road map for the C65 becoming the company’s new lower end system. Sumner was extremely receptive to the idea. He knew that British publishers were keen to leap to cartridge and halt the epidemic of tape and disk piracy that had plagued micro computers from their earliest days. 

As the meeting grew on, though, Sumner became concerned. He thought that the new March 1991 deadline was too late. To stop publishers abandoning Commodore for Sega and Nintendo after the upcoming Christmas period, Sumner wanted a new cartridge system that year. Incredibly, the team of engineers agreed to indulge what was effectively a “stop-gap” machine. It was to be one of the company’s landmark moments on its farcical journey to mid ’90s destruction.

Jeff Porter and his team in the US weren’t  enthusiastic about Sumner’s proposal for a low cost, keyboardless Commodore 64 with a cartridge slot on the top, but they wanted to appease him because he was one of the few regional supporters for the C65. Porter said they’d work on the machine if the UK arm developed the carts and ensured they would be compatible with both the new C64 GS and upcoming C65. 

Through the summer of 1990, C65 engineers were pulled off their work to produce the C64 GS for the UK market in a crazily short time frame, although it provided very little challenge. Engineer Fred Bowen made some ROM revisions, including a new display screen that appeared if the GS was turned on without a cartridge. Without a keyboard, a joystick was developed with Cheetah including buttons that could serve different functions, and that was about it. It was a C64 without a keyboard. By August – a mere few months after the meeting in West Chester – Commodore Germany’s Braunschweig  factory produced 20,000 units. 

Back to the UK now, and Sumner’s promise to develop those carts for Jeff Porter. The cartridge port had always been there on the back of the ’64, but after some brief early efforts in 16K had been largely forgotten about. RAM was expensive in the early ’80s, there weren’t many manufacturers and China wasn’t yet the production powerhouse it is today. All that had changed, though. A new generation of carts was developed that could allow up to 512K to be stored on them, and affordably too. John Twiddy and Mevlut Dinc of Vivid Image were approached by Commodore to produce a  system  which would  help publishers either make games specifically  for  cart or transfer over old titles that could be tarted up, and they sold fifteen of the development kits. “It was like a card that fit into a PC”, Mev told us. “In turn it connected to a GS and was really easy to use. When you think about the number of C64 publishers at the time, selling fifteen was good. There  were high hopes.”

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By now it was late August, 1990. Commodore dropped the bomb. The new C64 package for the forthcoming Christmas wasn’t a standard C64c. A rebadged, keyboardless Commodore 64 console – the C64 Games System – would  be available for £99.99. It came with four games on one cartridge: Commodore’s International Soccer, the ace platformer Flimbo’s Quest, the tile puzzler Klax and Mindscape’s clever  circus simulator Fiendish Freddy’s Big Top O’ Fun. Also included was that joystick, dubbed the Annihilator. The cartridges for the system would be compatible with all existing C64s, and cassette decks were to be phased out by summer 1991. Commodore were very publicly playing to the publishers just as Kelly Sumner wanted: carts, he said, were the C64’s future.

Let’s hit pause here for a second. At around the same time as this is going on Future Publishing is thinking about a magazine for the Commodore 64. It’s the only computer format it doesn’t have a title for, having bought in legendary Speccy bible Your Sinclair in the winter. But they’re nervous about spending big money on a new launch if the computer isn’t  going to be around for much longer. One meeting with Commodore later, and publisher Steve Carey is convinced the future’s bright. They enthuse over a “new era” of gaming for the C64 and share  the news that over one hundred games will be available for the GS by the end of the year. With big hitters like Ocean and System 3 signed up, Carey returns to Bath and pulls Steve Jarratt into a side room. We’re doing a Commodore 64 magazine, he says. Hire who you want and get it out there by the Autumn. It’s decided that the C64 GS will be on the first cover and they’ll go big with the format.

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Here’s the now legendary – for the wrong reasons – front cover from October 1990, and a link to the whole magazine.

The accompanying article is fascinating, though it’s difficult to distinguish between what Commodore think is real and what’s PR spin. Here’s Kelly Sumner:

“I think the C64 GS will be the number one product this year. Mainly because of the Commodore name, as it has a fantastic reputation. We’ll be better than our competitors because of the software support from major publishers in the UK. If you look at the market, there are 55,000 Nintendos in the UK. Just under 200,000 Segas. But the 64 console – at least the machines which the cartridges will work on – already has an installed base of 1.4 million. Because we have this large installed user base, people are rushing to bring out software for Christmas.” In fairness to Kelly, he’d spent the late summer touring the UK publishers on a charm offensive and had promises from Ocean, US Gold, System 3, Domark and more. 

Steve Jarratt’s chat with John Twiddy of Vivid Image is more technical, with the hugely respected coder explaining what he’d done for Commodore but more importantly what it meant for people playing the new cartridges. John and Mev Dinc seemed to be the only people involved with the project who understood its real potential value:  “the beauty of the cartridge is it’s instant”, enthused John. “Fiendish Freddy, for example, is a really dull game using tape multi load. When it’s instantaneous it’s quite a fun game.”

The increased memory size could also, potentially,  mean big improvements in the games themselves:

“Apart from the ability to load in lots of hi res pictures and animation routines there’s also the capacity to download huge look-up data tables. This can speed up complex calculations for things like 3D routines for vector graphics games, making the process  more efficient and faster. In a 64K game you don’t have room to put in a 30K or 40K look-up table. With a cart,  you can download it whenever  it’s needed. The potential is very exciting.”

And  John’s dream for the new format?

“I’d like to see games written for the cartridge specifically. Lots of hi-res graphics, sampled music, presentation points. You can instantly download animations and sequences as intermissions or death screens. Anything.”

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What of the games that appeared, then? The biggest supporter of the  new format by far was Manchester based publisher Ocean Software, who did  a lot of work to publicise the fact that these carts worked on any C64 and not just the GS. Early titles like movie tie-in Navy Seals did exactly what John Twiddy imagined, with some  beautiful intermission screens and presentation sequences that would’ve taken an age to load  in separately on tape. The game was more fun. The same could be said for Chase HQ II and NES port Robocop 2, all three of which were available for Christmas following the GS‘s December 10th launch. The Disc Company put out compilation carts of some Codemasters and Microprose games (Power Play featured Rick DangerousStunt Car Racer and Microprose Soccer and is a collector’s item today) and System 3 dropped Myth and a special version of their fighting game The Last Ninja – Remix. At the same time, Commodore ran short commercials during breakfast and children’s television featuring both the GS and C64c (“they both take cartridges”) and Commodore Format created a special logo marking up console content in the mag.

HERE’S WHERE THE STORY ENDS

Sadly, those promised 100 Christmas games barely stretched to double figures. Commodore cut its losses and the price of the GS to just £30 by Easter, and discontinued it by summer 1991. The returned units were opened up and the parts used for regular C64s, largely in the German market. The console was an unmitigated disaster. So what were the reasons?

Let’s separate the console  itself from the cartridges for a moment. Taken as a standalone machine, the GS was 1983 technology wrapped in unattractive packaging (“an oversized Fisherman’s Friend”, quipped ZZAP! 64) and with virtually  no games upon its release. In shop windows like Dixons it was often set up running the ancient International Soccer next to the new 16-bit Megadrive doing its sexy thing and looked a bit pathetic. No kid wanted to be the one in the playground with a  GS

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“For the C64 GS to really succeed it was imperative to create games specially written for it and taking advantage of the cartridge”, says Mev Dinc. “The publishers did not want to spend money doing this and Commodore did not put any money towards the development of new games either, so all in all it was bound to fail really!”

Here’s CF‘s editor, Steve Jarratt:

“I was naive. Like,  I really thought it  was going  to usher in a new generation of C64 gaming! It was under powered and ugly and the cartridges were expensive.”

Ah, yes. The carts. Away from the GS – which ultimately sold fewer than the 20,000 units produced  – the games themselves had the potential to be excellent and there was a big existing user base of regular Commodore owners to buy them. But confusion reigned from the start. The  games press was inundated with letters asking if the £20+ carts worked on all C64s. They did, but rumours persisted that they were only C64c compatible or not compatible at all. This wasn’t helped  when early Ocean carts wouldn’t comfortably fit in a standard C64: unbelievably, Ocean sat in their Manchester offices themselves sawing every cart into the right shape before sending them back out to market.  There are a ton of other comical stories about carts not working in one or the other machine, which we’ll come back to in part two of this series.

In all, fewer than 30 games were made for cartridge in this period and fewer still were  exclusives. There were some epic adventures like  Ocean’s Shadow of The Beast that simply  wouldn’t have been as playable on tape, and impressive stuff like 3D Battle Command that took advantage of John Twiddy’s “look up table” theory to run way quicker than would otherwise have been possible. You wonder, too, what planned cart versions of the outstanding Last Ninja 3 would’ve been like had it – like almost every  other cart game – not been cancelled post Christmas 1990 (Ninja did appear, but on tape and disk).

Ocean carried on with games through to early ’92, and Commodore even bundled a C64c with a cart featuring Terminator 2 and some utilities (with a special CF inside the box too!), but the format was formally finished after Robocop 3. 

The GS circus completely derailed the C65 project, which was never released. Incredibly, Commodore went on to make a lot of the same mistakes again with the Amiga CD 32 console. The business was finished by Spring ’94 following a catalogue of other tone deaf errors, and would never replicate the success it had with the C64  We’ll leave the last word to Commodore UK’s managing director of the time, David Pleasance, speaking in Brian Bagnall’s excellent Commodore: The Final Years book: 

“It was a product I openly opposed. Why would Commodore go to the trouble of releasing a product in late 1990 only to release an improved product [the C65] a few months later? More importantly, what kind of consumer in 1990 would be interested in a system based on outdated C64 technology?”

A (SORT OF) HAPPY ENDING

The GS has an unexpected legacy, at least: new releases on the Commodore today often come on cartridge, like the recent epic platform smash Sam’s Journey. There are all sorts of qualifiers here, of course. This tech is now way more affordable to produce, and most C64 fans are of an age they can afford to shell out £20 for a cart. But when you see what’s possible, you realise it’s the thing that could’ve really pitted Commodore against the consoles. Forget the GS; it was a disaster nobody but Kelly Sumner wanted. But the C64 compatible carts themselves? We look at something like Sam and wonder what might’ve been. CF

  • Thank-you to Brian Bagnall, without whom we’d not have been able to piece together the C65 elements of this story. Read his excellent books. In part two, we’ll be looking at some of the best games to come from the GS era and busting a few myths about the machine and its carts.
  • We’re using #CFis30 on social media this month if you want to join in.