In part two of our three-parter about Commodore’s attempt at a C64 console, we go beyond the comedy of the failed system itself and discover that, actually, it had some […]
In part two of our three-parter about Commodore’s attempt at a C64 console, we go beyond the comedy of the failed system itself and discover that, actually, it had some really good games. Here’s what to hunt down.
Last time on CF, we dug deep into the history of Commodore’s 1990 attempt at turning the C64 into a console (TL;DR? The European arm of the business, egged on primarily by Commodore UK’s Kelly Sumner, wanted to get a slice of the 8-bit console market and kill the C64’s reliance on cassette in Britain. The C64 Games System – or GS – was a keyboardless Commodore that used cartridges which were also compatible with standard C64s).
The European venture was a glorious and entirely predictable disaster, but behind those enjoyable pub stories are a handful of exceptional games and one enormously dedicated publisher. Before we get to the GS carts you need to be tracking down, though, let’s wind back again to Autumn 1990.
That year’s Computer Entertainment Show – September’s CES ’90 at London’s Earl’s Court – saw Commodore in bullish mood. It had spent six figures on its stand, with banks of Amigas and C64s available to play. The press hype had been around Commodore Dynamic Total Vision (CDTV) but the flopped multimedia unit was only available to look at, not touch (some journalists suspected it was an empty prototype). Focus was on refreshed packages for the C64, Amiga and the new GS console:
On the second day of the event, bleary eyed journos were shoveled inside a conference room at the nearby Ramada Inn. The 9am presentation was a stark contrast to the glamour of Commodore’s public stand at the event (one ZZAP! journalist said the rows of chairs and white board made it a bit like a school assembly) and some wry onlookers drew parallels between this public and private display and the way the business operated. Was Commodore all talk and no trousers? UK sales manager Kelly Sumner didn’t think so. He hyped up the C64, saying its popularity “never stopped amazing us”. He reckoned the machine had sold 140,000 units in the last year (he told Commodore Format issue 1 in the same month it was 206,000), and that demand for Amigas was so huge the company couldn’t keep up with demand for firm orders. The panel openly mocked CES no-shows Atari, whom it was trouncing in the 16-bit war, and then shifted to the GS. It expected to sell 80,000 consoles in the coming year. Questions about how long the C64 had left were met with gentle laughter and a clearly managed answer of “two years…in its current form”. Kelly Sumner was deliberately vague about a “future development” for the Commodore, which was almost certainly the abandoned C64 compatible C65 (part one has more on that – Ed).
Before announcing what everybody really wanted to know – what games will this new console have? – there was a surprise. An agreement had been reached with high street chain Dixons to stock GS carts. This was to be the first time in some years that any kind of C64 software was available in the hugely influential electronics retailer, which didn’t like stocking easily pirated games and had leaned towards Nintendo and Sega products. Crucially, GS games could now be sold at a premium in-store as “extras” when the machine was purchased. The planned price for these games was £20 to £25, dropping to £15 after Christmas.
Pleased with itself, Commodore began handing out a prepared list of carts that would be available on C64 GS for December. It’s fascinating reading, and it shows the extent to which Commodore had attempted to strong-arm publishers into the deal at short notice. There’s Titus, for example, promising Dick Tracy (aha! – Ed) and Crazy Cars II, and Thalamus saying it’ll release its back catalogue “in pairs”. Anco planned Kick Off and Turrican 2, and Epyx said there’d be a special compilation of its Winter/Summer Games back catalogue. None of these ever saw the light of day. Crucially, and this goes back to what Mev Dinc told us last time, these were all going to be straight ports of cassette games making zero use of the new technology. But in such a short space of time – the machine was announced mere weeks earlier – what were publishers supposed to do? Questions about this and the lack of a “wow” title irked Commodore, and eyebrows were also raised at one of the GS consoles that had set up for journalists to play on. The game was Ocean’s Batman. It was almost a year old and had been ported over from cassette. It still had prompts asking you to rewind or press play on the tape (“I’ve never seen that message before”, a Commodore rep was overheard saying by ZZAP!). The game was already available on tape for £3.99 as a budget re-release, but marked on cartridge at £19.99. Where were the games that showed off what the system could do and justify twenty notes?
At least two publishers had some very convincing answers, and one of them delivered. Here’s CF‘s guide to the people who tried to make the GS work, and whose games are underplayed and underappreciated decades later.
That early misstep with Batman aside, the Manchester publishers were the C64 GS’s biggest supporters, releasing games on the cart format for C64 users for two years after the console was discontinued. At launch, Ocean’s David Ward explained to the press why they were going so hard:
“Cartridges have been around as long as tape or disk for C64. But the fact is, going back to 1983 and International Soccer, chip memory was so expensive that carts weren’t an option. Now, we can manufacture 2 megabit games – that’s a healthy 256K – and still get them to market for under £20.”
Ocean were also on message with Commodore’s loathing of cassette. Privately, they were delighted that the C64 appeared to be moving towards a piracy proof medium. Publicly, it was all about fun:
“Nowadays, we don’t just want to load 64K. We’re designing multi level games where each one takes up 64K, so you need multiple loads. The data loading process can’t handle modern games. Disk drives are a solution but in this country less than 10% of people have them.”
Ocean’s software development manager Gary Bracey explained that kids were getting much more than instant loading for the extra spend:
“Remember that the data is compressed. So you’re actually getting more than 256K of information. Games can be more sophisticated. We can go overboard with presentation, loading screens, detailed backgrounds, bigger sprites, more sound. In some cases it makes the difference between being able to produce a game for C64 or not. A good example is Shadow of The Beast.”
Psygnosis designed the technically stunning Beast for the Amiga with the aim of making heads turn in disbelief when punters saw it running in a shop window. The C64/C64 GS cart recreates the fantasy platform and bash ’em up adventure in full, with enormous demons swooping down on you and shuddering from the ground to block your progress; level one is worth hanging around on just to drink in the grim atmosphere as one of the most beautiful chip tunes you’ll ever hear slowly pulls up notch by notch as the wave of enemies intensify. Thump, thump, thump: it beats to your footsteps, it shivers your spine. Everything is parallax and about twice as big as you see in other games; it’s one of the most aesthetically staggering adventures you’ll ever have on an 8-bit machine even if it’s famously difficult to play. Sure, Shadow Of The Beast did rock up on cassette for the Spectrum – but crippled, chopped up into pieces and lacking its heartbeat. Ocean proved their point right out of the gate.
Also in that first wave of carts was Chase HQ sequel Special Criminal Investigation, which went heavy on intermission screens and presentation but also took advantage of the GS’s three button joystick. One button was your gun, the other was a car speed boost (on a regular C64, you whacked the space bar). Navy Seals was an adaptation of the 1990 Charlie Sheen movie featuring cut scenes, level maps and extra detail that would’ve spelled multi load hell on tape or disk (indeed, load up a disk hack of it today and see how often the intro stops as it has to whirr more data into your machine in jagged, frustrating pieces). By far Ocean’s most impressive cart game came in late 1991, way after the GS had been dumped. Battle Command is probably the only game of the era that really used cartridge in the way that was envisaged by John Twiddy (see part one), pulling data off the cart when needed to create the fastest 3D action you’ll ever see on C64. You chase other tanks around trying to blow them up, in essence, but you certainly wouldn’t be able to do it on cassette. This very late cartridge is a little-known peek at what was really possible. You owe it to yourself to have a look.
Pretty much every Ocean game from late 1990 onwards rocked up on C64 via cart. An agreement that Ocean had with Nintendo, strangely enough, meant that stuff like Hook and The Addams Family was still on cassette and disk (in order to get the license to make these same titles for Nintendo, Ocean had to agree that the NES/SNES versions would be the only ones they produced on cart in Britain), but the Manc lads really went to town with the Commodore carts. Every release came in a big box and a branded Ocean bag; often, there was a t-shirt or poster. For a little while at least, Ocean did what Commodore couldn’t: they made the machine feel premium again.
The Systie’s outspoken head Mark Cale was an early supporter of the GS, giving Commodore the awesome platformer Flimbo’s Quest to bundle with the machine. He told Commodore User that they’d “always pushed the boundaries of the Commodore 64 since 1983. We’re going to do something special for owners of this new console and C64 owners alike.”
The first release was a straight offering of Myth, a fantastic fantasy platformer released earlier that year on cassette but offering nothing extra beyond a title screen and instant access. C64 computer owners also had to load the cart in a convoluted manner (see image below), which confused a lot of kids who thought they’d got a duff copy. Not exactly a “special” start.
Its second cartridge seemed more impressive. You’ll remember John Twiddy from part one of this feature (he’s the guy who made the development kit for software publishers to get the most out of what the GS could do). John envisaged extra presentation, more music, more impressive graphical tricks and an all-round slicker offering than could be made on tape. For System 3, he put his money where his mouth was and tarted up his legendary 1988 slash ’em up Last Ninja 2. At the time, Mark Cale explained the deal:
“We wanted to do something for people who weren’t around when the cassette versions of our games were released, and we can do something on a par with consoles now – we can show off the software as it was always intended. The Last Ninja Remix has exciting and technically brilliant intros, which weren’t possible before. We’ve improved the graphics and animation, there’s a bigger playing area – and new sound through the seventeen levels.”
Sadly, when the console system’s awful Christmas sales were revealed further cartridges from System 3 were abandoned and everything switched back to cassette and disk. That included a tape version of Ninja Remix (so much for “impossible”). What appears to be a review cartridge of Last Ninja 3 did get as far as the mags, which Your Commodore promptly had a seizure over and awarded 100%. It only reached the public in tape and disk form, as did the super exciting Turbocharge (that one even has cartridge loading instructions in the manual). They’re both exceptional games, with Turbocharge‘s handling of roads particularly impressive (look closely and you’ll see that to achieve the effect you control the road, not the car). Yet both were also clearly designed with cartridge in mind and could’ve been even more fun, which makes System 3 the GS’s most tragic casualty.
As soon as the GS appeared, Domark were releasing carts for it. Thing is, the games were also available on cassette in exactly the same form for literally half the price: this was Mev Dinc’s “fast buck” theory from part one in action. Super Sprint clone Badlands, Tengen arcade convo Cyberball (cyborg American footy) and tank blaster Vindicators are pretty rare because nobody really bought them on cart in the first place. A fine example of a big factor in the GS’s failure.
Spain’s Dinamic released at least five cartridges, four of which cause collectors to get a bit angsty. They’re super, super rare. Narco Police is the best-known and most widely available ‘cos it got an official UK outing, and it’s a pretty refreshing blaster. Set in 2003, it’s a 3D arcade adventure with a grim interpretation of the 21st century: in Narco, everyone’s a drug addict. You’re part of a team leading an assault on an island that’s being used by a manufacturing operation. The task? Shoot everyone in the face, of course. There’s mind and muscle involved to the violence, with both shooting and the tactical dispatch of your squad to play about with. It runs pretty slow during the 3D bits, but there’s more depth here than in your average Commodore outing. That said, it was still out on tape and disk.
The other other four carts from Spain we’ve been able to verify are the post nuclear war beat ’em up After The War (first available in 1989 on tape and disk), overhead bike racer Aspar GP Master, left-to-right shooter Astromarine Corps (both also from ’89) and the not bad fantasy bash ’em up/platformer Satan (reviewed on tape in Commodore Format 1, scoring 78%).
With only Narco Police getting a proper UK release and the others dribbling in via mail order, this lot now change hands for silly money.
THE DISC COMPANY
The Disc Company released three compilation cartridges in time for Christmas 1990. PowerPlay included the best footie game on C64, Microprose Soccer. It lacks the six-a-side option for some reason, but the famous driving rain, the banana shots, the black and white action replays with the beautiful rewind effects are all there. Then there’s Geoff Crammond’s 3D racing masterpiece Stunt Car Racer, and slick platformer Rick Dangerous 2. If you didn’t have these games, instant access for £24 wasn’t a bad deal – which is more than you can say for their next cart FunPlay. It was three Codemasters budget titles: Pro Tennis Simulator, Pro Skateboard Simulator and PacMan derivative Fast Food Dizzy. All were available on tape at the time for £2.99 a piece…or here on this cart for £24.99. Crazy. Finally, there’s a lesser known Disc Company release of all six games in one box for an even higher price. Flip.
The cart that came with the GS was made available separately with a bundle that included the joystick so regular C64 folk could, in theory, take part in the new wave of games that would use multiple fire buttons. Like all sticks the ’64 came with, though, the Cheetah wasn’t well-received by everyone. Fortunately, the games were decent. Fiendish Freddy’s Big Top O’ Fun had been a frustrating and stilted (oh, get out – Ed) experience until cartridge offered immediate access to this series of unique sub games. The huge sprites convey a genuine and all too rare dose of C64 humour: you can watch your trapeze artist fall flat on his face, the divers miss their water or a juggler catch a bomb instead of a ball. The animation is really great and minus the tedious loading times Freddy became both fun and the biggest benefactor of any of the “old” games to hit the GS.
The other stuff here is a laugh too. International Soccer is the same International Soccer from 1983, and it looks it. Still fun, though. Then there’s Domark’s puzzler Klax which is a cross between Connect 4 and Tetris, and that System 3 platformer we mentioned earlier called Flimbo’s Quest which is gorgeous. All for £24.95. Good stuff, and actually more common these days than the console itself.
SO THERE YOU HAVE IT
This isn’t an exhaustive look at every publisher on the GS. As the years tick by more oddities, bootlegs and relative unknowns from this ’90-92 period turn up, like Disney’s Duck Tales: The Quest For Gold. It isn’t entirely clear whether the cart – originally a disk release in the US – is legit, but the crew at Lemon 64 had a good go at unpacking the story some years ago.
Duck Tales – whether a bootleg or prototype or whatever else -definitely exists, but numerous other rumoured treasures like an Ocean version of Lemmings for the GS do not. Sadly, many a Wiki page or YouTube video has lifted rumour and exaggeration from magazines of the ’90s, and much of it gets repeated enough times to become “fact”. The ambiguity of the Commodore 64 Games System is partly what makes it such a fun and appealing topic, though, and the machine will probably carry on surprising us for many years to come – especially with what may be out there beyond the UK. Lofts will be emptied, new treasures inherited or unearthed. When they are, we’ll be here to report on them. Next time, we’ll unpack five of the best games for the GS in more detail. Cheers for reading. CF
- Thanks to Mayhem, Steve Jarratt, Mev Dinc, John Twiddy, Andy Roberts, Frank Gasking and Andrew Fisher for their help with this long read. Remember part one!