The October 1991 issue of CF was the magazine’s first anniversary, and in that crucial twelve months the C64 had seen a dramatic – if not exactly unexpected – turn in its fortunes. The first few issues had seen one hundred pages packed with games from big hitters like Activision, Hewson and Domark. Month by month, though, we saw the last C64 releases from each of these iconic publishers and by issue 13 Commodore Format was averaging 66 pages every outing. 16-bit consoles like the SNES – by now available in Japan and North America and with a UK release just six months away – were turning the heads of punters and developers alike. Gamers wanted those Mode 7 graphics; softies were salivating at the forty quid a pop they could ask for a Nintendo cart.

JUST HOLD ON ONE MINUTE

This superficial outer layer doesn’t tell the whole story by a long shot, though: Commodore Format was about to register its best circulation figures ever, with over 60,000 people prepared to pony up for a monthly dose of Commodore news. C64 games were still dominating the all-formats chart, too, regularly placing above stuff on the NES, ST and Megadrive. More crucially, a handful of really important publishers were still on board. The likes of Ocean, US Gold, System 3 and budget kings Codemasters were all gearing up for a Commodore Christmas all to themselves. So we’ll see some blinding demos of some of the best ever games for the machine in the next few Power Packs, starting this time out. First, though, a couple of real barnstormers in their entirety!

SUNBURST

SunBurst was originally put out on Hewson’s budgie (cheep cheep – Ed) label Rack-It at Christmas 1987. It’s a multi-directional space shooter and it was on the shelves for a penny short of two quid. It was coded by John Phillips, whom you probably know better for C64 Nebulus.

Each level is a different sort of planet, or “system”, with the first being a sort of bubble-like alien environment. In control of your triangular ship, it’s your job to blast the extra-terrestrial inhabitants. They leave behind energy pods; once you’ve collected enough, you’re guided to the sun. Instead of an agonising and toasty death, for whatever reason that’s where you hop to the next, more difficult, level. The enemies – spinners, phantoms, octopods to name a few – deplete your own energy on touch or if they manage to shoot you. Lose all of it, and it’s game over.

 SunBurst is a really good-looking game, particularly when the alien terrain scrolls into view. It’s nice, too, to be able to blast in more than one direction (a feature which was even more unusual back in ’88). It’s limited, though, as so many of these mid-life C64 budget games were. Two minutes to pick up, ten minutes to put down style of thing. If this genre’s your thing, mind, you’ll probably find some value here. PACK FACT: The original game had an Asteroids sort of thing on the loader, which – whisper it – was about as engaging as the game that eventually loaded up.

HACKER II – THE DOOMSDAY PAPERS

What a scoop! Activision’s 1986 strategy puzzler has unusual depth for the time and has that rare ability of being able to really, really draw you in to another world. You care about what you’re doing here, and you can get real anxiety pangs as you tap your leg hoping to achieve your tasks in time. In the US, Compute! mag said they didn’t recommend The Doomsday Papers for anybody with a weak heart.

The only problem, really, was for younger gamers: over on Lemon 64, one comment sums it up pretty well: with no platforms to jump on or aliens to blast at, “I just didn’t know what to do”. Well, in middle-age, let’s go and figure that out eh?

NOT SURE WE’LL GET AWAY WITH THIS IN 200 WORDS, FANS

After your exploits in the first Hacker game, you’ve now got a reputation as somebody who’s very very good at That Kind of Thing. The CIA get in touch, believing they have a mission only you are capable of. Yep – from your 1991 bedroom in Doncaster or wherever, you’ve got to retrieve the secret Doomsday Papers from a Siberian government vault. The papers contain plans on bringing down capitalism in the West and expanding communism (this one played well with US audiences – Ed), and played on genuine fears of the time.

To complete your mission, you’ve got to defeat a complex system of security cameras and personnel. You start the game with a gadget that lets you control four cameras inside the government building. You’re also in control of four MRU’s (“mobile remote units”, robot sort of things) that you eventually whizz about to a series of cabinets that control the papers. There is all sorts to contend with: security guards, the in-house alarm system, and tricking the guards by cleverly playing old videotape of an empty room when in fact you’re in their stealing stuff. If you didn’t understand it as a kid, its nuance and depth will delight you now. And if you beat it 25 years ago, there’s probably still more to find on revisiting this unique piece of sofware today. PACK FACT: The original game came with a manual inside an envelope designed to look like official government documents.

 

TURBOCHARGE 

So. What we were saying up there about the Commodore 64 still being very much alive-alive-o. This month’s cover, exclusive review and headline tape demo was of a ground-breaking, super-fast racer that System 3 were only making available for the Bread Bin. TurboCharge was inspired by the driving bits in the 1989 Systie game (we’re never calling them that again – Ed) Vendetta. Load it up and have a play. Red car look familiar? Mmhmm.

Anyway. At the start of Turbocharge, terrorists have broken into a UN ammo stockpile and stolen enough missiles to wipe a small country off the face of the earth. It’s up to you, as Agents Agaippa and Drusus, to chase after the haul and reclaim it. Mines, armoured cars and swooping enemy choppers all get in your way at breakneck speed here and the mix of driving and shooting is made all the more frantic by a clever optical illusion. The car in Turbocharge never actually moves: it’s the road you control. The speeds which are thus achieved, and the ability to have forks in the highway, are a technical achievement that has never been bested. The slick presentation, including an astounding introduction sequence which is present in this level 1 demo, was System 3 and the Commodore at its best. This is what C64 Chase HQ should’ve been – beautiful stuff. PACK FACT: Turbocharge is often cited as Chris Butler’s last C64 game. In fact, somewhat under the radar, he sneaked out personal project Arnie in 1992.

ROLLING RONNY

This level one demo of the German coded, Virgin-released platformer showcases a cute game that’s very close to C64 ’90s kid’s hearts yet was criminally under-rated by a bad tempered Stuart Campbell in Commodore Format.

You’re cast as the hero of the title, a delivery boy in the fictitious town of Fieldington who secretly works for Scotland Yard on the side. When the town’s crown jewels are stolen and scattered across town by the careless robbers, Ron’s the obvious one to call. It’s at this point you’re plummeted into the first demo. At first glance, it’s straightforward left-to-right stuff. Sure, you’re wandering the levels in search of the treasure but you also need to earn enough money for your bus fare to get to the next stage. This is where the errand boy stuff comes in: as you dodge cars and the mutated animals of Fieldington (in a surreal plot twist, the local magic circle turned everything fluffy a bit demented), you’ll meet some of the town’s inhabitants. By doing them a favour – for example delivering a package – you’ll get coins. Pocket enough, and in the full game you can level up.

Rolling Ronny is good-natured, colourful and very quirky fun. Lots of stuff doesn’t add up – like the revolving dog heads or why every third pedestrian looks a wee bit Victorian – but that’s part of its charm. Readers report to us that they remember playing this demo over and over, and it’s easy to see why its clear goals, difficulty level and great graphics would appeal to a C64 gamers whose average age –according to CF research – was now around 13.

What anybody playing the demo alone couldn’t know is what actually killed it in Britain: Virgin released the game under license in the UK and botched the conversion from its native disk to Brit-friendly tape very badly. A horrendous multi-load ruins the experience and accounts for CF’s review – but that isn’t the fault of the German team who made it as a disk game. In Europe, Ronny fared well: and as the years have gone by, using emulators and discovering the disk version themselves, UK C64-ers have made this game a (very) slow burning hit. Ronny is now seen as a bit of an ignored classic.

We spoke to the guys behind the game last year for our Making Of, and programmer Mario sums it all up rather well: “once you accept that Ronny will neither contest for a game design award, nor for a spot in the eternal C64 top 10, you can start enjoying what actually is there: A laid-back jump’n’run with a well playable character, plenty of beautiful animations in long levels, with really nice fitting music. I am very grateful about the long-term reactions.”

 

SUMMING UP

One of the greats, this. If you’re to look back on games history without context you might ignore the C64 entirely in Autumn ’91, and even at the time it’s tragically fair to say many people did. But this tape reveals a machine that was only just realising its full techie potential (Seriously, just look at TurboCharge!) The depth on offer here, too – driving, blasting, strategy and platforming – was entertainment for many months. CF

 

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