Commodore_Format_PowerPack_16b_1992-01To mix up our seasons, the little period around Christmas 1991 was the Commodore 64’s Indian summer, at least in the UK. We explored that a little bit last time, and the unexpected avalanche of 64 software really reached its peak here at issue 16 of CF. Three major games were mashed up on the front cover, with The Blues Brothers, WWF and The Simpsons headlining the best-selling Commodore Format ever. Almost 70,000 people shelled out their £2.95 to read about these games and more; a flick through its 90 pages and you’ll also find stuff on Robocop 3, a new twist on Space Invaders, six promised titles from US Gold and so many compilation releases to talk about that Neil West runs out of space.

It was on the Power Pack, though, that the two best games of the season awaited your datasette. The magazine was released on the same Thursday most schools broke up for the Christmas holidays, so it’s probably no coincidence that the demos of Creatures 2 and First Samurai are remembered with a particular affection: most kids probably picked up the mag on the way home from school or that weekend and played ’em to death to the backdrop of flickering tree lights and all the sounds and smells of a family Christmas (shouting and burnt veg then, eh? Just me? – Ed).

C2 and Samurai were joined by by a couple of forgotten Hewson classics in their entirety, and – blimey! – a second cassette contained a full utility called The Graphic Adventure Creator. Legend has it there are 40-somethings out there still trying to get the thing to OPEN DOOR even today…

CREATURES 2

This bespoke-for-CF sub game is the shortest and simplest thing on Power Pack 16 but it’s also the most memorable. The original Creatures had been one of 1991’s biggest games, with tape duplicators Ablex telling the programmers they’d only manufactured more copies of Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles that year. The straightforward left-to-right platform fun from Thalamus had a wicked twist: at the end of each stage came the famed Torture Screens in which hero Clyde Radcliffe had to save his fuzzy wuzzy chum from the grips of the earth-ridden slime before they met their death in grizzly, gloriously bloody fashion.

The agonisingly awaited sequel made these show-stopping screens its centrepiece, but they were linked together by a series of sub games. That’s what we’ve got a demo of here, and it’s Christmas themed in the most amazing way possible: it snows!

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The single screen level sees you in charge of two fuzzy wuzzies holding a trampoline outside a wooden hut cutely labelled “CF office”. From the top right, a green creature throws another fuzzy from a ledge. You’ve got to bounce the falling fuzzy from the right hand side of the screen to another ledge top left without missing a beat and avoid the lurking predator. Once one fuzzy’s catapulted back to safety, you’ve got to run back for another. If you misjudge where the trampoline should be, the fuzzy crashes to the surface. The deep red blood spurting and dissolving into the perfect white snow is the game’s iconic moment; it’s also the reason people used to lose a life just for the laugh of it. Well, that and the chance to have up to three fuzzies chaotically bouncing around the screen at the same time!

SNOW JOKE

So, then. That snow. Usually, weather conditions on the Commodore 64 are simulated pretty badly aren’t they? Horizontal streaks of pixel-ish white for “rain”, or a brief crash of white to depict lightning. But the snow here – and in the full game – is something else. It falls gently, and it falls at different speeds. It’s hypnotic, it’s beautiful, and it’s devilishly at odds with the darkness of what you’re playing.

“The effect came from the desire to create convincing snow on the C64”, says Andy Roberts, who worked with John and Steve Rowlands on the game. “Typically, snow was usually nothing more than single pixels falling down the screen (like a parallax starfield on its side). Such a technique is pretty simple, and involved just shifting the data within the character blocks to create the effect.”

Creatures 2, however, used a series of animations that Steve created (I think there are 3-4 different snowflakes/patterns, each with different speeds). John then wrote a routine to copy these animations into a vertical strip of character blocks, which is then plastered across the screen at random positions. It used a tonne of processing time and was admittedly a little frivolous, but the effort was worth it.”

Plenty of devs would’ve achieved “snow” by covering the level’s work parts in a bit of white, or perhaps adding some trees to the backdrop. Not John and Steve Rowlands, though: they made this Creatures 2 landscape come to life in spectacular festive fashion, and in a way that a new generation of 8-bit coders still marvel at today.

PACK FACT: There are BASIC and machine code versions of the snow code on Power Pack 40 if you want to get down and dirty with the specifics. It’s on the Techie Tips program.

FIRST SAMURAI

The yin to the Creatures 2 yang, this is probably the biggest demo Commodore Format ever featured on its cover tape. Whilst John and Steve Rowlands’ “cuddly” platformer played a brilliant trick in slowly revealing itself to be one of the most sinister and brutal games ever to grace the Commodore, First Samurai’s gamplay is – initially at least – utterly at odds with the shirtless, sword-wielding hero you take control of via port 2.

The setting is Eastern Asia. You’re a young Samurai. One day, a demon King arrives and razes your village to the ground (hate it when that happens – Ed). You’re the only one left, and with the help of a wizard you’re sent to the future with a magic sword to avenge the death of your master.

Now you might think that this is the cue for some relentless slashing, but this game is as thoughtful as the martial arts it’s inspired by: to progress, you need to regularly call on your spirit master to solve certain puzzles. For example, there’s a waterfall in this demo. To pass it, you need to find and collect four logs. Then, you ring a bell. Your guide will appear, placing the logs across the gushing water and allowing you to cross.

Upon loading this preview, you’re in the wilderness of your village. Cherry blossoms fall. You pass statues of Buddah. The skies aren’t the oh-so-familiar deathly black of so many 8-bit games. They’re a hazy purple, with trees native of Asia silhouetted in the background. Later in the game, the pace picks up. You navigate a speeding train before taking to the grotty backstreets of a Bangkok-style city and drop into the sewers. Finally, there’s a futuristic landscape which is pure Bladerunner. But this demo is more serene, and a beautifully calming and unique C64 experience.

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First Samurai was produced by Turkish gaming legend Mev Dinc’s Vivid Image, the company who created the development system for the C64GS console. Mev told us there’s a good reason the C64 version of Samurai is so polished: it was meant as an instant-load cartridge game with all the benefits the 512K circuit boards ‘n’ plastic could bring. “We were really good at doing fancy things technically”, says Mev. “A lot of hard work went into squeezing it all into the cartridge.”

“Now that you put me on the spot it’s difficult to remember clearly. Since we developed the cartridge mastering system and helped everyone else put their games on the cartridge, it would have been very easy for us to do the same for First Samurai. We must have produced a C64GS version but what might have happened is that it probably never got released since – as you say – it discontinued so quickly.”

“Commodore promised so much but delivered so little, there were many mistakes with the whole thing, compatibility with some games and the lack of decent software all helped its quick demise!”

Mev thinks the idea of the GS was good, and if more folk had taken Vivid Image’s lead and actually produced specific software for the machine the story might have been very different.

First Samurai on the Amiga was just a great game and, especially with the help of John Twiddy, Jon Williams and Mat Sneap did great work for us [on the C64 version]. The game was already very good and putting it on the cartridge just made it perfect!”

“As I said, unfortunately most other games were just put on the cartridge as they were with no improvements or added features!”

“For the C64GS to really succeed it was imperative to create games specially written for it and taking advantage of the cartridge. 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!”

First Samurai is one of the best examples of a C64 game really pushing the machine’s limits that so many old timers have missed out on. If you were busy playing Amiga or console by 1991/2, this should be near the top of your list to go and seek out. Cartridge or no, It’s A Corker.

PACK FACT: The game was heavily delayed when Robert Maxwell “fell off a boat” in late 1991. Publishers Imageworks went under when, erm, he did. Eventually, Vivid Image got the rights back and published via UBI Soft in late 1992.

HEAD THE BALL

This tough platformer is the first of two Hewson games on the tape that were originally released on a 1989 compilation called 4th Dimension. It’s an odd ‘un, that’s for true: your sprite is a bouncing ball called Head. Because Head stars in a computer game written in the ’80s, the poor chap has to go through the whole “girlfriend has been kidnapped” thing: in this case, her captors are the Globoid Hell’s Angels.

Before you reach your beloved, you’ve got to collect enough gems to trade with the Globoids for your lady. When you’re not perpetually bouncing under or over the baddies littering the space-themed backdrops, collecting shiny things is what you spend most of your time doing in Head The Ball. At least, that is until you throw your stick across the room in sheer frustration. Head The Ball is haaaard. You’re constantly bouncing, which makes the timing of your jumps pretty tough. You can kill your assailants instead, but – and get this – you only have ten basic “pew pew” style shots, two bombs and a single shield to start with. Once those are gone, unless you navigate to more, you’ve only got your wits and some suspect collision detection to protect you.

It’s good, though, is Head The Ball. Collecting stuff on your travels was relatively new to side scrollers at the time and it does force you off the beaten left-to-right track. The pin-point accuracy you need isn’t for everyone, but plenty will get a lot out of this good looking, great sounding wolf in sheep’s clothing. PACK FACT: There’s a little-known bonus section in this game, which is a shoot ’em up sort of thing. “Little-known” because so few people get that far!

MISSION IMPOSSIBUBBLE

The second offering from Hewson’s 4th Dimension compilation stars what at first looks like another disembodied head. In fact, it’s a bubble. In Mission Impossibubble you wander around an isometric, 3D-ish sort of maze. There are six of them, and at the end of each you’ll rescue a baby bubble that’s – yup – been kidnapped (there really was a lot of this in ’80s games, eh? Chilling– Ed). Before you can reach each bubble you have to collect individual pieces of a map that are thrown across every stage, forcing you to explore every corner of the code.

Each level has its own theme with baddies to match: there’s a spooky one, an arctic one, and you really have to check out level two even if it’s just by watching our video. It’s very clearly a love letter to Gremlin’s Bounder. Great stuff!

Mission Impossibubble is wonderful. Just as with the snow in Creatures 2 this month, it’s the details that make it: the static fuzz and screen shaking as you teleport, the hateful little looks your enemies give you, and the lightning which strikes down from clouds to try and kill you. Much was made at the time of its closeness to Hewson’s other maze game Mazemania, but with a tongue firmly planted in its cheek we think that Mission Impossibubble – right down to the cheeky title – edges it. A triumph.

PACK FACT: Commodore Format repeatedly refers to this game wrongly as Mission Impossabubble, even on the cassette label itself. It’s led to many years of amusing confusion in the murky world of Commodore 64 forums. Don’t tell them, eh?

THE GRAPHIC ADVENTURE CREATOR

Supported by the extra Christmas advertising and 75p on the cover price, this month’s Commodore Format had a second cassette featuring a game creator that was actually still being flogged at retail for a tenner. Barg!

1985’S Graphic Adventure Creator let you forget about all the techie stuff and instead concentrate on the killer plot of your text adventure game. If you’re a veteran 64-ster, you might remember something similar from ’83 called The Quill. GAC beats it with a more advanced parser (the bit that lets the computer understand what you want to do, like GET THE LAMP AND LIGHT IT) and – as the title suggests – the ability to bring your words to life with some fancy graphics.

Pretty much every text adventure game that appeared on subsequent Power Packs was made using this surprisingly powerful tool, and if you want to have a fiddle you really should have a look at CF16 for a more-useful-than-the-actual-manual feature on creating amazing stories for the Commodore 64 by the game’s original publisher, Ian Andrew.

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PACK FACT:  ZZAP! 64 went reaaaallly deep into this one in its Gold Medal review – which also reveals it was £25 on first release!

SUMMING UP

This is about as good as the tapes got, y’know. Future Publishing always said the Power Packs weren’t free, but part of the overall Commodore Format package. These two chunks of plastic are absolutely what made ish 16 the biggest selling CF ever, but they have a legacy, too. Even today, text adventures are appearing that were made in GAC. And that snow. That snow! A must every December in any sensible C64 household. CF

 

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