Commodore_Format_PowerPack_19_1992-04These days, Jeff Minter’s considered not just Commodore 64 but gaming royalty: such is his presence in the psyche of players of a certain age, he has a Twitter account which parodies his train journeys and Charlie Brooker gave him a small role in the Black Mirror interactive movie, Bandersnatch (missed him? He’s the tragic writer Jerome F. Davis).

Jeff was already called a legend back in 1992 when any games over about five years of age were “retro” and “classic”. In this month’s issue of Commodore Format, Neil Jackson and James Leach went to meet Jeff in his Welsh cottage. They describe seeing a house “like a ten-year-old’s bedroom, but with lots more money”: Amigas by the dozen, a stack of C64s and a “top secret project” he can’t talk about encased in a PC shell which would later turn out to be a development kit for the Atari Jaguar.

After early success on computers including the ZX-80, by 1982 Jeff managed to get hold of one of the first ’64s in the UK. It was so new, the computer was missing some of the hardware that would eventually make it the machine we know today. Minter set to work on his Commodore immediately, publishing games via Llamasoft – a company he’d set up with his Mum Hazel. “My games were crap, but not as crap as some of the stuff people were charging seven quid for”, remembers Jeff. “And [with my own company] I didn’t have to put up with dodgy geezers in Great Yarmouth”, he says – a nod to his experience of earlier ZX games being published by “crooks. I was making myself ill with the stress of it.”

Ten years on in 1992, Jeff celebrated a decade of C64 Attack of the Mutant Camels by allowing Commodore Format to publish it and a number of other games throughout the year. So, let’s start with the game Jeff himself likes to call AMC…

ATTACK OF THE MUTANT CAMELS

As we have a mooch around Jeff’s games over the coming instalments, we’ll keep coming back to a theme: the MinterMan gets his inspiration from literally anything around him, and it’s things like camels, llamas and sheep popping up in his games that make them so memorable.

Attack of the Mutant Camels is inspired by an ancient Atari VCS game of The Empire Strikes Back (“it was the age of the clone”, says Jeff). In it, there’s a procession of AT-AT Walkers that you have to shoot at. A review described the walkers as looking like “giant mechanical camels”, and Minter was tickled enough by that to do a better version on C64 with actual mutant camels.

There’s another tongue-in-cheek version of the story that says whenever Jeff was visiting Atari in California he’d listen to KMEL 106 FM. In 1982-ish it had this logo:

logo_Kmel 1982_minter

Finally, Jeff’s also said that camels are easy to draw. The game’s origins are probably a mix of all of the above (he’s probably taking the piss with the radio station thing, but it’s a good story,  eh? – Ed).

The game, then. Yes. The earth’s been taken over by these giant camels Jeff finds really easy to draw, see, and you climb into a spaceship to kill them off. There’s a scanner on the top of the screen directing you to the mutants: find one, and shoot.

You can only have one shot on screen at a time, and the camels shoot from their heads. That means the best tactic is to get behind the desert dwellers and, erm, shoot them in the arse. If you don’t clear all the camels in time and they reach the right of the screen, AMC ends. That does add a bit of excitement, but there isn’t too much variety save for the two kinds of shots the camels spew out (make sure the sound’s on; that’s the only way to tell what weapon has been launched at you!). There are nice touches, like the “loading” border flashing up when you die and regenerate. But  humour aside this one’s really a product of its time; a very, very early C64 outing from the days before the machine’s capabilities were really unlocked. Nonetheless, a big part of our favourite computer’s history and worth a load.

PACK FACT: Jeff loves little details. You can turn camel collision on or off on the front screen, and there are 31 (!) skill levels. Got a friend over? Hit F1 for two-player camel trashing.

SHEEP IN SPACE

Ah, sheep. Jeff loves sheep. Jeff talks a lot about sheep in his CF chat (“they’re amazing companions”) and to this day he keeps them, doing a live stream of their routine most days via Twitter. Here’s Jeff with his sheep last year (he’s the geezer on the right):

Jeff_Ivan_Jerry

It was inevitable, then, that the wooly ones would make an appearance in one of his games. Sheep In Space crashed to earth in 1984, borrowing gameplay from Defender and brilliantly – some might say frustratingly – making use of gravity fields.

You take control of a flying sheep in a space station. The station’s full of grass, trees, plants and even oceans. It’s a nice enough home for a space sheep, until some aliens predictably come along. Aye, you’ve guesed it: you have to whizz about left and right shooting at them to stop it before the planet is destroyed.

The main twist on Defender here is that the world exists on both the top and bottom of the screen. As you play, you’ll realise that the gravity effect will pull you to either the top or bottom of the playing area depending on where you fly your sprite. Where you are on the screen (and thus, the effect of gravity) also affects where your bullets fly.

There are loads of neat Minter touches again here, like being able to land your sheep and graze on grass for energy (you’ll know when to do that, as the screen flashes things like “peckish”. It’s actually called the “sheep hunger mechanic”). There’s also the ability to fly directly to a random enemy by pushing a key, which saves you chugging about. Sheep in Space has 48 levels to contend with, and it’s got a bit of a mixed rep in the C64 world: those who were there at the time seem to love it, but younger Commodore fans inevitably compare it to much slicker shooters from the ’90s. That’s unfair, because beneath the aesthetics is something worth getting to grips with here.

PACK FACT: The title screen features an arrangement of Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze by James Lisney, who’s now an international concert pianist! 

LIGHT DISK 64 / UDG SYSTEM 2

A change of pace now, then, and one of the more unusual things to pop up on a Power Pack. It’s a demo of the C64-mag-on-a-disk, Light Disk 64 (also variously known as Light Disk, Light and then by its final official name, Club Light).

It was edited by none other than CF‘s technical editor (and ex Commodore Disk User journo) Jason Finch and the late John Simpson, who occasionally popped up in CF writing techie stuff as “Bones”. The ‘zine had reviews, tips and features for the technically minded and was operated using a nice icon and pointer system.

Light Disk only lasted a few issues, because it ended up being limited to mail order only. Jason Finch told us more:

“We tried to get WHSmith interested in publishing it. We had a concept of mounting the disc on a funky iridescent bit of card and having it stacked with computer magazines in shops. WHSmith pretty much controlled the whole distribution network but the guy we went to meet in London was a bit of a Luddite, he just didn’t get the whole concept of computer magazines on a disc and basically shut the door on us. He’d asked his ten year old Grandson if he’d buy a magazine on a disc and this kid had said no so he thought it was a shit idea or something. Old business people who know more about old school things like books and magazines making decisions about technology is usually a bad plan, but when they involve their grandchildren, it’s just bonkers.”

“Not wanting to be kicked in the face John and I just decided to try to publish it ourselves. We used the same disc making company in Telford [Ablex] that CDU had used and made the first master disc, I drove it to Telford in my little VW Polo and waited through the night for the first ones to be produced.”

“Each month it was a major drama trying to get decent software submitted, put together the disc, John and I wrote a lot of stuff for it. We’d get the master, I’d drive from Leeds to Telford, wait, then drive them all the way to Norwich where John lived. We’d sit in his living room, with his wife Jenni and their nine cats, and put them all into envelopes, label them up, stick stamps on and send them out.”

“Looking back on it, I can’t quite believe we did it. It only ever went out to about 300 people and we didn’t make that many issues before we realised we just didn’t have a way to get more customers without spending a shed load on marketing. And we didn’t have a shed load. Eventually we just had to shut it down.”

You can’t do much with this demo except look at the nice presentation screens. That’s right – it’s a demo of a disk mag on a tape. There is one thing to access, though: the character set editor, UDG System 2. It lets you make fonts, background graphics, logos and all that kind of shizzle. It’s as accomplished as you’d expect from Jason, and worth hunting down in its own right.

PACK FACT: Jason is a lovely, lovely man and you can read loads more about his time with the C64 and CF here.

LD64

AQUA BLASTA

Here’s the second ever CF reader game, with editor Trenton Webb holding true to his promise this month of a more varied Power Pack: some classics, some utilities, and something made by People Like You.

Aqua Blasta is a Shoot ‘Em Up Construction Kit creation. Sensible Software’s 1987 game making utility was an instant, deserved hit on first release: ZZAP! 64 called it the “best package released on C64“. What it had which other utilities to date had lacked was a total freedom to make your own sprites, backgrounds, sounds and pretty much anything else you want very very easily: it’s actually possible to get a game up and running without reading many of the instructions, such is its intuitiveness. In the subsequent 30+ years bedroom coders have managed to push it beyond even spaceship shooting games, with clever tricks allowing single screen Smash TV type stuff and even basic platformers.

The thing is, though, most of the stuff we see from SEUCK is just basic pew-pew-pew sort of stuff. Spaceships, waves of aliens, etc etc. Aqua Blasta is prettier than most, but suffers from it being very hard to tell what is background and what you can actually crash in to. There’s some sharp moving required, as well, which is super hard given the game’s scrolling speed (you’re being relentlessly pushed along from behind). But, y’know. It’s a SEUCK game. It wasn’t intended as a thing to make commercial games on. This is just a bit of fun, and it pads out this month’s package pretty nicely. There’s a CF logo  at the end of the game if you reach it, by the way, amusingly slapped on at the last moment.

PACK FACT: CF made up its own storyline for this game, making it (probably) the only shoot ’em up to be set in Guildford.

SUMMING UP

This month’s tape all comes down to whether or not you like Minter stuff, really. Slowly, oh-so-slowly, we see Trenton pushing CF towards being more of a knowledge mag over the next year (what with there being fewer games to actually review), and this ish is a great example of an early attempt at that sort of thing. These games tie in to the mag’s content really nicely, and the whole package is a sort of history lesson for younger readers. You’re still thinking about the Sheep In Space guy being a concert pianist, aren’t you? CF

Advertisements