Commodore_Format_PowerPack_25a_1992-10

October 1992. It’s Commodore Format‘s second birthday! In the mag’s subscriber newsletter editor Trenton Webb reveals that the Bath-based C64 bible is more popular than ever, with 60,045 fans buying a copy every month. 60K readers at £2.50 a time, twelve times  a year, and that’s before the ad revenue 😮 Little wonder Future were still big fans of the Commodore themselves.

To mark the occasion, there were two tapes attached to the front of issue 25 (that’s why nearly all the copies on eBay are ripped and bent to hell). As well as the regular Power Pack, there was a full art package called Saracen Paint. It had only been reviewed eight months ago (a 90% Corker no less) and had been retailing for twelve quid. What a scoop! We’ll get to that epic barg and its legacy in C64 world soon. First, though, a Gremlin sports sim’ and a couple of cracking demos on the main tape. Strap in!

HAGAR THE HORRIBLE

Vikings are a brilliant thing to put into a computer game. Why weren’t there more on the C64? In the ’90s the most viking-y outing for the Commodore – ­Spike In Transylvania – cheekily borrowed the look of its main sprite from the cartoon series Hagar The Horrible. Less well known is that around the same time, there was a Hagar game for real. CF25 had the huge first level to try out for free this month, but to set the scene before we have a look here’s how Kingsoft press released it at the time:

“The world’s favourite Viking is ready to storm your computer screen …Help Hagar eat, fight and drink his way around the globe in search of loot – oh, and don’t forget to make sure he brings back enough souvenirs for his wife, Helga, or he won’t get his supper! Join Hagar and his friends in this action-packed platform adventure, you’re guaranteed to have fun!”

Inspired by 16-bit console game design, the first thing you do is push a viking ship around a map to choose your level. The first stage drops you into a land of blue skies, greenery and topless mermaids for some reason (gloriously, the C64’s hulking great pixels do a better job of obscuring the mermaid sprites than any deliberate attempt ever could). The game scrolls in every direction and unlike loads of other platformers of the time you always have access to the whole level – it isn’t gone forever once it scrolls off the screen. That means you find yourself dashing to one area to find a key which opens a door in another, or plotting a convoluted route to a gem for Helga.

One of the coolest things about playing Hagar is the range of ways that you can despatch the enemies patrolling the game’s platforms (knights, barbarians and angry crows which make as much sense as the mermaids). You have so many weapons to choose from, there’s a rare chance to use the C64’s Function buttons. Spears, axes, knives and fire work differently to your standard sword and are more effective on certain enemies. If you run low, you can trade points to get more in the neat in-level shop.

It’s a nice touch, and so are the transporters that immediately and impressively wang you to another part of the stage. In a game this big, it’s very useful.

Hagar isn’t perfect. There are plenty of leaps of faith, and it’s possible to fall down a pit that you can’t get out of. The problem is that you’ve got total control leaping up, but when you start to fall you just plummet down in a straight line. Some levels also feel a bit empty – a downside to the size of the game’s eight levels – and the system to select a weapon is a neat idea poorly executed.

All of this means Hagar is a bit of a divisive adventure. Commodore Format scored it at 82%, marking it up for the size and modern ideas but noting that the combat “has a strange taste”. Over in the game’s native Germany, Hagar was panned across the board. 64-ER gave it 3/10 (“in the comics, he doesn’t deserve the name Horrible. The game delivers a sharp reversion of this fact, and it can only be recommended to hard core fans of the cartoon”).

In the end, Kingsoft’s European distribution agreement with DMI fell through and the game was never released outside Germany. Recently, programmer Rasmus Wernerrson released the previously unseen English version of the game and everything else he had too, so you can decide for yourself here. For what it’s worth, we like it.

PACK FACT: Our viking chum has a history of 8-bit no shows. A Spectrum version of this game wasn’t ever released, and going back to 1985 a fascinating deal between London’s Thames TV and DK’Tronics also promised a Hagar game we never got to see. You can read about that here, and weep for the similarly abandoned Rainbow game!

JOHN LOWE’S ULTIMATE DARTS

This month’s full game came direct from author Mike Partington, whose three year contract with publishers Gremlin had come to an end: “I wanted it to get some good distribution in its old age!”.

The game has the standard C64 darts “floating cursor” mechanic where you wait for it to be in the right sort of area before hitting fire to throw, accurately emulating the beer goggles most  people have on when they play darts. There are some neat features like a save option and a variety of tournaments and skill levels. Most interesting, though, is the “real” mode which pits you and your real dartboard against the skills of some of the world’s top players like Bristow or Lowe. You actually throw the darts in real life, input your scores and the computer then simulates what your opponent would do. Here’s Mike again talking about that unique feature’s origins:

“Between 1985 and 1987 I was studying Electronic Engineering at College. As a hobby I’d dabble in writing programs for the C64. I also played darts in the local pub with my mates. At the time you only had digital electronic LED scoreboard facilities. These were simple machines that helped you count down from the usual 501 Dart games. My original intention was to build a Visual Darts Machine for pubs and clubs to help someone practice playing darts and give them computer simulated opponents to play against.”
Eventually Mike realised he’d accidentally made a really good darts utility (happens all the time – Ed). After sucking up the feedback from publishers and turning down the chance to have his novel program as the B-side to a dart sim’, the savvy started adding arcade features and competitions to his own code. He called it Game On. A few twists and turns later, Mike signed with Gremlin Graphics who wanted to put it out as part of their Ultimate series.

“John Lowe was asked to endorse the game – he was World Champion in 1979 and 1987 (and later won it again in 1993). This was a professional utility as well as a darts game so getting John was a fantastic achievement and set the theme for what this program was all about. Unfortunately, I became quite ill and was unable to work on the project for nearly six months. I couldn’t help Wise Owl do the [Amiga and ST] conversions or finish work on my own game, so it was was delayed until November 1989.”

The delays meant some of the features intended for the finished game like speech aren’t included, and a Ben Dalglish soundtrack which had been composed and made it into the 16-bit versions isn’t here either. But the variants on the game, including modes loosely based on football and cricket, as well as the “real” mode make this novel approach worth a look.

PACK FACT: If you’d like to see how Game On differs from the finished John Lowe, Games That Weren’t have the download and more on the game here. There’s also loads from Mike and a fascinating design document here.

johnlowedarts
The footie and cricket games add some variety and novelty, but what really makes John Lowe’s Ultimate Darts is the “real” mode. PHOTO CREDIT: Stadium 64

SLICKS

There’s a two-decade-old rumour that Codemasters’ top down racer Slicks is somehow related to their console triumph Micro Machines. Depending on the story you are told, one supposedly inspired the other. We’ve even seen it suggested that the games share bits of code or that Slicks was originally going to be C64 Micro Machines. As far as we can tell, though, this is just internet Chinese whispers. Certainly the programmer remembers no connection at all. Micro Machines arrived in 1991, and what is quite likely true is that Codies commissioned a cheapy C64 game inspired by it – intentionally or otherwise – in 1992. Slicks’ similar two-player mode would point to it. They’re a little alike, and that’s probably all there is to it.

It’s a bit of a bummer that this dominates discussion of the game, ‘cos it is ace in its own right. What we’ve got here is a demo of the game’s first track. It’s simple enough: tiny car sprites belt around a smoothly scrolling race track, whose layouts and graphics are neatly inspired by the Grand Prix’ season of 1990. The tight bends and high speeds can make this tricky, ‘cos a wrong move of the stick can send you smashing into a wall or another driver.

The first thing you’ve got to do is qualify for a race by smacking your foot down and getting around the track in the fastest time. Then it’s onto the race, and a neat twist in the full game: any of the other drivers can challenge you. If you beat them, you get their car for the rest of the season. Fun, unless anyone with a worse car challenges you. Jody, as the CF review points out, is the worst for this. If she wins, she’s got your motor for the season and you get her clapped-out wheels.

The controls are all really straightforward. It’s fire to accelerate and then the stick to move the car. The bends can be a bit hairy, but once you get used to the tracks you will notice shortcuts like grass and carparks to shave seconds off your time.

All of which is fun, but can be beaten in a day. It’s Slicks’ engaging two-player mode where you’ll find the longevity here. Social gaming before the era of social gaming, with the added bonus of being able to smack your mate if he cheats.

PACK FACT At the risk of pouring fuel on the Slicks/Micro Machines urban myth, Slicks coders Ash and Dave did go on to convert Micro Machines 1 and 2 for the Game Gear.

CLUB LIGHT

To finish off this month’s first tape, a demo of the Light Disk 64 rebrand Club Light. Commodore Format tech ed Jason Finch had tried hard to get his disk magazine into WHSmith by mounting it on cardboard but the high street newsagent’s doddery buyers didn’t think its customers would want it: instead, it became available by mail order. And the name change? Jason says it was to reflect the product’s clubby “everyone helps everyone feel”. Anyway, there’s loads on this from Jason – who’s a top, top man – here.

SARACEN PAINT (EXTRA TAPE!)

When we think of the countries that really took the Commodore 64 and held it tight to the bitter (commercial) end, everybody usually ends up talking about Germany and the UK – but the Italians had an intense relationship with the Bread Bin too. A lack of decent distribution and the pre broadband world stopped most of us seeing what the country had to offer back in the ’90s, but you probably remember seeing some of the stuff from Idea Software. They were based in northern Casciago, not too far from Milan. In the early ’90s they sent Britain F1 GP Circuits (not bad) and a platformer based on the Italian cartoon Lupo Alberto (should have resulted in jail time).

saracen paint review
Sometimes magazines would big up covertape software that they knew wasn’t actually very good. But no such probs with Saracen Paint: CF had loved it, at full price, just months before they gave it away. Here’s the review from ish 17.

At New Year Commodore Format reviewed their art package Saracen Paint, scoring it highly and enthusing over its modern Windows-ish look and ease of use. When Idea couldn’t get wide distribution in the UK as the C64 declined, they sold the UK rights to Future Publishing and CF. Self contained on a second cover mounted cassette and with an optional manual if you wanted to send off for it, Saracen’s Commodore Format appearance has quite the legacy. It’s been used for tons of homebrew games in the decades since. We spoke to one of its fans, programmer Jon Wells, when we heard he’d used it for the title screen of the adventure Sceptre of Baghdad:

“Yes, not only did I use it for the title screen, I also used it for all the in-game bit-mapped background graphics as well. I coded a screen grab program so I could grab any area of a bitmap image, then coded an editor which allowed me to plot the bitmap chunks to the screen. This allowed me to create each screen of Sceptre using a small number of bytes.”

“I also recall using Saracen Paint on several other titles I completed or was doing at the time, like City Bomber, Treasure Isle (Title screen and in-game graphics), Astromine, and 10th Dan.”

“The reason I liked it so much was due to the programming compatibility: you had full control of what colour nybble (half a byte – Ed) was being used and in what sequence. Back in 1991 unlike other art packages on the C64, I had not seen anything else like it, and it quickly became my number one choice due to the ease of compatibility.”

saracen paint box
Saracen Paint did get a proper release before its cover tape appearance, although patchy distribution meant most people got it from CF. Here’s a rare sighting of it in the wild!

PACK FACT Two issues later, in issue 27, CF had its first Arty Party to show off what readers had done in Saracen Paint. There’s some surprisingly good stuff here inspired by the pop culture of the time (like Red Dwarf) and a nod to Jon Wells, too.

SUMMING UP

Bit of platforming, bit of driving, bit of painting…everything you love to do on your Commodore was horrendously sellotaped to the front cover of CF25. CF