You’ve probably played more Hungarian Commodore 64 games than you realise. Perhaps you didn’t even know there was much of a scene at all, and you’d be forgiven for thinking […]
You’ve probably played more Hungarian Commodore 64 games than you realise. Perhaps you didn’t even know there was much of a scene at all, and you’d be forgiven for thinking as much. Back in the early to mid ’80s, it cost more than $1,000 to get your hands on a breadbin in Budapest. Few could afford such an insane luxury in a communist country where the average wage was then 12 cents an hour, but a disruptive startup venture called Novotrade bought batches of the machines in 1982 and loaned them out to smart minds in university computer and mathematics departments (they’d eventually send out the other 8-bit machines too).
The 150 freelance programmers became prolific, with software manager Donat Kiss telling the LA Times in 1985 that the majority of coders were “fanatics. They push their kids aside and work through the night”. The goal, said Novotrade’s MD Gabor Renyi, was to “compete with the US firms. The best play, best graphics, best music, and the best use of the computer’s abilities”.
Novotrade needed to get its work seen outside the Eastern Bloc if it really wanted to make hay, so partnered with a company in the UK called Andromeda Software. It was run by Robert Stein, a Hungarian who’d arrived in Britain as a refugee in 1956. He’d become a wily entrepreneur and clocked the games scene in his native country early on, acting as a middle man to hook up the games of the east with publishers in the UK and US (notably Domark, Mirrorsoft, Activision and Quicksilva). He’d make regular trips to his homeland to see what was new, famously seeing a copy of Tetris running on a PC in a Budapest uni computer lab. After getting permission from the Russian author to convert it to other formats and sell it overseas, it was later discovered the puzzle game was actually the property of the Soviet government and is a story in itself. Eek!
It was more straightforward with Novotrade. Games like Caesar The Cat, Buffalo Roundup, Chinese Juggler and Eureka! all found publishers in the West thanks to this arrangement, often without credits and giving no clue as to their origin. What really stands out is their creativity and the clear freedom that the coders had. One of the most interesting examples is 1984’s Traffic, which was written by three university maths students in their spare time. It rocked up in Britain via Quicksilva.
The game is a series of static, top down maps of London streets. Vehicles crawl along the road, stopping at traffic lights which you manually change from red to green with the prod of a cursor. The aim is to keep things moving safely in all directions. If more than five cars pile up at a junction, it’s game over.
Traffic has all the London clichés you’d expect from a game coded overseas: the winking bobby on the title screen, the big red bus and a chiming Big Ben when you finish. But if you can roll your eyes back to the gaming position, you’ll find something really nice here. It looks simplistic but the motors move really well, especially when they turn a corner. A horn alerts you to problems you might not have spotted, and there’s even a bit of digitised speech when you clear one of its five stages (“next map!”).
Personal Computer Games’ review panel had mixed feelings about Traffic, which clearly challenged the pew-pew-pew norms of the time. “Credit to Quicksilva for something so refreshing”, said Richard Patey, but bemoaned the quaint London imagery. CVG wasn’t so keen – “fairly simple and fairly boring”, but Commodore Horizons called it “lovely. Multi-level, ragtime music and uncomplicated graphics. I’m convinced it’s a major contribution to road safety”.
The years have been kind to Traffic. It’s a firm favourite of retro gamers who like to dig a bit more deeply into the machine’s history, as these Lemon 64 fan reviews show. The game actually has a curiously modern feel to it now if you can get beyond the visuals, probably because it’d work really well on a phone (there’s a 2011 tribute for Windows called Traffic Manager which is as close as we’ve got so far). It’s nowhere near the level of modern C64 static screen strategy games like Millie and Molly, but for dawn of time coding it’s got enough to deserve a cheeky download and deserved a better reception at the time.
Novotrade kept making games and Andromeda kept finding them a home through the ’80s. Epic adventure Eureka! excited Domark so much they marketed it with a £25,000 prize for finishing it first (the prize went to a teenager playing the Speccy version, who’d later get a job with Domark too), and the Hungarians scored the right to make the Impossible Mission sequel in 1988. Commodore Format fans will know their quirky Alternative World Games and Water Polo for Gremlin, both of which rocked up on the mag’s cover tape (issues 29 and 33). The company opened an American office in 1989, eventually becoming Appaloosa Interactive and developing the Ecco The Dolphin series for Sega. Operations ceased in 2006.
And Robert Stein? He was generously interviewed as “the man who discovered Tetris” in this 1988 New York Times article, where he tells the newspaper he’s about to travel to the Soviet Union to try and find more games like it. He reckoned he’d imported about 70 titles to the West from Eastern Europe, but by 1993 he was working closer to home as the middle man between publishers and UK retailers. Clients like Littlewoods and Argos made the business profits of £3.6m in 2001,but it too closed its doors in 2006.
The Andromeda/Novotrade relationship’s precious legacy was opening the door for software between the East and West, but its influence was bound to diminish when everyone else barged through it. American journalist Steve Morgenstern spent six weeks in Moscow in the late ’80s to understand the games and tech scene. “There was a lot of interest [in selling games to American and Britain] when I was there”, he told the New York Times. ”One day I met with people at the Moscow Computer Club. I don’t speak Russian, and the president of the club was rattling on and on. The only words I understood were ‘joint venture.’ ” CF
- Thanks to Andrew Fisher and Frank Gasking for their help with this one. Get Traffic at GB64.