Like many of my generation, my first exposure to video games was Mario Bros & Duck Hunt
, but the commodore 64 showed up on my doorstep one day and blew away my "read only" console based perception of gaming. Yes, you read correctly - I was retro gaming back in the NES days. The Commodore 64 was a true family computer
, with a wide array of games, applications, its own BASIC programming language
and a distinctive command line interface
The C64 game library was diverse in a time where genres were just beginning to be carved out. There were of course the typical buckets of Action, Adventure, Sports, and breakdancing
. Without a playbook of templates to choose from, game developers had to solve problems and come up with new activities on their own. The games I have played on the c64 have been very influential on my tastes in both the games I play and those want to make.
In modern game development the formula for producing a game is often to create the environment, and then apply the story and characters to it - this was not the case in the C64 era. Developers were tasked with making games from scratch and taking new risks each time. This risk taking worked two ways, resulting in either a genuinely enjoyable experience, or the type of encounter that makes you want to shower for hours until you feel clean again.
Games abounded with quirky mechanics and jokes. In Ultimate Wizard
, each level had a title that would display - one level was called "Where's Mario?", a reference to the Donkey Kong
inspired mechanics that it and Jumpman shared. Years before Shaq broke boards at LSU, you could break backboards in Dr. J and Larry Bird One on One
and the janitor would show up to clean your mess
In Platoon, the game based on the gritty film portrayal of the Vietnam war, one of the key indicators is morale. As you play the game your morale is displayed as low, as you die over and over until your real life morale drops and you never want to play the game again. This game had a powerful effect on me and made me fear the possibility of another draft even as a small child.
I don't mean to give the impression that all licensed games were bad back then - GI Joe
was absurdly fun. This game used an array of GI Joe and Cobra characters all with their own unique weapons, plus a vehicle overworld. The boss weakness concept was used extensively, in a period that pre-dates Mega Man.
Ultimate Wizard: best game ever or best game ever?
was a remarkably underappreciated game. The genre of side scrolling platform/ladder jumpers had a short history at this point. First Donkey Kong
invented the style, then Jumpman
played around with the mechanics to make it more interesting - finally Ultimate Wizard
took the whole thing and turned it on its head.
As you can see from this clip - the very first level introduces an amazing amount of action contained on screen. The game's environment is very interactive, as you pick up treasures, the level will switch around and reveal new passageways or traps. For each level you are equipped with offensive or defensive magic to fend off enemies who have special abilities of their own. From the moment you start up the level, the sounds draw you in as the environment is generated and you contemplate how you will approach your challenges. As opposed to a simplistic game like Donkey Kong, this is something that would keep you occupied for hours.
In addition to the core gameplay, Ultimate Wizard
also provides a level editor built in to the game. The level editor gives you the freedom to try out traps and play with the game mechanics in a way previously not available in commercial games. I personally liked to make a vat of treasures to swim around in like Scrooge McDuck.
The Commodore 64 was the precursor to the PC gaming platform. This was truly a single machine that could handle work tasks as well as play a wide library of games. For me personally, playing around with a level editor and being able to run BASIC statements that could exclaim "Agent MOO is cool" made me realize that gaming is a small world after all. With the concepts of PC gaming that this platform introduced, the way for amateur game developers was paved.