Too late to the Commodore 64-craze? No fear – It’s one craze that you never can be too late to…!
If you grew up in Western Europe in the mid to late 80’s, chances are very, very big that you played at least some video games on a Commodore 64 – Either you had one yourself, or you knew at least a couple of dudes who had one. (This just wasn’t a machine that “girls” wanted for Christmas, saved up money for, or got as a birthday gift.) And for others, it became an obsession…
Today, there is the retro community and the constantly growing emulation community. The C-64 lives on and new games and amazing demos are made even to this day. But chances aren’t however big that someone born in the late 90’s knows what this “64-thing” is, or what it was all about. And it’s a bit difficult to explain that it was a “real” personal computer – With functioning programs and useful utilities. Hell, you could even make your own if you knew how. And this “64-thing” had a pretty advanced analogue synthesizer for a machine primarily made for consumers in 1982.
And, last but not least – It had tons and tons and tons of games.
But let’s say you got into retro-gaming recently and now frequently visit retro-gaming sites. In that case, this probably isn’t the first time you hear about this revolutionary computer. It might have even sparked some sort of interest in it. Furthermore in that same case, you might eventually wonder what games were considered essentials, or if they differed very much from those that you played on other computers and consoles – Remember that the Commodore 64 and its compatible big brother C-128 existed parallelly with the NES and the SEGA Master System.
So! If you want to check out some of the games that were well known for their high quality and high level of entertainment, this article is for you. But if that’s not the case, and you already think they all are like “sub par NES-games”, I really can’t help you. And this article probably won’t change your mind either.
That’s a lot of “if”-parameters for sure, so let’s briefly go through fifty of these essentials. Note that this isn’t an objective “50 All Time Greats” or anything like that, but a list of personal favorites that I believe either lived up to / exceeded the expectations, were generally renowned, gave the player maximum value, or just represented the system in the best way possible. There are of course more than fifty of these so called “essentials”, and even more recommended titles, but I had to set the limit somewhere. But just narrowing it down to ten or twenty games simply felt unfair and not enough. And I haven’t naturally played every commercial game on the machine. (And I’ll try to keep the nostalgia-goggles away as much as possible.)
Before we begin, it should be mentioned that the C-64 was slightly notorious for two things – 1) Abysmal coin-op conversions. And: 2) Sluggish racing games. (The flight sims weren’t exactly any technical wonders either.) It’s understandable that you can’t make an advanced and / or fast OutRun-like game with a 1 MHz (That’s one. Mega Hertz.) CPU, but I have no idea why they even bothered with some of the arcade “ports” of titles like After Burner, Double Dragon or… Street Fighter II… (Please, don’t YouTube it.) No… Let’s try to completely erase them from all memories, human and RAM, and instead focus on the games that still are a good time and have aged surprisingly well. Because even if the 64 did get some great arcade versions (e.g. Arkanoid and Commando), it got its real and well deserved reputation through the many exclusive gems – Some more hidden than others. And those that weren’t exclusive often shined on the C-64 even when they were compared to other ports. I tried to pick out as many of these exclusives as possible just because of this.
I think we run through this in alphabetical order since listing them as a “top chart” would be virtually impossible…
Considered one of the very best side scrolling Shmups for the system, and this is for a very good reason. It definitely pushed the hardware to its limit and showcased some impressive visuals and sonics. It was marketed as a sequel to Delta, but Armalyte is both different and better in nearly every way. And it has eight levels (complete with bosses) that take a good time to get through. Martin Walker, another “C-Lebrity”, created the music and those characteristic sound effects. I’d say that as far as Shoot ’em-Ups on the system go, there aren’t even three that beat this one… Still – Delta had Rob Hubbard’s immortal tunes and the “Mix-E-Load”-feature. A worthy successor.
Space Invaders. Asteroids. Snakes. Space War. No further explanation needed. And we’re talking pretty good conversions in this sweet compilation. You choose the game you want to play from an animated “arcade cabinet”-menu accompanied by an awesome, hard-rockin’ Rob Hubbard tune. It’s not a twenty-second ditty, but a real composition that plays for several minutes. This was the way to play arcade classics before emulators even existed. And the game was so cheap, it felt like you were shoplifting.
Monty the Mole returns for the fourth time for quite a taxing trip through a vertical and surrealistic mini-version of Europe. The mission is to save up enough cash to buy the island of Montos where Monty can retire. Non-scrolling platformers like this were common back in the days, but Auf Wiedersehen Monty had an established protagonist, some nice features and mind-blowing music composed by legends Ben Daglish and Rob Hubbard. It’s not a very long game, but you won’t complete it too soon due to its difficulty level. Also check out Monty On The Run – That other really good Monty-game on the C-64.
Fighting games weren’t exactly unique in 1987, but this one boasted big characters, detailed scrolling backgrounds and relatively fluid controls. You are a Muay Thai-fighter going up against eight fighters – Seven dudes and one chick who isn’t afraid to kick you where it really hurts! The fighting tournament starts in the countryside before you take on the last four fighters in the ring in Bangkok. Great presentation overall, fantastic game-loading music by System 3-regular Matt Gray and great background in-game music by Rob Hubbard. (And the C-64-version is just so much better than the Amiga-version!)
The sequel to Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior. The original was one of the first games that sparked “video game violence”-related controversy. It had sword violence, decapitations and a half-naked chick as a (no doubt) admiring spectator. The sequel replaced the arena fighting with exploring the dangerous wastelands, caverns and dungeons. And more fighting. Over a dozen different monsters / enemies and more violent animations were added – Mostly comical ones. (And yellow blood!) Which is why part two didn’t gain as much notoriety. But it’s a fun game with four varied levels and excellent graphics. The controls take a little time to get used to, but it’s no big deal. And you can play as two characters this time – The warrior or the princess from the original game.
A light-hearted and silly take on brawlers – There’s no girl to rescue this time as you, the Underwear Man, just have to get home. But on the way through town, you get attacked by bulldogs, old ladies, ten feet tall basketball players, blind geezers, gorillas and other lunatics! There’s only thing to do – Beat their asses using various wrestling-moves. The graphics look a bit blocky as the game has very large on-screen characters, but it doesn’t make it any less fun. It’s just a hell of a funny game. (Unfortunately, it starts repeating everything after level five, so it kind of overstays its welcome.) Bop ‘N Rumble was also released as Street Hassle in some territories. The only difference was that the Underwear Man looked different. Other than that, it’s the exact same game.
After three original Boulder Dash-games, First Star Software released this little program. And it’s exactly what it sounds like – You construct your own “Boulder Dash” game with an extremely well-designed level-builder. The levels can naturally be saved so that you can torture friends and family with your diabolical constructions. (Unlike 2015 year’s “Super Mario Maker”, you don’t have to be able to complete the levels before handing them over to other players.) And as bonus, you actually get Boulder Dash IV – 16 levels starring the always cute and welcome Rockford.
While this game may not blow your mind with its looks or sounds, it compensates through sheer charm and playability. And this was years before fighting in platform games became a thing. Bruce Lee runs, climbs and jumps through increasingly dangerous surroundings while being pursued and attacked by a very persistent and immortal Ninja and a green Sumo wrestler-looking dude called Yamo. Each one of the 20 screens has new challenges and traps, and there is a sense of achievement when you get to see something new. And a game that takes around 15 minutes to get through when you know the game in your sleep was pretty uncommon in 1984. Not only that – A second player could control Yamo. All this make this a definite “must play”.
Epyx were The Kings of Olympic sports games, and soon enough they moved on to other sports like basketball, baseball… World games… Wrestling… And California-based Games…! Those consist of six different events – In this case: Half Pipe (skateboarding), Footbag, Surfing, Roller-skating, BMX and Flying disc. Thanks to the well-programmed controls and the variety of tricks that you can do in all of the events (Except maybe Flying disc.), the game has a very long lastability. Of course, it’s way more enjoyable to play with a bunch of friends than alone as I think this game conjures that competitive spirit and sense of victory. But I’d still recommend playing the other “Games”-games as well.
Charming combination of Shoot ’em-Up and platform adventuring where you control a green-haired witch who can fly through the sky on her trusty broom. Your mission is to find the Golden Broom and subsequently put the villain known as the Pumpking out of commission. And you have to find various keys and ingredients – All this while avoiding most of the Halloween-related dangers imaginable. (Bats, skulls, happy ghosts… And some rib cages and an army of seagulls…) Features that made Cauldron stick out from the rest was the variation in gameplay plus it had a pretty big map. And don’t forget to check out the 1986 sequel Cauldron II: The Pumpkin Strikes Back, which completely changed the gameplay (In Cauldron II, you bounce around as a pumpkin in the witch’s castle.) and turned the protagonist from the original into an antagonist – I bet that was a video game history first.
Martin Walker’s highly ambitious Citadel deserved to be a much bigger hit than it was, but the Amiga had seriously begun stealing attention at this point. Still, there is no reason to overlook it any time when you finally have decided to play some classic see-sixty-four-games. Because it is a classic – The game is easy to play but difficult to master, it’s very well designed / programmed and its presentation is lovely. From an overhead view, you control a robot through mazes that are guarded by other robots and various lethal gadgets. It’s not your ordinary Shoot ’em Up, which you’ll discover if you give it a proper chance. Citadel reminds of Andrew Braybrook’s Paradroid, but that’s only on the very surface. It has enough clever features to completely separate it from the realm of clones.
You did come across a fair share of Shoot ’em Ups if you stuck with the C-64, and this is another one – Cybernoid II is a game that you go through screen by screen, so there’s no scrolling involved. You navigate through a maze-like space-station while avoiding enemy fire from all directions imaginable. You can say many things about Commodore games, but they were never too easy. It’s incredible how they crammed a game like this in less than 64K of RAM. Jeroen Tel provided the amazing music that ranks among one of his best compositions. And the cassette version had the music from the original game while it loaded up. The first one was good, but the sequel was better.
There were some really mind-boggling and tricky puzzle games on the C-64 as well, and this is one of the better ones in my opinion. Your task is to eliminate various objects on a two-dimensional grid by guiding a laser beam firing from a generator. You change the angle of deflectors in order to change the route of the beam, but you have to be careful not to overheat the generator itself. It’s a simple idea, but Gremlin Graphics turned it into an addicting game. You just have to try once more after the generator explodes. And the great Ben Daglish title tune is the icing on the cake.
Of course The genre-defining space-trading / traveling simulator is on this list. This isn’t a simple half hour game that you play with one joystick and a Fire-button (Most of the keyboard is used, actually.) – You will have to invest at least a hundred hours into it if you want to get the most out of Elite. Just docking at the space stations is something you have to spend some time on learning. There are eight galaxies with a total of 2000 planets (space stations) to visit. You trade stuff, get upgrades for your Cobra MKIII-ship and sometimes (or often) end up in trouble. You can become a mercenary, a space pirate or just choose to stay on the right side of the law. There are many things to discover regardless. The unique vector graphics create a very distinct and cold atmosphere.
There were two main Karate-games on the C-64: The Way Of The Exploding Fist and International Karate. Both of them got very similar sequels a couple of years later – Fist+ and IK+. But Fist II, the actual sequel, went in a totally different direction and is a type of action / adventure game with frequent fights against a handful of different characters. (Fist II also included Exploding Fist as a bonus game, but with new graphics and the aforementioned new characters.) For a Commodore 64-game, Fist II has a huge open world, and you really need to draw a map as you go through it – Otherwise you’ll get lost a couple of hours in. Fist II might be a very polarizing experience (It does have some nearly game-breaking bugs.), but I think the game has enough good qualities to be on this list.
One of the later “How-the-hell-did-they-do-that-on-the-C-64”-games. On one hand, there was never a chance in hell that we’d ever see a Sonic The Hedgehog-clone on the Commodore 64. (Especially in terms of speed. Or color.) But on the other hand, there were other scrolling platformers with heart and soul. The Great Giana Sisters, for example. (It has redeemed itself in later years thanks to Twisted Dreams after its origins as a blatant “Super Mario rip-off”.) And then, there is Flimbo’s Quest. There isn’t much to say more than: I think it’s a technical masterpiece. This is probably how good a C-64-game can look and sound. And I don’t think the 16-bit version (Amiga) played any better.
Denton Designs made some stunningly characteristic games and put themselves way ahead of their time in the process. This is one of them, and to this day, there is literally nothing that reminds of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. It starts out like a strange suburban adventure game. As you walk around and look for / pick up objects in the houses, you are informed via pop-up-screens that you’re 99% away from becoming a “real person”. So you need to get “pleasure points” to build your character. And after a while, the game turns into a murder mystery…! And after that, the strangeness really kicks in as you move on to become this “real person” via ten mini-games. (Amongst those a truly magical and moving segment called “Flower Power”.) The mission is to enter… The “Pleasure Dome”. And Fred Gray turns in some memorable remakes of Frankie’s hits…! I never played this back in the days, and would probably have not liked it very much, but after spending time with it now, I totally understand why it got such great reviews. “Unique” is a very suitable adjective.
As expected, Hawkeye is another high quality game from Thalamus and another side-scrolling shooter. You control the Synthetic Life Form through 12 levels, and to protect yourself against a horde of monsters and mutants, you have four weapons – Gun, machine gun, laser rifle and missile launcher. The production value for Hawkeye is downright incredible – The “Mix-E-Load”-feature returns and the retail versions had an animated back story as well as a presentation of the various monsters. And what suits better than an absolutely marvelous soundtrack by Jeroen Tel? In my opinion, the high-score music is one of the finest ones in 8-bit history together with the Commando and Monty On The Run-tunes. And this is yet another case where the C64-version of a game was way better than the Amiga counterpart.
Are you looking for a challenge? And I mean a proper one. Then why not take on the adventures of Head and Heels as they set out to bring down an evil emperor who has enslaved four planets? (In the game, this is like 300+ rooms, so it will take hours upon hours.) You control the two different characters one at a time and have to figure out a myriad of platform related puzzles on the way. And there is a possibility to join the duo so they’re like Head Over Heels. Don’t let the ZX Spectrum-esque look scare you away from this humorous and original game – Head Over Heels certainly did one-up some of the earlier games from Rare.
Sometimes, you just feel the need to run / fly around (Or like in case, at least left and right.) and shoot at everything that moves. Hysteria is precisely that game. What set it apart from other side scrollers at the time was that it takes place in ancient times and you battle mythological creatures like centaurs and gargoyles. This game really shows what the C-64 could do with its 16-color palette and 3-channel sound. The graphics are great and Fred Gray’s music is unbelievably catchy and melodic. The game “only” has three levels (eras), but you won’t run through them in five minutes as the difficulty-level is nearly “NES-hard” at times.
Archer MacLean’s aforementioned groundbreaking Karate-game International Karate returned two years later with better graphics, better / more polished gameplay, a few more sampled sounds and Rob Hubbard’s kick ass remix of the original soundtrack. IK+ also has flawless and ultra-responsive controls. The C-64 showed that it could deliver a fast fighting game that even put some contemporary Amiga-titles to shame. Don’t believe me? Play IK+ on the C-64 and then load up Amiga Karate or Way Of The Little Dragon (both from 1987) on the Amiga. Which one is more playable and enjoyable? Exactly. And, oh – IK+ looks fantastic to boot.
Jack was eventually considered such an obnoxious shit-kid that he got deported from the U.K., but on the plane to Australia, he uses his nappy as a parachute and lands right in the middle of the African jungle. Yep – Jack The Nipper II is yet another platformer, but it’s a very addicting one. After each Game Over, you just have to see if you can get a bit further. I wasn’t a very big fan of the first game, but this has a solid fun-factor, a surprisingly big map and some humorous touches here and there.
A.k.a. Denaris. This is pretty much C-64’s and Manfred Trenz’s and Andreas Escher’s answer to R-Type. (Which was also ported by the company – Reportedly, they were forced to do it in order to avoid being sued by Irem!) Yes. The upgrade system looks and acts a bit similar to the one in R-Type and some power-ups remind of Darius… As do some of the twelve levels… But other than that, it’s technically a game that pushes the hardware even close to its limit. And it has outstanding graphics and lovely music by Chris Hülsbeck. And it’s incidentally better than the R-Type-port.
Naturally, the home computers needed an original Arkanoid-clone. Krakout did something slightly differently by flipping the playing area 90 degrees. (Compared to Arkanoid that is.) But that’s not all – There are 100 screens and you can set various parameters that make the game even more challenging. For example, you can change the inertia of the bat and the speed of the ball. You can also make the screen flash in sync with the music, or have the background graphics follow the motion of the ball. (It doesn’t sounds as motion sickness-inducing as it is!) There are three short Ben Daglish tunes that are played in random order – If you don’t switch over to sound effects. A memorable game of breakout that was released for several other machines. But the C-64 version was the best of the bunch.
To not include this groundbreaking game in a list like this would be a crime… The Last Ninja was an instant worldwide hit and everybody praised it to high heaven. It presented qualities that was unheard of at the time. It’s not that other games before The Last Ninja hadn’t mixed Martial Arts, adventure and puzzle solving, but System 3 did it way better than everybody else – The amazing graphics and attention to detail. The iconic soundtrack (12 tunes) from Ben Daglish and Anthony Lees. 130 screens to go through before the untraditional fight against final boss Kunitoki. Simply put – It blew all other isometric games out of the water, and it’s a definite must if you’re looking into this era of computer gaming.
All right. We’re halfway through the list. Join us as we go through the rest…! (Continued in Part 2.)