The Commodore 64 was introduced nearly 40 years ago, towards the end of 1982. It was a huge success and remained on the market for a surprisingly long time – the final Commodore 64 rolled out of the factory in 1994, the same year that the PlayStation-console was first released.
The platform that wouldn’t die
Most people probably thought that was the end of the line. Even though a hard core of users refused to let go of the machine, the eventual death of the Commodore 64 seemed to be looming in the horizon. But that death did not come. In the new millennium, the platform’s popularity started to increase again. Old users found their way back to their childhood machine, and new users discovered it. Classic games were rediscovered, often to the great surprise of their original creators. But not only that: Brand new games were being created for the platform, and an enthusiastic audience welcomed them with open arms.
Today, there’s a thriving community around the Commodore 64. Among the veterans of the international Commodore 64 community, we find Megastyle, a group that started out in the Norwegian demoscene back in the tail end of the eighties. They released demos such as Brainstorm, Piece of Cake, Kalle Kloakk and Seal of Focalor, and many of their productions were highly ranked by their demoscene peers. But around 1990, they started to toy with the idea of making games instead, and they got concrete offers from established publishers such as Double Density and Hewson.
Roy Widding has been involved since the beginning. He tells us that they made a few mistakes due to their inexperience, and as a result none of their commercial projects were ever released. But they kept making games for the platform, that were either published through magazines or just for free. Today, they’re one of the more active groups in the community:
– As of now, we’ve released around 20 games for the Commodore 64, including well known titles such as Exploding Fish, Tombstones, Captain Cloudberry, Burgertime ’97 and Bruce Lee – Revenge of Fury. Three guys from Megastyle were also involved in a Commodore 64-version of Portal, which was released just ahead of Christmas last year, Widding tells us.
Experience from the games industry
The group currently consists of eleven members. Around half of those have been around since the eighties. Many of the active members have experience from the games industry. This includes Chris Stanley, a brit who has been working on severall Megastyle-projects lately. Like many a veteran of the Commodore 64-scene, he started out with good old BASIC:
– I’ve always loved coding ever since I received a Commodore 64 around Christmas ’83. Even before attempting to load a game, I was typing in little BASIC listings and seeing how I could modify them, he tells us.
He later started learning machine code, but never really did anything with that on the Commodore 64. It did, however, lead him into the games industry:
– It wasn’t until I bought an Amiga a few years layer that I really started to develop my skills, and I became heavily involved in the demo scene of the late 80’s. In 1990 I was lucky enough to be offered a job at Psygnosis in Liverpool and spent a few very happy years there doing a wide range of jobs. In ’93/’94 we were absorbed into Sony so that we could produce content exclusively for their new PlayStation console. Even after all these years I can still be found in the corner of the mastering lab working on all the latest titles!
Now, Stanley and Widding are about to release a completely new game, called Mancave. It will be published by Psytronik Software on tape and disk, as well as by Megastyle themselves on Itch.io. Mancave is a colourful platform-/action game that would no doubt have received solid review scores if it had been released during the Commodore 64’s heyday. Stanley explains what the game is all about:
– Mancave is a humerous and very politically incorrect platformer which sees our hero, Richard, coming home after a hard days work to find his kids have been in his man cave. They have found his stash of old adult magazines from his days as a teenager and spread them all around the house for his wife to find. Playing the part of Richard you must progress through the levels, collecting up all your magazines and avoiding the other characters before your stress reaches fatal levels. Each level begins with a funny little cut scene which introduces a new character that must be avoided.
– The game also contains bonus levels where you must collect as much beer as possible within a time limit. Success here will win you extra points and lives. A trophy/achievement system is another feature of the game along with the ability to load and save those trophies along with the hiscore table.
It was originally Widding who came up with the idea for Mancave, and the concept is loosely based on an Atari game named Climber.
– He shared his ideas with me as I was finishing off my previous game, Exploding Fish, and I loved what I saw. Roy asked if I would to do the coding and I was more than happy to accept!
Old hardware, new methods
Developing Commodore 64 games in 2019 is not quite as it was in the eighties, thanks to a whole array of modern tools that were unavailable back then. As a matter of fact, neither Roy Widding or Chris Stanley use real Commodore 64 hardware for the actual development of their games:
– I do own an original «breadbin» Commodore 64 with a couple of tape drives and a 1541 disk drive but I use them exclusively for test purposes. All my development is PC based. The assembler I use is CBM PRG Studio and I pair that with the VICE emulator for testing my builds. Effectively it’s like using a cross-assembler even though all the work is done on one PC, Stanley tells us.
Stanley also uses modern graphics tools for his development:
– Sprite Pad & Char Pad are what I use for tweaking Sprite data, charsets, maps etc. I say tweaking because I prefer people with actual talent produce the graphics for me. I can barely draw stick men!
This is where Roy Widding enters the picture:
– I use a number of drawing tools, but prefer Pixcen, Spritepad and Charpad on the PC. One of the other graphics artists in Megastyle have coded his own graphics tool for the iPad, called Redux Paint, and I like that a lot. But I don’t own an iPad, so I have to use the aforementioned tools. As for music, I use Goattracker. The other two musicians in Megastyle are using SidWizard (on real hardware) or coding their music directly in assembly, he tells us.
Like Stanley, he uses a real machine for testing purposes. This ensures that things work as they are supposed on real hardware, but that is not the only reason:
– I always use real hardware for testing, and for playing other games. It just gives me an extra nostalgic feeling to sit in my favourite chair with a Commodore 64 attached to a «fat TV», playing with a proper Tac-2.
Why is the Commodore 64 so popular?
The Commodore 64 is, as mentioned, more popular than (almost) ever before. Chris Stanley believes that the Internet is a main reason for the machine’s enduring popularity:
– I think it is helped along by social media, people who used to be involved in the scene back in the day are rediscovering it and re-living their youth.
Many are amazed that new games are still being developed for the platform they thought was long dead. There does seem to me a general movement towards all things «retro» as well. Just look how many retro-looking pixellated games seem to be getting released even on modern consoles these days.
Age and economy are also likely big factors. A lot of those who owned Commodore 64 computers in the eighties and nineties had to sell their collections in order to fund their next gaming system. Today they are adults, often with a different attitude towards gaming and computers. Roy Widding thinks this plays an important role:
– I’m thinking that a lot of the people who are active today have different economic circumstances than when they were living in the kids room and depended on pocket money to fund their great interest. I know several people who as adults have incredible collections of games and gear for the Commodore 64, stuff we could only dream of back in the day.
A satisfying machine to work with
But what is it that makes people sit down and create Commodore 64 games in their spare time in 2019? Chris Stanley explains:
– There’s something very satisfying about coding on the Commodore 64 that is hard to describe. It’s certainly very different than working with modern systems as not many people these days program at such a low machine level. It just gives me a great feeling to work on a machine with so many limitations and yet produce games which people enjoy playing.
For Roy Widding, it’s just as much about having a good time:
– It’s just relaxing to sit down an plot pixels or put on my headphones and let myself be absorbed into the world of bleeps and blops.
The current Commodore 64 scene is not all about games, and there’s still a very active demoscene surrounding the computer. A lot of today’s productions do things with the platform that would have given its original creators a heart attack if they’d seen it in the early eighties. However, Widding prefers to spend his time doing games:
– I think that a game lasts longer than a demo, and that people tend to go back to them more often. A good demo impresses you the first time you see it, but with a good game you’ll typically have to spend a lot more time on, in order to beat it.
More interest thanks to TheC64 Mini
Last year’s biggest Commodore 64-related piece of news was the release of TheC64 Mini, a miniature Commodore 64 that came with 64 built-in games – including a bunch of classics from Epyx and Hewson. This system got a surprisingly wide retail distribution around the world, and the obvious question is if this resulted in more interest around the modern Commodore 64 scene as a whole. Chris Stanley is certain that it did:
– Hardware like the C64 Mini has definitely provided a huge boost to the level of interest in Commodore 64 gaming. Not everyone has the time or the skill to buy, repair and maintain problematic old hardware. Now that they can buy an inexpensive plug and play solution they are far more eager to jump back in and start enjoying all those games they used to love!
– I’ve gotten myself a Mini, even though I already have three Commodore 64-computers. I also see that a lot of my old friends, who didn’t stick with the platform as I have done for the last 30 years, have found their way back. The fact that there are still being made new games for this platform seems fascinating to them.
The creators of TheC64 Mini are currently working on a full-scale remake of the classic computer, complete with a working keyboard. It will be interesting to see how this is received when it is released. But whether you’re using The C64 Mini, «real hardware» or an emulator on the PC to play Commodore 64 games, Mancave is being released in april. It is already quite enjoyable, so be sure to have a look when it’s out!
Spillhistorie.no is a Norwegian website mostly dedicated to indie-, niche- and retro games. If you liked this article, we have some more content in English.
Here’s the Norwegian version of this interview.