The masters of Commodore 64 games

Commodore 64 kassettspiller loading

This is the english version of our story on Commodore 64 masters. Written by Tom Roger Skauen.

When loading up your favourite game, you’ll often see a screen consisting of the game’s title, music that helps building up your expectations and a list of people who was involved in making the game. One name is very often left out from this list; the person who in the end put it all together and created the master sent to duplication. A master is a finished product where all the duplicates are made from.

Gamle Commodore 64-eiere husker nok grafikken og musikken som kom mens spill lastet inn.
Commodore 64-owners probably remembers a lot of loading screens like this one.

Let me first start this article by going back in time a bit to explain how this topic surfaced. I was reading through a few posts on Facebook and ran across a post from a guy named Rich Hinton. He says he have some floppy disks which he wonders if anyone might have interest of. At first glance, these floppy disks looked like any other disks, but then he goes on saying that he got the disks from a family friend who used to work for US Gold. US Gold was Great Britain’s biggest software publisher for several platforms, and as the name implies, they published mainly imported games from the US. At first I thought maybe it was a few disks handed from a US Gold-employee with a few games on them, but then Rich tells me during a conversation that he got these disks from someone named Gary Sabin.

When I heard this name, I immediately realised what Rich possibly was in possession of. I remember the name very well from the cassette version of Summer Games II, as it displayed the text «CASSETTE VERSION BY GARY J. SABIN» while loading events. Rich Hinton did not only have a few backups of some of the games, but he had all Gary’s disks and tapes, handed to him many years ago. And there’s lots of them, which makes this find a very rare and unique one from the good old times. It’s the first and probably only time such a big find will surface.

Alle som spilte Summer Games II på kassett kan takke Gary J. Sabin for den korte ventetiden mellom hver øvelse.
Gary J. Sabin mastered the cassette version of Summer Games II for U.S. Gold. Originally, it was only meant as a disk release.

After having explained to Rich Hinton how unique this was, I asked if he’d be willing to let me borrow the disks for preservation. While he was positive to preserving them, he was not keen on the thought of sending them out of the country. I can’t say I blame him for that, and in addition he did not know who I was prior to this. We agreed that he could send them to Christopher Robert Taylor, better known as Peepo, as he lived in Wales and could do this.

The long wait finally over

The first images of the floppies started arriving. I eagerly checked them out and it did not take long before I found both demo versions and mastering data for several known games, such as Hardball, Desert Fox and Winter Games. I poked around a bit with the master maker of Hardball and after some time I managed to create a new tape master. Unfortunately time hasn’t been too kind with all of these disks, so I had a corrupt loading screen picture. Apart from that everything was working 100%, and I now had a master replicated by the same tools that created the master sent to duplication 30 years ago. Digging further down the images, I came across a floppy with a Novaload-label on it with the word «Music» hand written with a pen on it (Peepo did also scan the floppies themselves in order to capture any labels that was on them).

Amerikansk nasjonalsang under lastingen av US Gold-spill.
The American national anthem plays during loading of a large number of US Gold’s cassette games.

Novaload was, as many probably remember, a very commonly used loading system back in the day. Early versions were easily identified by its black and grey screen displaying the game title while it created loud and obnoxious sounds while loading the main loader. A loader is a small program whose function is to load the data, something most publishers started using very early because Commodore’s own routines for reading data were insanely slow.

One of the tunes that was very often used in US Gold titles was (surprise, surprise!) the American national anthem, and until now recently no one really knew who made the version so commonly used in Novaload, but on the Novaload-floppy marked «Music» I found the sources of several work stages of this tune (and a few others) signed «G.J. Sabin» and a date, and because of that there is no doubt. Most of you may remember this music as very simple and primitive, and looking at the source I think I found the answer as to why. It appears to be a very limited set of simple pre-programmed sounds and you had to type in the note data in a BASIC listing, in a format that in many ways resembled today’s tracker programs. To edit something this way, and having to load a sort of demo program in order to hear the result must have been putting just about any musician’s patience to a test. It might be that this is exactly the reason why there’s not so many different tunes for this loader.

Slik måtte Sabin skrive inn musikken som spilte under lastingen.
This is how Sabin created the Novaload-music.

Unfortunately Gary Sabin passed away a few years ago, so there was no information to gain apart from what was actually on the disks. To find out a bit more about what went on behind the scenes, I contacted Paul Hughes, previously employed at Ocean Software Ltd. While he was working at Ocean, one of his tasks was to produce masters. Paul Hughes is a very enthusiastic guy who loves talking about the good old days, and it becomes clear that he has a lot of good memories from his time working for Ocean.

The hectic final stage

Hughes told me that the average time for a game to be developed was about 3-6 months, but there sometimes was what he referred to as «mercy missions» where everything was done in just 2-4 weeks. Examples of this were Total Recall and Operation Thunderbolt. When it comes to the mastering itself, he explains that in Ocean this was mostly done in a single day, and it could be very hectic. Sometimes the game developers was doing the last touches in a separate room at the duplication company together with a game tester while Paul was preparing the master maker. When done, he’d be handed a production sample to check if everything was satisfactory and the production could start. Sometimes the crew went out to grab something to eat while games were duplicated and waited so that they could have a batch of games brought back the same evening.

Freeload i aksjon.
Freeload in action.

To generate a master tape, Paul had one method in particular he used. For games that were so called single loaders (a game where all data could be loaded into the C64’s memory at once), he had created scripts which split up the RAM in chunks saved in separate files. By doing this, he was able to control where data was loaded so he could leave music playing and the loading screen on for as long as possible, until the end of the loading where this picture and music was overwritten with game data. In so called multiload games, a loader would also have to be installed in the game code itself. On games that were developed in house this was usually done by the developers themselves, but when publishing games from external partners one would often have to search for a space to insert the loader code. Often this had to be done without having access to the source code.

The lack of source code also created problems when Ocean created compilations with game licenses bought from other publishers and software houses, as they were often just given a tape original of the game. Ironically, this meant the games had to be cracked before Ocean’s own loader and protection scheme could be installed. This was also a bit challenging as loaders were getting more secure as time went by.

Den første versjonen av det som skulle bli Freeload ble brukt til å laste inn klassiske Uridium.
The first edition of what was to become Freeload was used on Andrew Braybrook’s classic space shooter Uridium.

Paul was, like many other developers, trying to make his systems hard to crack. Even if he had no regular contact with the crackers, he still got a message from some of them telling him how they enjoyed the challenge as he made his loader more secure. In addition there was many computer magazines that had a cheats section with pokes or programs to install cheat modes into games. Some of these programs also had to bypass mechanisms the same way you’d do if cracking the game, as some parameters sometimes needed to be set after the game had loaded. According to Paul there were a lot of creative tricks to pick up from these, which also gave him information on how to further block attempts of hacking his loader code, something he looks back on as a fun challenge.


Since everything that has to do with humans fails at some point, this business is of course no exception. A bit surprised, I learn that Paul was not aware that there were problems with the European version of Robocop. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, let’s just say that one of the levels is corrupted. And I don’t mean a small graphical glitch, the entire screen is filled with junk. Luckily, you can still play through the level if you just know the path to go, as the structures themselves are intact. This corruption is also present on the European disk version, but was seemingly fixed in the NTSC release. How this passed the QA-team no one knows, but it’s quite evident that someone did not do their job.

From 6:57 in this video, you can see how the corruption looks in game:

Another goof that Paul told me about, it was the first release of Gilligan’s Gold. A common way to crack games in the early days was by forcing a reset by shorting pins on either the serial port or the user port. This caused a warm start, but if certain vectors are set, this reset can execute code elsewhere in memory.

Ikke bare virket ikke spillet, men kjøperne fikk denne beskjeden i trynet.
Not only did the game not work, but this was the message buyers were met with.

In this particular version, this was done and it would cause the screen to display a long text with less flattering words and a lot of cursing, meant for an eventual cracker to see. The not so small problem with this, was that the loading system used ALSO calls the same reset routine that is triggered by shorting reset and ground on the C64 if it detects a load error.

This combined with a batch of very poorly mastered tapes completed the nightmare, and so people who had bought legal copies were confronted with this message. Leaving messages and greetings in games was in no way uncommon, but very few stretched it this far. Paul also informed me that this happened a few years before he started working for Ocean, but that this story was occasionally told to new employees as a warning not to insert messages like this.

Skjult melding i koden.
A hidden message.

To round off this article, I want to pull out one such message from Paul Hughes himself, even if I know he wishes both the game and the message vanished from the face of the earth. The game we’re talking about is Mag Max and if you interrupt the loading of the tape version after a minute or two, you can find the following message (memory location $0990 for the ones of you who know what I’m talking about if you want to see it for yourself):


PS! CIA in this case means Complex Interface Adapter… I hope!

The screenshots in this story are taken by Tom Roger Skauen (with the exception of the Summer Games II-one, which was taken by Joachim Froholt, who also did the header image). Thanks to Paul Hughes for his help with this article.