Memory Lane: Commodore 64 Edition
I'd already developed an interest in computers thanks to the TRS-80, but when I received a Commodore 64 for Christmas my life changed forever. The Commodore would become the centerpiece of countless childhood experiences, some of which I'll describe below.
Among the stacks of random diskettes strewn about, "Swinth" was scrawled on one particular label and I had no earthly idea what it meant. When it finally loaded my eyes lit up; I certainly didn't expect a fusion of kaleidoscopic graphics and mesmerizing music.
The first song in particular (a SID rendition of John Mills-Cockell's The Stationary Ark) still transports me to somewhere else. The theme at 12:13 from Magic Shadows is another one of my favorites, though honestly I enjoy them all.
My father purchased an assortment of programs with the Commodore, one of them happened to be Maniac Mansion. It sparked my obsession with the point-and-click genre, an obsession that continues more than 30 years later.
Also featured above is Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, another Lucasfilm title that kept me glued to the screen. Both games featured branching storylines, character switching, irreverent humor, and other qualities I consider rare in modern games.
Compute's Gazette and Ahoy!
Both contained program listings for games and utilities, some in BASIC and others in Machine Language. I spent countless hours keying these programs in by hand, waiting for a confirmation/checksum beep upon completion of each line, sliding my index card down line-by-line.
It sounds like an exercise in madness now, but those are some of my favorite Commodore memories. With the BASIC programs I had a general idea of what to expect, but Machine Language programs were all over the map. Shorter listings could result in highly memorable games (for the price range anyway), while longer listings could result in complete duds. It was more about the anticipation than anything else, and while I wasn't "coding" in the traditional sense it sure felt like the next best thing.
Paul Norman is rightly known as a brilliant game designer with hits like Monster Trivia and Super Huey. But his signature achievement was Forbidden Forest, a legitimately bone-chilling game with relentless tension and all the celebratory dances you could handle.
You wouldn't think an 8-bit anything could pack such an atmospheric punch, but rest assured, Forbidden Forest would send adrenaline coursing through your veins.
The Seeds of Game Development
My programming chops were nearly non-existent in the 80s, but Commodore games sparked my imagination and triggered an itch to create my own worlds. Fortunately my father had purchased two relevant programs: Stuart Smith's Adventure Construction Set and Garry Kitchen's GameMaker.
Nearly every published game for the C64 was an achievement given the constraints and limited resources, but a framework enabling others to make games? That was beyond ambitious and they pulled it off nicely. Sadly I lacked the discipline to create anything worthwhile in either program, but they planted the seeds for my career and future projects.
The Great Boutique Purchase of 1988
Long before Steam or GameStop there was my mecca, a place called Electronics Boutique. You could find cheap C64 games anywhere, but the best titles were basking in the neon glow of the Boutique logo.
When I'd saved enough to buy two games at Boutique it was quite the historic event. I fired up Neuromancer and it struck me as difficult and disorienting. I quickly set it aside for the other game, Hardball!. The latter sugar rush eventually subsided and I gave Neuromancer another shot — and it became one of my favorite games of all time.
Neuromancer was way ahead of its time, a hybrid point-and-click/role-playing game which threw a spotlight on William Gibson's "cyberpunk" themes. By the time I emerged from the darkest depths of cyberspace, I knew that I'd experienced something special.
The Bard's Tale
If I were to pick one game that embodied my Commodore 64 youth, it would absolutely be The Bard's Tale: Tales of the Unknown:
So many summer nights were spent guiding my party through the streets of Skara Brae, gradually building their strength and resilience so they could plunge into the dungeons underneath. The entire game (including combat) relied on a scrolling narrative, which some might consider a drawback, but I loved it because it allowed my imagination to take over. And boy, did it ever.
There was no such thing as a built-in map, so I'd pencil each step onto graph paper myself. Quite the challenge in wraparound dungeons with traps and warps! But challenges aside, this was a tactile connection to the world that made Bard's Tale a sensory experience like no other. To this day I get chills when I hear songs that were popular at the time, the ones I've permanently associated with long summer nights, graph paper in one hand and a fire horn in the other.
Time with the Family (real and virtual)
If you were lucky enough to have a copy of Little Computer People you know the packaging was pretty brilliant. It came with a deed of ownership, news from the Activision "research team" and other official-looking documents:
Assuming you were willing to play along, you were suddenly responsible for feeding, entertaining, and corresponding with the Little Computer Person taking up residence in your computer. I remember how delighted my parents and I were to meet Phillip, the newest addition to the family.
... which brings me to the most sacred part of my Commodore history: the times it brought me closer to the family. I'll never forget the evenings in the family room, my parents watching sitcoms while I parked myself at the C64 nearby. I'd play poker with Phillip or solve puzzles in Mindshadow, meanwhile, my parents' laughter was the backdrop as they watched Golden Girls or Perfect Strangers. Everyone was happily doing their own thing, yet there was a palpable sense of warmth and contentment.
The truth is, Commodore nostalgia extends beyond any particular program. That big blinking cursor was the heartbeat of our youth... the daydreams we indulged in while the 1541 whirred and clicked, the sense of achievement with each checksum beep, the reactions of friends and family who joined us on our journeys. It was a festival for the senses that we hadn't experienced before, and seldom ever since.