Tuesday, 20 September 2016

COMMODORE FORMAT #1: FIVE YEARS START HERE!


Between April 2013 and December 2015 I had a blast reading through the anarchic classic 1980s British comic Oink! for the first time in over two decades, covering each issue on my blog on the date of their original release, albeit it twenty-seven years later.  The whole point was to both reacquaint pig pals with their favourite characters and strips while also bringing those hilarious pages to a new audience.  A handful of pages were scanned in from each issue, the process having been okay'ed by the original creators and rights holders, and as the blog developed it became more personal.  I started writing about my own memories, behind-the-scenes information gathered from chats with the cartoonists, as well as my thoughts on the comic in the modern world.

Oink! was my first comic, which back in the 80s I'd started collecting from #14.  Then five years later I started reading my first ever magazine, also from #14 coincidentally enough.  That magazine was Commodore Format.

So I'm here to start another read-through with roughly the same amount of issues to cover as before but which will last twice as long; a whopping five years.  Previously it was on the date of release and twenty-seven years later, this time it's twenty-six, so still plenty of chances to feel old for all of us who read it first time around.

The thing is, all the CF magazines are available at the Internet Archive, a non-profit online library which Future Publishing are absolutely fine with, if you're that way inclined.  Personally I'm not and will always prefer to read a physical magazine, but everyone is different and as long as the permission has been granted and there's no money being made off their property and hard work I'm all for it.  In other words don't be buying those CD-ROMs you see on eBay.  But anyway, this basically means there's little point in scanning in pages with the sole intention of you reading them as I did with the comic, where I shared no more than a quarter of an issue with readers and that blog started off with that sole intention.  However, instead with CF I'm taking the personal journey aspect of The Oink! Blog and running with it.

I can't wait to get stuck into writing about my original time with Commodore Format all those years ago, as it was a very personal experience, but first of all I've had a full year of 'new' issues to read and so far they've been a real treat.  I've been reading for a while and will continue, teaching myself lots of techie tips, enjoying the team's wit, getting lost in the 1990s and collating my wishlist for my 64 from their reviews.  But today, on the 26th anniversary of the first time this fantastic magazine hit our newsstands, I'm going right back to that premiere edition.

The first thing that struck me when I got my hands on this late last year was the attention-grabbing cover!

There's nothing like holding the original in your hands
(sans covertape unfortunately)

Now of course with the gift of hindsight we know the C64GS didn't transform C64 gaming forever, but it certainly did result in some stunning cartridge games, even if it didn't have the effect Commodore and their fans wished for.  But more on that below.

At a hefty 100 pages this must've been a monster mag to have appear on the shelf in 1990!  Especially when most people thought the C64 was well on the way out, to see such a high quality monthly appear would surely have been a thrill for users at the time.  Zzap!64 was still about, although it was slowly moving towards the Amiga too (but would go back to the C64 only) and in CF's first year Zzap! took to copying the look and feel of the newbie to the degree that the review of Supremacy was almost a direct lift.  There's more to read about each issue of CF, their creation and more at Neil Grayson's brilliant Commodore Format Wordpress website by the way.

The design inside felt like an entirely new magazine to me compared to the ones I had originally, as the overall feel is quite different to the issues I'd become used to.  Over the course of this first year it does become more streamlined and the regular features and design aspects come in one by one.  But the main one (for me anyway) was there from the very start and that was the way they'd rate their reviews.  Most magazines I had a look at back then, whether they were a friend's Your Sinclair or multi-format ones I browsed in the newsagents such as C&VG all did basically the same thing; they split the game's review score into different, very specific elements.  To this day some still rate games by breaking them down into graphics, sound, gameplay and how long it'll last.  I was never 100% comfortable with these as they seemed too specific when a good game is more than a sum of its parts.

Commodore Format agreed and editor Steve Jarratt and the team came up with a superb alternative which was the Uppers and Downers Power Rating.  Simply put, they'd list the good and bad points against a scale and where they met that was the game's percentage.  Of course in reality the percentage came first for the reviewer and they'd then fill in the points, but it was a neat idea and became iconic.  It was such a better way to sum up a game, keeping the product as a whole and rhyming off what they liked and didn't like, no matter what it was.  It's what we'd do ourselves as users, so it made perfect sense.  Plus, of course CF came up with the brilliant slogan for a game which scored over 90%.  All mags used to have these but this one was just the best!  Apparently very much of its time though, which I discovered when a younger work colleague asked me what a "Corker" was a few months ago!

But here's the very first time all this came together with the very first CF review!

The "Uppers" and "Downers" would get labelled as such from
the next issue

I'd never heard of this game before I read this issue at the start of the year and it was immediately added to the wishlist.  I should've known the first game they'd review would be a Corker, they had to make a statement after all and it'd make sense to start off with a brilliant game.  The box outs, the superb (for the time) screenshots, the Power Rating, the huge amount of colour and the general layout and design was all very unique at the time.  CF really stood out!  When I compare it now to Zzap!s from the time it really is a vast improvement and feels much fresher and more exciting.  Their writing style was something else too.

But first, did you notice those little icons along the top?  These were a brilliant idea to sum up some key points about each and every game reviewed and were another funny addition.  Though be warned, there's a couple which are groan-worthy puns of the highest order!


Heads: The number of heads equals the number of players
Octopus: Multiload, this means the game loads in parts, like after each level it'll load in the next one for a minute or so (very important for cassette users to know!)
Keyboard: Can be played using the keyboard
Joystick: Self explanatory surely!
Paws: I did warn you... this means there's a Pause mode (hey, not all games did, okay?)
Podium: There's a high-score table included for points
Mountain Peaks: Different difficulty settings are available
Goalie Shirt: Please, remember I'm just the messenger.  This told us we could Save progress

Recovered?  That kind of sums up the sense of humour of the magazine, taking something others would simply write about in a matter-of-fact way and turning it into something fun while still being informative.  Above there I was talking about their writing style and I want to get back into that briefly, though it's a subject I'll definitely come back to as this write-up series continues.  I've mentioned it before (and I will again when I get my reviews section going) but Commodore Format's writers had me spoiled in my teenage years.  While the Power Rating gave a percentage and summed up what they personally thought, I remember reading the magazines and being able to make up my own mind when reading their reviews as to whether I'd like the game or not.  It's testament to the quality of the writing that this is very rare these days.

Today, magazines (and especially any person with a keyboard and an internet connection) like to lecture others on what they should and shouldn't like.  People have forgotten that these are simply opinions and opinions are subjective.  My friends and I can't agree on our favourite films and I'm sure you and your friends are the same, yet people will take complete strangers' opinions as gospel these days.  Back when I read CF the team treated their opinions properly and never talked down to us.  Reviews were intelligently written in such a way that they were hugely entertaining, the reviewer got their own views across and yet we could still make our own minds up.  We felt informed.  Since then very few magazines have followed this example and I've bought very little on a regular basis over the years since then, but it's interesting to read back over these early issues and see that reviewing style develop.

Another Corker from the first issue

Over the first few months the reviews seem to have followed a set pattern, which is introduce the game and then basically break down the levels or stages of play for the main bulk of the review, simply stating what happens and how it plays.  Then finish with a paragraph or two summing up an opinion, relying heavily on the Power Rating box to convey a lot of what they personally felt about the title.  Don't get me wrong, it still works as a great way of dissecting the game for us to decide for ourselves, but by the time I came on board a year later it had evolved and the formula became much more organic and free-flowing, with facts and opinion mixing much better.  It always felt like you were part of an exclusive club and these people were just chatting to you in an informed way, discussing their experiences in a friendly chinwag.  It never felt like the heavy going of some modern day reviews, but definitely in these early issues you can see them experimenting with a definite type of style and thankfully it became looser as time went on over the following year.

Speaking of the reviewers I really should introduce you to them all, so here's the first page of the issue's news section with the team saying hello, explaining how CF would be different and there's more on that console as well.

If all offices were made to wear jumpers like that
the world would be a... brighter Daz-like place

Straight away it's clear they're setting themselves apart from the competition and drawing that line in the sand that they were all about the Commodore 64 and not any other machine.  The whole 'Format' part of the title was an important part of the experience too.  As Amiga Format and ST Format etc. would later do, Commodore Format wasn't just about the games but the whole experience of having an actual computer and not just a games console.  We could do so much more with our machines and the creative juices in me were definitely cultivated with this magazine and the superb little computer itself.  Yes, the C64 was most famous for its games, but Commodore had initially released it as a business computer which happened to play games and Commodore Format made sure its readers got the most out of it.  By contrast Future also released Amiga Shopper for the serious user and Amiga Power for the gamers.

Indeed, in this issue alone there's a wealth of features, from the first ever Inside Info and a guide to datasette alignment, POKEs for game cheats and printer upgrades to an in-depth article on taking yourself online and onto the big, bad world of the fledgling internet with the C64!  There's reviews of some top utility titles for things like databases, spreadsheets etc. that we're so used to these days but which were fancy things back then and a look at Stop Press, a fully-fledged Desktop Publishing package.  For readers at the time used to magazines dealing solely with the games side of things for the previous few years this must've been like a breath of fresh air.  They even managed to get some A-list C64 celebs in there!  Martin Walker, or should I say The Legendary Martin Walker contributes a superb feature on creating music and sound FX (though I'll admit I wouldn't have known who he was back then as I was all new to this) and working within the limitations of the 8-bit machine and its excellent SID chip.  It really is a superb package for a first issue.


Just before I go back to that main feature I have to introduce you to one more person from the magazine.  The main reviews like the ones you saw above were for the full price titles only.  Now, these days a new release game could set you back anything up to £50, but back then it was usually between £10 and £20 depending on whether you went for cassette, disk or cartridge.  But the greatest thing was the fact there were a stack of budget games available from as little as £2.99 each.  Full games for pocket money prices and even the full-price ones would get rereleased on cassette in a smaller box for a few quid maybe half a year to a year later.  Bargain!  I remember cycling for about twenty minutes to the next village with a few pounds in my pocket and browsing through all the cassettes in the toy store, then cycling all the way back home again, sticking the cassette in and then lying down with a cold drink to cool off while I waited for the games to load.  It's strange what we remember at times, isn't it?

But anyway I've digressed.  The budget games had their own section in the magazine, usually made up of much smaller reviews.  While it wasn't unusual for magazines to do this, the way Commodore Format did it was just brilliant!  Meet Roger Frames, who buys Budgit Games.

What started off as one black and white picture soon became a
fully-fledged comic-style story in future issues
Weirdly for me Roger doesn't actually review the games in these first few issues, instead he instructs staff writer Andy Dyer to do so and then Roger sums up whether the reader should part with their cash.  Now the thing with Roger is that he's meant to be tighter than the smile of a botox-addict and he begrudges spending this money on anything.  So when a game gets a good score he grumbles because he has to recommend actual dosh is spent on something.  It makes for a unique take on things and after a few issues thankfully he starts to write about the games proper and the whole two or three pages is full of his cutting way of reviewing.

Oink! readers who may have followed me over from my original blog may recognise the artwork above, although to be fair it's probably hard to do so given it's not in full colour.  Thankfully it doesn't take long for the premise of Roger to take root with the team behind the magazine and the readers alike.  His character expands to include two or three original, full colour panels every month which tell a story of woe for the skinflint, usually loosely tied in with one of the budget games on show.  The person behind these brilliant little gems was none other than Mike Roberts who drew a few pages here and there for the piggy publication.  If you're unaware of what I'm on about you can click here to see the two posts of my Oink! Blog which showcased some of his work.  When you get there scroll down to see his first issue and an amazingly detailed front cover, as well as a mention of good ol' CF in my post.

I'll definitely come back to Roger in future posts and let you see some of those splendid cartoons.  Oh, and I've just noticed that the photograph I took there actually has the title of one of those games I cycled to buy over a year later!

Elsewhere in this issue the news section brings us nuggets about new games such as US Gold arcade conversions of Sega classics, there's movie tie-ins on the way such as Gremlins 2 and there's a suitably... um... "suitable" picture of Elvira (remember her?) to go with the release of her new arcade game too.  The fact the magazine was promising to come with a cassette every single issue (and in a proper box!) would've been new too, another fictional character by the name of The Mighty Brain made his debut (who I'll cover next time), the Monty Python review was deliberately printed upside-down to capture the spirit of the show and for the first time we were treated to all the funny little page number bits throughout the 100-pages, a little extra at the bottom of each page which fans simply loved.  There was also a feature on Commodore's new CDTV, the first and only time the magazine would cover a piece of hardware not directly related to the 64.  But it was new and shiny and different at the time, when "multimedia" was a new thing and no one really knew what to do with it.

Okay, so it's time to deal with the elephant in the room.

A much sought after piece of hardware these days, the C64GS can
fetch ludicrous prices on eBay

That was actually a bit unfair of me, as I do believe Commodore had the best intentions at heart when it came to releasing their Commodore 64 Games System.  It was just a plan which was doomed to failure, but not that anyone could've foreseen that at the time.

Okay, so in 1990 Commodore Format ran with this for the big opening issue and I can't blame them.  At the time the NES and Master System were flying off the shelves but those who owned C64s already had the best gaming device on the market!  It may have been several years old even at that time, but the technology in it and the fact the developers had had years of working on it was resulting in some spectacular games which completely trounced the console competition.  The thing was, these games came on cassette or disk, not cartridge.  In the States the disk drive for the C64 was a lot cheaper and most owners had one with its smooth multiloads cutting down on waiting times and allowing quite epic games to be released exclusively on that format.  However over here in the UK and Europe the disk drive was as expensive (if not more so) than the C64 itself!  It meant we were mainly a cassette country and this was seen as hugely inferior to the consoles, even though this was only really true for loading times and multiload games, but a little patience always went a long way.

Which was a shame, as the games themselves on the 64 could look, sound and play better.  Commodore wanted to tackle this head on.  In the early days of the 64's life there had been cart games but these were simple titles much like the early cassette games and came on 16k carts.  But by the late 80s the technology had developed and now Commodore could produce game carts for the machine with up to half a megabyte of data on it.  That may not sound like much at all these days, but at the time and for a machine which itself only had 64k these were a revelation!  It meant huge games, all loading instantly, multiloads were no longer visible so the games felt even bigger, the graphics could be improved, as could the sound and more intricate and memory-hungry titles could be worked on.  The tech really could give the C64 a new lease of life.  Yes, Commodore themselves were a few years into the lifespan of the Amiga already but with the 8-bit consoles proving so popular they rightly realised they could expand the life of the world's best-selling home computer too in direct competition to the consoles.

The only problem was how they went about it.

Commodore was definitely behind the new console 100%

When I received my original C64 for Christmas 1991 the C64GS had been on sale for over a year and had flopped, but I'd never heard of it.  My computer came with its own manual and a four-game cartridge with its manual being titled "C64GS".  I didn't know what that was all about and just assumed it was the name of the cart.  Later on of course I found out about the console and last year when I acquired a 64 for myself again and saw the front cover of this issue it all came back to me, and I always wondered why Commodore didn't just market the hell out of the C64 computer and its new cartridge technology.  By creating a console these bigger, more complex games couldn't take advantage of the keyboard, they were dividing the potential market and it just looked like a C64 with no keyboard, like it was less of a machine.

However, when I read this feature I understood.  I got it.  It's so easy with hindsight to criticise but when you read a contemporary piece like this it's clear they were trying to do exactly what I thought they should've done; to market the cart tech and the fact it worked on the computer as well as the console.  So basically people had the choice of playing these great Nintendo and Sega-beating games on either a fully-fledged computer with all the extra features and accessories that came with it, or on a simple, cheaper, pick-up-and-play console just like the competition had.  It was a two-pronged attack and when you look at it that way it makes sense.  They may have been thinking that the C64 had already been out for several years (even the newer C64C version I have was a few years old by then) so would people have dismissed the computer as old technology against the console giants even with the new cartridges?  Having a console version met them head-on, while the computer was still a top seller every year for those who wanted more (and to pay more) and these spectacular games worked on both.

It couldn't fail.

But it did.  For all their talk they simply didn't market it!  There were some adverts in magazines but these were for their Amiga and C64 computer ranges with the GS tacked on the end.  These adverts came across like dull, serious computer advertisements at a time when the 64 range should've had in-your-face gaming adverts with a hint of what else the computer could do if they were serious at taking on the Japanese competition.

Taken from #3 this ad wasn't really going to worry the House of Mario!

It was almost as if Commodore thought the idea was so good (which it was) that they didn't need to market it, they didn't need to get out there and push it the way Nintendo and Sega were, that their name and heritage would do it for them.  Something Nintendo themselves have been guilty of a few times over the years.  So they carried on creating the usual style of adverts.  For me personally that was the downfall of the C64GS.  If they'd marketed it right maybe we would've seen a whole raft of new C64 owners in both console and computer form who wouldn't have bought into it otherwise.  According to this issue of CF and the few after it on the build-up to Christmas 1990 the software houses of the day were certainly behind it, supporting it with a large array of new and exclusive games for the format which would push the humble 64 to its limit.  After that Christmas it wasn't long before most of these games got cancelled or redone as cassette and disk games.

Such a shame, a real crying shame.

Vivid Image talk about developing the new tech and the GS's
operating system

That's not to say the computer side of things was going anywhere for a while yet though.  For the next few Christmases 64s would continue to fly off the shelves while at the same time older machines were being handed down to younger siblings who would then start buying Commodore Format, learning about all the new games, the thousands of classic titles and reading the magazine to teach themselves how to code and create.  Editor Steve Jarratt has said it was like the second coming for the C64 and he was right.  The early-to-mid 90s saw a whole new generation come on board anyway without the help of the GS and that generation would be the one who'd return to bedroom coding, where the previous generation had started off.  My generation of C64 owners included those talented individuals who would become the ones to create the first breadcrumbs of the fantastic, worldwide homegrown scene we have today.

I wonder how many have Commodore Format to thank?

Well that's it for this month.  Not for the blog obviously, I've got tons of catching up to do on here and this weekend I'll be sharing some photos with you of my new bunker (as I'm calling it) as I rearrange my previous Oink! Blog writing space into something more suitable for a future full of Commodore projects and goodies.  Hope you'll join me then and, just to set another deadline for myself, #2 of Commodore Format will be getting the same treatment on Thursday 13th October.

I'll leave you with this rather disturbing you-can-tell-this-was-in-that-awkward-end-of-the-1980s-and-beginning-of-the-1990s-phase photo from this issue.


See you soon!


Sunday, 18 September 2016

JUST A QUICKIE...

Just a quick post to end the weekend with to let you know I've been working on completely rearranging my living space to make room for a proper Commodore 64 office space and this has been taking up my entire weekend.  So I haven't been ignoring the blog, I've been working on my C64 future in a bigger way than you can possibly imagine!  It'll all make sense soon.

Behind the scenes I have been scanning in and photographing the premiere issue of Commodore Format for the post this coming Tuesday, so come back then for a look at how the greatest C64 magazine ever began.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

COMMODORE MOREMAT

MyHermes obviously had no regard for the precious cargo they
unceremoniously dumped outside my house

What a delivery this was!  Not that MyHermes helped of course, leaving it sitting on the front door step where anyone could've taken it.  Luckily it wasn't long before I was home from work and could rip it open to find this glorious package of classic magazines within.  But it's left me with something of a dilemma.

Turning back the hands of time first of all though, back in September 1991 a revelation happened; I picked up my first issue of Commodore Format.  Having only read comics before, this was my first magazine and what a mag it was!  About a month earlier my parents gave me the option of which computer I wished to have for that coming Christmas and after picking out the C64 in a Littlewoods catalogue there was a long, long wait to come.  But one day after school a few weeks later I decided to check out the computer magazines of my local newsagent in the sleepy little seaside town of Whitehead and I saw an issue of CF on the shelf, complete with an exciting cover of a racing game and a cassette box!  Wow, games with every issue?  It reminded me of Story Teller, a partwork of children's stories I'd collected when I was much, much younger and how excited I'd been all those years previous with the cassettes.  Now, here was a proper magazine for my teen self with computer games on the cover every single month!  I had to have it.

By the time I asked my parents that night after dinner and they'd agreed (knowing full well this would mean them spending £2.20 every month and they'd been through years of buying several comics) the store was shut, so I went after school the next day but it was gone!  I was gutted, but I figured maybe the next issue was due in and lo-and-behold my first foray into this magnificent publication was waiting for me the very next day.

What a cover to be greeted with as a former Turtles
fan at the time!

I was amazed at the contents, just simply amazed.  I'd never read anything like it in my life!  Plus just look at the covertape!  A demo of the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles coin-op I'd enjoyed that summer on a family member's NES and the full Aliens game too, which had terrified some school friends and I on an Amstrad CPC just a few months previous.  The design was eye-popping, there was so much content, it opened my eyes to the huge amount of fun I was about to have with my new computer, it raised my excitement levels to new unprecedented heights and, most importantly, it was superbly written.

In fact it would spoil me for life.  To this day there's only been a very small handful of computer or videogame magazines I've read and all because of how Commodore Format wrote their reviews.  They never spoke down to the readers, they never lectured us on what we should and shouldn't enjoy playing, never presented their opinions as fact and had such well-written reviews you could tell just from reading them if you'd agree with their score or not if you bought the game.  For example, there was a game in this first issue of mine which received a relatively poor score, but I was still dying to play it.  Still am to this day.

I know I've said this before but most reviewers these days, especially in movie reviews in magazines and online (everyone seems to be reviewing movies these days) but across all forms of entertainment, are too busy either telling people what they're allowed to like and telling them off for not liking the "right" things, or are more concerned with their own credibility and will criticise/praise what's deemed to be the "right" choices.  Personally, my reviews on this blog are just my opinion and hopefully they'll come across as such.  I had a good range of teachers in CF!

The techie side of things in CF would lead me on a journey I'd never have imagined when I picked up issue 14.  Later in the magazine's lifetime I would appear IN it.  A game I made got reviewed, a rather daft photo of me was published, news articles about a friend of mine and myself were written and I ended up running a PD library and a diskzine.  All because of Commodore Format.  That's a story I'll be covering on the blog, but it's come full circle now and that's why I'm writing this post today.

Sorting through my collection, just a handful left to complete
the set, with some doubles to be sold back onto eBay when I
decide which ones are in the best condition to keep!

I purchased the first ten issues of CF last year, as well as my treasured first again, a couple of months before I even opened up my 'new' Commodore 64 when my time off for Christmas finally began.  I read issue 14 first and it brought back not only memories but that feeling of treasured excitement I had and it just ignited my passion for this machine all over again.  Of course back then I also had the next two issues before my computer to build that excitement even further.  This time I then went back and started reading them from the beginning, taking in those early issues I'd missed out on originally.

I'd tried reading some early issues as PDFs on my iPad several years ago and it just wasn't the same.  Digital press is a great way for smaller outfits to publish works (and indeed I'm working on a book due next year for the format) but if a printed version exists I'll always prefer that.  So a couple of glorious months were spent cheerfully reading through those first ten issues at a leisurely pace, then it all came to a grinding halt.  That was because issue 11 was eluding me.

In fact, it was only a few weeks ago it appeared for the first time this year on eBay!  Ironically I'd just purchased a large bundle of issues a day or two beforehand and the Terminator-fronted 11th issue was also part of a large bundle, so I now have some doubles, but it was worth it!  I can now start reading Commodore Format again, in order and in my hands in its original form, as it was meant to be.  Brilliant!  I've got an unbroken run now from the first issue right up to #54, then a lone issue 59, so that's only 6 more to go.  That's not bad from only having 11 a few days ago.

What it means for me is once again a glorious winter ahead full of reading this wondrous magazine.  Indeed, during January of this year I had whole weeks where I'd come home from my job, have my dinner, then curl up on the sofa and read for a few hours in complete silence, my Sky+ plugging away saving everything I was missing.  I simply had something way more enjoyable to do!

So what is this dilemma I mentioned?

Well, I'd love to cover CF somehow here on the blog.  Previously to this my Oink! Blog covered each issue of that hilarious comic on the exact day it had been originally released, albeit 27 years later which made me feel rather... old, to say the least.  But it was great fun and the idea is tempting for Commodore Format too.  The thing is Oink! had next-to-nothing about it online when I started and CF has the fantastic Commodore Format Archive on Wordpress already chock full of interviews with the team, so what could I bring to the table?

Well, my Oink! read-through was just that; my own personal blog about reading that comic all over again, enjoying it, reminiscing and showing it off.  As the blog continued it grew into something I'd never imagined and became host to lots of lost information, creator insights and even new material, but at its heart it always remained my own personal journey.  The idea of covering Commodore Format here in the same way is intriguing; writing them up on the day of their original release.  It's a whopping five years' worth of magazines so there's no way I could wait that long to read them as I did with Oink!, but I could carry on with my read-through and go back and write up each issue on the correct date.

But that's a mammoth task!  Oink! lasted two-and-a-half years, CF twice that.  I never thought my blog would still be going five years from now.  Not that I thought it wouldn't, but I'd never considered looking that far ahead, after all the whole point of Recovering From a Scratch when I started it was just to see where it took me.  But it's a challenge I'd like to meet head on!

My Everest
Blog posts five years in the making

When I look at what I'm planning with the 64 I'd like to think there's a bright and long future with my beige buddy.  So what the heck, why not?  Yes, I have literally just talked myself into doing this as I type.  There's a lot more to cover on the blog this month, but you can be guaranteed of a personal insight into #1 of the world's greatest ever computer magazine on Tuesday 20th September.

What have I just committed to?!

In the meantime check out Neil Grayson's superb archive to the
Biggest and Best!



Monday, 29 August 2016

EIGHT BIT x 2

A few weeks ago I published a little write-up on here about the brand new fan-produced magazine, Eight Bit.  As mentioned at the end of that piece a second issue was already in the works and would be appearing on crowd-funding site Kickstarter.  Well, lo-and-behold it has and the news couldn't be better!

It's official: Eight Bit is here to stay

When it popped up for funding I was surprised the target was so low at only €200 but this was all that was needed to ensure at least another 12 issues after the success of issue 1.  However, it's testament to its quality that with twenty-one days still to go at the time of writing the pledges for this next edition currently stands at €2,564, already exceeding issue 1's final total.  In fact the goal was smashed in less than a day.  What John intends to spend this extra money on I've no idea but I'm extremely excited to find out.

The second issue is promising 68 pages and a special edition full of programming tricks and tips for those of us lucky enough to still be using these classic machines in our day-to-day lives.  Of course I'm particularly looking forward to seeing what people contribute towards it in regards to the C64 and if you've got some particularly good techie information you can get in touch with John via the official Eight Bit website, where you can also purchase the first issue if you haven't already.

Just a glimpse at some of the gorgeous design of issue two

Over 400 copies of the premiere issue have already sold which is a fantastic achievement and I hope John can build on his success so we can look forward to a long and healthy lifespan for this cracker of a mag.  Personally I've pledged €36 for a six-issue subscription, though I'm not sure how regularly it'll be delivered, as John hasn't stated whether it'll be monthly, bi-monthly or (most likely) as soon as each issue is ready.  I'm sure he'll keep fans up-to-date on his site.

If you want to pledge towards the second issue you can do so with the minimum amounts starting as low as €6 here.

Expect a full article about the final issue once it's delivered.  Now I'm away to write about an oft-overlooked Commodore 64 title, one of my very favourites, for a future issue of Eight Bit!  Exciting times.


Sunday, 21 August 2016

VISUAL COMMPENDIUM (2ND EDITION) AND ME

It's finally time.  Way back at the beginning of the year I was enjoying the first volume of Commodore 64: a Visual Commpendium and the second edition had been successfully funded on Kickstarter within a few hours of it going live.  I pledged to help too and as anyone who has used the site before and supported any of the crowd-funding attempts will know, there's usually a few different pre-set minimum amounts to choose between, each with a different set of rewards.  Well it's finally arrived and in advance of reading the book (and obviously reviewing it here on the blog) I thought I'd give you a little preview, as well as a look at the goodies I received... and a look at something I'm hugely excited about from inside.

I'm sharing page space with Trenton Webb and Andy Roberts!

VISUAL COMMPENDIUM SECOND EDITION...

So the book itself is just as glossy and shiny as the original, is ever-so-slightly thicker with an extra twelve pages (hey, every little counts) and is jam packed with all the pixel art you could possibly wish for.  The cover is of a similar design as the first edition with twenty-six little diagrams depicting each letter of the alphabet, immediately pulling you into a game of working out what each one is.  It's both familiar and excitedly new at the same time, but it's on the inside where the big changes have occurred.

Can you name all the references?

With the first edition we had a collection of pixel art from cover-to-cover to savour, backed up with some box art and intro screens, but this time Sam Dyer of Bitmap Books has gone to town on the extra content.  The C64 Visual Commpendium (sic) was the first in what would become an ongoing series of such books, all funded through Kickstarter.  After the Commie came books for the Spectrum and Amiga, with the Nintendo NES being the latest he's working on.  This will explain the "1" on the side of this second edition, as the two volumes go together to form one giant tome, which looks even better when slotted together into the heavy board slipcase which I received as part of my backers' pack.

Impressive, isn't it?  What an item for 64 fans!

Inside, along with the wealth of double-page spreads of C64 graphics there's now interviews with coders and graphic artists, profiles of those classic companies, a look at some of the biggest Commodore magazines of the time, as well as a look at the Ocean Loader, the demo scene and unreleased games.  The original was the perfect coffee table book, so will this extra content dilute that vision and take anything away from the purity of that original idea?  Or will it add to it and create the perfect package for C64 hobbyists?  A review will be coming soon right here after I've finished the book myself, so look out for that next month.

As for the goodies I received with the book, these are very special indeed.  There were others such as a cartridge game for the 64 itself which was only added to the selection after I'd already pledged, and I couldn't add a certain amount of money to my donation to receive it myself (the only solution being to buy two books if I'd wanted to), but on hindsight I'd still have chosen the option I did anyway because it saw me contributing to the book myself!  I'll get to that at the end, but here's what else I received alongside the slipcase and all very professional it is too.

My new running music right there

A copy of the Galway Works CD of new rearrangements of Martin Galway compositions, made exclusively for this Kickstarter, is an astonishingly brilliant thing indeed.  You can see the track listing above (poster and a rather lovely CD box and booklet also included) and it's all brilliantly arranged by Allister Brimble, with additional work from such legendary Commodore composers such as Jeroen Tel, Chris Huelsbeck and Mike Clarke.  I'll admit I never owned any of these games but the CD is a joy to listen to, kind of like a melding of Jean-Michel Jarre, Joe Satriani and the C64 SID chip.  Yes, it's that different and that good.  I actually have it blaring out of my TV as I type.

There's more C64 music brought bang up to date on the next, rather ingenious addition to my package.  Affectionately called the "covertape" is this wonderfully designed USB stick chock full of great stuff.

Brilliant design, even better contents
(the multicoloured card is a Commodore loading
screen bookmark, another little treasure)

I'd actually forgotten about the promised contents of this, which I'd obviously read back when the Kickstarter project was active and it's just wave after wave of surprises:

  • A brand new C64 game (the same as the cartridge for other backers): Caren and the Tangled Tentacles - regular readers will know I'm not a fan of emulation but I'll give it a go as it's on my wish list for C64 games for the actual computer, so I'll view this as a preview personally
  • Season One of the 64 Bites project: 50 minutes of BASIC and assembly tutorial videos, source codes and exercises
  • All 9 issues of Reset 64: I've only read a couple of issues of this superb eZine and, while it's all available from their website for free, it's great to have it all here on the covertape as I can now download them to iBooks and read them on my iPad, which is much more natural than a desktop monitor.  Can't wait to get stuck into all of these before the next issue is created online
  • There's a good bit of music too: samplers of Project Sidelogie and Symphony 64, the latter of which is an astonishing symphonic (as the name would suggest) rearrangement of classic Commodore tunes (and it's only 60-70% arranged!). There's also a Matt Gray Outland 64 track on there and an electronic copy of the CD
  • There's a C64 Loader sequence screensaver and some wallpapers from the Retrospecs app which is available on iOS and converts your photos to C64-like pixels
  • Throw in a PDF of the book, a Chris Huelsbeck interview and a short Jon Hare video on the creation of Wizball taken from the Bedroom to Billions documentary and this is worth the entry price alone!

Okay, so I had to raise my Mac Mini up because of the shape of the USB stick, but inserting a cassette into the back of it does bring with it a wave of nostalgia!  Couple that with the CD I'm listening to and what year is this, 2016 or 1992??

Sorry Sam, it was the first thing that came to hand to raise it up!

After all of that it's time to get on to the one thing I'm most excited about in all of this and that's my own little, tiny contribution to this wonderful package.

... AND ME

Previous to this blog I wrote The Oink! Blog for nearly three years, covering every issue of that superb title and it reignited my passion for writing in ways I hadn't experienced for years.  I even had three articles published on the huge Down the Tubes comics website and I was thrilled beyond belief, it was a complete honour.  I started this blog not knowing where it'd lead me and now I'm in a position where there's writing opportunities appearing thanks to my beloved C64.  Indeed, back in the day I'd started a disk-based magazine on my original Commodore and it kind of feels I'm coming full circle now.

At the very start of this year I didn't know any of this was going to happen, but then the Kickstarter for Commodore 64: a Visual Commpendium Second Edition appeared and one of the options (although the most expensive one) was to donate money to the sum of £100 and have a 100-word review published inside!  Right there alongside the snippets from all of my Commodore heroes!  There were only five of these available and within hours of it going live it was already down to its last one.  How could I resist?

Well, I couldn't.

Sam gave me the chance to list five games so he could pick the one he'd most like to see in his book and lo-and-behold he chose my very favourite videogame of all time, Creatures 2: Torture Trouble.  The original Creatures game had already featured in the first book and the quote had been supplied by none other than one half of the game's creative team, John Rowlands of the extremely talented Apex Computer Productions.  Now I was to follow on with the sequel.  No pressure then!

The review was to be no more than 100 words and you'd think this would be a piece of cake but it was actually extremely difficult.  That was because I'd gone and made a list of about half a dozen things I wanted to mention and was determined to fit them all in.  Writing the review for the 2000AD documentary Future Shock for Down the Tubes paid off (click here) as I'd had a word count there too of 750.  I'd taught myself how to properly edit myself, reword, rephrase, cut and all that stuff until the review fell within that limit.  I found it to be a great exercise and the end result was a lot better than I could've done without a limit (hence why these posts are so long and probably driving you mad by now; no limits!), it flowed better, there was no waste in the words and it was a great learning experience.  The same happened with this book too, but on a much bigger level!

I wrote a few sentences, noticed I was already way over, cut them down, added some more, cut it down... this went on.  I'm very happy with the end result, packing in everything I wanted to say about this spectacular game, and would you believe it I'm sharing a double-page spread with John Rowlands!  I didn't know that was happening until Sam emailed me the page to check a couple of months ago.  Wow!  Just... wow.

It may only be one small piece but it's my first bit of published writing in printed form.  I couldn't be happier with the end result and the fact it's in such a superb book series devoted to a computer which is very, very dear to my heart.

My own little dedication to Creatures 2!  I'm absolutely thrilled
to be in here, and to have written about this game

Well there you go, a sneak preview of what promises to be a book that's even better than the original and no, that's got nothing to do with the page above; that's just my own personal delight!  A review of Commodore 64: a Visual Commpendium Second Edition will be coming in September on the blog, but until then you can check out my review of the first book in the series by clicking here.

Also, check out www.bitmapbooks.co.uk to see their full list of stunning titles dedicated to the very best in retro machines.

A new chapter has definitely opened for me.  I've had to keep this quiet for so long, but expect me to be sharing more over the rest of the year as my future plans start to come together.  Exciting Commodore times ahead, that's for sure!    


Tuesday, 9 August 2016

VOLUME TWO OF COMMODORE 64: A VISUAL COM... ARGH!!

Okay so it's no secret the second volume of the Commodore 64 Visual Commpendium series is almost upon us.  In fact it's in the post to Kickstarter backers right now!  I've been eagerly awaiting this since the beginning of the year and reviewed the first edition here on the blog.  I've contributed a lil' somethin' somethin' this time around and am excited to see it in print at last, plus the backer goodies and extras aren't exactly decreasing the excitement levels any!

Creator Sam Dyer emailed backers last week to say they were finally on their way out into the post and yesterday I came home from work to find.... well, not the book anyway:


Argh!  So close!

The depot is blooming miles away too and I don't drive so I've had to reschedule it for this Friday.  I'm taking the day off anyway that day as I await a new mattress (I'm stupidly excited about that) and watch the awesome Rio Olympic Games all day before going for an Olympic-inspired (though not in length, duration or indeed skill) swim that night, so this arriving should just make it the perfect day.

Once it's arrived I'll give you a little preview and a review will follow once I've devoured it!  In the meantime you can check out Sam's Bitmap Books at bitmapbooks.co.uk and the Kickstarter page for volume two in his C64 series by clicking here.    



Monday, 8 August 2016

EIGHT BIT: BRAND NEW MAGAZINE!

No, you didn't misread the post title.

The editor, John Kavanagh did make a joke in the
email to Kickstarter backers about the typo, so we'll
forgive and forget

Not only do we have a brand new magazine dedicated to the 8-bit microcomputers but the very best one is gracing the cover to the premiere issue.  Successfully funded on Kickstarter earlier this year, Eight Bit was marketed as a brand new retro magazine title but with a focus on the earlier machines of the computing age, from the usual suspects such as various Commodore, Amstrad and Spectrum machines to lesser known brands like Memotech or the Yugoslavian Galaksija which is covered in this issue.

Originally billed as a 48-page read, it grew during the funding process as more pledges came in, taking way beyond the original €600 goal and ending up with a whopping €2464 instead!  As a result creator and editor John Kavanagh from Ireland increased the page count first to 60 and then to 70 pages (which isn't a mistake on my part, I know it's not divisible by 4 but that's what we have here).  Not only does it focus on the 8-bit machines unlike other mainstream titles, it's also not just about the games as, uniquely, it was always planned to have more lengthy technical and programming articles and machine/company features, with games having a supporting role rather than the only one.  Indeed it was aiming to have the kind of technical features we'd have been used to reading back in the 80s and 90s, creating that feel for the modern day users of the actual machines all over again.  So has this been achieved?

I wonder what the rest of this user's furniture
looked like!

First up, it's wonderful to see an actual printed publication instead of a digital one.  There are some superb C64 eZines out there but there's nothing quite like holding a published title in your hands and it certainly adds to that feeling of nostalgia.  However, I have to say I was somewhat disappointed to see it's A5 in size as I was expecting a full-sized magazine.  As such it initially comes across as much more of a fanzine than I'd imagined, but John has really made the most of the space available and there's still a meaty read here.  When you flick through it that initial feeling dissipates and it comes across as more professional and certainly with enough to read to rival any professional A5 magazine you might find in a shop or as part of an expensive fan club.

In fact, when the Commodore's commercial life came to an end printed fanzines such as Commodore Cracker and Computer Scene (anyone else remember them?) came to the fore and Eight Bit immediately feels like a modern take on those titles.  They were exciting ventures at the time with a fresh and vibrant feel so different from the mainstream, with a buzz and excitement about them as they were getting publicity in the final issues of Commodore Format and so this was the first time such fanzines had access to a national (and sometimes international) audience.  This was way before widespread internet remember, and that exciting feeling I had back then returns with Eight Bit; it really does have that same sense of someone forging ahead with their own fan-based magazine but for a mass market, even moreso thanks to Kickstarter and the marketing social media provides.  A modern take on those days indeed.

Fascinating interview that has led to me downloading (they're
all free!) some back issues of Scene World

So what can you expect when you splash out a mere €6 on 70 pages of Eight Bit issue one?  It all kicks off with a superb feature from Martin Grundy on the genesis of the computer scene we'd all come to treasure so much, taking a look back at the years between 1972 and 1983.  While I had read about most of this before in a few books several years ago there's a lot of interesting information here, plus the occasional new nugget, all written in a lovely and relaxed style; professional and informative while feeling friendly and chatty.  It's a writing style which continues throughout Eight Bit and if it manages to develop along these lines with future issues I can see it really engaging with a regular readership, which hopefully will in turn translate into good sales and continued publication as a result.

Also included is an interview with Joerg Droege, founder of C64 diskzine Scene World, but while a technical article on one of the Amstrad computers could've left me somewhat cold (it was obviously written with users in mind, of which I'm not) it was written in an engaging way and provided a nice insight into using one of Lord Sugar's machines.  There's a couple of small news articles squeezed onto one page which I'd have liked to have seen elaborated upon, especially the Spectrum Next, as well as two games reviews, the E.T. Phone Home one being three pages in length and providing an interesting read on a game I'd never laid eyes on before.

The Cylons found hacking the Battlestar's
mainframe easier than expected

While the cover article is a collector's guide to the C64 my favourite elements are actually not associated with my computer at all.  There's a fascinating look at the Apple II range of computers to mark the company's 40th birthday, which I found to be a great read since the computer wasn't such a success this side of the Atlantic and as such I've read very little about it before.  The other favourite was the feature on the aforementioned Galaksija machine which was completely new to me and writer Zarko Zivanov has written a piece which left me wanting to read more about other obscure computers, so hopefully that's an angle Eight Bit can continue with in future issues.

There are a couple of articles which seem misplaced, such as a programming one which tries to cover both BASIC and assembly language across all formats with only two pages to play with.  The scope here is just too big for such a small piece and the same could be said of the one-page news article and a one-page game review.  With the magazine being smaller is physical size one or two pages really isn't enough for much of anything, never mind what was being attempted here.  The magazine lends itself to lengthier features much better and I'm happy to say that's mainly what it sticks to.

The C64 article starts off well but has a couple of little errors fans will spot, while some grammatical and spelling mistakes do make their way into a few pages here and there elsewhere, but for the most part it's professionally put together while retaining that exciting, fresh fanzine feel.  Definitely a high bench mark for other fan-produced print mags to reach for.

As you can see, for some reason Eight Bit
includes news on Nintendo's new "innovative"
controller.  Not really

One neat touch is the inclusion of several Q-code barcodes throughout, which you can scan with your mobile device to be taken straight to a multitude of online resources to follow up on what is covered within the pages.  A particular highlight here is the video of Ralph Baer's Brown Box computer game system from 1968, so kudos to John for including these little extras, adding further to Eight Bit's value for money.

Overall the presentation is crisp and clean, text is large enough to be comfortable and lose yourself in while also giving you plenty to read in the larger articles with two columns per page, although the smaller features use three columns and this just produces more empty space and less text.  Plenty of original photographs from various collectors and resources are superbly reproduced, though it'd have been nice to see more screenshots rather than just one computer after another.  But this is only a small gripe, after all this is a mag which has introduced me to computers I was unaware of and I always like looking at this retro hardware, but maybe we can see more of what they could produce too.

Overall Eight Bit is off to a flying start.  It'd be unfair to give this a Phil Rating score as it's an ongoing venture, but needless to say when each new issue appears I'll write them up also.  Speaking of which John explains issue two is going to go "big" on the technical tips and tricks and I'm keen to read more.  While the two such articles in this first issue were probably my least favourite, with more room being given over to such features next time they'll have the scope to go more in-depth for users who own each machine and to give a more fascinating insight on what they're like for those who don't.

It's always going to be tricky balancing a multi-format magazine of 70 or so pages, never mind an A5 one but I think John's off to a cracker start.

To purchase the premiere issue just nip on over to its eBay page by clicking here, the full cost being €6.00 (roughly £5.09 or thereabouts) plus €2.00 for postage.

"A proper retro mag for 8-bit owners"?  It certainly
is!  Well said, that man

The second issue is going to be funded on Kickstarter too from mid-August, with all subsequent issues being self-funded from sales of previous issues and subscriptions will also be an option if you decide to donate.  I'll definitely be pledging again and John was able to divulge the next one will be ready in September and on top of all the technical tips and tricks (of which they're looking for reader contributions, the best winning prizes) there's also going to be a main article on the Sinclair Z81 and a number of (hopefully larger) programming articles.
With more printed ventures on the horizon on Kickstarter it looks like John has started something here and you really shouldn't miss out on the premiere issue of the premiere magazine in this new genre.    

Editor: John Kavangh
eBay shop: clicking here
Price: €6.00 (plus €2.00 flat rate)