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
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
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|
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!