Tuesday, 15 November 2016

COMMODORE FORMAT #3: NOW I'VE AN AXE TO GRIND

Welcome back to my ongoing series of Commodore Format write-ups, as I bring you the highlights from each issue on the date of their original release, just twenty-six years late!  After two introductory editions the third issue of the run brings a confidence and (no pun intended) format that locks everything in place.

Cover art by John Richardson

The covers are still simpler affairs than the rival magazines of the time, but eventually CF would blow the competition away with its stunning artwork sitting proudly on the shelves.  Not that this should take anything away from John Richardson's handiwork here, of course.  His Chase HQ II cover brings a lovely sense of fast action with it, the brush work and bold colours resembling a comic book adaptation of some hit movie car chase.  As such it's the perfect cover for the review of the game, a cartridge release of the coin-op in which you chase down the bad guys in your souped up sports car, arresting them before they reach the border!  The game itself received a good mid-70s score and the last time I had a C64 I also purchased it.  I didn't play it enough to get very far but it was an enjoyable blast and was a quick addition to my wish list this time around, which I'll get back to in a little bit as it's the basis for a whole new series of posts to compliment this read-through.

But first, let's take a look at the issue as a whole.  There's only one article which could really be described as a Special Feature but even its topic had already been covered in the premiere issue and was meant to be a mini-series, disappearing from #2 for reasons not disclosed, so even it is more of an occasional series.  Besides that though it's what could be called business-as-normal, if it weren't for the fact that the magazine was still new.  As such this was the first issue to drop the introductory features for the most part and concentrate on what its usual contents would be.  It very much feels like they've deliberately dropped any specials to show off what exactly its regular features will be, before bringing back the additional pieces next month again.  It's jam-packed with game reviews, but then again this is the December issue after all, backed up with a plethora of techie pages.  It really is the best of both worlds and feels like the most complete issue of the series so far.

But before I show you what makes up the bulk of the issue, let's concentrate on that one article I mentioned above.  The first issue featured a few pages about the basics of purchasing a modem, the models available and the differences to watch out for.  It promised a closer look the following month at actually getting online but this unfortunately didn't materialise.  It's back now though in #3 and Andrew Hutchinson talks the readers through the various forms of content available to them during 1990 in the brand new world of online communications.  Here's the full piece, which I find interesting as it shows the early days of the internet.  We'd no idea just how big this would become, to the point where so much of my daily life now relies on it without me even thinking about when I'm online or not, or what exactly would be affected if it were all to crash down around us.

No, back in the early-to-mid 1990s going online was just an extra; something only those who could afford it would really take part in to any great degree.  Cost was extremely prohibitive, as you'll read here.  I'll get back to that and a rather funny memory after the article.

Phone companies around the world loved the 1990s

Okay so it wasn't exactly funny when we received a £750 phone bill from BT for one quarter of the year thanks to internet use in the last couple of years of the 90s.  That was with my first PC (which would only get replaced once before I moved to the Mac) but it did produce some great entertainment for me.  Now I don't mean what you're thinking at the back there, so behave!  I was the first of all of my friends to go online and Stevie in particular found this amazing.  We were all in love with chat rooms and forums (neither of which I'd go anywhere near these days!) and on more than one occasion Stevie would come round late at night and he'd sit up chatting to strangers around the world until the early hours of the morning when the phone charges would start again.  I thought it'd be great fun to install loads of sound effects onto the computer too, including a fog horn noise from one of the Jaws films for the chat rooms.  Amazingly I'd still fall asleep, but it always makes me laugh to remember waking up eight hours later and the first thing I'd hear would be that sound.  He was still going!!

But anyway, I never did take my 64 online at the time simply due to costs and I wasn't completely sold on it being something that I'd like or would be popular enough to get the most out of, as it all revolved around there being enough people to play games with, chat to and share with.  I had my finger on the pulse, didn't I?  It is something I'm looking into now though in the modern world, so watch this space.  Yes, you read that right and I'm serious.  But for now back to Commodore Format.

While the magazine brought a great deal more serious and technical articles to the fore over its rivals, the games were still very much the heart and soul of CF.  I like to show off some of the top rated games as I write these posts simply because in speaking with some younger colleagues of mine I realised they all assumed the C64 couldn't produce the kind of games it did.  They thought it was all Atari 2600-like blocks with incredibly simplistic gameplay the likes of which we might play on a bus on our phones these days.  I showed off some titles to them in the pages of CF and they were pretty amazed at what it could do all those years ago, compared to the games most commonly shown in the pages of mainstream retro magazines and the like.

One such example is this fantastic-looking Role-Playing Game, Buck Rogers.  Developed by SSI, the same people behind the complex TSR Dungeons & Dragons games which have made a mainstream comeback in recent years thanks in part to The Big Bang Theory, this game even interacted with those other titles by allowing characters to be exchanged between them.  It's the kind of game I simply thought wouldn't have been possible on the C64 but here it is in all its glory.  Now I have to admit I'm not a fan of the D&D games and so this won't be on my wish list.  I much prefer the Legend of Zelda kind of RPGs, but it's a great example of the kind of games the C64 was producing at this mature stage of its commercial lifespan.

A more serious interpretation than the Buck Rogers I was associated
with back then

Okay, so this wish list of mine, what's all that about?

This is a good time to bring it up as it involves the next game review I'm going to show you from this issue.  As regular readers will know I may be writing these up on the correct dates but I actually started reading them at the start of the year, currently reading (and enjoying, I might add) #16, the January/Christmas issue of the next year of the run in fact.  As I've been going along I've written down the games CF has reviewed which I'd like to add to my collection at some point.

As a teen I never had any real disposable income and so it'd fall to birthdays and Christmas mainly to stock up my Commodore collection of games, with the occasional one during the year from saved pocket money.  Now though I've the time and money (well, a wee bit) to build the collection I'd always dreamed about; those games titles I'd drooled over but never got around to adding all those years ago.  I could simply have listed off a whole bunch of games by looking through websites, or rushing ahead in my CF pile but instead I'm enjoying adding to it as I read them.  Patience is also something I have more of nowadays!  I'll go into this in more depth soon as I'm planning on having the wish list run as a kid of spin-off series alongside these posts, but for now I'd like to introduce you to one which I'm eagerly looking for!

Always associated with the Mega Drive, it was actually a
multi-format release

Golden Axe was one of those games I can remember always being advertised on TV and in magazines, even if it was only for the Sega Mega Drive.  An arcade coin-op hit Sega gleefully showed off their machine running a near-perfect conversion and boasted about how it was only on their console.  But what they failed to mention (why would they?) was that versions were actually made for the home computers of the day.  The Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Amstrad and Spectrum machines all had Golden Axe gracing their microprocessors too and it was a smash!

Advert comparing the various conversions
(though they could've picked a much better
64 screenshot!)

My friend Colin who also owned a C64 went on to have a Mega Drive and an Amiga and on the former machine I remember playing many extremely fun platform games, puzzlers and scrolling beat-'em-ups similar to this game, if not the real thing.  It was one of the main releases of the early 90s and having enjoyed such games as Double Dragon at the time this looked like the epitome of the genre, but I ended up going without.  It's reached almost legendary status in the years since and it's exciting to think now it could be as easy as nipping onto eBay with a few spare quid, rather than trying to track it down somehow with weeks of hard-earned pocket money.  So yes, look out for a new series of posts as I build my wish list and indeed purchase some of those much sought after games.

Another one on the list is also reviewed in this issue and while I'm not including the full spread I just had to show off these screenshots below.  Back in the 90s the term "multimedia" was all new and sparkly, with so much potential and people were in awe of the CD-based machines which came along during the decade.  While Commodore came out with both the CDTV and the Amiga CD32 I was won over by the 3DO and had one myself which I absolutely adored.  Multimedia is a phrase we don't even use these days as everything is multimedia, combining video, audio and interactivity on so many levels, but this was something brand new back then.

When the 3DO came along, for example, games had huge cinematic stories to tell and lovingly created opening scenes introduced you to the plot and characters.  They were hailed as a way to suck the player into the gameplay experience even more and magazines such as Edge popped up on the shelves extolling the virtues of these new ways to play.  But intro sequences were nothing new and the humble C64 was doing them fantastically well already many years previously.  As I wrote about in the post for #1 of Commodore Format, the new cartridges for the C64 enabled developers to write games which took up a lot more memory without having to worry about the game being loaded in tiny bits at a time.  With only 64K the Commodore was capable of displaying graphics, producing sound and creating gameplay on a par with (or often better than) the new fangled consoles, but you'd have to play a little bit at a time.

If a developer really wanted to push the machine for example you'd often find it'd take a few minutes on cassette to load a title screen, then once you pressed the start button it'd take a few minutes more to load the introduction sequence.  Depending on how elaborate it was it could take a few more minutes to get through that before it would then begin to load the first level.  Then you could look forward to a lengthy pause between levels too, or a lengthier one and much tape rewinding if you lost all your lives and had to start again.  Of course the disks made this a good bit quicker and definitely a lot more hassle-free without the rewinding and fast-forwarding etc.  But still the constant accessing of the disks would slow it all down.  Thus more often than not developers would take this into consideration when crafting their titles and so the console games seemed more polished with intro and outro sequences, fancy title screens and other presentation pieces.

With the cartridges however the Commodore could now access up to 2 meg of data (yes, tiny by today's standards but this was 1990 remember), in any order, as much as needed and all instantly!  The lack of waiting times meant even games transferred over to the format without any additional extras still played so much better and felt much bigger.  But some publishers went that extra step further.  Two of the main players who did so were Ocean and System 3, the latter of which decided to repackage the smash-hit The Last Ninja 2 game on cart while they finished the brand new third game which would also come out on the new blocks of plastic.  To quote CF, "Ninja Re-mix features a new animated intro, a new status screen, different music for all six levels and slightly tweaked gameplay so it flows better."  Like I said previously, with a completely different marketing campaign things may have worked out a whole lot differently for the 64 and Commodore in the 90s, especially when you see things like this below!

Hard pushed to think of an
8-bit console game of such
graphic quality

I've been quoting them and talking about their review styles, so I guess it's about time I introduced you to the actual team behind the mag.  By the time I came on board they'd all changed, as with the magazine launched successfully the team moved on to launch other titles - Steve and Andy went straight to working on the new Nintendo magazine Total! - and handed CF over to a new line-up who'd eventually be with us readers over the long-term.  So these faces were all brand new to me when I read over these early issues for the first time and what a brilliantly motley crew they make; the relatively poor quality of the photos compared to what we'd get today feeling a bit quaint and unprofessional, but this wasn't the case back then I can assure you.  Here also is their own reasoning behind the highly original scoring system and icons which I introduced you to a couple of months ago.  Ladies and gents, the CF crew.

Actual proper photographs! A revelation after
the scrawny sketches of other magazines

Now, a quick diversion and simply because it's yet another chance to bind my two completely different blogs together.  The Oink! comic computer game was covered in last month's post when it was given away free with that issue and this month the team decided to give a helping hand to its readers who may have been stuck in the game.  Three characters had games based around them and while Pete & his Pimple isn't included here there was really no need, what with it being a Breakout clone where you batted a ball (pimple) against a wall of bricks.  Instead the Gamebusters section concentrated on the Tom Thug and Rubbish Man levels and here's their maps in full for any fellow pig pals out there as a quick diversion, for both those who have the game and any curiosity seekers.


As I said at the top of the post this third issue feels like it was a shining example of what the new magazine was going to be all about, distinguishing itself from the competition and bringing a fresh outlook on the world of the C64 and its users.  The focus was on games for the most part but these were backed up by some superb technical features and I've already showed you one but the main event was Inside Info.

What would later become known as Techie Tips when I was originally a reader, Inside Info was a readers' letters section but totally devoted to coding and hardware issues.  The Mighty Brain answered questions elsewhere in each issue for anything general, but here Paul Lyons solely responded to (ironically) more cerebral challenges.  I've included the whole of the section below which took up three pages and as you can see the queries range from programming tips and display issues, to upgrading the 64 and de-bugging BASIC.

The part that really places this whole thing in context though is under the banner 'Video Games', where Paul details a ground-breaking piece of new technology.  What ages it, is that this new technology relies on the good old video cassette and readers' VCRs.  Backing up files and games onto video cassette would save space and loading times, but I can't help think even back in 1990 this would've been a bit of a palaver to have so much stored on one VHS tape.  I mean, can you imagine finding one game out of a thousand on one of those?!

"So much potential"
Never seen again

I'll admit it took me a while in my original C64 days to actually read any part of the Techie Tips pages, they seemed so alien and complicated to me and for those first few months all I was interested in was playing the hugely fun games I could get my hands on at last!  But when I received my disk drive the following spring and it became apparent how I could use it to create my own programs and pieces of art and easily save them (compared to cassette) I did find myself going back to my computer's manual and starting to work my way through it.  All of a sudden a whole new world opened up to me and the Commodore took on a huge new role in my life, which eventually led to Parallel Logic, PLPD and Commodore Diskette.  If you haven't a baldy what any of that means then you'll just have to wait, as that's yet another series of posts coming your way soon.

Giving myself quite a lot to write about here aren't I?  Just as well I'm loving this blog so much.

Anyway, I eventually did get stuck into Techie Tips and even though it was answering very specific technical questions from other readers, I was often able to try out the programs and ideas featured, then plagiarise them for my own needs in crafting whatever I was working on next.  The games were the main focus for me at the start but even before the commercial sector began to move away from the machine and the games coverage became less and less, I was probably enjoying the serious side of the magazine more.  Well, I say "serious" but in reality it was still written in the Commodore Format-style with great wit and enthusiasm, which only heightened my own enthusiasm and enjoyment of the computer itself.

Commodore Format was all set to conquer the market and it certainly did so as you'll see in future coverage on here.  Special features return next month with the Movie Tie-in Special just in time for Christmas.  Lots of games based on movies sounds like a disaster, right?  Aren't all such licenced games just quickly-made cash-ins?  Maybe today, yes, but not so in 1990.  Whether that's because of the limitations of the machines we had back then resulting in more effort being put in to make something even resembling a movie, or that more effort was simply put in to produce quality games, is up for debate.  What's clear from the next issue though is there's plenty of games I want based on films I haven't even seen yet.  That should say something of their quality.  Also next month is the start of the A-Z of Classic 64 Games.  Remember CF came along many years after the 64's release and with thousands of games already out there how on earth would we choose which ones to buy?  Even today in 2016 this feature has proved invaluable for me in whittling down the vast amount of games to those I simply must have.

If you've also purchased a C64, or thinking of doing so and are thinking "Where on earth do I start?" then the A-Z series is definitely for you, but also look out for my wish list series coming soon, where I'll be cherry-picking my personal favourites to collect from the pages of Commodore Format.

To end with though, as a special treat for one particular regular blog reader called Steven Flanagan, here's this issue's review of The Amazing Spider-Man.  Steven remembered this review from the time the magazine came out and how it was very different to all the rest, played out like a scene between characters from the comics.  It's all a bit daft but it gets its points across brilliantly.  I especially like how Flash and J. Jonah Jameson are used to great effect to highlight the good and bad points about the game.  It could be seen as sparse on information compared to later issues but the review writing style across the whole publication was still evolving, plus it's all backed up with the superb CF creation of the Power Rating box.  Hope you enjoy this as much as you remember, Steven!

By special request I thought I'd STICK this up here

Another issue done and not a moment too soon!  Don't get me wrong I love these posts so far, but when your calendar flashes up telling you it's due the next day instead of the next week and you haven't even start it yet... well, it's all rather daunting and a lot of hard work believe it or not!  But when you're writing about something you love it makes it all worthwhile.

I hope you enjoyed this and look out for that spin-off feature soon.  Then pop back on Tuesday 20th December for the next issue.  Wow!  The very next issue is the day before my birthday and well into the festive season already!  Bring it on, this is MY time of year!  Speak to you all soon, folks.


2 comments:

  1. Another awesome write-up Phil! Special thanks for including the Spiderman review. It was very novel - like you said they were still finding their feet with the review styles. I raced out and bought Buck Rogers Countdown to Domesday based on this issue's awesome review. Have a great Christmas. Steven.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks very much Steven and no problem, the review was a fun read so I just had to include it! But thanks for the tip!

      What was the Buck Rogers game like?

      Merry Christmas to you too, hope it's a good one for and yours!

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