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Commodore 64
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Commodore 64 Links and Thoughts
Just finishing off the Commodore 64 retrospective with some links and thoughts...
  • Vice Emulator: This is the relatively craptacular emulator I used to revisit the games of my youth. Once I figured it out, it wasn't that bad, but the biggest issue with C64 emulators is that they all lack reasonable documentation (or the documentation is difficult to find). The biggest problem I had was with the Keyboard settings. You see, the C64's keyboard had a different layout than today's keyboards, so the mappings aren't always intuitive. Also, the "Keyboard Settings" dialog needs some work (for one thing, someone needs to teach the interface designers how radio buttons are supposed to work). Oh, and by default, Vice assumes a German keyboard layout. That was a good one. Still, it worked well enough for my purposes.
  • C64.com: Fantastic site where I downloaded the majority of the games I played, but which also has lots of good C64 articles, including some long excerpts from The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore.
  • YouTube has a bunch of cheesy old C64 commercials. My favorite has a funny little jingle that goes something like "Are you keeping up with the Commodore, cause the Commodore is keeping up with you!" Ho man, that's not creepy at all. And this one on Google Video is, well... it's just sad.
  • Interestingly enough, I work in the old Commodore headquarters building. Go figure.
Well, that about does it for the Commodore 64. It was a system of firsts for me: my first real computer, my first programming experiences (BASIC!), and lots of firsts in terms of game styles too. And so I do have a bit of a soft spot for the C64. Next up in the video game retrospective will be the good ol NES. I won't be starting that one right away, but I have a feeling that it will end up being a longer series of posts (too many great games for the NES). Until then...
Posted by Mark on May 23, 2007 at 06:16 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, May 20, 2007

C64 Games: Honorable Mention
Continuing the retrospective: There were a lot of games made for the Commodore 64/128, and to be honest, my experience with the C64 is probably less extensive than with other gaming systems. Nevertheless, there were several games I used to play quite often on the C64, which basically amounted to the interim system between the Atari 2600 and NES. Many games have not aged very well, but there is still some sentimental value to these, and some are still genuinely fun to play. The C64 was significantly more powerful than the Atari 2600, so the games were often much larger in scope and began to have more to accomplish than arbitrary point scores (though, honestly, many games were basically run-and-gun, compete for the high score type games)
  • Test Drive/Test Drive 2: A series of games that has pretty much endured the last 20 years and will probably continue to thrive, the first two games were on the C64, and they were great fun. At the time, at least. These games have not aged well. The concept is pretty sound: you're taking a high ticket sports car out for a test drive, and you've got to make it back to the dealership without getting cought by the police (a feature that was pretty neat at the time, and which figures prominently in car games that followed) or totalling the car (a variant has you racing against someone else). But the driving controls are unresponsive and clunky, making it difficult to control and less fun to play. Still, I had a blast with this as a youngster - who wouldn't want to drive around in a Lamborghini or Ferrari?

    Awww yeah, I gots me a Lamborghini   Crashing into a cop ends the game.  I guess that's mildly realistic.

  • California Games: Epyx made a host of popular sports games for the C64 that I used to play a lot, including Winter Games, Summer Games, etc... but California Games was the neatest because it featured non-standard games like skateboarding, footbag (aka hackey sack), and surfing. The different games were varied and depended on differing gameplay. As such, some were tons of fun, and some were little more than an exercise in seeing how many times you could press a button in a short period of time (thank goodness this style of game has mostly gone away). It follows, then, that some games hold up better than others. I'm particularly fond of footbag myself (partly just because I like the names of the tricks, like Jester and Axel Foley)

    Playing hackey sack!

  • Karateka: Probably my first martial arts type game, I was actually kinda suprised at how much I liked this game. I remembered playing it, but not how much fun it was. It's a basic game, with only 6 attacks (puches and kicks, each of which has 3 different heights), but still relatively fun. The controls aren't quite as responsive as I'd like, but it still works out reasonably well. You play a man trained in the art of karate (a karateka), and the goal of the game is to rescue a princess from the evil Akuma. To do this, you must defeat the guards of Akuma's castle and eventually face Akuma himself. It's a very short game, but challenging, as your foes get progressively more difficult to kill (Akuma is really tough). Amusingly, many players got to the end of the game and got killed by the princess because they attempted to rescue her while in a fighting stance (the fact that she's able to kill you with one kick to the head begs the question: if she's so powerful, why does she need to be rescued?!). If you're not in a fighting stance, you hug and kiss the princess. Apparently a lot of players never figured this out and thus never completed the game... By today's standards, this isn't great, but it was surprisingly fun revisiting this game... The game's graphics and animations were astounding at the time, and the game's creator, Jordan Mechner, went on to create the hit Prince of Persia series.

    Take that, weenie!   Fighting Akuma   Yay princess!

  • Skyfox: Now comes my first flight sim game, I don't think I ever really got that far in this game, but there were a lot of things I really liked about it. First, it had a pseudo first-person 3d feel to it, and I think it's one of the first games to have the "cockpit view." When deploying on a mission, the game has a very memorable launch sequence that really stuck with me... The graphics were also good, and I remember being enamored with the enemy units (for some reason, the concept of attacking a mothership was really neat to me).

    Cockpit point of view

  • Temple of Apshai: When going over my atari 2600 picks, I noted that I couldn't get enough of various fantasy games (like Adventure and Dragonfire), and this game was the first to really mimick pencil and paper role-playing games like D & D. I loved it. It's actually not that great. Horrible graphics and an awkward gameplay (when you enter a room, you're supposed to consult your manual to get a description of the room) make this a less-than-exciting experience. It was just a basic dungeon crawl with no real story, but it was also my first taste of an RPG, and I loved it. Needless to say, it doesn't hold up that well, but it's worth noting because it was my first RPG. The one thing I will note is that the soundtrack to this is actually very effective. It has this low, ominous tone that continues as you hack through the dungeon, providing a great ambient background. Plus, for you Homestar Runner fans, Strongbad plays this game!

    Oh noes, a mosquito!

  • Some other games worth noting: Spy vs. Spy (a two player game and funny booby traps, but otherwise not the greatest game), GI Joe (I played this mostly because I loved GI Joe, but the game stunk), and an Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade video game (I can't seem to find the version I played, and I remember very little about the game, except that I used to play it all the time while listening to a Motley Crue album. Should I have admitted that? Probably not.)
Most games of the time weren't that impressive, but they were the direct forerunners to many of the conventions we take for granted in today's games. They're still fun, but they wear thin relatively quickly. One final disclaimer: I'm positive that I'm missing a bunch of really great games, but I should stress that this is a) a subjective list and b) limited to my experience playing video games as a youth. Anyway, perhaps one more wrap up post for the C64, and then it's on to other things.
Posted by Mark on May 20, 2007 at 09:18 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Airborne Ranger
THE ELITE UNIT has always captured the imagination of both soldier and civilian. Units such as the Rangers are the point men of the armed forces, the cutting edge, and they fascinate us to an extent out of proportion to their numbers. We envy them their sharp, distinctive appearance, their high status, their esprit de corps. and most of all their awesome skill in their chosen profession. They have an aura of competence that is at once reassuring and intimidating, as if they will admit no limits to what they can achieve. This unshakeable confidence would seem preposterous if it had not been borne out time and again by events on and off the battlefield. The really are as good as they think they are.
- An excerpt from Airborne Ranger Field Manual
My favorite game for the Commodore 64 was a 1987 military simulation called Airborne Ranger. I don't consider myself an expert in video games of the era, but I believe this is among the first military themed-games that valued stealth and tactical planning, paving the way for venerable successors like Operation Flashpoint, Metal Gear Solid, and Rainbow Six (and all the other Tom Clancy games). Quite frankly, I think I'd rather play more Airborne Ranger than Rainbow Six, which says something about this game. If it weren't for the poor emulator support and controls, I'd probably still play this game all the time.

Airborne Ranger (initial screen)

The game consisted of several missions in which a lone Airborne Ranger, controlled by yourself, infiltrated enemy territory and carried out various tasks like stealing a code book, destroying a munitions depot, knocking out an enemy radar array, and freeing hostages (amongst other such tasks). As you complete tasks, your ranger is promoted, eventually attaining the rank of Colonel. As previously mentioned, some missions require stealth (in one, you have to steal an enemy uniform to infiltrate the target area) and almost all warrant careful planning. While each mission has required objectives, how you carry out your mission is left up to you. You're given a limited amount of ammunition (some of which can get lost during the air drop if you're not careful), so even when stealth is not required, you must choose your targets carefully. If you run out of ammo, your ranger is captured, but when that happens, other rangers in the roster have a new rescue mission available to them (and if you're successful, you can continue playing with your original character). This is a good thing, because once your character dies, he's dead and you can't use him anymore. Of course, you can run practice missions to make sure you've got the hang of a level, but the maps and objective locations are generated randomly each time you play the mission, so there's no guarantee (this also requires you to think quickly during a mission, as you won't know what you're up against until you actually start the mission).

After choosing a mission, you are briefed and then given control of an aircraft. As it flies over the enemy territory, you have a chance to drop 3 duffel bags filled with supplies (ammo, medical kits, etc...) You need to be careful where you drop these supplies though - if one of the bags hits a tree, barbed wire or other obstacle, those supplies are lost.

Flying Over Enemy Territory

As you get towards the bottom of the map, the drop light comes on and you parachute to the surface. This is where the bulk of the game takes place. At this point, you need to carefully make your way up the map, gathering the supplies you dropped and avoiding enemy forces (or not, depending on the mission), until you reach your objective. Once your mission is complete, you need to high-tail it to the extraction point and hold off the enemy until your ride shows up...

Flying Over Enemy Territory

The game is lots of fun, and it holds up reasonably well even today. Sure, the graphics and sound are horrible by today's standards, but the concept is well designed and executed. It's probably comparable to the NES games of the era in terms of graphics and sound, but the gameplay is great (incidentally, there are several other versions of the game for other platforms, including the higher-end Commodore Amiga, which had much better graphics). You play the game frome a pseudo-3D perspective that was somewhat rare at the time and commonplace today (it's similar to the Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto games). The only thing really holding it back is the controls. This game was far ahead of it's time and because it was limited by the simple joystick and a single button, it made use of lots of keyboard controls, which is far from ideal (this game would probably be a whole lot easier with today's PS2 style controllers - incidentally, the emulators for the C64 have some strange initial settings which make it difficult to play this game, but that's a topic for another post.) Still, I had a blast revisiting the game, and it's something I'd love to see remade with only minor enhancements...

Put simply, it's a great game. The number of weapons, freedom of movement, varying environments (there are dessert, arctic, and temperate levels), stealth action, variety of missions and randomly generated maps make this game a tough one to beat. Unquestionably my favorite game for the C64, and it would probably end up in my top 10 video games of all time as well.

More screenshots and comments below the fold... One of the key tactics you use in the game is to crawl around in trenches that conveniently dominate the landscape in all the levels (it's not that realistic of a game, you know, but still fun). This prevents you from being seen or shot at by fixed emplacements like the bunker shown below, but patrolling enemies often can see you and will pursue you.

Crawling through a trench

The below series of screens shows my plane flying over the mission objective (in this case, an antenna array, shown in the map by those little blue doohickeys at the top of the map that... kinda look like antennas. One thing I should mention here is that these maps are exceptionally well done - all the objects on the map are clear and intuitive). To get there I have to cross a frozen river (the big white area), and deal with some bunkers and machine gun nests (not to mention all the stuff that's not visible further down on the map)

Flying Over Enemy Territory

Taking out a bunker with a LAW rocket
Bunkers are no match for LAW rockets

Crossing the frozen river is mildly dangerous, as some portions of the ice are unstable. In this screenshot, some of my less-than-bright enemies walked on thin ice and fell in...

Crossing the frozen river
Treading on thin ice...

I had used up all my LAW rockets by the time I got to my objective, so I had to make due with a time bomb.

Blowing up an antenna
Tick-tock, tick-tock.

As previously mentioned, you drop bags of supplies that need to be retrieved.

Get away from my supplies!
Get away from my supplies, weenie!

One of the more difficult missions involves cutting a pipeline. Part of the difficulty is that there are tanks patrolling the pipeline area, and they're, you know, deadly. Here, you see me getting ready to destroy the pipeline, just before the tank killed me.

Oh noes, a tank!
Oh noes, a tank!

Here's something you don't see much in games... well... ever. When you start the game, one of the screens you have to pass through is this one, which gives credit to the game's creators:


Posted by Mark on May 16, 2007 at 08:18 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A Video Game Retrospective: Part 2
About a year ago, I started a video game retrospective, beginning with my first video game console, the Atari 2600. My intention was to go through my favorite games for all the various platforms I've played on. In typical Kaedrin fashion, I wrote about 5 posts on the Atari 2600 then promptly forgot that the series was supposed to continue. I figure it's time to resume the retrospective, taking on my second major video gaming system: the Commodore 64 (and, after my brother and I destroyed that, the Commodore 128).

The C64's hardware was basically contained within the bulky keyboard (the C128 had a more standard keyboard size, but had a chunk extending back that contained the processing hardware) and you could just use a television as a monitor. Now, unlike the Atari 2600, the C64 is an actual computer - you could do more than just play games on this (I remember writing book reports with some rudimentary word processing software and printing it out with a fancy dot-matrix printer). Indeed, I got my first taste of computer programming using the C64's native BASIC language (not that I produced anything of worth, but it was a start). That said, it was primarily used for video games. Booting up the C64 gave you a command line with a distinctive blueish/purple monochromatic color scheme:

C64 Command Line

It's funny, but that color scheme was very memorable and seems to be a popular target of geeky nostalgia (for all you Opera users out there, there's a user mode style sheet called "Nostalgia" installed by default, so you can browse the web like you're on a C64). It used the same controllers as the Atari (directional stick and a single-button), but it had far better graphics and much more expansive gameplay. You'll see more of this when I go through the games later this week, but the games for the C64 progressed further than the simple, arbitrary goals of the Atari era. I just downloaded the open source VICE emulator and have been getting reaquanted with some of my favorite games. The emulation here leaves something to be desired (particularly with respect to games that require keyboard controls, as the C64 had a slightly different keyboard layout and VICE's documentation is... lacking...), but I'm making due... Again, my favorite games will be reviewed in separate posts, so stay tuned!

Update: Follow up posts:
Posted by Mark on May 13, 2007 at 10:31 PM .: link :.

End of This Day's Posts

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