The History of Video Games #11: Gaming on the Commodore C64

Updated: Jun 25


Turrican 2: The Final Fight Commodore C64

In the last article, we investigated the impressive (for the time) audio-visual abilities of the C64, which were made possible thanks to its dedicated graphics chip, sound chip and 64K of RAM. We will now take a look at the games on the C64 and what this technology could achieve in-game.



Games


The C64 had an extensive library of games, with some sources stating a figure upwards of 2000 titles. These games covered almost every genre created at the time. As with all systems, these games varied somewhat in their quality. The best of them were among the best games released on any of the 8-bit home computers.

NB – the 8-bit home computers were sometimes referred to as ‘home micros’.

Let’s go through these games by category, starting with…


Coin-Op conversions

Throughout the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, Coin-Op video arcades were extremely popular. As such many popular arcade games were ported to the home systems, the C64 included. Although none of the home systems could match the graphics and sound of the arcade cabinets, the C64’s impressive hardware enabled coin op conversions that were more faithful than most.


These conversions varied considerably in quality. Rainbow Islands was one of the best…



Rainbow Islands Arcade




Rainbow Islands C64




Whilst Rygar was one of the worst…



Rygar Arcade




Rygar C64




For a comparison of almost every Arcade-to-C64 conversion take a look at these videos by Laird's Lair;


Commodore 64 Vs. Arcade - Part 1

Commodore 64 Vs. Arcade - Part 2

Commodore 64 Vs. Arcade - Part 3

Commodore 64 Vs. Arcade - Part 4

Commodore 64 Vs. Arcade - Part 5



One Button Complications


Being limited to a one button joystick was occasionally a challenge. ‘Up-to-Jump’ solved the problem for most two button arcade platform games, whilst pressing the spacebar took care of smart bombs in shoot ‘em ups. Unfortunately, arcade games that used a three-buttons-or-more control scheme usually couldn’t be ported satisfactorily. As you can imagine, the arcade conversion of Street Fighter 2 with its six-button control scheme was particularly problematic - as it was for all home computers that were limited to one button joysticks.



Street Fighter 2 - Commodore 64 - Ryu Playthrough




If you would like to find out more about just how bad the C64 Street Fighter 2 port was, take a look at Nostalgia Nerd’s video here.



Multi-Platform Games


The market for games designed for the home computer was arguably even larger. With a number of different home computers on the market, it made sense for developers to create versions of their games for as many systems as possible - platform exclusivity was a rare thing back then. As a result, the games library for the Spectrum, C64 and Amstrad CPC were broadly similar.


One particularly good example of this being Turrican 2: The Final Fight which was released on nine separate systems. The C64 version was considered by many to be the best of the 8-bit versions, partly due to it featuring gameplay elements that even the 16-bit versions lacked.



Turrican II: The Final Fight C64




The C64 versions of multiplatform games tended to be superior (perhaps arguably) in terms of graphics and sound compared to their Spectrum counterparts. Judge for yourself in the video comparisons below.



ZX Spectrum Vs Commodore 64 (Vol. 1) - Let's compare 50 games!


You might notice some games are completely different on the two systems – Kwik Snax (1:20:21) and Rebel (2:33:09) in particular



ZX Spectrum Vs Commodore 64 (Vol. 2) - Let's compare another 50 games!


Note how the Spectrum’s colour palette makes the games look garish, whereas the C64’s colour palette is more subdued.



8-Bit Home Computer Exclusives


In addition, there were a wide variety of games that were released exclusively for the 8-bit home micros. Ultimate Play the Game was a notable 8-bit video game company that created a number of highly rated games for the ZX Spectrum, C64 and Amstrad CPC.



Night Shade C64


Note the ‘Attribute Clash’ - AKA Colour Clash. This was (thankfully) a rarity on the C64



C64 Exclusive Ports


The C64 was more powerful than the other 8-bit micros. As such it received ports of 16-bit games which were not even attempted on the other systems. Armalyte is a good example which was released for the 16-bit Amiga and Atari ST and the 8-bit C64. It should be noted that the C64 game differs considerably from the Atari and Amiga versions. It could be argued that they should be considered separate games.



Armalyte C64


Note how smooth the game runs. This game clearly makes good use of the C64’s hardware.



Armalyte Amiga

Note that the differences are not merely cosmetic



C64 Exclusive Originals


There was no shortage of games developed exclusively for the C64 either. Some of these games looked noticeably better than multi-platform C64 games. This was due to these games being designed from the ground up to take full advantage of the C64’s hardware. The aforementioned Mayhem in Monsterland is a standout example, as was Creatures 2.



Creatures 2: Torture Trouble Longplay (C64)




Mouse Driven Games


Due to the C64 being compatible with the 1351 Mouse, games such as Lemmings were able to take full advantage of mouse control. Ports of Lemmings to systems that lacked mouse control were often frustrating affairs.



Lemmings C64




3D Games


Although the C64’s hardware was well suited to 2D scrolling and sprites, it struggled with 3D rendering. Its VIC-II graphics chip was not optimised for 3D. As a result, the C64’s relatively underpowered 1MHz CPU had to do much of the polygonal ‘heavy lifting’, resulting in frame rates which were frustratingly low. Driller, released in 1987, is an excellent example of this.



Driller (1987)


Check out that frame rate



3D games with wireframe graphics - such as Elite - fared somewhat better due to their less demanding graphics.



Elite 64


Compare this with Elite Dangerous. 3D games have come a long way



On-Line MMORPG


The C64’s internet capabilities allowed for the world’s first MMORPG, Habitat (also known as Club Caribe). Although primitive by today’s standards its success proved the viability of the MMORPG concept. This ultimately led to modern day MMORPGS such as World of Warcraft and online virtual worlds such as Second Life.



Lucasfilm's Habitat Promotional Video C64




Magazines and Cover Tapes


The C64 spawned a number of C64 focused video game magazines, such as ZZap!64 in the UK. Magazines such as these featured news, reviews and irreverent comedy articles. For gamers in the pre-internet ‘80s and ‘90s, magazines such as these were the best way to keep up-to-date with what was happening in the C64 gaming scene.


They were also the best place to find honest reviews by people who knew what they were talking about. Other than word of mouth from friends, this was the only way to ensure the games you had your eyes on were not complete dumpster fires.


As an added bonus, many magazines came with cover tapes. These usually contained playable demos of up-coming games, indie games and various programs, including loadable cheats called POKEs.



We saw earlier how Elite looked on the C64. Does this count as false advertising?


Legacy


The C64’s popularity worldwide ensured it would have a persistent legacy. In fact, interest in the C64 has been reinvigorated recently due to the release of the C64 MINI, another retro-mini system with built in games intended to appeal to gamer’s nostalgia.



The C64 Mini


What’s more, the C64 cemented the idea that a multi-function home computer could double as a high-end gaming machine. The C64’s relatively high performance and competitive price ensured that it would make its way into the homes of millions of people world-wide, and it would take this idea with it.


This set the stage for the 16-bit home computers, such as the Amiga and Atari ST. These home computers would be designed with gaming in mind, and it would show. But that is a story for another day…


Although both the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 were extremely successful, they did not have the market to themselves. There was a third ‘80s 8-bit home micro which gave them a serious run for their money - the Amstrad CPC 464 - the topic of the next article.


See you all then.


Did you own a C64 back in the day, or knew anyone who did? If so, what were your experiences? How did you find gaming on the C64? What were the best things about it as a gaming machine, and what were the worst? How did it compare to the games in the arcades, other home computers or the 8-bit consoles? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.