I wasn’t into much when I was a kid. The list of things I disliked extended far beyond my roster of cherished pastimes. I flat out hated sports and spirited competition of most any sort, and apart from a few TV shows and Saturday morning cartoons, sitting in front of the tube generally failed to hold my interest (movies were a different story, but money and distance prevented us from both going to the theater or renting tapes all that often). Going outside and playing was diverting enough for a half hour or so, but mosquitoes and blackflies generally drove us back into the relative buglessness of our rooms. Reading and action figures were both an important part of my daily time-filling routine, but both took a serious backseat to the wonders offered by a new addition to the household in 1982: the Atari 2600.
Now I fully intend (or probably won’t, potayto potahto) to devote a potentially enormous series of blogs to the beeping rainbow of cartridges that the various Atari and Coleco systems had to offer, but in my case those esteemed forebears of far superior technology were merely stepping stones to more fulfilling game experiences just a few short years down the road.
The aforementioned fulfilling game experiences were in no way provided by the above machine.
Hot on the heels of Atari in our household was the Radio Shack TRS-80, a personal home computer that initially blew our minds (we had a COMPUTER!) but revealed itself as a one (exceedingly unimpressive) trick pony in short order: It could talk, kind of. As I recall, the title of the game you were about to play would be announced by a robot with a cold speaking through a couch cushion piped through a dying hi-fi. You would then get to wait ten minutes for a game to load, whereupon you would not have any fun playing it because it wasn’t good.
The only passably diverting game we had for that thing was a Sesame Street affiliated learning game called “Grover’s Number Rover”, in which you would type in answers to basic math problems, and Grover would tell you if you got it right or not. Had we been informed beforehand that the funnest thing to do on our new computer would be math, I assure you my brother and I would have immediately burst into tears and begun screaming things like “THIS IS THE WORST CHRISTMAS EVER!” and “I HATE MUM, DAD, JESUS AND SANTA!”. The only thing we truly enjoyed about “Grover’s Number Rover”, apart from the fact that it was refreshingly free of challenge and loaded relatively quickly, was that when you (usually, though not always, on purpose) typed in an incorrect answer, Grover would frown and furiously shake his head back and forth, accompanied by a loud, vaguely flatulent beep. As you can no doubt imagine, very little learning took place. For our purposes, the game could just as easily have been titled “Grover Angrily Waggles His Head and Breaks Wind”. We certainly would have been more excited to see that title under the Christmas tree than “Grover’s Number Rover”. Other than a catchy rhyme scheme, what was a “rover” and what exactly did it have to do with bland, undemanding computerized mathematic worksheets? Dictionary.com defines “rover” as “a senior boy scout”, “a routing machine”, “a familiar name for a dog”, “a pirate ship”, and “someone who leads a wandering unsettled life”, none of which apply, even obliquely, to a computer game involving math. I realize that not many people would have purchased “Grover’s Stultifying Computation”, but that’s no reason to abandon logic altogether. Why not simply make a game kids won’t hate, preferably one that eschews the very notion of education?
Anyway, the TRS-80 was a jive-ass computer, and we probably wasted a lot of hard-earned money on it, but again, an important stepping stone, leading to what is still to this day the purest idle glory I can presently conjure, and a much better Christmas present besides:
The Commodore 64.
I know this makes me a very sad and very old man, but if I could only take one gaming device to a desert island, and I didn’t feel brave enough to kill myself while lamenting that terrible set of circumstances, I’d take this baby right here. For me, a computer game just isn’t a computer game if you’re not required to wait 3-5 minutes for it to load up, and if you need more than a sturdy stick and a single jolly red button to get anything done, and if you get more than three lives to overcome insurmountable, if primitively rendered, hardships and surreal skill challenges.
My friend Harold was the lucky owner of a Commodore 64 before me, and I had been to his house and played with it on a number of occasions, so I was adequately prepared for the beautiful dream that my life was about to become. I also knew that if I provided him with floppy disks, Harold would happily and illegally (seriously testing the resolve of the Commodore Police) copy games for me.
I was set for life.
I owned exactly one of the games pictured above (the classic “Impossible Mission”), but it’s a nice overview all the same.
C-64 games weren’t like any other games. You never really knew what you were getting into. Pictures on game boxes and descriptions or reviews in magazines like “Run” and “Compute! Gazette” could only hope to scratch the surface. Occasionally, in the case of games as strange and wonderfully crazy as “Lazy Jones” (one of my favorites ever, which we’ll get to), even playing the game itself didn’t shed much light on the situation. It often took several playing jags before one actually grasped what your little guy is supposed to be doing, and what keeps making that weird noise, and how come I keep dying when I run into that blob. Due to a canny compound of simple fun and cryptic/nonexistent tutorials, the best Commodore 64 games boasted an unmatched replay value.
That’s not to say you didn’t run into your fair share of crap games. With 10,000 software titles on the market (and that’s not including the multitudes of independently produced games, many of which were more fun than what Radio Shack or Zayre’s had on the shelf in spite of their generally weaker graphics), they couldn’t all be winners. In my experience, though, even the worst of the lot could usually claim at least one compelling feature, some intriguingly odd detail that made it worth popping into the old 1541 every now and again, whenever you were tired after three straight hours of a genuinely good game, like “Bruce Lee” or the Epyx Olympic-themed series.
Another exciting aspect of the C-64 was the ability to create ones own text-based computer games, armed with only the basest knowledge of the BASIC programming language.
Generally, the games would take the form of a “Choose Your Own Adventure”, or some kind of quiz, in which wrong answers would invariably result in taunting allegations of homosexuality, always a popular activity in 80’s-era central Maine. Excretion and genitals were also a recurring theme.
A typical game of ours might be programmed thusly:
10 PRINT CHR$(147) <—-cleared the screen
20 PRINT “HELLO! WHAT IS YOUR NAME?”
30 INPUT A$ <—–this would create a prompt where the player could enter their name
40 PRINT A$”, PLEASE ENTER A, B, OR C.” <— A$ now causes player’s name to appear
50 INPUT B$ <—–again, a prompt appears onscreen, this time for player’s choice
60 IF B$ = “A” THEN PRINT “YOU FARTED,”A$”!”
70 IF B$ = “B” THEN PRINT “YOU SURE HAVE A SMALL PENIS,”A$”!”
80 IF B$ = “C” THEN PRINT A$” IS A FAG!!!!”
90 PRINT “THANKS FOR PLAYING!”
That’s just a rudimentary example. The games were generally a bit longer and slightly more complex, often with an unreliable narrator that would urge you to make selections that resulted in your death or sexual humiliation. Inputing “SOUND 1, 100” would make a beep in varying registers, depending on what you used for numbers, and occasionally we’d employ that capability if we wanted to get fancy, but not often.
Eventually my mom sold off our C-64 and all its games at a multi-family yard sale. At the time this wasn’t a big deal. I was out of high school by this point, and more interested in Playstation. The 80’s were recent enough that I could actually remember them with fairly dependable accuracy, thus swiftly nullifying any potential for wistful nostalgia. What did strike me as rather funny even then was the knowledge that included in that overstuffed plastic storage contraption for floppy disks were probably 30 or 40 of our own homemade text games, much like the one detailed above, except most likely a lot more offensive. It does my heart good to think of a nice, unsuspecting family excitedly playing all their new games, only to be viciously and crassly insulted and barraged with 8-bit hate crimes.
Later, I lamented the loss of that system and all those games. I’d like nothing more than to be able to play all those deeply offensive BASIC games that we made, or to play any of the hundred or so actual games that so captured my imagination from grades 5 through 8 (that’s about the time Nintendo and self-loathing entered my life, both of which ate up a lot of time once solely devoted to C64). A few years ago, I was able to get my hands on an old Commodore system, but without all those games, those exact games, I couldn’t really get into it.
But that’s probably only a small fraction of the reason the C-64 didn’t reignite my excitement years later. The fact of the matter is, you really can’t go back. Having purchased a new computer back in 2004, I was thrilled to discover the world of emulators, meaning I could download a tiny program that would essentially transform my Compaq into a fully functional Commodore 64, replete with access to every game ever made for the system. Once I downloaded everything I needed, I probably logged a total of thirty minutes using it, if that. To reclaim that former magic, I’d need to be in my parent’s basement, with the computer hooked up to a 9-inch Zenith on top of a picnic table my mom had painted white, with our old cat Sneakers rubbing up against my feet, and Dad and Mum talking unintelligibly about their work day upstairs, and Justin clomping around aimlessly or watching “Square One” or “Scooby Doo” while eating a pouch of Fruit Wrinkles in the living room, and I’m wearing my Dad’s old ratty yellow tee-shirt I inherited, the one advertising the awful 1976 remake of “King Kong” starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, contendedly failing yet again to get through the second screen of the incomprehensible game based on “The Goonies”. It was about the setting and the people more than the machine itself, which is interesting considering I spent much of my time ignoring both of the former in favor of the latter.
Whiling away a break at work mulling over a supposedly complete list of C-64 games on Wikipedia, I decided I’d go through and try to recreate a thorough-as-possible list of all the games we ever had for the Commodore. So far I’ve compiled 56 of them. This seems a little light, but no doubt I skipped over a few, and, even more probable, forgot a bunch. Also, I remembered a few titles we had that I didn’t see on that list, so I’m going to keep an eye out for more exhaustive documentation, at which point I intend to discuss each and every one of those games at length, depending on how fun they were and how often I played them.
I realize that discussing the merits of outmoded video/computer game systems is not exactly trailblazing as far as blogging and the internet are concerned, but while that arguably testifies to my laziness and lack of original thought, it definitely testifies to the undying affection little nerdy guys and gals (?) everywhere still harbor for this once-ubiquitous computer, an unfailingly positive memory and a true old friend.