The beige breadbin that is the Commodore 64 turns 40 years old this month. I’ve played on a lot of computers and consoles over my 40+ years of gaming, but there has always been something very special about the C64. It wasn’t my first gaming machine and it wasn’t the best or even my favourite… but it was special. Right here, I’m going to take a look at (or at least, try to remember) some of my fondest memories of growing up with the C64. Bearing in mind that I am over the mid-40s now and I’m the kind of person who goes upstairs and forgets what I went up there for. So, recalling things from several decades ago is really going to be a challenge.
As a family, our first gaming machine (like a great many other gamers in my age range) was the Atari 2600. This was where my passion for gaming began, playing arcade games like Space Invaders, Pong and others at home. Getting utterly confused by Raiders of the Lost Ark because it had an actual plot to follow and an ending to see, which was very unusual back then. Family holidays were spent at one of England’s many seasides and that was where I was introduced to the arcade. By the time the Commodore 64 was released in 1982, 6-year-old I was already pretty much heavily into gaming. However, I didn’t even play on the C64 until a few years after its release.
Christmas 1986 was the first time I got my hands on the machine. I have told this story before in one of my books (available on Amazon), but I’m going to tell it again here. Growing up, as a family, we didn’t have a lot. This was largely due to my ‘dad’ being a wanker and walking out, leaving my Mom to bring up three kids on her own with very little money. It was the early 80s and being a single parent back then had a stigma attached to it, the help was not there like it is today and things were very rough. Especially when my dad left my Mom with loads of debts to clear too. Mom would often hold down multiple part-time jobs and struggle to put food on the table. Us kids would have to wear second-hand clothes and such. We couldn’t afford to have the heating on and in winter in England, it was fucking freezing cold. Basically, we had very little and what we did have was never new.
Anyway, Christmas Eve of 1986 and my Mom had to go out to work at a local pub to help bring in some much-needed cash, leaving me and my two older brothers at home for a few hours, with our neighbours checking in on us now and then (yes, this was normal back then). I would’ve been 10 at the time and my oldest brother 16. With Mom out of the house for a few hours, we kids did what kids do on Christmas Eve… we went looking for presents. My older brother, Rob, found a neatly wrapped gift at the back of my Mom’s wardrobe. A pretty large oblong-shaped thing that was quite heavy. The label was addressed to us three kids with love from Mom. With the precision of a surgeon carrying out a tipple bypass operation, Rob delicately removed the sellotape from the present, being careful not to rip the wrapping paper. With one end of the gift open, he slowly slid the heavy oblong-shaped box out. It was a Commodore 64. A brand new, still factory-sealed (well, a bit of tape at the end of the box) Commodore 64. As previously mentioned, we never had anything new it was always second-hand. A new C64 must’ve set my Mom back a good few quid in 1986 even though it was already a few years old, with the Commodore 64 being released at the start of 1983 here in the UK.
Not only was there the computer itself but a joystick, the C64 cassette deck for loading the games and a copy of Gauntlet. which was the big game of 1986. Altogether, that must’ve cost my Mom loads of money. Just doing a bit of basic research and at Argos (prices in the pic above are from 1985) around 1986, the C64 was sold for £180, the joystick was £6, the cassette deck around £30 and a copy of Gauntlet would have been around £7. That’s £223 or almost £540 these days. That was a big chunk in 1986 for a single parent with very little income and all while paying her way out of debt that wasn’t hers. My Mom must’ve worked and saved for months.
So, the computer was unboxed, set up, Gauntlet was loaded and we were playing our Christmas present on Christmas Eve while my Mom was at work. A couple of hours later and everything was packed away, the box slid back into its Christmas paper sheath and the sellotape re-applied and everything was placed back where my brother found it. Ready for Christmas morning when we would have to act surprised. That was my first time playing the Commodore 64, it kick-started my love for the computer and was the start of my journey as a gamer proper. Yeah, we had an Atari 2600 first but I was a few years old at the time and didn’t really understand or enjoy gaming in the same way I did as a 10-year-old playing the C64 for the first time. The 2600 was my introduction to home gaming, but the C64 was the machine that grew me into a gamer.
Piracy was rife back then and incredibly easy too. All you needed was a twin tape deck and some blank tapes. Get a copy of an original game (or even a copy of a copy of an original game) and pop it into one of the tape decks, press play. In the other deck, you’d have your blank tape and press record. A few minutes later and you have a copy of a game. In the 80s during the rise of the microcomputer, everybody I knew was pirating the software. Everybody knew someone who copied games and they knew someone who knew someone who copied games. We had a few original games, sure. But most of our collection were copies. Everyone was doing it, so it never felt wrong. Plus, the whole ‘piracy is bad’ thing didn’t really begin to take off until the latter part of the 80s and piracy was seen as more of a grey area than an outright illegal act. There was a whole swapping community back then and people who owned games on one of the microcomputers of the day would often lend games to people, they would be copied and soon enough, copies of games were everywhere.
People copying original games, people copying copies of original games. The piracy scene grew and grew and due to that, we had a fuck-ton of games to play growing up. Still, there was the occasion when we would get an original game. I remember one time when my brother was really looking forward to The Last Ninja, released in 1987. I think it may have been his birthday and he kept dropping hints that he wanted the game to my Mom. She was always great at pretending to not pay attention or make out that she had no idea what he was talking about… but she was taking notes. My brother was an amazing artist when he was younger, a skill he never bothered to follow through with. Anyway, one of the things he liked to do was take ads in gaming magazines and draw them himself and he was really bloody good at it too. He would save up and spend his pocket money on pencils, paper, poster paint and so on. He once drew the iconic The Last Ninja poster, the one that was mostly black and with a pair of eyes.
He drew the whole lot, the font, the bit of light reflecting off the ninja mask, the red lines details in the eyes and the beads of sweat. It was incredibly detailed and it looked just like the real poster. Sometimes he would put his own posters on his bedroom wall, sometimes he even painted murals directly on his bedroom wall. Why he never kept up with his art, I have no idea because he was really good. So, he had this self-made The Last Ninja poster and showed it to my Mom, saying this was the new game he wanted for the C64. She did what she did best and made out that she had no idea what he was going on about. Then, one weekend, Mom took a trip to Toys ‘Я’ Us and picked up a copy of The Last Ninja for my brother’s birthday… only she didn’t.
Instead of buying a copy of The Last Ninja, Mom actually bought a copy of a game called Ninja. To be fair, it wasn’t a bad little game. A bit basic, very short and could be finished in around 5 minutes but it was okay, with some great music from Rob Hubbard. Needless to say, my brother was not best pleased. The Last Ninja was this sprawling (kind of) open exploration/action-adventure type game with some amazing graphics and combat. It was fucking hard with some very tricky jumping mechanics and awkward controls, but it was getting some amazing review scores at the time and it became the best-selling C64 game ever. Comparing that to the budget game Ninja? Yup, very disappointing. Mom did eventually go out and get a copy of The Last Ninja, after my brother’s birthday.
OutRun is another fond Commodore 64 memory of mine. I love OutRun and still think that it is the quintessential arcade racer. I used to play it a lot in the arcade whenever we went on family holidays. So, when it was released for the C64, it was a must-have game. The arcade version was eye-blisteringly fast, beautiful to look at and great fun to play. The C64 port… not so good. Still, you just could not expect arcade quality in a home computer. OutRun on the C64 was rough, but it was still payable and at the time, it bought me a lot of joy back then. Plus, the tape had the original arcade soundtrack on it. The story behind how the port was made has gone on to become quite a bit infamous within the gaming community. I even wrote an article on that very subject right here.
There was something about that 1987-88 era of the Commodore 64 that was just magical Loads of really great games came out around then. Two I have just mentioned with The Last Ninja and OutRun. but then you also had the likes of International Karate +, Wizball, The Great Giana Sisters (best gaming rip-off ever) and Sid Meier’s Pirates!, just to name a few. Because we didn’t get our C64 until late 86 and as it had already been out for a few years by then, we had a lot of games to catch up on. This is where the whole piracy thing came into full force. There were very few Commodore 64 games that we didn’t own and via a mass collection of previously blank cassette tapes (housed in several boxes) and we made up for all we had missed before 1986. Everybody pirated C64 games and Idris Elba is a liar.
Titles like Bruce Lee and Pitstop II became games me and my brother played together for some 2-player action. The first time I even pulled a sicky at school was just so I could stay at home and play some Commodore 64. I became obsessed with Ghostbusters and played it for hours on end. I was getting so close to finishing the game over a weekend too and had to go to school on Monday. So, I played sick Sunday night, telling Mom that I didn’t feel well and that I wanted to go to bed. It just so happened that I had the C64 set up in my bedroom at the time and a small black & white portable TV. So off I went to bed feeling ‘ill’… only to load up some Ghostbusters and play it on the quiet. Listening out for my Mom’s footsteps coming up the stairs as she would come to check up on me as I was so ‘ill’. I’d quickly turn the TV off and cover the red light on the C64, before pretending to be asleep. then when she went back downstairs, flick the TV back on and continue playing.
The next morning and I had to continue the charade of being ‘ill’. Mom got the thermometer out and I did the old trick of putting it near the lightbulb of the bedside lamp when Mom left my bedroom. Not too long as I didn’t want to have a temperature of 200º, but long enough to keep me off school for a day or two at least. It worked and Mom spent the next couple of days going up and down the stairs to check on me, bring me soup, etc. All the time I was playing the C64 and switching the TV off every time I heard those footsteps. I became a bit of a ninja at it. Of course, I couldn’t pretend to be asleep every time Mom came upstairs as being asleep for 2 days straight would look suspicious. I had a backup plan, I had a couple of school books and I would pretend that I was doing some school work every now and then. You know, in an effort to say ‘look Mom, I really want to go back to school but I’m too ill’ and then play come C64 when she went back downstairs.
Skool Daze was another game I would play religiously. Any self-respecting microcomputer aficionado would tell you that playing Skool Daze is a ZX Spectrum thing and not a Commodore 64 one. I agree too, the Speccy version was better, but I didn’t have a Speccy, I had a C64. It still played well though, a few niggles aside. Oh, and I have to tell you the story of when I stole from Toys ‘Я’ Us. I was really into playing Little Computer People. It was basically a precursor to The Sims. The game would give you a person to look after in their own house. You would have to type various keyboard commands to get the person to do things. The problem was that Little Computer People was one of the (many) pirated games that we had, so no instruction manual. No instructions meant that I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. Anyway, I was in the city centre with a couple of friends on a Saturday afternoon and we went in to Toys ‘Я’ Us. After some browsing, I found Little Computer People on the shelf. I opened it (there was no security or cellophane on the games back then) and took the instruction inlay out, popped it into my pocket and left. Yup, I stole the instructions to Little Computer People on the C64. Not the game itself, I put that back on the self, without its inlay.
Memories of getting frustrated while playing Aztec Challenge, trying to dodge those spears in the first stage. I only ever did that once and saw the second level on the stairs once. It was only after watching a playthrough recently that I got to see the rest of the game. Beach Head II: The Dictator Strikes Back and its speech samples. Shooting at all those little stickmen as they screamed ‘MEDIC!’ and leaving bullet holes all over the place. Speaking of speech samples, the ‘Another visitor. Stay a while, stay forever’ of Impossible Mission is something that has been ingrained into my memory forever. It was a great game too, the smooth running animation, somersaulting over robots and searching rooms. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing back then, but I loved playing it.
And what about all of those Games games? World Games, Summer Games, California Games and so on. I remember those being some seriously competitive shit. Me and my brothers would play them together, trying to beat each other’s scores and times. People say that playing Monopoly can be a family destroyer. Well, the Games games were the digital version of that. They were also games that we had to work out how to play them as they were pirated copies and had no instructions. As each of the events in each of the titles had their own control methods, working out just how to play them often took a long time. Rescue on Fractalus!, what a pioneering game. A first-person shooter with exploration. Kind of like a 3D version of Defender with you having to save people on the surface of a planet… just watch out for the jump scare alien. A little tit-bit for you. Rescue on Fractalus! was developed by LucasArts and they were going to make a sequel in the late 90s. It eventually evolved into Star Wars: Rogue Squadron on the N64.
I could sit here for hours listing Commodore 64 games that I played and the ones that moulded me into the gamer I am today. I’ve barely even to touched the tip of the iceberg here. But I am in danger of this becoming a bit of a tome of an article. To be honest, our Commodore 64 didn’t have a very long life. By the time 1989 came around, my older brother was working and bringing in his own money. He bought an Amiga 500 and the Commodore 64 resided in my bedroom for a while, before it was put into the loft and soon forgotten about as the 8-bit computer made way for its 16-bit brother. We only got about 3 or so years of use out of it, but the Commodore 64 was what shaped me into the gamer I am today. It wasn’t my first gaming experience, perhaps not even the best. But it was a time that I look back on fondly and remember all the fun I had.