Closure, One Year Later

It's been a year since I finished, but I have fond memories of making this blog in 2015, and thought it deserved a wrap-up article.

Computers were different in the 80s. Before the internet, magazines provided about the best way to get information, reviews, and maybe most importantly, original type-in games.

(What a concept, right? That kids and grownups were encouraged to use the keyboard on that machine right in front of them to type in new things to teach the computer to do! You could even get make up your own things! It was empowering. I mean most kids just traded pirated floppies of commercial games, but still - the gateway for programming was open, and many would stroll on through.)

One of those magazines was "COMPUTE!" which covered a host of computers (Apples, Ataris, Commodores...) and one of the best computers of the era was the Commodore 64, and so one spin-off of COMPUTE! was a magazine called "COMPUTE!'s Gazette" (besides suffering from an awkward embedded exclamation point, the name made more sense when Commodore's computer was the PET, and I think the "PET Gazette" may have predated COMPUTE!)

Typing in those programs was a pain in the butt (not to mention the danger of a critical typo in the listing) and so Gazette offered a disk-based companion to the magazine, with all the software pre-loaded and ready to run. My Uncle Bill subscribed for a while, and I was fortunate enough to inherit a load of magazines and disks when he moved into IBM-PC clones.

The tireless folks at made an archive of both the disks and magazines available to the general public, and I thought the games deserved a closer look, so I went through each issue, month-by-month, and rated each game from 1 to 5 stars. It was fascinating watching the rise and fall of the Commodore 64 (and some related machines) as a cultural force, and getting a glimpse of what home computer culture was like.

I want to talk about the "5-star" games below, but also I made a corresponding website with disk custom, grab-and-go images of all the 4- and 5-star wonders. (Here's a page I made on running these things on your own computer)

I tried not to be too stingy with stars, but 318 is a lot of games, and many really rather crap. But here are the ones that really knocked my socks off... again you can download disk images for all of these on the 4- and 5- Star Website, they deserve to be played!

CROSSROADS + CROSSROADS II (December 1987 and December 1988)

Steve Harter's games literally inspired this blog. I interviewed the author in 2006. Dozens and dozens of colorful pixel monsters on screen, a well-tuned running around shooting mechanic (alone or with a buddy), the strategy of playing the monster types against each other so that the sped-up level endgame wasn't completely unmanageable, little tricks like using the screenwrap around to setup a bullet trap that would keep on going until it hit a monster (or your own back as you tried to set it up) - just great. Robotron meets Wizard of Wor with a hint of 2D Doom.


Unlike most of the other games here, Rhett Anderson and David Hensley Jr's work did make it to the big time, under the name "Bouncers", for the Sega CD. Playing as the ball is a really neat little conceit, the physics are pretty decent, and having a computer opponent to play against is a great touch

CHOPPER 1 - (August 1986)
Mike Sedore's unpretentious little game is a near perfect exemplar of the genre. It follows advice reiterated in Chapter 6 of Chris Crawfords The Art of Computer Game Design, about indirection - you have to save your own vehicle's skin, but mostly you're defending the city from the bombs being dropped. On my first review, I thought little details like the fiery explosions blocking continuous shots prevented spamming and generally represented superior polish.

RACE ACE (May 1990)
I'm not 100% sure I realized Mike Sedore made 2 of the 6 "5-Star" games before this. The feel of this game is superb - the way you have to snake around various lanes is weirdly realistic, and the night tunnel mode and slippery ice both add to the fun. The only drawback is how AI cars can pass right over each other.

JEWEL GRAB (January 1989)
Brian Casey's game rounds out the top six. It's for people who really like a challenge, but it rewards thoughtful play. Definitely a hint of Jumpman, and I love the way the robot is incredibly dangerous, but you can think your way around it, since it only changes its patrol at fixed intervals, and is stuck on diagonals.

So, that about wraps it up. I hope someone - gamer, archivist, or both - finds the archive useful or entertaining. It was a lovely time in gaming history.

Classic Controllers and Emulation

Oh, what a fool am I!

Literally the day after I finish this blog, the 2600-daptors that I ordered a few days prior arrived. These little beauties let you use original Atari sticks on modern hardware via USB (you will need a printer-style ("a-to-b") USB cable but those are like $4 on Amazon.)

Combined with good joysticks - like the pair of Epyx 500XJs I got off of Ebay for cheap - and you have a much improved gaming experience. In general I'm not a "has to be on original hardware" hipster, but these games were really designed for this kind of control, not the NES-like and old-school Gravis pads I used in making this blog. (You could probably write essays on the change from joystick to gamepad culture, and the implications in terms of popular styles of gameplay - not to mention how interesting it is that a predominantly right-handed culture has formed a preference for game control via the left thumb.)

I had looked into the original stelladaptor but it was no longer being made, and am kicking myself for not finding out about these earlier. (Also, I learned the hard way to avoid the Retrolink Atari-USB Cable - it seems like a cool idea, allowing 2 connectors at once, but I couldn't get it to play nicely with the various emulators I was trying to use.)

(Also, avoid the Atari-like PC joysticks - I got a set to run with my Atari 2600 game Loaded4Bear - one came broken, and the others lasted about ten minutes of gameplay. It's not very often that I say "this product is garbage" but it's pretty close to literal truth in this case.)

Again, a hearty endorsement for Tom Hafner's 2600-adaptor ii - and any decent Atari controller you can find on Ebay, either the classic CX-40s or something with microswitches, like the Epyx 500XJs.

January and February 1995

The final issues of Gazette. In some ways the programs and columns got stronger past the heyday of the mid to late '80s, but when your penultimate feature article's description is "Take a Look at Line Numbers. They Can Make BASIC Programming Easier" you know your magazine is not in a place of great strength. (Also, they offered old magazines and disks for sale in garage sale fashion; they're not really allowed to charge, just for labor and shipping.)

The final editorial mentions some of the long term contributors over the 15 year run: Fred D'Ignazio and Jim Butterfield were involved from the beginning to this very last issue. (I remember Jim Butterfield's name showing up on a lot of Commodore software scene stuff way back when... sometimes it seems weird to think of how much expertise he had, )

That editorial is really sad, there's a lot of confusion about how they'll be handling the unfinished subscriptions. And the way that most of the articles are written in an unsuspecting business-as-usual kind of way is rather melancholy as well.

No original games these final issues, just some PD stuff.

I'll be wrapping up this blog soon as well, then. I am making plans to do that "playtest all the 2 player only games" thing I keep talking about (to get rid of those "Tentative Ratings") and I might do a special edition about the 6 games I gave a full 5 stars to.

Like the Commodore scene itself, this blog started feeling like it was going on a bit long (318 games in all - that is a lot!) but I've really enjoyed the history of it, finding new game ideas, enjoying how the programmers worked with the limitations of the machine, and charting the rise and fall of Commodore as a force in geek culture. Overall, definitely some of the most fun I've had with video games this year.

December 1994 - Bounce

Headline of the month: "MOLDY MOPEDS ON THE INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY", from a D'Ignazio column about lo-fi multimedia with ancient computers and VCRs and tape recorders.

Bounce - Maurice Yanney

This - which will be the final original game pubished by Gazette - is a rather sad little game for a rather sad time. You control a little launcher, firing these balls and trying to get them into the holes on the other side of the screen. You have to get them through the walls with moving gaps between, but the balls will ricochet off those walls or the separators between the holes in a very artificial reverse-direction-and-move-one-row-down kind of way. You can throw lots of balls at once, and you have to dodge ones that come back at you, and there's a time limit. It feels more like an experiment than a game. Rating:2/5

November 1994 - Chute Shootout

The editorial "64/128 Overview" must've been kind of awful to write, the parent magazine COMPUTE had just been bought by Ziff-Davis who wanted it for its mailing list and shuttered it. Weirdly Gazette survives - probably having moved to disk-only gave it a respite, albeit a brief one.

Also, Q-Link (I think previously called Quantum Link) was closing down - the article calls AOL (my current employer!) Q-Link's "parent service" but I think AOL was Q-link rebranding itself for PCs and Macs, but keeping the original name for its Commodore stuff (which was ten years old at that point, and had run the really intriguing LucasFilm projects Habitat and Club Caribe, predecessors to today's MMORPGs in a chatroom kind of way.)

The feature is "Making the Most of SpeedScript", the word processor from the early 1980s. I haven't written too much about it- it's so hard to imagine using a word processor that didn't have built-in spellcheck (they had some later, but getting the data files was kind of a challenge.)

Chute Shootout - Ligia Latina

I've always been fascinated by the Intellivision's Biplanes game, included in their Atari-One-Upper "Triple Action". It's a 2D, physics-y dogfight... to quote the Blue Sky Rangers (the name of the Intellivision dev team):
More hours were spent in the programming cubicles playing Biplanes than any other Intellivision game. Although it's one of the simplest, many programmers felt it was the most challenging and fun of the two-person games. The first time you deliberately stall, go into a free fall, then pull out with a backward loop at the last second to blast your opponent at pointblank range is a joy!
So this game starts with that idea... 2 planes on opposing runways. Just getting airborne is weird challenging... you have to press up at the end of the runway (and make sure you let go of the fire button for some reason) and you're very prone to stall, even more so than the original, at least til you've gained some speed (though after that it's like your engine is in a higher gear? and you can do loops with ease). Anyway, this game ups the ante in that it's not primarily a shoot out - you win by landing three paratroopers on the enemy's base. Controls are kind of odd: left or right sends out a trooper, and then once the parachute has deployed you can still steer him with left or right, even as up and down and fire are still operating the plane... multitasking! You can only send out one trooper at a time, so if you mislaunch you have to wait til the other one hits the ground (and explodes, oddly enough). Another one I really want to playtest with another human; the controls seem odd and the physics not quite as good and maybe the whole thing is too complex, but high points for trying to expand on such a cool idea. Tentative Rating:4/5

Follwup: as I put this game into my archive, I realize that even though the name on disk is "Ligia Latina" there must be some connection to "Ligia Latino" who has made several previous games...

October 1994 - Spots, One-On-One Basketball

The reader survey results came in:
The 8-bit Commodore market has often been called "mature." Well, it seems that those of us you use [sic] those computers are also mature. The average Gazette subscriber is 48 years old. There's a 94 percent chance that he's male, and he's subscribed to Gazette for about 5 years.  
While these are the averages, it's interesting to note that more than 40 percent of you have subscribed to Gazette for more than 10 years and our largest number of users (31 percent) are more than 65 years old. 
The teenager blasting aliens with his 64 is no longer the average Commodore computer user! In fact, less than 1 percent of you want more games in Gazette. The number requesting more utilities is 40 percent, and the number who want a mix of both is 56 percent.
First off, I have to worry about selection bias... each of these numbers is "of people who bother to send in reader surveys for disk-based magazines." I'm bummed these fogies are signalling they don't want more games... but given how much hand-wringing there was about Commodore vs Nintendo, by this point the gaming world had moved on to SNES vs Genesis.

Spots - T.L. Flynn

A 2-player-only othello-like board game (with the choice of multiple board layouts). It's a rip off of Spot: The Video Game ("Spot" was an inventive attempt to give 7-Up a mascot, and it (he?) showed up in a platformer game as well) but without the charming animations or computer opponent... each player can elect to move any of their pieces one space (which clones it) or move it two spaces (which leaves the space it came from empty) and then any neighboring enemy pieces around the landing piece are changed to that piece's color. The presentation is pretty good overall, with a custom techno font. I guess I'll give it a higher rating because it's the kind of things the fogies reading this thing then might have liked. Rating:3/5

One-on-One Backyard Basketball - David Garner

So this game (possibly influenced by One-on-One: Dr. J vs Larry Bird) looks kinda cool but plays like clumsy crap. I think it's using character graphics? Or else sprites that are horribly controlled. The players kind of bump against eachother s-l-o-w-w-w-w-l-y, and it's effectively impossible to make even an uncontested shot - supposedly you release at the height of the jump, but I could never get it to work. Tentative Rating:2/5

September 1994 - Going to the Dogs, Ketchem

I accidentally switched over to the advertisers section, and was amused to see that regular contributor Maurice Yanney had apparently struck out on his own a bit:

I found a place to download a cracked copy...

Pogo Stick - Maurice Yanney (Commercial Release)

It was... eh, ok. A Jumpman-ish (well more specifically, like Mr. Robot in terms of collecting things embedded in the floor) platformer, you scoot and jump around going over the light pathes, riding elevators, and avoiding the things shooting at you. I liked the little pixel hourglass as level timer.

It's funny, I wonder if some of the poorer Yanney games in Gazette are like prototypes he decided weren't quite worth commercial release? Maybe that's a bit cynical of me to think.

Followup: the Lemon64 (great site!) forum post that pointed me to a copy of the game had a guy who talked to Yanney, and says he only sold about a dozen of the game, which is some of why he left the Commodore scene... kind of sad, but again, Yanney is no Steve Harter.

Anyway, onto this month's included games:

Going to the Dogs - J. J. Hromdik

There's a very similar looking version of this for the C64 and the C128, but the former bombs out with an out of memory error. It's a dog racing / betting simulator. I like the dog names. Other than that I don't see the point. Rating:2/5

Ketchem - William F. Snow

A 1 or 2 player adding and subtraction game... or maybe mostly counting. It's kind of a race to the end board game, and every turn two numbers are rolled and you have to decide if you want to add them or subtract them (or technically, subtract the smaller from the larger - the order doesn't seem to matter) for your move - I guess you'd subtract only to avoid the up arrow boosting you to the previous level or to try to hit the blank spot letting you fall on through. The thing is, if you hesitate the computer picks add or subtract for you. And like I said, the tricky part is quickly counting, since the little dashes are pretty fiddly. Not a terrible idea for a kids board game (I wonder if there's a ketchup/ketchem joke in the color scheme?) but those problems in the execution bug me. Rating:2/5