How far can a Commodore 64 go?


Pretty much anyone who knows me and my retro gaming background will know how much I praise up the Commodore 64 and the constant new things it manages to achieve with its 64k of memory and 0.98 mhz clock speed.

 

Ever since I started with the machine back in 1990, i've seen humble beginnings in the game Vahalla (1984) and huge CPU busting titles such as Mayhem in Monsterland (1993) (http://www.gamebase64.com/game.php?id=4673&d=18&h=0) towards the end of the machines commercial life. Games towards the end of the C64's life really pushed the machine to new realms, including the likes of Turrican 1 and 2 and also the Creatures series. Mayhem In Monsterland was one of the last commercial releases for the Commodore 64, and even scored 100% in one of the magazines. It may not have necessarily deserved that high a score, but certainly it was a fitting end to the commercial industry with the machine (followed by a superb Lemmings conversion).

I certainly felt that this was the limit of the machine, and how could it ever be bettered?… Much to my surprise I was to learn that there was much more to be had from this old 8-bit…

In around 1994/95, I joined up with Binary Zone PD (http://www.binaryzone.org/) to start getting some new releases to compensate for the drying up of new titles on the C64. However, it wasn't games, but PD Demos which I was purchasing. These were essentially rolling animations, sequences, tricks and effects that demonstrated people's programming abilities on the machine, and often resulted in some groundbreaking effects which had never been seen or thought possible.

At the time, there were many plasma effects (wavy multicoloured blob animations) and scrolling messages with greetings, but demos were starting to feature rotating 3D objects which were shaded, and moving at a good framerate (something more accustomed to on the Amiga at the time). To accompany this, C64 graphic modes were being discovered which allowed mixing the standard 16 colours and resolutions to create images of a quality never seen before on a Commodore 64, and beyond all expectations. Sound/Music was to be pushed even further to prove once more how powerful the C64's SID (Sound Inference Device) really was and how ahead of its time it was. However, this was still nowhere near the peak of the machine… But we didn't know at the time. Check out various C64 demos at… http://www.c64.ch/

As years progressed, i've seen various Doom/Wolfenstein demo effects which have amazed even Amiga supporters. Things have gone so far to even have a fully playable Wolfenstein clone called MOOD. Although at a very blocky resolution, it works very well, plays well and runs at a very good framerate. Sadly it was never completed, but what exists (Check out – http://gtw64.retro-net.de/Pages/m/Review_Mood.php )

Maybe this as much as you can expect from the C64 in terms of a PC level game, but then Amiga games are also tough to get perfect. However it hasn't deterred the efforts of a few guys trying to convert some very big titles to the C64. One particular recent effort is Pinball Dreams, which is being painstakingly converted to the C64 with hardly anything being compensated in the conversion. It is a must see title… http://www.c64-wiki.de/index.php/Werner_van_Loo_-_Pinball_Dreams_C64

Also following closely is the awesome Worms clone called Grubz…http://noname.c64.org/csdb/release/?id=12464 . Although Worms has been translated successfully to the Gameboy in the past, this is still a huge achievement, and is far more fluid compared to the C64 conversion of Lemmings.

These developments are however happening late into the C64's life, way after it has commercially died out. The work is being done by people for fun and for the love of it. It is a huge challenge to work on the C64 and make it do the things never thought possible. It is the likes of these games which keep me interested still in the machine, wondering what is gonna be done next.

Going back to demo's, its not just the games which impress… but even more so, there are effects too powerful/CPU consuming to maybe be used in new game developments on the C64, but are just so jawdropping its crazy.

 

C64 graphics have evolved incredibly over the past decade, with many tricks and bugs being exploited in the hardware to unlock graphics which are more common to the Amiga. The C64 only has a small pallette of 16 colours, but it still manages to knock out images which are out of this world, and which seem like they have more like 2000 colours than just 16.

Take a look at these two pages which describe the C64 graphic modes which have been discovered over the years. The later link gives you a run down of the standard C64 resolutions we are all familiar with from the thousands of games released, but then follow the evolution of the new graphic modes…

http://www.naveedkhugiani.com/articles/c64gfxmodes/c64gfxmodes.html

http://www.naveedkhugiani.com/articles/bsocimode/bsoci.html

http://www.studiostyle.sk/dmagic/gallery/gfxmodes.htm

… amazing eh?… Although the later and latest effects will be hard to implement within games, they are very impressive to look at, and no doubt the machine's creators did not ever envisage their machine doing this level of output.

The sound capabilities of the C64 are another area which have been pushed to very high limits over the years, with various tricks being exploited.
The SID chip comes with 3 channels of sound, but the inclusion of Ring Modulation and a Filter has allowed musicians to create sounds which beat the 8-bit opposition into the ground. The SID chip has even been voted as one of the best soundchips ever devised (if not the best), just behind Creative Labs Soundblaster 16. Bugs have been exposed, but used to positive effect, creating extra channels of sound for sampled sounds. Musicians have even used special techniques to cram in a whole tune in one channel of sound by rapidly changing notes (giving the illusion that there are many layers to a soundtrack). See Robocop 3 in the High Voltage Sid Collection (http://www.hvsc.c64.org/), and check out some of the ingame tunes. The game's musician crammed two of the level tunes into a single channel, freeing up the other two channels for the sound effects.

It was the likes of Rob Hubbard in around 1985 who started to discover what the SID was really capable of, and because of the quality of music being produced on such a machine (See "Monty on the Run" for a fantastic early composition), people even bought games on the power of the music ("Game Over" by Imagine a prime example). In 1987, musicians were saying that they had reached the limit of the SID chip, but how wrong they were…

Today, there is still a healthy interest in the SID chip, and musicians are still going strong knocking out new tunes and ones which use new techniques. Mitch and Dane, GRG, Jeff, Fanta are a few of many names which produce some of the best sounds nowadays on the machine. The sounds have even inspired a new bred remix scene, where old C64 tunes are remixed with new instruments (remix.kwed.org and http://www.c64audio.com). Although many people will not like "chip music", if you can appreciate the technology used, then you'll appreciate the achievements and quality of the sounds. (The missus unsurprisingly doesn't like tunes on the C64 at all, but Mitch and Dane did get a few nods from her 😉 )

The C64 now in the modern world is small, but people are now using and developing new hardware and software to connect the C64 to the internet using a browser called "Wave", and are also using powerful operating systems such as "Wings", providing power similiar to what you get in Windows. There are also 20mhz accellerators (but I feel this detracts away from what makes the C64 great). Smart card readers have been developed, and are helping to ensure the C64 tries to keep up to speed as much as it possibly can.

The machine even saw a relaunch recently in the form of the C64DTV, which is a C64 compressed onto a single circuit board with 30 games built in. It wasn't emulated, but actual real hardware… which mean't it was hackable. Because of the new limitations in hardware, the C64 joystick had to be equiped with 255 colours and around a 20-30mhz processor (Clocked down to 0.98mhz). These extra features are unlockable, and a segment of users are exploring these new extras to knock out some really incredible work for the future.

But what next for the C64?… what is next on its list?
I can't personally think what new technique could be discovered next. I would love to see a fully working Quake clone, but maybe a step too far! Whatever is next, i'm sure it will impress 🙂

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