There was a recent discussion on a forum regarding how gaming magazines, towards the end of the 8-bit’s lives, deteriorated into material that seemed to be aimed at kids, and my name came up during the conversation. Of course, I got into the Commodore 64 pretty late in its life and I was part of the proof that as a chunk of the generation of C64 owners who lived through its hey-day of the mid/late 80’s grew up and moved on, a new generation of young gamers picked up things for a few years into the 90’s. I basically wanted to share my own experiences of joining the 8-bit generation so late, but also my experiences of being there until the “bitter end” and the commercial decline…. and what happened next! It’s a bit of a ramble in places, but I hope it might be interesting to some and worth documenting in a random blog post! ? A big thanks to Vinny Mainolfi of C64endings.co.uk for proof reading.
As detailed in a recent feature in Retro Gamer magazine, 8-bits lived on commercially until well into the mid 90’s, battling it out against the 16 and 32 bit machines at the time (including the Playstation). This was mainly due to the fact that 8-bit machines became extremely cheap towards the end – electronic component parts fell in price dramatically. In fact, the C64 was so successful that it wasn’t until the early 90’s that the Amiga finally took over in terms of yearly sales.
So how come I was part of the new 8-bit generation? … Well, for me, I was obviously young at the time, but also from an upbringing where there was a lack of money. The majority of my toys and clothes were second hand or ‘hand me downs’. I was, however, rich in the sense of having caring parents who made the most of very little and taught me about resourcefulness and being grateful for the littlest things in life. Of course, when I first saw a C64 at my sister’s house in 1988 and asked if I could have a games machine/computer, I got a second hand Atari 2600 – and then a year later I progressed to a Commodore Vic 20 (benefits of second hand meant that both came with a big bundle of games out of the box).
It wasn’t until 1990 when the C64 came down in price, that my mum got a deal on her catalogue for the Light Fantastic pack and I finally got the machine that originally inspired me to get into gaming/computers. Where before I had struggled to pick up new games for my Vic 20, I had luckily jumped onto the tail end of the C64’s commercial life where new games were still plentiful and being released.
I think it was for similar reasons that so many other people, like me, also got a C64 (and other 8-bits) so late on, as the machines were very cheap and accessible. It helped breed a new wave of users and gave the 8-bits a brief reprieval in the face of 16 and 32-bit arrivals.
All of a sudden, I could visit the likes of Boots and John Menzies, and be presented by shelves of budget and full price titles from the likes of Ocean, US Gold, Encore, Hit Squad and Codemasters. If I saw an arcade game like Dragon Ninja (which I did at the time), I could take a look for a home conversion to play. The second-hand shops were also full to the brim of slightly cheaper titles.
I soon learnt that there were magazines dedicated to the machine, and after a brief short-sighted stint with the short lived “Lets Compute!” magazine, I finally discovered the likes of Commodore Format and Zzap 64 (And for its final issue, Your Commodore). Before the days of the internet and overfilling DVD’s of digital emulation disk images and Gamebase64, these magazines were an essential source of information on games I had never heard of, and which acted as a guide for me on what to try and pick up. And of course, their covermounts opened up opportunities to play games that I had never seen or known about before. Being on a limited budget also meant that the covermounts became very important for me (I still have fond memories of getting excited each month when running down to the paper shop, wondering what was going to be on Commodore Format’s powerpack tape for that issue).
Overall, it was a fantastic time as a gamer, and a C64 gamer too. As I joined in with the C64 users the likes of Magicland Dizzy were released, Genesis Software produced the brilliant CJ’s Elephant Antics and Spike in Transilvania. And many more decent titles were still being produced by the big names such as Ocean. Each issue of a magazine gave a new set of games to look forward to seeing released. I remember saving up for Dizzy Collection 2 and also Bart Simpson VS The Space Mutants, then running down to John Menzies to grab them. I also had the privilege of the second hand shops, with a huge range of titles to discover from 1984-1990 (before my time) and enjoy.
All of this new and commercial gaming buzz with the C64 lasted between 1990 and 1992. Towards the end of 1992, things noticeably began to decline The amount of game reviews were gradually decreasing, and the quality of games were also in the decline. Boots suddenly in mid-1993 replaced their 8-bit software with Megadrive and Master System games and sold off remaining stock; John Menzies following suit swiftly afterwards. All of a sudden, I was struggling to find the new releases the magazines were advertising, and I had to rely more and more on independent stores and mail order, as well as getting more and more second hand titles. Computer World was one such independent that continued to sell C64 software well into around 1995 time, thanks to the efforts of my friend Jason Kelk who worked there and was/is a huge fan of the C64.
It was a pretty sad sight overall for me. I couldn’t really upgrade, as 16-bits were still way out of my parent’s price range, and I still felt the C64 had plenty to give in terms of playable games. Although Sonic The Hedgehog blew me away back in 1991 when I first saw it on import from Japan, I still knew from my experience of playing older generation machines, that graphics were not everything. However, I had hoped that US Gold would have converted Sonic to the C64 like they did with most Sega games, but I would have no doubt been disappointed.
Of course, things continued to decline – 1993 saw the majority of big players like US Gold and Ocean pulling out of full price releases and then just milk the final life out of the old cash cow by just releasing budget titles. The magazines of the time were restricted to the odd few budget titles from Zeppelin and Codemasters – half of which were pretty poor sadly. 1993 was also the last real year of any proper releases for the machine, and although it was mostly budget titles, we were extremely lucky to be graced with 3 big titles at the end in the form of Lemmings (3 years after its original Amiga release!), Alien 3 and of course Mayhem in Monsterland. In many ways, the very high quality of the titles and timing of their release at the very death knell of the C64 felt like these were deliberately released and made as a final (and fitting) hurrah/farewell for the machine. At the time it felt like a resurgence, and there could be life in the old girl yet – but it was not to last.
Towards the end of 1993 and start of 1994, magazines suddenly were without any new commercial games at all. Focus for them would now be on various retrospectives, programming, hardware articles. Where with one hand something was taken away, given back with another hand were the more impressive covermounts. Companies who had left the 8-bit market were approached by the magazines to sell them their games for the covermount, so on the likes of Commodore Force we would begin to see classic titles like Impossible Mission 2 and Blues Brothers released with the magazine (the later title had only really been released at full price a year or so before). The retrospectives were especially useful for me, as Commodore Force magazine would do a regular retrospective on a particular genre of games such as Arcade conversions, and highlight a whole range of conversions I had never heard of before (remember, again this was all pre-internet and Gamebase64!). I of course felt that the covermounts were great, and it did make up slightly for the lack of new software in shops – but little did I realise that the magazines would now begin to decline too being at the naive age I was.
Gradually into 1994 – even the second hand shops started to move on and get rid of all their 8-bit stock. By the end of 1994, there was about 1 second hand store I knew of that had a handful of C64 games. It was desperate times for new software, and it would now be down to mail order and bootfairs to pick up any new titles. 16-bit (and now the 32-bits!) were still far out of my reach. I guess if anything, people were desperate now to rid of their 8-bit software and hardware, and it became a period of rich pickings for me, often coming away from bootfairs with bags full of games for very little money.
By now, the remaining magazines (Commodore Force and Commodore Format) were also starting to struggle with things to write about, and inevitably began to haemorrhage readers. Many were starting to grow up, many were brought 16-bit and 32-bit consoles for birthdays and Christmas’. As a result, profits were lost – so to continue to keep a profit, pages would be cut and the price increased. Commodore Force died slightly prematurely at issue 16 in 1994 due to the publisher going bust, but 3 issues before that they had cut their two tape covermount down to one, their pages down to around forty and the price up to around £3.50. The very last issue went even further by decreasing the quality of paper being printed on – and recently we discovered that the subsequent issues that would have been released would have decreased things further to around 22 pages and put more focus on the covermount – it may have been a blessing in disguise having it die out when it did. I recently wrote a quick article about the Commodore Force issue that never was, which may make for interesting extra reading.
On the other hand, Commodore Format went on, though it too cut things back and increased the price. It was looking pretty much like the end, but towards the end of 1994 some budding UK based fans of the machine made one last attempt to inject some life into the machine by offering and developing new software. Companies like EBES, Psytronik (who recently relaunched in 2008) and Visualize helped produce a flood of new upcoming titles. Of course, Commodore Format went slightly crazy after months of no reviews, and gave a lot of positive coverage. It was discovered that in the likes of Germany, there were hundreds and thousands of games that had never been heard of in the UK, and were being arranged to be imported. C64 Fun magazine had in fact highlighted this some years before in 1991, but many of us missed the magazine and had plenty of UK releases to take any real notice (the magazine itself was crap too).
For many issues, there was a buzz yet again, and many of us (very naively) thought that the C64 could see a resurgence and fight back and continue yet again. That combined with news of a potential relaunch of the machine at a budget price gave hope after a take over of the Commodore name by Escom in 1994/95. Actually, it was a heart warming fight back from people who grew up with the machine as a kid and wanted things to carry on along side the new era of PC’s and games consoles – and it was a shame that not more people supported these guys. But the fact was that many had already abandoned, and the 10,000 or so of us left buying Commodore Format were also gradually going too.
For me personally, I just wanted to have the same buzz again that I did in the early 90’s, and walk into Boots again and pick up some new titles. Being young, I didn’t understand that it was never going to happen and it was all part of computer evolution.
Predictably, the new bit of hope for us 8-bitters was short lived, as it was too late. Most people had moved on to the new machines, the ones who were left over were mostly skint and couldn’t afford to buy all of the new games coming out to show our support, and of course we didn’t buy the games that weren’t any good (and some of the homebrew ones were just not that good). As a result, sales were very poor, people lost money, and then things went rather quiet once more (well, some people still stuck around for a bit, such as EBES, but the output decreased dramatically). The C64 sadly was just not commercially viable any longer in much shape or form. The machine was now a hobbiest platform.
As a result, the decline spread into 1995, and now fanzines were starting to really pop up as the enthusiasts left over could see things fading away. It was clear that Commodore Format was on its last legs when it was decreased to 22 pages, lost its glossy cover, its plastic tape case, and had a large price increase. It swapped editors almost monthly – most likely with Future Publishing using the dying magazine as an opportunity to give some staff a go at the “editor” role on a “low risk” title. Out of the editors, Karen Levell did a fantastic job of really cramming as much as they could out of the 22 pages.
Sure enough it was closed down by issue 61 with a readership believed to have been less than 5000 (in its hey-day it was getting around 60,000 readers a month) – it was pretty much written by one member of full time staff too. Sadly the very last issue was a very low point for the magazine – the last few issues were not written by someone with a great in-depth knowledge of the C64 and the quality was pretty poor in terms of page setting and general editing. Where as the very last issue of Your Sinclair by Future Publishing, saw a doubling of pages as a gift to users – Commodore Format 61 stuck to its measly 22 pages and was pretty much just pages of goodbyes, with no real notable content. They even gave away Jon Well’s supportware pack titles, defeating the object of them being supportware (where people could contribute a donation – as people felt they had already paid for them with the magazine!) … all without Jon’s permission. It was a bit of a kick in the teeth and a sad end for a once great magazine … the C64 commercially goes out with a whimper in the UK in October 1995.
So what next? … Well, already by this time, I had started contacting some of the various companies and supporters who were still producing things for the machine, including Binary Zone PD – which opened up the world of Public Domain software to me. Binary Zone also began producing a high quality fanzine called Commodore Zone to help fill the void which was inevitably going to be left by Commodore Format. They were also the brains behind Psytronik Software, whom I purchased a number of games from. I had tried buying a US import of Commodore World magazine, which was a proper commercial magazine, but the US scene had a far more hardware-orientated following – whereas I was more of a gamer who wanted to read about games.
Things now were very quiet – second hand shops no longer sold 8-bit games apart from 8-bit console titles, there was no commercial presence now. Any new info was from the bi-monthly fanzines and letter writing to various contacts I had picked up. My source of info increased slightly when in 1996 I also discovered another fanzine called Computer Scene (later renamed to Commodore Scene). Between this and Commodore Zone, I had replacements for Commodore Force and Commodore Format. Of course, both were not commercial print quality – but they were both very well presented, well written and crammed with info. In many ways they were far better than the final 10-15 issues of Commodore Format. Both also reported on new titles from around the world being produced where possible, so there was always news of new games being produced by the remaining enthusiasts out there trying to keep things alive.
As technology got progressively better and cheaper, the quality of the fanzines increased. It was all just looking to get very settled, but producing a regular fanzine that is pretty much the size of a commercial magazine, relying on contributors and essentially being edited and put together by one person can take its toll. Most people decided to call it a day due to other life commitments, and the wide range of fanzines were dramatically cut back. Even Commodore Zone breathed its last in 2001 as Jason Mackenzie moved onto new ventures which consumed a lot of time. Just a handful remained, including Commodore Scene – which by around 1998 had been handed over from Richard Bowen to Allan Bairstow (who continued to edit things well into the late noughties before calling it a day).
But as it seemingly looked like things were going to really die out, the Internet happened. Around 1997, the Internet really began to take flight (Dixon’s Freeserve service probably helped a lot) and more people got on-line People discovered it was pretty easy to knock up a simple website (even via Microsoft Word in the most basic of forms). C64 sites began to pop up all over the world, and all of a sudden all the remaining enthusiasts were joined up and the barriers broken away. Sites such as World of Spectrum and Lemon 64 began to pop up and begin to build communities. Fanzines/Magazines were now starting to get replaced by news portals, forums, digital archives and fan sites.
Emulation also helped, as it meant that digitally preserved C64 games could be played straight away on the PC it was downloaded on without having to convert to the real hardware. This helped open up and make the C64 accessible to those who had upgraded to the likes of the Sony Playstation, and who wanted to re-live a part of their childhood. These users joined the likes of Lemon 64 and once more there was something reminiscent of the buzz from the yesteryears. New games were still a trickle from the enthusiasts still developing, but it didn’t matter – there was plenty of the classic back catalogue to talk about, as well as all the demos show casing what the C64 could do and which many had missed out on when they upgraded very early on.
And ever since we have seen the introduction of HVSC, Gamebase 64, C64.com, C64.sk, C64 endings, CSDB and even my very own GTW64 site (as well as many hundreds of other retro sites) – providing digital software archives of everything ever produced (well, almost) and news of new developments – both hardware and software.
New technology and cheapness of technology has meant that we have been also blessed with new hardware such as the 1541 Ultimate, which have vastly helped improve the use of our old hardware and made it far easier to access the vast catalogue of software that is being digitally preserved, and ensure we can still play all the classics when the old storage media of tape and disk finally gives way.
In a strange way, the internet has given the 8-bits a new lease of life once more, and one that may last for many years to come in a small form and in enough capacity for us to see many interesting things still and enjoy our childhood hobby. It is possible that it has also increased productivity on the machine thanks to the easier communication and increased user base. Proof of this might be with homebrew companies such as Psytronik Software being revived and producing new software releases in physical form once more, and making use of all the new modern technology to ensure that the quality is as close to the days of Ocean and Codemasters that we used to buy in Boots. I’ve noticed that since Psytronik came back, there has been a massive resurgence in new C64 software, and RGCD has helped to push it even further with regular cartridge development competitions. Now RGCD and Psytronik have combined forces, and there is a very constant stream of new developments. Trevor (Smila) Storey has been very much a big part of 2012 and now 2013 with a lot of graphical work for a lot of projects for the C64. I even hope that I can get working on a new game in 2013!
Another aspect is that what is now deemed as computing history, is now accessible to new generations who can see how gaming/computing has evolved over the years and find out about the old machines (as well as play via emulation). And with the popularity of Retro gaming in general across the web, it prompted the creation of magazines such as Retro Gamer and the Retro column in GamesTM, meaning that the C64 has presence (albeit in limited form) on the news stand once more.
Although I am grown up to realise I’ll never see a Codemasters title for the C64 in Boots again, as well as being able to enjoy modern gaming – I can still regularly dip back into my childhood and use and enjoy the machine which inspired me way back in 1988. I’m now even a part of preserving its history by running Games That Weren’t and also contributing to various projects. For me the C64 is a wonderful machine which now has a rich history which will be talked about in the future as part of the ever growing history of computing as the industry continues to move forward and grow.