Wednesday, 7 December 2016

COMMODORE 64: A VISUAL COMMPENDIUM SECOND EDITION

After the success of the first edition, Sam Dyer of Bitmap Books expanded his Commpendium range to include the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore's Amiga, before returning to the best home computer, naturally.  But how does the sophomore album compare to the debut?



Last Christmas I received the first book in the series and eagerly devoured it, reviewing it in February right here on the blog and giving it a Commodore Format-esque Corker rating and a 95% score.  It was superb!  The only real negative point I could come up with was that it'd have been nice to have had more to read, but I was very aware it was intended to be a coffee table book, the likes of which are meant to be browsed and the visuals enjoyed first and foremost.  The clue was in the name after all.  But with the sequel Sam has upped the written content.  Will the changes improve the book over the original or will it dilute the successful formula?  Let's begin by taking a look at what's the same.

The visuals pop right off the page just as much as before.  Going back to the same starting point of 1982 and working through year-by-year until the end of the C64's commercial life, circa 1993, the giant pixels do look beautiful on the high quality glossy pages.  This is coming from someone who doesn't like emulation because the games end up looking too crisp and blocky on modern TVs and monitors compared to how we viewed them on old CRT TVs, how they were designed to be seen.  The same goes for modern gaming magazines when they look back on the classic machines.  But the style perfectly suits these books.  Their whole purpose is to celebrate each pixel, the design of the graphics and the work of those talented individuals responsible for them.  As such, they're a beautiful journey through this part of the Commodore's lifespan, full of bright colours and bold designs.

Any C64 fan will be itching to get on eBay to buy one all over
again after taking in all of this book's glorious visuals

That's not to say there aren't some strange choices in here.  Not in the choice of titles, that's pretty much a perfect selection, but with the choice of some of the images.  There's some occasions where the quote from the graphic artist or programmer talks about a certain aspect of the game and yet the image chosen has nothing to do with it.  Also, while the first book did have a mix of full screen shots and some close-ups of certain sprites etc., there's some instances here where the images chosen to zoom in on are a little... strange.  Some stunning looking titles are reduced to looking like Atari 2600 games, although this is kept to a minimum and the idea is the same as in the first edition and is sound.

Having a second volume also means there's a chance to remember some of the lesser-known titles which may have slipped through the cracks in the old grey cells.  Early games such as Lazy Jones and Pogo Joe sit comfortably alongside blockbusters like Hovver Bovver and Forbidden Forest.  We also get the chance to see some of the superb sequels often forgotten in favour of the original games, even when they improved upon what had come before.  After the first book covered some of the originals, obviously, here you'll find such wonderful and fondly remembered sequels as Creatures II: Torture Trouble, Mission Impossible II and Manic 2049er amongst others.

Coin-ops and licenced fare also make welcome appearances so fan favourites like Golden Axe and Zoids pop up here in various guises, which just wasn't possible in the first volume.  Also returning is the gorgeous Oliver Frey artwork of some of his Zzap 64 covers.  The one for the aforementioned Zoids is particularly fantastical and would've made for an amazing cover on the old Spider-Man and Zoids comic from Marvel UK back in the 80s!  Superb work and as always he's a welcome addition to the book.


Right up there with the best of our comic covers
of the 1980s is this!

Matt Wilsher and Chris Daw provide some more stunning (yes, I'm gushing by this point) double-page photography spreads too.  The three different 64 models, namely the original bread bin, the sleeker C64C and the C64 Games System console were the stars of these last time, but now everything from joysticks, ports, the datasette and even the Koala Pad drawing tablet get the star treatment.  This culminates in a lovely selection of sixteen small photos across two pages right in the middle of the book covering the gamut of hardware we all grew up with.  I hope my photograph of it can do it justice.  This alone would make for a stunning large framed print.  (Hint, hint Sam!)


Seriously, is it wrong to use the word "beautiful" when describing
photos of a decades old computer set up?

So far, so good.  To be honest if this had been simply a new book covering different games in exactly the same way as the first edition I'd be marking it with the same score, most likely.  The first book was pretty much the best book out there on the market and close to perfect.  But that formula has been tinkered with here and more features have been added.  The main ones are company profiles and developer interviews.  On the surface this sounds like a great idea, although I did have some trepidation as I loved the flow of the first book, but I was all for having more to read and the design of these were definitely in keeping with the rest of the pages.

While there's a couple of tasty bits of information to be gleaned from some of the interviews, for the most part the questions are unfortunately rather basic and formulaic.  Asking how people got started programming for the 64 is all well and good, but just as with other questions such as favourite games etc. aren't really original.  What's worse is that each interview asks exactly the same questions no matter who's answering.  To this end the interviews lack personalised questions and I found myself wishing for more queries pertaining specifically to each individual.  It actually results in some loss of personality in the answers, which is a shame as the Commodore scene was full of big characters.

The company profiles are more like a long list of titles, release dates, review scores and their success or failure in the marketplace, but written up like a narrative of the timeline.  It's an interesting idea, but again each company is given exactly the same treatment of 'name the next title, year, reception and success', then on to the next.  They can become a little bit monotonous, crying out for a more tailored write-up for each.  Companies like Thalamus were so unique and their output equally so, but fans will have already read the basics before now and this doesn't add a lot more that's new.


Llamasoft's story is complex, very adult and extremely
amusing, but unfortunately this doesn't come across

Don't get me wrong, they include some great screenshots, it's always nice to have a little more to read and for those reminiscing about a long-forgotten time both the interviews and profiles will make for fun little additions.  But I just couldn't shake the feeling that, while what's there is fine, so much more could've been done with the idea, especially with the expectations set with knowing these were to be extensions of the original Visual Commpendium idea.  Add in some spelling/grammar errors that have been missed during proof-reading and they're not my favourite sections of the book.

However, there's some other inclusions unique to this book which are more successful, such as the demo scene which you can read about in the box out below.  Rather than being additional features they're more of a replacement for the original book's loading screens and box art.  Fan-produced games released between 1993 and the present day aren't given as much space here but are included, however what's even better is the large section about unreleased ones.  There are plenty of games which were previewed in magazines of the day but never saw the light of day.  There were many reasons such as the developers moving on to the newer computers and consoles, companies going bust or a game simply being no longer viable commercially.  Titles such as Daffy Duck, Fuzzball (a particular favourite Commodore Format covertape demo of mine) and Escape from Colditz have become almost mythical in the intervening years and this section is particularly fascinating to read.  As is the inclusion of a spread dedicated to the Ocean Loader and the foreboding eye of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I simply love the inclusion of Invade-a-Load, the little Space Invaders clone we could play while some games loaded, as a full entry in the visual trip through the Commodore 64's software.

The infamous Ocean Loader kept many a young games player on their toes

- - -


PUBLIC DISPLAYS OF COMMODORE AFFECTION


The C64's Public Domain scene never really gets a mention these days.  Alongside the commercial titles there were still bedroom coders knocking out great software, all free of copyright which they put out into the ether and let people share to their heart's content.  Postal Public Domain libraries were set up which would collect together all of this greatness and sell on, charging only for the cost of the disks and the postage.  I set one up myself and I'll cover it soon.

Games were only one aspect though.  Demos weren't interactive and instead were basically coders showing off what they could make the humble C64 do.  Stunning graphics which shouldn't have been possible, wonderful sound, mesmerising animation... they had them all!  The book  goes into some depth on the scene, which never went away, and includes some classic pieces of art.  Just look at some of these!  No trickery, those were produced on C64s.  Even Commodore said back in the 90s they were amazed at what people were creating on their 8-bit.  I've chosen some of the best here, but there's some rather strange choices here too (a yellow screen with one word in black?  Why is that included in a book celebrating the 64's visuals?) but the majority just have to be seen to be believed.

- - -

This volume also includes a few pages about the magazines the Commodore 64 owning public enjoyed, showing off the covers alongside quotes just like the games and for once it's nice to see more than Zzap covered.  Commodore User and my beloved Commodore Format are in there too and I was really looking forward to these in particular when I bought my copy.  You can imagine my disappointment when I got to those pages and realised there were no quotes at all for CU, the Zzap ones were taken from C64 fanzine Reset 64 and the CF ones were simply copied from interviews on a fan website.  I felt quite cheated if I'm honest.  They were well chosen and again for many they'll make for a great read but personally it was a let down for me, as I'd already read the full interviews.  Oh well.

Remember I'm covering this superb magazine here on the blog!

Above you can see the Commodore Format logo redrawn as an actual C64 piece of graphic design.  There's a few of these throughout the book from Robin Levy and they're a treat to have, especially for the individual magazines themselves and the unreleased games.  It's unfortunate that the most-likely-superb one he designed for the introduction to the magazine section has come across as overly blown up and pixellated, so much so that it's quite hard to make out all the lovely details (unless you hold it quite far away and squint a little).

Hang on 'til I take my glasses off... ah!  Superb!

This really is a superb book, don't get me wrong!  The first volume was a hard act to follow and it's only natural to want to pack in even more with any follow-up.  In my heart I wish they'd kept closer to the original; the profiles and interviews add some more lovely visuals and a couple of bits of new info but I could take them or leave them.  The magazines and demo scene sections are a welcome chapter in the same way as the loading screens last time, and expanding on the coverage with unreleased games is a stroke of genius.  Fans of not only the C64, but of retro computing in general too will absolutely love this book for all the exact same reasons as the first edition and it's certainly worth every penny.  Even better, buy the combined Extended Edition of both books edited together!  (See the picture link to Bitmap Books' website at the bottom of the post.)

Last time I said the Visual Commpendium was the best Commodore 64 book out there and while that may not be quite as true this time, the only book which betters this is the one it's following on from!  I really can't overstate how much of a recommendation that is.    

(click to enlarge)
Sam Dyer
244 pages, softcover with jacket
Publisher: Bitmap Books
£24.99 (£10 PDF available)
Also available as a combined Extended Edition (both volumes)


Check out the full range of Bitmap Books by clicking on the image below.

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