Tuesday, 20 December 2016

COMMODORE FORMAT #4: LIVING ROOM LIGHTS, iPHONE CAMERA, C64 ACTION

My write-ups of each issue of the greatest C64 magazine ever continues as we reach the first Christmas issue, though you wouldn't be able to tell!  Instead, movies were the name of the game(s) but the best issue to date still made a great stocking filler.


The January issues of CF after I started originally collecting it were always Christmas-themed.  They may have stopped short of putting snow on the logo as my comics had, but the writing team always made a big deal out of the fact that this would always be the final issue before the holidays.  They were always chock full of reviews for all the Christmas releases we could bug our parents for, had extra pages and at least would talk about the time of the year within the pages and wish the readers a Merry one.  Not so here, strangely.

I read this issue for the first time at the start of this year and I was surprised by the lack of such content, although it was always 100 pages at this early stage so I wasn't exactly expecting any more.  There are a lot of games reviewed in here though I have to say.  Quite clearly these were all the big holiday releases for the games publishers and in particular the big movie-based games would be huge sellers over this period of the year.  In a roundabout way, when you think of Christmas being synonymous with big films and the TV schedules packed with movies day and night, you could begin to think of this as a festive feast of reviews.  I guess.

Anyhoo, back to the positives of this issue and there are a ton!  Easily the best issue so far (yes, I'm aware I've only covered three others) it is filled to the rafters with great content and it all kicks off with the cover feature.  Now Showing at a C64 Near You may be a very clumsy title for a feature but the article itself is fascinating.  It takes an in-depth look at the computer gaming sector of the time and how it worked hand-in-hand with the movie industry.  We're all used to this these days with endless games coming out tied in to the latest blockbuster, swiftly followed by a Lego version of the same title to weed out a few more notes from people's wallets and purses.  But back in 1990 this wasn't always the case.

While it's true games based on TV shows and films wasn't anything new, in the couple of years before CF's birth the occasional title had been replaced by a wave of games cashing in on what was hoped to be the next big craze on cinema screens.  It really was the "new thing" amongst computer games players at the time, although already they were being received with mixed opinion, as you'll see in the  Love 'em or Loath 'em section in the article itself where readers shared their views.  Today they're generally seen as quite lazy money makers, slapping the name and likeness of a film onto a mediocre game and hoping it'll sell on the link rather than the game quality.

This issue seems to go out of its way to show this didn't necessarily have to be the case, with some superb tie-in games being given very prominent space, but this is somewhat balanced out with one or two duffers.  The section I mentioned above shows that it all depends on an individual's opinion on whether these games were a good or bad thing in general, but what can't be disputed from this issue is that they were here to stay and shouldn't be dismissed so easily, as there were some corking teams who made sure they matched (or even surpassed) the movie event by focussing on the gameplay.


So basically, just like any other game if the hard work is put in a cracking game can be produced.  But add in the deadlines set by cinema releases and the wish to ride the coattails of a movie while it's generating as much money as possible and it's clear how things can sometimes go wrong.  Surely a great game released late would be better appreciated than a rushed game you could buy on the way home from the cinema?  Of course.  But would it make as much money?  Hmm, that part is negligible and at the end of the day the creators are part of a business.  But at least the magazine made the point of saying it's not simply a matter of churning out rubbish which would almost con people into buying it.  It's just all the stuff outside of the developers' control which lends that air of uncertainty to them.

The main game leading up the charge in this special issue is one which was not only a very accomplished game in its own right, it was miles better than the movie upon which it was based.


I can remember watching the original film as a young teen on a rental VHS with the family, after my sister had warned my mum about the language and violence but assuring her I'd enjoy it (and how I'd probably just end up seeing it at a friend's anyway).  My mum did tut and give off a little to begin with but it wasn't long until she herself was sucked into the very human story behind the gore.  I've very fond memories of us watching the great TV series in the mid-90s together every week on Saturday afternoons, but less fond memories of RoboCop 2.  I watched it with another sister at her house and it was pretty dire.  Everything I loved about the first one was missing (the humour, the brilliant character in Murphy) and instead it was just stop-motion robots fighting and the supposed "upgraded" RoboCop was terrible!

But, on the flip side of this Ocean released a simply sublime cartridge-only game in time for Christmas.  Remember this was the first (and in the end, the only) holiday season the C64 Games System console would be on sale, so the idea was that high quality games like this could only help bolster it.  I actually own this game these days and it's a blast!  The multiload would probably ruin it somewhat on cassette plus they wouldn't have added in the lovely between-level scenes and extra presentation.  It's a Corker no doubt and shows off exactly what the 64 was capable of, especially with the extra instant-access memory and I challenge anyone to think the 8-bit consoles were any better than this at that time!

Another nice thing about the movie game reviews in this issue is the fact there's little extras thrown in here and there to keep up the "special movie tie-in issue" theme.  Next to the review for Bond game The Spy Who Loved Me is a list of the movies made so far (although it includes a few errors this Bond fan finds irritating), there's a quite negative round-up of the plots to RoboCop 2 and Days of Thunder, a fact-file on Red October and for Navy SEALs is this below.


I love 80s movies as it is but too many have slipped me by, including this one.  With what sounds like a brilliantly fun cast it was a surprise to read that despite that, and it being a quality action flick it didn't perform well at the box office.  CF was right, we never did see a sequel but just from this and the game review itself I think I'll have to track it down in a HMV sale or something and give it a go!  I certainly will also do so with what sounds like a quality cart-only platformer, if Robo above is anything to go by.  Another game for the wish list which will be added to future CF posts in 2017.

But there's one game here I don't own but which I have played before and this is a strange instance.  Let me explain.  I've never seen Days of Thunder but I did play the game on the NES back when I was 17 or 18.  Now I do remember there were only left-hand turns and it ran rather slowly but with interesting and fun pit stops.  It was difficult to overtake and the corners were tricky to keep your place in, but somehow it kept me hooked for a while.  I played it with my brother-in-law, taking it in turns to try to win our way up the list of teams.  While the graphics here on the 64 version are a little bit better, it's not by much so it took me right back when I saw them.  But then I read the review...


Sometimes taking the rose-tinted glasses off can be a horrible thing.  Don't get me wrong, sometimes retro games can be just as much fun as in the past, or sometimes they can be even better with the gift of many more years in between lending us more patience or skills to play with.  But often they can hide a multitude of sins, or a game can simply not date well and we have to do with the fond memories instead of being able to enjoy it all over again.  But I haven't played Days of Thunder since then.  Reading this review was enough to put me off!  The positives they glean from the game I remember, but I also remember the frustration at the rest and while I was able to forgive it for these shortcomings when doing that whole male bonding thing with my bro-in-law, I don't think I'll bother today.

I think it was only a few years ago when I saw the movie the next game is based on for the first time.  It always passed me by, but joining Netflix at the time brought with it a huge amount of 80s and 90s films I was eager to catch up on.  One of the very first ones I discovered on my Wii U (Netflix being about the only thing I was using it for at the time, thus it was sold not long after) was The Hunt for Red October and it was a class act.  Tension, a superb cast and a story which kept me guessing all the way through, with that classic 80s feel.  Loved it.

When I read this issue I was thrilled to see there was a game for the film and even more so that it didn't follow the usual platform routine of the time.  It's definitely on my wish list and looks like it'd be the perfect 80s (well, 1990) game to match the film.  Here's the full review along with that mini fact-file column I mentioned above.


I'll come back to the movie-related stuff at the end of the post but let's have a look at what else is in here.  There's one regular contributor who I haven't shown yet.  While in this issue he's quite tame compared to what he'd become later on I couldn't go any longer without mentioning The Mighty Brain!

As a teen more-often-than-not the letters pages of my comics would be answered by a fictional character.  In The Transformers comic from Marvel UK they gave the honour of replying to the young readers to a different Autobot or Decepticon every 100 issues or so.  This allowed the team to (for want of a better phrase) hide behind this persona, resulting in some hilarious responses to some very innocent questions.  In much the same way, TMB in Commodore Format could become very cheeky, as he was meant to be an all-seeing, all-knowing being from another dimension and this had gone to his head (figuratively speaking of course).  If someone wrote in to complain about the magazine he'd give an answer which to us sounded very funny, but now as an adult it's very clear that the editor was venting against the complaint with comedy.  Silly questions were made fun of and sarcasm abounded amongst all the genuine answers too.

Given how the target audience was a teen one, he could get away with more than the comics could, even though they did cut very close to the bone at times, but in all those publications we especially loved it when we got such funny answers.  They could be better than the actual reply we were looking for!  It's the reason so many of us wrote in.  Only much later in CF's lifetime did I eventually write in, but I'll cover that when we get there.  Here's what he looks like and as I continue my read-through I'll highlight any especially good comebacks I spot.  There should be plenty.


As a side note, The Mighty Brain and indeed CF as a whole was so successful that the main competition, Zzap64 ended up relaunching itself as a kind of CF clone!  'Commodore Force' also included a character called The Mighty Brian on their letters page in every issue of their short run.  Oh deary me.

Back to the present.  Well, the present 26 years ago.  When I joined the ranks of readers at #14 the topic of the internet never cropped up in the mag.  It was only inside its final year when it was reduced to 24 pages and was focussing almost entirely on serious software, programming techniques and new hardware that it started to talk about modems and connecting your C64 up to the World Wide Web.  I knew people had been able to do this already with the 64 but that it was prohibitively expensive, costing a monthly subscription to whatever service you wanted to connect to, plus a charge for what you used, plus your landline carrier would charge a connection fee, plus a charge per minute of use... it was insane and there was simply no way I could pay for that.  However, you can read about what happened with my first internet experiences, or rather my first internet phone bill, in last month's CF post here.

With those final issues I thought CF was covering it for the first time, trying to help readers expand their home system and get them to use their 64s for more creative uses.  It really was a great, if brief, read and was responsible for my own ventures in creating for the Commodore and, as a knock-on effect, for this blog many years later and anything I may do in the future.  I'll go into that at another time in a new series of posts in 2017 (but starting during the final week of this year) but I've been surprised the online features from the first issues are still going strong in #4.  Despite the costs CF obviously felt this was something to pitch towards those younger readers.  I wonder how many parents went along with it though!


In the previous issue Future Publishing gave the readers what can only be described as a simply amazing gift of a covertape!  On it had been Vidcom 64, a full and complete commercial art package.  For no extra money.  Paying less than the price of a budget game for it was awesome on its own, never mind the fact it came with games, demos and a whole bloody 100-page magazine to read!  Instead of just giving a simple set of instructions and expecting the readers to get on with it like some other publications of the time, Commodore Format went out of its way to actually teach the audience how to get the most out of the software they gave us.

Now obviously they couldn't reproduce the full manual or else there'd be no space left in the magazine, so to whittle it all down to a few pages must've been quite a daunting task.  In later issues they'd repeat this idea and sometimes give an introductory feature in the magazine but give us the opportunity to send away for the full manual.  At this early stage though this wasn't an option to the team or the publisher and so instead they took a full manual and reduced it down to four pages across two issues.  This is the second part and they've certainly crammed a lot in, even having to use smaller fonts in order to be able to do so.

They were clearly dedicated with providing as much information as possible to their readers and they've done a fantastic job of distilling a huge book into this space.  There's a lot of detail here, yet it's not daunting in any way.  That's a huge achievement in and of itself, but add on the fact they've probably got a dozen or more pages of manual info here in this spread alone and it's quite remarkable.


The last feature I'm going to look at this month is the start of a new series looking back at a huge list of classic C64 games, for better or for worse; the Commodore Format A to Z of Classic Games.  This wasn't just a 'best of', Gordon Houghton was going back over half a dozen years or more of some of the best known titles out there.  Most are classics and he'd advise they should be tracked down, but he'd also throw in some games which readers may have heard of but which were not-so-great or downright turkeys.

Nowadays it's easier than ever to track down original cassettes, disks and cartridges thanks to online retro stores and, of course, eBay.  But back then if a game on this list had been "deleted" it was simply a matter of trying bargain bins and car boot sales.  Sometimes they'd be on compilations, but while this feature was interesting it must also have been quite frustrating.  At least readers coming on to the 64 scene fresh would be able to compile their own wish list and in that regard the A to Z has proved invaluable to me now.

This ran for a whopping 6 issues!  So my own list grew exponentially while reading these so I can only imagine how the eyes of new C64 owners would've been wide-eyed at this first two-page section, never mind the whole series.  With CF coming much later to the scene it was only natural it had to cover the thousands and thousands of games which had come before, but how on earth could they?  The competition had many years of a head start after all.  Having a list like this which wasn't a Top 100 or anything like that was inspired.  It was just as important to warn readers of those popular games they may have wanted to chase down but which were actually crap.  Doing an A to Z was also a great way to organise such a vast library and it reads so well.  What is essentially a huge list like this shouldn't be as much fun to read as it is!


I have to say for the next five issues I will include this feature as it was the section I looked forward to the most on my read-through!

Okay so that's us, just time to share the poster for this issue.  With no original cover art to speak of you'd think they'd either reproduce the film reel from the front page or just not bother at all.  After all, it may have been good for a cover but it's not exactly poster material.  Somehow they managed to end up with something even worse, though that may be with those aforementioned rose-tinted glasses taken off.  What do you think?

Do you remember those Poster Magazines we'd get as kids?  They were the same size as our mags and comics and had a good bit to read, but instead of individual pages they folded out into a giant poster, with the main image on one side and all the reading content on the other.  Often they were based on movies and were simply either the cinema poster (good) or a selection of random stills with rushed graphics and text thrown on top (bad).  Guess which one of these seems to have 'inspired' the CF team?


Right that's us folks.  The next issue to be covered will be with you on Tuesday 17th January 2017 but in the meantime there's been a change to the running order of the blog.  There'll be no Dizzy review tomorrow as Christmas has proved so busy that I haven't had time to play it as much as I wanted to.  So I didn't feel a review based on the little time I've had with it would be very fair and so I've delayed it.  You're still going to get your six posts before the end of the month though, it'll just be something different between Christmas and New Year instead, but it's one which I'm looking forward to.  So stay tuned.


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