Why write a Commodore 64 game today?
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July 12, 2015 is the release date of my first ever computer game named ‘Jam It’ – an arcade-style 2-on-2 basketball game. What’s unusual is that it’s for a computer which was very popular in the 80s – the Commodore 64. I have been asked many times why even attempt this and why not instead make a game for the latest consoles. The answer isn’t entirely straight forward but much of the explanation comes from my experiences playing video games as a kid in the 80s …
Have you played Atari today?
Christmas day 1983 was when the Atari 2600 was delivered by Santa – my family’s very first game system. It came bundled with the classic Space Invaders, featuring 112 game modes all squashed into a 4Kb cartridge. We played it to the point of being able to clock the score (loop it back to zero) and when we got bored of that, would change the mode to invisible invaders with zig zag lasers!
Cartridges were expensive, at around $25 (~$60 today), but because of that you would spend a lot of time playing even a sub-standard game just because it was the new thing in your collection. I remember going to the video game store and taking ages to study screen shots on the back of game boxes and work out what would be the best purchase. There was no internet or ‘Metacritic’ back then – a wrong choice and you’d be stuck with a game almost as bad as ET.
Many of the games, like Space Invaders, had no defined ending and the challenge was in beating your high score or that of your friends. It was pretty much standard in game design at the time that the longer you played, the action would get increasingly faster and challenge your reaction time to the point of exhausting your concentration.
In retrospect, it is amazing how a video game system so simple was able to provide as much entertainment as it did. The graphics and sound by today’s standard are extremely primitive however, back then you never questioned that – the only other point of comparison were arcade games and this was the closest you could come to having one in your lounge room. It says a lot in the debate over how much graphics contribute to the quality of gameplay and enjoyment of a game.
Are you keeping up with the Commodore?
Fast forward a couple of years, and along came the Commodore 64. Even if you didn’t have one, just about anyone who grew up as a kid in the 80s knew this song …
My primary school had just purchased 16 of them and a one hour class each week meant using ‘Logo’ as way of learning simple programming and maths. Logo featured a turtle (represented by a triangle) and you would type in simple instructions to command it to draw patterns and pictures. The more complicated drawings could take minutes to render, and if you mistyped an instruction, the turtle would fly all over the screen drawing a random mess.
If we were lucky, the end of class would be free game time. This is where we were introduced to Pitstop 2 …
The graphics were in ultra realistic 3D (remember this was the best you were likely to see on a computer back then) and had sound beyond anything the Atari 2600 was capable of. The challenge was to convince my parents that we had to get one. This was achieved by declaring it would be used for ‘educational purposes’. I promised to copy maths programs from school and to use them at least once a week. Needless to say that didn’t happen.
We purchased a used C64 via the Trading Post – the 80s equivalent of Craigslist or Gumtree in a newspaper format. It came with everything including monitor, printer, disk drive, joysticks, programming books and hundreds of pirated games.
The C64 had an endless catalogue of games (around 10,000-15,000 in its lifetime), and many classics in the early years such as International Karate, Impossible Mission and Boulder Dash. The amount of hours spent playing the Atari was nothing compared to the C64. The games were bigger, more complex … and took longer to load. With the Atari cartridge, the game was ready to play as soon as you turned it on, however the average C64 disk game took a couple of minutes to load. Cassette tape games were far worse, taking 5+ minutes in many cases.
Even though I spent a ridiculous amount of time playing games, I always liked the idea of trying to make one with the first attempts at programming in BASIC. There were books and magazines which had code for games that you could type straight into the computer. These would be hundreds of lines long, and if you didn’t save before running, there was a pretty high risk the C64 would crash because of a typo and you’d lose everything. Some listings also had publishing errors in them so no matter how accurate your typing, you were really just wasting your time. As painful as this all sounds, it did teach me the basics about the hardware inside the C64 and its graphic and sound capabilities.
Pretty early on I discovered that if I was going to make a fast action game it couldn’t be achieved with BASIC but would require assembly language. The creators of one my all-time favourite games, ‘Creatures’, recommended the book ‘Programming the Commodore 64 by Raeto West’. One problem though, living in a small Australian town on the urban fringe it was pretty much impossible to find any book on C64 assembly whether it be in stores or the library. Playing video games was a popular past-time but programming apparently wasn’t!
Any further game making ambitions were soon put on hold for the next 25 years ….
The inspiration and motivation behind Jam It
The thought of making my own game has always stuck in the back of my mind. I’ve always enjoyed creative design in graphics and music, problem solving, and really just making stuff work with computers. I’d just never consciously taken the time to work out what I would like to create in terms of a game.
The first steps in acting on the game making idea were around 2010. I had experimented with XNA Game Studio on an overhead race game prototype for PC, while simultaneously attempting a simple tennis game using a C64 emulator and having some thoughts for a basketball game.
The reality of writing a game for any system is that it takes a very long time – hundreds of hours can easily turn into thousands. With modern game development any idea can pretty much be made if given enough time. On the other hand (compared to modern systems), the C64 has very restrictive limits in graphics, sound and memory.
My decision to commit to writing a C64 game was pretty much based on the following:
– that I wanted to have forced limitations so I could realistically finish the game
– the basketball game idea I had in mind seemed technically possible on the C64.
– basketball is something I am really interested in so it should motivate me through the long process ahead
– I had just discovered the elusive ‘Programming the Commodore 64’ on EBay!
And so begun development on Jam It – a 2-on-2 basketball game for the Commodore 64! It has taken almost 800 hours across 4.5 years with the very first prototype made available on a C64 forum in early 2011. It was very primitive and had many technical issues yet to be overcome but the response to it was positive and gave me incentive to stick with it.
One of the unusual features is that it can support up to 4 human players using a special adapter that has been available since 1997, well after the C64 ceased production around 1990. As much as it makes perfect sense to use for a game like this I had never considered it until a forum member made the suggestion. The C64 everyone had grown up with only supported 2 joysticks but the community of players and collectors now are very keen on using many modern hardware add-ons like this.
Jam It has been exhibited at a number of gaming events including AVCon and PAX Australia in 2014. The reception to it has been far more supportive than I ever imagined. Players have been able to easily pickup the simple controls (it only requires a joystick/controller with 1 button) which have made it more accessible and playable than they expected. For this I have to acknowledge the inspirations that were my two favourite basketball games on the C64 …
The first is One-On-One basketball (Larry Bird vs Dr J), released in 1984. The graphics and sound were functional at best, but the game was what I still consider an excellent representation of playing one-on-one. You could post up with your back to the basket, perform spinning dunks and alley oops. Much of the strategy was to out-manoeuvre your opponent and get a free path to the basket or get free space for a jump shot.
One of the memorable features of the game was the backboard smash – it was worth playing just to amaze your friends!
Another lesser known game from 1986 was GBA Championship Basketball – a 2-on-2 full court game. It featured really well animated players and took a slightly more strategic angle on being able to call basic plays. A unique feature about it was you could either play against a friend or play as a team against the CPU – it was more common to have human players compete head-to-head rather than cooperate in a sports game.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this article as much as I have revisiting some of my past video gaming experiences. If this motivates you to write your own game for your favourite retro computer or console, then all the better. I say go for it, as you’ll learn a lot and there’s plenty of online communities who are keen to support new games for their favourite old systems.
If you want to check out Jam It or just find out more about it, then please visit: