We’ve covered a few gaming mysteries here over the years. Some were widely known, like the identity of the guy in the green jacket in the far, far distance in Resident Evil 4, or whatever happened to Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery on the ZX Spectrum; and we touched on a lot more besides when we reviewed The Games That Weren’t, an absolute masterpiece of a video game book written by Frank Gasking and published by Bitmap Books. Then there were some that were very personal to me, like where on earth I used to play the Pit-Fighter arcade game, or the name of the speedboat combat arcade game that turned out to be Hydra, both finally solved (and surprisingly intertwined) after years of wondering, although not enough to be bothered to think either through! And then there was a very similar one that was a mystery for just as long but was solved much earlier though, and that was the name of the sole arcade machine at a holiday camp we visited in the early eighties – possibly Pontins at Brean Sands in Somerset, and probably in August 1983…
Anyway, years later, all I could remember about that game was that you were a convict collecting bags of cash stashed around a mine and putting them into a wheelbarrow at the top, and there were people chasing you, and there were pickaxes and ladders and minecarts… Yes, it turned out to be Bagman, all the way from 1982 by Valadon Automation, which I think is safe to say has remained a bit of an enigma, in no small part because amazingly there was never a home computer (or, later, console) conversion; we did get Gilligan’s Gold from Ocean on the usual suspects in 1984, which was an unremarkable rip-off that pre-dated my owning a Spectrum so I never made the link. The Commodore 64 also had Bagitman, which was a bit more the part, but I definitely never played that one either. No, it actually took MAME, and very recently, for me to actually get reacquainted with the game that my brother and me had spent every evening that week almost forty years ago marvelling at!
It also took even longer for me to find out that there was a sequel, 1984’s Super Bagman, and the only reason I discovered that was the arrival of LC-Games’ Bagman Strikes Back on the Commodore 64 in March 2022, the homebrew sequel to 2021’s homebrew Bagman Comes Back, which in turn was a tribute to the original arcade game, made up of eight completely new stages. And just to complete the tale, the only reason I discovered Bagman Strikes Back was the slightly earlier in 2022 arrival of their new port of Tutankham on Commodore 64, which in turn was discovered by complete coincidence when, at that precise moment, I was researching the wonderfully misspelt original 1982 Konami arcade game, and that in turn was simply because I’d come across my VIC-20 conversion (which is incredible!) when I was looking at all things Ancient Egyptian for an upcoming (at time of writing) piece on Atari 7800 Desert Falcon. Phew!
Right, back to Bagman, and rather than rely on my decades-old memories, let’s get the proper story out there… You’re Bagman, an escaped convict trying to steal all the bags of gold from a mine and get them into his wheelbarrow on the surface. There’s two policeman guarding the mine, and as such are trying to stop you nicking the gold. Which kind of sounds like my decades-old memories… Anyway, the mine spans three screens full of gold, ladders, lifts, mine carts, pickaxes (again, I didn’t do too badly!) as well as those pesky coppers, who are even more pesky when you’ve got a bag of gold on your back to slow you down, meaning they’re all over you like a shot! You’ve got a few tools at your disposal though, including actual tools like those pickaxes, which can be picked up instead of gold to stun them as well as knock holes in walls hiding extra heavy bonus gold, or, if you’re on a ladder with a bag of gold, you can just drop it on top of them which will also take them out for a few seconds. You can also jump into one of the minecarts to escape them, but this is high risk because they’re always on the move and will mow you down if you’re not careful – grabbing the handles on the roof of the mine to drop down into them or to pull yourself out is loads of fun and worth the risk every time though! Get to a lift and that will get you out of harm’s way quickly, especially if you’re carrying a bag of gold. And what was really cool about the original arcade game was that all of this was explained by a brief comic strip on the cabinet!
The premise of Bagman Strikes Back is a simple one. He’s back and he wants more money! And while it might not have a comic strip to tell you what to do, it does have an excellent set of instructions in-game! Like its recent predecessor, it’s a loving tribute to Bagman, featuring 24 new stages, and supporting both PAL and NTSC models of Commodore 64, although there is a noticeable speed increase playing the NTSC version that makes it feel much closer to the arcade game. That said, and as has always been the case, if you don’t know any better it won’t bother you! And actually, slowing things down a bit might quickly become welcome, because one thing my memory had neglected to store away was quite how hard Bagman was! You can always knock it down a difficulty setting here if you’re struggling though, or knock it up if you’re insane, but regardless I think you’ll eventually get to experience all the screens anyway because which one you begin on seems to be random.
Wherever you begin, your very first impression is going to be the same though – this is Bagman! And I’m going to go through various reasons why in the order they hit me… Firstly, it’s the Bagman song! Okay, it might not be the SID chip’s finest hour, but Luca Carminati – the one-man dev behind LC-Games – has absolutely nailed the arcade original’s music, including its pacing, where it casually drops out after the ten seconds or so of its main melody, then will drop back in again a little while later, often without you even noticing it’s gone. The sound effects are all there too, with Bagman’s footsteps sounding like he’s dragging his feet, reminding me of the sound of skiing in Winter Games! Then there’s the different little ditties when you caught caught, or squashed by a lift or drop a bag into your wheelbarrow – all really authentic!
The next thing you’ll notice is that if Bagman had got an official conversion some time in the eighties, you couldn’t ask for it to look more like Bagman on a Commodore 64 than this does! The main character sprite has been more or less perfectly realised, and I know the source material helps, but that stripey convict suit is as good as it gets. There’s marginally less detail on the two policemen, but you can still make out their trademark, strangely white hair as they gad about after you! And, apart from Boulder Dash maybe, never was a game more suited to the Commodore 64, which has always been very much at home reproducing a subterranean colour spectrum! The developer has applied a bit of artistic license with some alternative shades here, and a bit of added texture, boulders, stones and other such underground furniture, but everything else is very distinctively Bagman. As an aside, I dread to think what the ZX Spectrum’s colour palette would have done with this – a mess with magenta-infused colour-clash all over the place, no doubt!
Back on the C64 though, yes, after your ears have heard and your eyes have seen, at this point I can also confirm that it feels like Bagman too! The level designs are way more clever than might first be apparent, with all kinds of individual tactical opportunities at play in each for cat and mouse movement, using weapons or minecarts, stockpiling bags of gold and so on, as well as quite a few having some fiendish little outlying bags of gold that take some real management of those policemen’s positions to be able to get at safely! I reckon the policemen have got slightly less aggressive with old age, but their intelligence hasn’t gone anywhere, and they know exactly when to lurk, when to pounce and when to run away just like in the original game! I did really appreciate the positioning to get a bag into the wheelbarrow being a little more forgiving, and I think the minecart travel has been tweaked slightly too. Nothing major, but it all balances out to result in the same crazy addictiveness that a few of us at least remember from 1982!
I’ll always hold out hope that one day Bagman is going to get an official console release – ideally on Nintendo Switch so we spin that screen around and experience it as nature intended! But if the masters of the license, Ocean Software, failed to grab this one forty years ago, then I doubt we’ll see much on the home conversion front now! Bagman Strikes Back on Commodore 64 is near enough though. I’ve said it before, but you can’t ask for more from an arcade conversion than for it to capture the look, sound and feel of the source material, and that’s precisely what this does, albeit across 24 completely new levels! It’s undoubtably Bagman, and it’s available to for you to name your own price and download at Luca’s itch.io page right here.