It’s been about a year since my Top Ten Favourite ZX Spectrum Loading Screens countdown here, although in reality that started life as an evolving idea several years ago, and originally covered every system I had access to around that time and not just the Spectrum! It soon became clear that it was turning into a Spectrum list though, with a smattering of Commodore 64 and Atari ST, and not forgetting a bit of BBC, so that’s what it became, on the basis I’d come back to the others separately, and here we finally are! That said, our “bit of BBC” did also get covered when I looked at Repton 3 on there because realistically I’m never coming up with a top ten for that. The ST’s looking good for another year’s time from now though – shortlist of about twenty-five already! I really wanted to do justice to the C64 next though, and the golden age of the loading screen where sheer creativity will forever trump the realism afforded by the digitisation, higher resolution and huge jumps in colour that followed with the 16-bits. My shortlist here was way more than twenty-five too so if I left it any longer it would be out of control!
While the principle is obviously the same, with data on the cassettes still being transmitted as different length pulses representing the ones and zeros that the computer would then translate into code it could process, the C64 handled loading a bit different to the Spectrum. Firstly, the bands you’d get around the loading screen over there that represented the computer searching for data then different types of data being loaded into memory weren’t there. That said, they’d often be added by the developer for both personalisation as well as making sure you know something is actually happening while you waited ten minutes for a game to start! Secondly, that iconic Spectrum screeching noise that also let you know all was right in the world wasn’t there either, so you’d often get some incredible loading music coming out of that SID chip to accompany the lovely C64 loading screens instead! And with that we should hit the screens themselves! What we’re going to do is countdown from number ten, have a quick look at the game itself and then jump into its loading screen, like I’m in any way qualified to talk arty stuff! We all deserve an opinion though, and from there, I’ll also share a gallery of the rest of the original shortlist, which I’m going to cut down to about thirty before I do anything else here so I’ve at least got a chance of narrowing it down to a top ten (which I haven’t done so far as I write)! The only other thing I’ll mention is I didn’t go in with any rules, such as no homebrews – and if it wasn’t for an unforgivable, colourblind-hating red on black logo a recent Star Wars one would have gone high, although there is another one in the gallery of honourable mentions near the end! Anyway, it’s just games I’ve known over the years, however many they might number, although I did avoid a couple of remade screens that do the rounds, for example Commando’s, however wonderful they are. And with that, I’m going to disappear behind the curtain for a bit and work out what the hell I’m going to talk about next…
Okay, I think I’ve worked everything out now so we’re kicking off our top ten with not only a pioneering arcade game from 1984 but also an all-time favourite one too, and that’s Pac-Land! It’s the original side-scrolling platformer, with Pac-Man returning fairies to the other side of Pac-Land through its various environments, as well, of course, as avoiding its ghosts! The C64 port came in 1987, and while it’s probably the version I’ve played the least, it’s not a bad one at all! It’s been scaled down to sixteen levels and simplified in scope, so stuff like moving fire hydrants to find power-ups is gone, but it certainly looks and sounds the part, and it even scrolls, unlike its Spectrum counterpart! Really nice conversion, which is something you don’t say often on this machine! Joking aside, I’m actually planning to do something on awesome arcade conversions for the Commodore 64 because there’s way more than the handful it’s often credited with… Well, a few more at least!
While there’s no doubt that the Atari ST version (probably the one I’ve played the most) offers far more fidelity in its take on this, there’s also no denying that this loading screen is equally at home on the C64. Visually, I love its chunkiness and its vibrancy, but what its relative simplicity also does is draw your eye to the details, and this map of Pac-Land is full of them, drawn straight out of the game! There’s not just the tiny cacti in the desert region, but they’ve also got tiny shadows. Then there’s the break-time sign next to the church in the middle, and the plumes of water in the ocean. My favourite bit is Pac-Man finding the miniature door to Fairy Land though, complete with miniature frame effects and the magical entrance beyond! Together with big, jolly Pac-Man and the fairy unrolling the map in the corner, who conveys way more personality than what’s there in reality should allow, this is the whole game almost perfectly condensed in a single image. Almost… Where’s Blinky and co?
9. Ghosts ‘n Goblins
What was I saying about C64 arcade conversions? We’re only on our second loading screen and it’s already two in a row, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins is arguably even better! Even made it into my Wonderful Sights in Gaming list at the end of 2022! This is a port of the brutally difficult 1985 supernatural run and gun arcade game by Capcom, where medieval knight Arthur has to rescue the princess Prin-Prin or Guinevere or just plain old Princess, depending on where you’re playing, from the demon Astaroth. This version was cut down to four levels from the original seven to avoid multi-loads, but apart from that it absolutely nails everything, with the best C64 take on the visuals and music you could hope for, and the hard as nails gameplay beautifully intact.
None of the earthy subtleties of the game itself on the loading screen and that’s why I love it – so in your face! Okay, the demon king looks like Chewbacca with wings, but so much love has gone into creating this thing and Arthur’s plight (not to mention that of the poor princess being held in that infernal Wookie fist!) is so perfectly captured. And there is a bit of leafy subtlety to discover after all once your eyes are over the initial shock! The monstrous henchman you’ll meet along the way (maybe!) are full of the playful evil your imagination then fills in the gaps for as you play, and that suit of armour looks suitably fragile too – no wonder you’re down to your pants at the slightest zombified touch! Probably not the last time I’ll say this but it’s such a Commodore 64 sight we’re looking at here!
One of these days I’ll properly cover Gunship, the 1986 Apache helicopter sim from MicroProse, because for once I actually have an interesting tale to tell! I have partially told it already when we looked at Renegade and Soft & Cuddly on the ZX Spectrum if you’re desperate. I picked up both of them at the 1987 Personal Computer World show in London after I won a Your Sinclair Gunship competition to go there, have a go in a proper AH-64 Apache helicopter simulator and be given a load of MicroProse goodies including copies of Gunship and Pirates! Anyway, it’s an authentic flight sim with a huge manual whether you’re on Spectrum, C64 or later the Atari ST, which is where I ended up spending many, many happy hours with it.
I’ve become quite fond of the C64 version since though, and not least its bold as brass loading screen! It’s just so impactful, and you’re never in any doubt about the score – you’re going to fly a combat helicopter and this is no Airwolf, it’s the real deal! Possibly not the last time we’ll be saying that here either… Anyway, it’s menacing, it’s dramatic and there’s several really effective contrasts at play, with that solid red background surprisingly demanding the most attention; its stark minimalism totally at odds with the complexity of the logo and the terrifying detail of the machine emerging behind it. As a statement of intent for what’s to follow, it’s perfect!
7. Airwolf II
As if by magic, another helicopter game that’s even less Airwolf than the last one! Yes, despite the name, and despite what we’ll see on the loading screen in a second, and also despite it apparently being a direct sequel to the first Airwolf, the mighty Stringfellow Hawke is now fighting off hordes of aliens in his supersonic super-coptor. Apart from it scrolling right to left – which hardly helps its cause – this is a regular horizontal shoot ‘em up. And it’s a regular stinky one! Where the first game was brutally difficult but recognisably Airwolf, this is just garbage, and so much so that Elite didn’t even release it standalone, but hid it away on a HitPak compilation, which is shocking considering the profile of this license back in 1987!
Somehow the Spectrum version plumbs even greater depths, but apart from being able to say it’s better than that abomination, Airwolf II’s one redeeming feature on C64 is the loading screen! Its use of shadow is incredible, allowing for the selective composition of a way more realistic rendition of Airwolf than we were used to – as good as it is, see Gunship for an example of that! This realism is in no small part down to simple but wonderfully effective use of lighting on the parts of the helicopter that are exposed through the blackness, which also supports that (Air?)wolf in sheep’s clothing image of the helicopter in the TV show too. Just a shame the rest of the game didn’t do the same!
6. BMX Simulator
One of the things I enjoy the most about putting stuff like this together is getting to play games that might not be an all-time favourite again, and in some cases for the first time in the best part of forty years! Not so here though because this budget title from 1986 is an all-time favourite and it’s one that I’ve genuinely rarely stopped playing for any period of time since! It’s a top-down racer in the vein of Super Sprint and the like but this time cashing in on the BMX craze at the time. Brilliant fun in single-player but if you can get someone else involved that’s where it really shines. The track designs evolve with your skills, and their muddy nature makes them a perfect fit for the C64. A budget triumph that could easily have been a full price one!
That “muddy nature” I just mentioned also translates perfectly to dominate the loading screen! Its all about the undulations of that carved-up mud, and it really captures the physicality of the courses in the game and the frequent banked turns in particular – a skilled player can really lay into them instead of slowing down, and it’s one of those weird things I can actually “feel” as I write about it! While the image is taking some liberties with the number of racers involved at once, it’s also capturing the always-present danger of crashing; yes, it’s more dramatic here than in the game, but the damage done is relatively similar! Apart from well-defined mud, there’s also plenty of artistic merit in the two guys that aren’t on the floor – looks like real BMX motions to me, and there’s an energy about the image as a result they really plays to the strengths of the platform’s visual repertoire.
Huge movie back in 1986, and another huge tie-in for Ocean Software at the back end of 1987, when they were also just about established as the de-facto force in these movie license games. Fantastic game too, following the film’s Vietnam War plot pretty closely as one of your team of five first made their way through a side-scrolling jungle stage to plant explosives, then it’s first-person shooting through a tunnel system, then crosshair-shooting in a bunker siege, and finally a third-person jungle fight to the final boss. Loads of variety, authentic jungle visuals and tense gameplay made this a real favourite of mine, although I’ll always remember the box the most – it was that big 16-bit cardboard box format and also included an A2 poster and a cassette of Smokey Robinson’s The Tracks of My Tears from the movie. Great days!
Great loading screen too! As an aside, this is also a nice example of how Ocean would get the most out of these licences by aiming to launch them best case with the cinema release but next best (and more realistically) in time for the home video release, which could then include some mutually beneficial co-promotion like you can see at the top of the screen here. The rest is a rendition of the movie poster as only the Commodore 64 could do, and as a result it’s done way better here than even the Amiga and ST and DOS releases could manage. By the way, another quick aside, if I ever do a worst loading screens on the ZX Spectrum feature, I need to remember this one – the horror of war being depicted is really dimished by the guy being shot’s crazy magenta skin tone! Back on this version, if there’s on thing the C64 could do well it was foliage (also see Cauldron and Winter Games for some of its finest examples), and this thing is all about the trees and grass and the ominous jungle interior to create this claustrophobia and sense of no escape that we’re looking at. And somehow the pixelated faux-realism of this terrifying moment of death, juxtaposed by the cold professionalism of the enemy coming up behind, still captures the powerful essence of the original photographic design and its message of the first casualty of war being innocence. A work of art!
4. Dragon’s Lair
When an arcade game is less of a game and more of a showcase for the animated spectacle of laserdisc technology, it’s never going to translate especially well to an 8-bit computer! That’s not to diminish its impact in 1983 though; this thing was a showstopper – a genuine cartoon brought to life – and for context, it’s the same year as Elevator Action, Track & Field and Spy Hunter, to name a few. Actually, though, Atari’s Star Wars also launched in 1983, and while admittedly its vector graphics – timeless as they may be – can’t compete, its impact to anyone lucky enough to have climbed down into the arcade machine at the time would have been similar, albeit different! Anyway, this played like a high-fantasy knight-slays-dragon-rescues-princess series of early quick-time event set-pieces in the arcade, while the ports played more like clunky and ultimately frustrating platforming mini-games. Not terrible to look at, considering, but not much fun either, although I do have a soft-spot for the sequel on C64!
I mentioned my Wonderful Sights in Gaming thing earlier, where at the end of the second part I highlighted a load of stuff I’d already realised I’d missed that might form another instalment. I can now exclusively reveal that Part Three is coming in December 2023, and is very likely going to include “the castle through the thorns in that crappy Dragon’s Lair game on PS2” I mentioned! It might be fancier during that opening animated sequence on there, but this loading screen version of the same was my first love! It’s pure Scooby Doo, with this gothic (centuries before its time!) castle screaming out of the frying pan and into the fire as you finally leave the chocking thorns and brambles of the dark and mysterious forest behind. Just enough detail everywhere to get that message across, and lovely use of minimal colour over the black and white and shades of grey too. It might not have made my wonderful sights list as it stands here but it’s certainly a worthy top five C64 loading screens entry!
It’s another Ocean movie license, and this was the big one – most successful one ever, in fact! Also arguably the first game to sell a million, Robocop arrived in time for the video release of the movie in late 1988, which came complete with a thirty-second advert for the game, and then went on to become one of the best-selling video tapes of all time too! Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not an arcade port either – that was sub-licensed to Data East and everything was developed in parallel, based on movie scripts. Unfortunately, while the Spectrum version knew its limitations and turned out to be one of its best movie tie-ins as a result, I’ve always thought the C64 version was too ambitious for its own good – looks great and beautiful soundtrack but its a very average, frustratingly hard run and gun game just beneath the surface.
The loading screen is even more beautiful than the soundtrack though! More of that mutually beneficial co-promotion here but the rest is all about this ultra-realistic portrait of Robocop himself. To this day there are still all sorts of impressive pixel art being created for original 8-bit hardware and this wouldn’t look out of place if it turned up standalone with them. It takes that lighting and shadowing we saw earlier with the Airwolf helicopter but turns the detailing up to eleven, resulting in as close to photo-realism as you’ll ever coming out of the humble Commodore 64. Shame about the game it’s doing such a good job in hyping you up for, but at least plenty of people got to enjoy this genuine piece of art while they waited!
Right, we’re getting to the business end of this countdown now, and I absolutely love that we’ve got another budget title all the way from 1986 ranking so high! I was a big fan of the more action-focussed first game in the Magic Knight Series, Finders Keepers, but less so this sequel, which in retrospect was a actually a pretty pioneering action-adventure, with a lot in common with something like the (relatively) much later point-and-click adventure Monkey Island, while also playing like the Dizzy series, which I do prefer, but was still a year away. Anyway, you’re out to rescue your wizard friend by exploring a castle and collecting objects to solve puzzles and mix spells, and it’s incredible that something so big and so impressive could be so cheap!
Until we got here this list pretty much created itself. Obviously, it’s all subjective, and while there’s still stuff I’m thinking of that I missed from rest of the original shortlist we’ll have a look at once we’re done with the next game, what we’ve see so far was in my top ten from the outset and in the order we’ve seen them. This one, though… I’m perfectly comfortable with what’s at number one being number one but I’m not happy that this one isn’t! You can see the love that’s gone into creating this – and I mean created, not adapted from a movie poster or arcade game flyer. It’s so Commodore 64 too! And it’s a joy to watch as the game loads, so full of life and detail, highlights and shadows, but more than anything, it’s so full of character – which is even more amazing when you consider that 50% of that character is behind a helmet! The colours are perfectly set, and you can almost feel the texture of Magic Knight’s armour and the wizard’s starry robe – and that look on his face! I’m not going to cop and and make it joint number one, but in reality that’s what I think. So there!
1. Rainbow Islands
I also think I might need to take back any digs I’ve made in the past about the Commodore 64 and the quality of its arcade conversions! This is the 1989 port of the sequel to Bubble Bobble that has very little in common with its wonderful predecessor but is almost as wonderful in its own right! And this port is pretty wonderful too, with authentic looks that take advantage of the C64’s full rainbow of colours, similarly impressive sounds and everything moves around very nicely. It is missing a couple of the original arcade islands but good luck worrying too much about that because behind the cute exterior it soon stops pulling any punches as you travel ever upwards before the water catches up with you, casting rainbows from your magic umbrella at nasties and to give you a bit of an extra hand up. Brilliant concept, hopelessly addictive and one of the game’s better conversions here.
When I was behind the curtain earlier, I grabbed screenshots of every game we’ve seen so far and everything else that didn’t quite make the cut we’ll see in a second. For convenience I was using VICE inside RetroArch on my Windows PC, then from there transferring them to my iPad for a quick and comfortable edit while I was sitting watching TV. This was before I’d even thought about the order of anything, but opening up the Photos app and seeing the thumbnail gallery view of everything here, all together in a big grid, this one immediately jumped out at me as being the one! It’s a 16-bit loading screen ahead of its time and somehow this mass of colour and excitement is coming out of a C64! And you couldn’t cram in any more colour and excitement if you tried! No dramatic shadows or impactful solid backgrounds here because there’s no room – too much going on for any of that artistic nonsense! It also perfectly captures the essence of the game ahead, a bit like we saw for Pac-Land earlier, but this time on a much bigger scale and right in your face. Its got detail, it’s got polish, it’s got charisma, and it’s all so happy too. Which is also fitting given there’s few games happier than Rainbow Islands! I know what I said about Spellbound just now but if you want to be spellbound by any loading screen then this is where you need to come!
That’s our countdown done, so we’re going to start bringing things to a close with this gallery of everything else from my shortlist of favourite Commodore 64 loading screens that we’ve not had a chance to look at yet. While I said my top ten pretty much established itself, there’s a few in particular that it pains me aren’t there, namely The Way of the Exploding Fist that we saw right at the top of the page, plus Cybernoid, Myth and Pink Panther. Close but no cigar, unfortunately, which is also true of everything else here.
There’s been a few times during our journey where we’ve seen a loading screen embody the Commodore 64 in one where or another, but before we close I want to give a quick shoutout the most Commodore 64 loading screen of them all! Along the way we’ve also seen Gribbly’s Day Out, back near the beginning, and I’ve always thought that one could only exist on a C64, but for something that really characterises the platform it’s got to be Rod-Land. Which is another awesome arcade conversion! Just look at all that blocky, brown joy! Wonderful! And a wonderful place to end our journey, which I hope you’ve enjoyed as much as I have. I’d love to hear your thoughts too, especially anything I’ve missed, but otherwise I’ll see you in a year or so for the Atari ST version!