My Life With… Submarine Commander – Commodore VIC-20

My Life With… Submarine Commander – Commodore VIC-20

As I start writing this at the end of 2020, on a third consective day of freezing temperatures and an inpenetrable fog that Silent Hill would be proud of, I’m thinking about my favourite games of the year. Actually, my favourite game of this year is easy; it’s the supporting cast that needs a bit more thought!

Anyway, In Other Waters on Nintendo Switch hasn’t been in any doubt as not only my game of 2020, but one of my top 25 games of all time since I first played it in around June of this year. You play an artifical intelligence guiding a xenobiologist through an underwater alien landscape, discovering its impossible lifeforms, its secrets, its history, and ultimately yours too. Everything centres around its beautifully refined and descriptive user interface, which almost immediately becomes second nature, and drives the wonderful story, as well as your imagination. It’s intuitive, claustrophobic, tense and – despite its visual simplicity – stunningly atmospheric.

And from the minute I started playing In Other Waters, it drew my mind back to a very similar experience I had many, many years ago on the Commodore VIC-20 that could be described using pretty much exactly the same terms… This was everything I loved about Submarine Commander all over again!

By the time Boxing Day 1984 had passed, the mighty 16K RAM expansion I’d been giving for Christmas the day before had passed its first test in The Perils of Willy (more here), and I was seeking out new possibilities that I’d spent the past year disappointedly skipping over on the shelves of Woolworths, Boots and WHSmith when I was unexpanded. Of course, in those days none of them would be open until the following day, so whatever money you might have been given for Christmas was now really burning a hole in your pocket. Actually, even worse was that same 48-hour hold-up when you’d got something that needed exchanging… I still remember the agonising wait the following year when I’d been given a really cool pop-up book on Halley’s Comet (just as it was poised to become a phenomena in 1986), but the working pop-up telescope had a tear in it which obviously ruined everything!

Anyway, back on Friday the 27th December 1984 and I like to think that once David Icke and Frank Bough had finished doing their thing on Breakfast Time, I watched Charlie Brown then by the time Inch High Private Eye had been and gone I was just about ready to leave for the shops before the dreadful Lassie started at 9.50am. And that’s where I made a beeline to Submarine Commander in the VIC-20 section in Boots, because to 12-year old me there was no greater use of 16K of RAM than piloting a World War II submarine, and having spent months staring longingly at this box more than any other on display, there was absolutely no hesitation that this was where my Christmas money was finally going!

Submarine Commander was originally developed right back in the dark ages of 1982 for Atari 8-bit, then appeared on the VIC-20 the following year. Publisher Thorn EMI went heavy on the advertising, with an equally heavy message that like their Jumbo Jet Pilot, this was more real-life simulator than game… “They’re designed for players who expect more of a challenge from a video game than creatures from outer-space can provide.” That’s all fine, but the advert itself still mystifies me, with its very serious and a little bit sterile almost double page spanning submariner artwork and three tiny screenshots on one side, where in reality in 1983 and for the next two years at least, those screenshots sold the game to anyone that was likely to buy it by themselves!

Which is why there being no screenshots on the box was also a mystery, especially when it referred to the nerve tingling action being spread over 3 screens. The front cover and wordy reverse was clearly enough to suck me in though, and seeing “FOR VIC-20 + 16K” at the top was always an indication that there was something special going on here! It also tells us that as the commander of a Mediterranean-based submiarine, your job is to sink as much enemy shipping as possible. Then you’ve got the killer sell, where it brilliantly encapsulates the action from every great black and white submarine film you’d see on TV on weekend afternoons at the time, like Run Silent, Run Deep or We Dive At Dawn… “Using your skills and cunning you must identify the enemy shipping, close in undetected using sonar, take aim through your periscope, fire your torpedoes and get out fast. You will have to evade the shadowing warships which are armed with depth charges. This is a highly addictive game of skill and strategy and your aim is to sink enemy shipping without being sunk yourself.” 

That bit about depth charges sinking you is so powerful, because this was always the most tense part of those war movies, where the crew would all be stood in complete, terrified silence, dripping sweat and probably smoking Marlborough Reds in this suddenly fragile, claustrophobic metal tube as all hell rained down on them from the surface, with these vast underwater explosions waiting to tear them apart if the barrels fell close enough. And what wonderful shots of that you’d get from outside of the submarine too, with all the special effects they could muster in the Forties and Fifties still having precisely the desired effect all those decades later. Of course, this would all end up with a a bit of ominous creaking and a few pipes bursting before the ships passed by and they could carry on about their business, but the tension in those moments was always heart-in-mouth as you watched, and screenshots or not, those words combined with the imagination of a 12-year old that loved his war films worked brilliantly to convey exactly what you were in for… And just in case, it did say it had “amazing sound and graphics” on the box too!

Once you’ve loaded the game up, you’re presented with one of the most unassuming title screens in the history of gaming, but that means there’s no messing about – choose your skill level, press F3 and you’re instantly dumped somewhere in the Mediterranean, signfied by a flashing dot on your wonderfully detailed map, surrounded by all your instruments and readings and everything you need to start hunting down the enemy. The identity of the enemy isn’t really specified, but – just picking one of the instruments at random – battery charge is represented by a C for charge, which it wouldn’t be in German, so therefore we’ll assume you’re not in charge of a U-boat.

The instrument panel is brilliantly dynamic. On the left side of the screen you’ve got your attitude, dictating depth and direction on the compass below through your keyboard or joystick inputs, then there’s a mission clock, torpedo supply, fuel supply and battery charge. Your speed is controlled by the number keys, and you’re getting that here in knots. On the right side, you’ve got the all-important depth guage, and under that the hydrophone chart, which shows ships as peaks that you use together with the sonar screen to line-up your prey when you get close, and once you’ve taken them out you’ve also got a reading of tonnage sunk that contributes to your post-mission assessment. Then there’s the chart showing depth below the keel, which is my favourite bit of the whole game – it’s showing the bottom relative to your ship, which opens up a whole new dimension to exploring and seeing how deep you can go in different parts of the ocean; it’s also the source of utter panic when you’re manouevering a bit too close to shore! Next, you’ve got your damage indicators for the hull, instruments and engines, and there’s a nice risk-reward element here of chancing carrying on or finding somewhere to surface to get repairs done. Of course, a particularly serious screen-shaking battering from depth charges, or grounding yourself is going to end up in the hull cracking and finding yourself in a watery grave!

Being underwater or on the surface is always on your mind – you’ll be faster on the surface, but if you get caught short by the big guns escorting a convoy you’re going to be crash diving as deep and as silent as possible while those depth charges drop all around you. This is a lovely example of the amazing attention to detail you’re getting in this VIC-20 game from 1983 – if you do end up within visual range of a convoy, you’ll get a bell (kind of!) to warn you to take action. Underwater gives you an advantage, but you do need to keep an eye on air and batteries, and as another great piece of attention to detail, if you switch to your sonar (or fire a torpedo) they’re going to clock that distinctive ping regardless!

Once you’ve worked out where you are at the start of the game, you’ll be looking for shipping movements on your map, and once you’ve swung your sub around in the right direction you’ll be scooting off across the surface. As you approach, you’ll want to dive and switch the main screen from map to sonar, which, together with your hydrophone chart, is going to get you close and pointing your torpedoes at the enemy. Get up to around 25 feet and your periscope is going to come into play so you can accurately line up the enemy and fire your torpedoes; this is where the thrill-ride happens, and you’ll be identifying and prioritising tankers, destroyers and patrol boats across the sea, as occasional clouds pass by in the sky, somehow adding to the sense of space and your vulnerability as the ultimately fragile hunter in this vast open expanse of water. Line everything up right and you’ll see your torpedo trail heading ominously across the surface until it impacts with your target, which will sink it with a bit of luck, though it might take a few direct hits at higher skill levels. What a great feeling, together with a sense of relief, when that happens! Or you might just miss and see one of your precious torpedoes float harmlessly by the now fully alerted enemy! 

This game of cat and mouse goes on until you’ve sunk all the enemy convoys at play across the entire map, and is going to take you a good thirty minutes to an hour at higher levels – again, pretty cool for a 1983 VIC-20 game! But that’s if you haven’t used up all your oxygen or fuel or battery in the meantime, and that you havent been taken out by depth charges or run yourself aground because in the heat of the battle you forgot to reduce your speed as you turned into the channel between Italy and Sicily, and out of nowhere the bottom appeared on your chart and you couldn’t blow your ballast tanks in time to do anything about it!

We started by talking about 2020 masterpiece In Other Waters… Intuitive, claustrophobic, tense and – despite its visual simplicity – stunningly atmospheric. And that’s Submarine Commander too. There’s so much going on, so much to think about, and that’s before you’re presented with this 3D sea-scape where a ship appears on the horizon and you don’t know what it is yet, but as you get closer you realise it’s the high-tonnage prize of a tanker, but hang on, there’s a destroyer right behind it, but you only noticed it after that first torpedo slammed into its escort and now you’re in for a scrap, but first you need to kill your speed and dive, dive, dive!

In the great pantheon of VIC-20 games, for me Submarine Commander sits only behind The Perils of Willy, Andes Attack and Jetpac. But that said, if we’re scoring complexity of game, it beats everything else on the system outright. And the same for atmosphere. And – maybe apart from Jetpac (more here) – how it stands up as a gaming experience in 2021 (which somehow happened in the process of writing this!) too. And I reckon I knew all of that when I had to give up my VIC-20 and all of my games to fund my Spectrum, but somehow this – together with Jump Jet (more here) managed to escape the box of booty we sold!

A Look at Star Wars Curio Deathstar Interceptor

A Look at Star Wars Curio Deathstar Interceptor

The April 1985 issue was when I decided I needed to buy my own copy of Computer & Video Games magazine, and not rely on reading hand-me-downs from friends when they were feeling generous. What might have sparked the decision was the type-in game Starship Victory for the unexpanded VIC-20; I was big into those at the time (as you can read about here) and there was no way I was missing out on a cool Asteroids clone like this! There were also a few reviews that probably caught my eye – at the time, there was still pretty good coverage for the VIC-20 here, but of course we were in the minority… and you couldn’t help looking over the fence at what you were missing out on for the big new machines! Impossible Mission, Ghostbusters and Cauldron being of particular note that month! It wasn’t so much jealousy – at least for a year or two – but just wanting to lap up the massive amount of exponentially increasingly incredible games that were now coming out on a massive amount of computers; in that month alone, a quick scan just now revealed stuff for BBC, Electron, C64, Spectrum, VIC-20, MSX, Atari, Amstrad, Dragon and Texas, and I’m sure I missed some PET and C16 stuff too!

I’ve never been that big into superhero stuff, but I always consider the May 1985 cover of C&VG as iconic as well as fairly unique in its styling for them. There’s so much going on in both the main illustration itself and also the text blurb around it. Amazingly, if you actually read it, it was mostly all just promoting stuff you could win, including a copy of text-adventure Questprobe 3, featuring the featured Fantastic Four, but not forgetting a map of Alien 8, which was about the first thing shoved in your face after the contents page! What really stuck in my mind that month though was the advert inside the cover for a game called Deathstar Interceptor by System 3 Software.

I might not have been into superheroes, but Star Wars was another matter, and that X-Wing and the three screenshots had me hooked (mostly because the text was pink on black which was near enough to my red-black colour blindness to make it not worth trying to read). Definitely a Star Wars game though, even though it doesn’t mention it! Strange… Actually, it barely even mentions what the game’s called, which is why it might have long-since escaped my memory by the time I eventually got a Spectrum, and would do so for another 35 years until I was sorting through a stack of old computer games magazines in the garage!

“The Fight Continues… On The Spectrum. …Earth is threatened by an Empire Deathstar, can you penetrate its defences, destroy it before it destroys you? …Deathstar Interceptor gives you 12 screens of 3D graphics, super smooth 3D animations, unbelievable sound effects, music, 4 skill levels and hiscore table …this is the ultimate challenge! …This game has to be seen to be believed! You have not seen what the 48K Spectrum is capable of until you have played Deathstar Interceptor.”

I was probably just as well off with the screenshots! The first one is the first part of the game. A real oddity where you’re taking off in your X-Wing, which at some point will veer off to the side of its own accord and you have to guide it back towards the hyperspace thingy (I guess) at the top. It’s not very scientific and seems to be a matter of luck if your single press in the right direction actually gets you into the middle of it or not, allowing you to proceed into space and the second screenshot!

This looks fantastic; it’s a kind of Galaxians with tie-fighters and some other nasties, and you have horizontal and a bit of vertical movement… Expert tip – move to the top left and nothing can shoot you! As this is going on, the Empire Deathstar is getting bigger and bigger it’s close enough, then you’re into the trench. There’s a couple of phases, involving dodging lasers from the sides then shooting some more enemies, then either I got lucky with an unintentional shot to the exhaust port (unintentional because I never even noticed it) or it does it for you.

Either way, you’re rewarded by the ultimate insult to the red-black colour blindness sufferer – the red explosion in the black of space! Like the advert, I don’t think I was missing a lot here; it was hardly the mind-blower when the same thing happened in the Star Wars arcade game. Then you start all over again, looping until you die and you get a really nice rendition of the Star Wars theme.

If you look hard enough, the advert also mentions it’s available for the Commodore 64. Not surprised they didn’t make a big deal of it though – it’s a shocker! The Spectrum game looks like a Star Wars game and has a bit of variety to its “12 screens of 3D graphics” but for as much as I played of it, the second stage en-route to the Empire Deathstar is a really ropey shooter, then when you get to the trench you’re still playing the same ropey shooter as before but against a trench background. And you’re not even fighting tie fighters in the C64 version, but what look like coat hangers and hamburgers!

The best thing here is the Empire Deathstar design in the second stage though – for some reason, the C64 version has the big round shooting part at the top of the Empire Deathstar repeated at the bottom too! Two death bits! Even the Star Wars theme sounds better on the Spectrum, and when did you last hear that?

As you can tell, at the time of writing in the year 2020 I’ve now played both versions (actually both emulated on a PlayStation Classic console!), and I even got to the end of the Spectrum’s loop. And I think I appreciated that version at least a little more than I would of in 1986 or 1987 when I got my Spectrum +2 because there was loads more going on there then than hunting out this old Star Wars curio I couldn’t remember the name of anyway. The Spectrum version is really fun!

But what about Star Wars? Is this a Star Wars game? Or was it really the case the in the wild west of video games in the mid-80’s you could get away with ripping off even Star Wars this blatantly? Well, partially at least it seems. I’ve learnt recently that the Star Wars theme tune was licensed, but as for the rest, probably not! Which might explain certain aspects of the advert, and using words like “Empire Deathstar,” and not even mentioning their limited official Star Wars licensing, let alone barely mentioning what the game is called! A curio indeed.

My Life With… Ganymede – VIC-20

My Life With… Ganymede – VIC-20

There’s a reason “Graphics” was usually the first thing scored in a review by Computer & Video Games, Commodore User, et al, and that’s because despite what anyone said then or still says today, you generally can judge a book by it’s cover! And that’s definitely how we judged games sitting on the shelves of WHSmith or Boots or the local newsagent in the eighties because that was often all you had to go on! Graphics have always been a yardstick, then, now and forever, and for the developer at that time it must have been a nightmare keeping up, given the massive leaps that were being made from release to release – you just have to compare something like Hungry Horace to R-Type or Chase HQ, all on the same piece of Spectrum hardware and all arriving within a few short years of each other!

Being blown away by how games looked was a regular occurrence – something that hasn’t been regular for the best part of two decades now at least! Nothing was ever going to look better than this, until the next issue of C&VG at least! But as anyone that was there at the time will remember, our Commodore and Sinclair and BBC (and, for some weirdoes, Amstrad) computers weren’t just about games. They were about productivity, creativity and doing your homework too! Or at least making your own games by typing in magazine or book listings.

Being blown away by type-in games wasn’t, on the other hand, a regular occurrence. It was very rare you knew what you were getting (or not getting as they very rarely worked) – you just blindly typed in the BASIC commands (or machine code if you were a real pretentious masochist). If you were lucky you’d get a description of the greatest game you were ever likely to play, then some info about how it worked and maybe some diagrams of some sprites on a grid, then pages and pages of 30 C=23: R=33: DD=32321, 40= POKEFNA(0),+A, CS : SX=X and so on… and was that really a space between the letters and the colon, and how come zero has brackets around it on this line but not in the next POKEFNA on the next line, and so on. But after hours of typing it in, you’d finally get to the really fun part – trying to work out where you’d made mistakes because it wouldn’t load! Anyway, in addition to all of that, if you were really, really lucky, you might get a screenshot. Like this one!

If you’re interested – and I’m assuming you are – that one is Spacewar for the VIC-20, from VIC PROGRAMMES Volume 1 by the wonderful Nick Hampshire, who wrote this and another book I owned called VIC GRAPHICS that were genuinely a big part of my early computing and gaming life. All of his programmes worked too, though his graphics are another story… as wonderful as everything should have looked, what I’d failed to notice when I bought that book was the sticker on the back saying I needed a Commodore Super Expander Cartridge to run anything in it. Wasn’t a cheap book either. Oops! But I did enjoy reading what I could have got up to all the same, and when I finally got a Spectrum +2, did actually recreate a lot of the listings on there too, so thanks Nick!

However, Nick Hampshire wasn’t behind my favourite book for the VIC-20. And as great as Spacewar still looks today, I don’t remember being blown away by it or anything else in that book, or in More Games for Your VIC, or Creepy Computer Games, or any of the dozen or so other type-in code books I owned. As I said, being blown away by type-in games wasn’t a regular occurrence… But it did happen! Once! Let me introduce you to my favourite computer book ever, VIC Innovative Computing by Clifford Ramshaw.

Classic piece of 80’s design, but don’t judge the book by the cover – check out the luxurious, all glossy screenshots you got peppered throughout the book. And check out how cool those games look!

The one that really got me was Assassin. If you bought a game that looked like that in 1982, when the book was published, you’d be overjoyed! It turned out to be a really cool game too, and of course, it wasn’t the only one… But before we get there, I’d encourage you to judge this book by its back cover. Just check out the space shuttle and the alien mothership. Unreal!

We’ve now established you could be blown away by how multiple type-in games, all in the same book, looked, but even I’m not so shallow that a game will be covered here – amongst my favourites ever – just for how it looks. In fact, when we talk about Ganymede for the VIC-20, we’re talking about the most basic-looking of even the most BASIC games listings! Definitely not worth of a glossy page in VIC Innovative Computing. Just text covering your in-games variables and a list of commands…

You’re managing a moon base on Ganymede, moon of Jupiter, and you need to set up mines on the planet’s surface to get the ore you need to import oxygen to keep your people alive to build ships to set up more mines and so on. Keep it going long enough to make enough money and the government of Earth will be very grateful for your service. Screw it up by not making enough to buy enough oxygen to go around and keep building space ships and mining, and either the people will revolt or you’ll just run out of them, meaning game over.

(At this point I’d normally share one of my own screenshots, but I can only emulate VIC-20 at the moment, and the only copy of the original .prg file I can find on the internet just generates a syntax error when you try and load it… and no, I’m not typing the whole thing in again for a screenshot! Therefore I’ve taken the liberty of taking the only known screenshot on the internet, from the same place as the program file, the wonderful VIC-20 LISTINGS page here. Which has every single game listing in the book and many others for download – just can’t guarantee they work)!

Seeing the code is interesting because after it sets up your user interface, and sets you up to import oxygen, build and load up ships, send them off, mine, come back then sell their booty, the majority seems to be ways of scuppering your plans! This means you’ll be trading-off between fuel loads, oxygen imports and ore sales, as well as reacting to variables like storms taking out your mines, or running out of fuel before a ship gets back because you didn’t have enough money to fill it up before it left.

There’s also ships stranded to worry about, babies being born to maintain your population, fluctuations in the price of ore and transportation and various other balancing acts that all make for a very addictive game that at the very least you’d have happily paid £1.99 for!

I did a lot of type-in games on the VIC-20, and the Spectrum when I got one, and some of them (when they worked) might have looked and occasionally sounded better, but I don’t remember anything coming close to the longevity and comparability to proper games than Ganymede! It might be all but forgotten in the annals of gaming history, but there’s a niche within a niche right here that still salutes what an achievement it was!

As great as glossy screenshots are, I’m going to conclude by going one better here with another game from the same book, which you can see peaking out next to the open drawer bottom right. Grand Prix was a kind poor-man’s Supersprint, and this is my brother playing it in my bedroom on the black and white portable that ended up there. One car, one track that you went around and around, but we had a great time with it! You can also see the start of my games collection there, with Crazy Kong by Interceptor Software at the front – more on that another time!

Before we go, I can’t resist sharing this machine code type-in treat from Your Spectrum magazine from 1985. The Grid. For all you pretentious masochists! Enjoy…

Sacrilege!!! The Perils of Willy On ZX Spectrum!

Sacrilege!!! The Perils of Willy On ZX Spectrum!

Yes, you read that right. What was once hallowed ground for the VIC-20 owner is here and now on the Spectrum…

And once I was over not having our own exclusive Manic Miner / Jet Set Willy game anymore, I was totally thrilled with Perils of Willy finally being ported to the ZX Spectrum! It’s perfect and it’s available now!

This was my favourite VIC-20 game, and currently sits at number 17 in my top games of all time list. It’s all about getting Miner Willy home after a night out by collecting musical notes through a variety of platforming locales, but as is hopefully increasingly the case, you can read my full thoughts on that here!

The Perils of Willy Spectrum recreation was lovingly crafted by Allan Turvey, and as far as I can tell so far (because after several hours of play I can still only get through about a quarter of the 32 brutal screens) it’s a direct port apart from the screen dimensions being necessarily shifted a bit. Some might say the background music is slightly more bearable too!

It genuinely feels as good now as it did in 1984, meaning a tough as nails lesson in hardcore platforming that I can’t stop playing all over again!

You can download it either free or for a donation of your choice here.

Just never forget the VIC-20 had it first!

My Life With… Jetpac (VIC-20)

My Life With… Jetpac (VIC-20)

When I started thinking about Jetpac on the VIC-20 recently, a couple of questions immediately came to mind: Where does it fit in my top VIC-20 games? And because I kind of already knew it wasn’t going to figure quite as highly as it maybe should… Where does it fit in the top VIC-20 games?

Coming back to the first question, this one is easy thanks to my big nerd list of my favourite games of all time ever.

  1. The Perils of Willy
  2. Andes Attack
  3. Jetpac
  4. Omega Race
  5. Submarine Commander

The Perils of Willy (read more here) will always be my favourite VIC-20 game, but this was the first time I’d thought about a top five, and genuinely didn’t know most of what was going to follow when I went through my big list looking for VIC-20 games from top to bottom. Andes Attack, Jeff Minter’s llama-focussed Defender clone, was a surprise in second place – without thinking much I actually thought I was going to see Submarine Commander there! But thinking much about it, it’s probably right in my mind. As is Omega Race in fifth place, and our subject here, Jetpac, in third. I don’t like that Pinball Wizard (read more here) isn’t there though! But taking away the all important nostalgia factor, we come to the second question – where does it fit in the top VIC-20 games?

Even through my rose-tinted spectacles, I can look at my list and say that The Perils of Willy [maybe!] isn’t the best game on the VIC-20, though I won’t hear any argument that it isn’t up there somewhere!!! But seriously, looking at my list here for the first time, extracted like this as my VIC-20 top five, the first thing that came to mind was hang on, why isn’t Jetpac in first place? Instinctively, surely there’s no better game on the platform from a technical viewpoint, or aesthetically, or in terms of gameplay or longevity? From my top five, maybe Submarine Commander is an equivalent technical marvel, but I reluctantly concede that its gameplay has a more niche appeal. Omega Race also needs to be in there as an almost flawless conversion of the incredible playable – and re-playable – twist on Asteroids arcade game. Add a few other titles I’m familiar with, and after far more personal deliberation that was probably necessary, we have this:

  1. Jetpac
  2. Omega Race
  3. Gorf
  4. Jump Jet
  5. Pirate Cove

We’ll get into Jetpac (finally) in a minute. In second and third place, I could easily switch positions between Omega Race and another incredible arcade conversion feat in Gorf, a multi-level spin on Space Invaders that included screen effects like I’d never seen before, not to mention the biggest enemy I’d ever seen with the Flag Ship appearing every four levels! Then we have Jump Jet (read more here), which is a Harrier flight-sim that at the time I got it was surely as good as flight sims would ever get! I could argue that A.C.E. (Air Combat Emulator) – coincidentally another flight-sim – should be in this spot too, but that was even harder than this was, and its plane couldn’t take off vertically from an aircraft carrier! It never made me air-sick like its box said it might either… Then we have Pirate Cove, part of that incredibly immersive VIC-20 text-based adventure series (almost any of which could really be here instead if you prefer) by Scott Adams where you “Go North” or “Use Mongoose” (to kill a snake if I remember right)! And if I also remember right, the first game I ever finished, not long after the mongoose incident!

List complete, and there we have it. Jetpac is officially the best game ever on the VIC-20! We should find out why.

Jetpac was released by Ultimate in 1983, but I’m fairly certain I got this after Christmas in 1984; it definitely needed an 8K expansion so it wouldn’t have been much earlier than that. Without doubt it was the screenshots on an advert or review I’d seen in C&VG or Commodore User, or on the back of the box, that attracted me to it, and amazingly they were probably even VIC-20 screenshots and not, as was usually the case, nefariously hijacked from a C64 version (which in this case never actually appeared). They could have come from the Spectrum version, but any VIC owner could proudly say that even if they did, you’d struggle to tell the difference. In fact, this was especially true because the VIC-20 version had colour clash that any Spectrum owner would have been proud of!

You play as Jetman, though bit like Mario’s first appearance in Donkey Kong, I don’t remember ever knowing him as Jetman – he was just an astronaut with a jet-pack and a blaster who had crashed on a planet far, far away and had to rebuild his rocket from the bits strewn about the place then fuel it up and start making his way home. All of this happens on a single wraparound screen, with three rocket parts that had to be dropped on top of each other in order, which you’d find lying on the ground or on mid-air ledges, whilst fending off the planet’s fauna that randomly flies around the place impeding your quest. Once you’ve put the rocket back together, fuel starts dropping out of the sky, also randomly landing around the screen, together with bonus jewels and stuff, which you collect and drop onto your rocket until it’s full up. Then you walk back into the rocket, it takes off and you start collecting fuel on the next planet, which is a similar screen but with a whole new set of meanies to attend to.

The game loops around a set of four levels, after which you’ve obviously crashed again and need to rebuild the rocket from scratch, which makes for the perfect setting for the game’s score-chasing intentions. This simplicity is what makes the game great – this gameplay loop is without fault, and it sits in the company of Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, etc. as timeless games that play just as well today, still offering endless challenge and replayability.

The sound is very functional and of its time, but the aforementioned graphics are absolutely outstanding, and unlike most VIC games stand up just as well today, with big bold sprites for the main character and the various enemies, and this incredible sense of scale as the rocket is put back together. And when you eventually fill it up with enough fuel, that sense of exhilaration as it takes of and exits the screen is still there today too! The planet design, in contrast, couldn’t be more basic, with three platforms suspended over blackness – there’s not even any ground at the bottom of the screen! But you won’t even notice that when you’re frantically trying to create a path through a kind of large-scale bullet-hell array of fast-paced aliens, either by shooting or dodging or sheer fluke as you panic your way around to get to a rocket part or fuel drop or tasty morsel. And I say you won’t even notice it because for all the hours I’ve spent playing this over decades, I didn’t either until just now! There’s a lovely subtle flame effect from your jet-pack, which moves as you change direction, and from the rocket too as it flies up the screen; the aliens have their own explosion animation too, and I really like that this happens when they crash into a platform as well as when you shoot them. Aside from a bit of flicker, you really have to pinch yourself and say yes, this really is happening on a VIC-20!

And all of this is why Jetpac sits at the top of the pile for the VIC-20, even if it’s not actually as good as The Perils of Willy in my opinion!

I’ve never played any of the Jetman sequels, and have steered clear of the overly restyled XBOX title Jetpac Refuelled, but did eventually play the Spectrum version of Jetpac in 2018, when the Rare Replay collection went backwards compatible on XBOX One. You’ve got more screen space to play in and it’s the same fantastic, timeless game that the VIC-20 offered, but it doesn’t seem quite as fast and frantic, so I’m sticking with the VIC as having the superior version despite only having half the levels of the Spectrum version. And saying that is even more incredible when you come back to what a technical achievement it is that it’s on there at all, when it’s not such a technical marvel on the Spectrum; and when you consider the pedigree of Ultimate’s other games on the Spectrum. Really incredible!

My Life With… Joe Blade – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Joe Blade – ZX Spectrum

My Catholic school education across three schools in Bedford always involved a bus journey, and starting upper school in September 1985 took the bus journey right across town (and seemingly through most of its streets) into uncharted territory to me, far north of the river. The bus stop specified on my free bus-pass was ten minutes’ walk away, but over time us paupers from the south of the river realised that the drivers were happy with a flash of the card and probably wouldn’t notice if we started going rogue and getting off the bus in the town centre and changing to a more direct one that stopped right near my house. And for the most part, it worked, though there was the double-jeopardy of the mythical inspector getting on which provided an ever constant fear!

Then there was the additional thrill of sprinting across town from one bus to the next to not miss the first one home (otherwise there was little point in the whole exercise). But as we became more experienced in being teenagers, that sprint became a leisurely stroll via our favourite shops, namely WHSmith to see if the new Computer & Video Games or Smash Hits was out, a newsagent that was the first to stock Cherry Coke, and a tiny independent games shop in the newly opened Boulevards shopping arcade that had the biggest VIC-20 section I’d ever seen! Which in a very roundabout way brings me to the point that at this time, a lot of what you bought was solely down to judging a book / record / game (I don’t think anything else to buy existed then) by its cover.

On one of these trips, on a Friday afternoon towards the end of the VIC-20’s life when magazine coverage had all but dried up, I was completely seduced by a cops and robbers game that I can’t for the life of me remember the name of, but had some huge, impressive sprites on the back of its box that I just couldn’t resist but had no money to buy. And I’ve a horrible feeling it was full price… The following morning, with funds in place, I convinced my Dad to drive me into town, then drive around while I ran in to the shop and bought it. I’m not sure if I feel worse today for making him do that or wasting what was probably several weeks of pocket money on that button-mashing turd – you played the big on-screen robber on the run from the big on-screen cop and just waggled the joystick left and right as fast as you could until your hands hurt too much and he caught you. Game over.

But sometimes judging a game by its cover worked out fine, and there’s no greater example of this than Joe Blade. I don’t think there was a lot of life left in my favourite games shop (or the too-exotic-for-Bedford Boulevards shopping arcade) when 1987 came, but once again seeing those screenshots – on a budget title no less – meant must-buy.

Joe Blade was monochrome Spectrum graphics in all their colour clash-free glory – big, detailed black sprites and environments on garish yellow, purple, green, turquoise, etc. backgrounds that made complete sense providing you didn’t think about them too much! And the sprites were so big and detailed that you could easily have mistake the distinctly moustachioed Joe for Charles Bronson hoofing Germans all about the place, even at cassette box size!

Actually, they turned out not to be Germans but the minions of the evil mastermind Crax Bloodfinger, who’s kidnapped a load of world leaders that you need to rescue. But they did look enough like German soldiers to give it the distinction of being one of the first games banned there! Once you’re in his lair, you run about the flip-screen complex shooting up the non-SS goons, collecting stuff like ammo, keys to open cell doors, food and booze for health, disguises that give you temporary immunity and bombs that you need to prime in a letter-rearranging mini-game. Once you’ve sorted all the bombs and come across the six hostages, it’s time to escape from where you began.

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The gameplay was a lot like Dan Dare (see my post on that HERE) though probably a bit less frantic in terms of gunplay (especially as you didn’t get shot by the armed enemy but lost health on contact), but those cell keys were not easy to come by and that complex was complex, so a bit of mapping on some graph paper you’d nicked from your classroom stationary cupboard was essential! Whilst the box screenshots did do some justice to the wonderfully evocative (not World War 2) scenery and humorous touches such as the goon-like prisoners and sleeping hostages slumped on the floor with their arms casually behind their heads, what they couldn’t do justice to was the superbly smooth animation, and on my +2 at least you also had the benefit of some decent sound from the 128K version.

I don’t think I ever defused all the bombs or rescued all six world leaders, or even completed my map, but as was often the case with games at the time, it wasn’t about reaching the destination, but having a total blast over and over again without caring if you ever got there. Joe Blade is up there with the best of the original budget games ever released (the untouchable Feud excluded of course), and was more stylish and playable than most full priced games at the time.

Steve Blower Imagine Software Art Uncovered

Steve Blower Imagine Software Art Uncovered

I didn’t realise at the time, but those glorious old Commodore VIC-20 cassette covers, that were often the primary reason for buying a game (unless you were seduced by some misleading C64 screenshots on the back), were actually real pieces of art by real artists! Maybe it was all those logos and stuff all over them…

One such artist was Steve Blower, of Imagine and then Ocean. I was recently pointed towards some very special versions of some of his cover art by Mark R. Jones (@MarkRJones1970) who was himself a bit of an artistic legend at Ocean! They’re special because there’s no logos and stuff all over them. It’s the original uncommercialised real deal. 

And one of them is of the very game that inspired the name of my blog (separate post later I’m sure), Arcadia! Enjoy…

Interestingly, once he’d moved to Ocean, he also came up with some cover art that was cut out of C&VG and stuck on my bedroom wall, and as a super-fan should have been very special to me. But it’s a game I’ve neither owned nor even played, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I’ll try and remedy that in a future bonus post – FGTH played and reviewed for the first time, right here, right now. Because Frankie Says so! Even so, I think I’ve probably missed out on the live version of Relax. 

You can catch up with Steve Blower on Twitter, @wsteveb. 

My Life With… Jump Jet – Commodore VIC-20

My Life With… Jump Jet – Commodore VIC-20

I’m not going to lower my teenage cool credentials any further than I have already by admitting that I was into planes, but I kind of was. World War II planes mostly. I’d had my share of Airfix models that looked great until the paint came out. I had huge St Michael encyclopaedias about them that came down off my bookshelf regularly and I’d pore through them, making notes on what I read  and badly drawing my favourites  – which reminds me, I have a fantastic aside on these to share later! And I’d dream of being a fighter pilot, at least until I was 16 and had my red / black / green / brown colourblindness well and truly confirmed by the RAF. But that was still three years away in 1985. Top Gun was still a year away too, so what on earth would make a thirteen year-old boy want to be a fighter pilot? The Harrier Jump Jet, of course!

Without getting too bogged down in it, the Harrier was a fighter plane that could take off and land vertically. A bit like a helicopter, though generally it took off from a kind of ski ramp at the end of an aircraft carrier to save fuel. And that’s as technical and nerdy as we get in my yard; for this post at least… And in the mid-eighties, it was the coolest plane in the world – everyone knew what it was from the Falklands War build up –  images of them lined up on aircraft carriers, then 20 confirmed kills, and probably a couple of Blue Peter appearances too; who needed Kelly McGillis with her incredibly hot eighties hair and little pilot sidekick when you had Christmas decorations made out of coat hangers, Sarah Greene and a sunken garden. Which is something I’d love to make an aside about but footballers have far more money than me and I’ve no chance of winning that battle! Sarah Greene though. Mmmmm. 

I’d had a couple of VIC-20 flight sims at this point. The first was 1983’s Flight Zero – One Five…

You had a map in the bottom right showing progress towards your goal – a O at the top of it – and basic controls to manage variables like fuel, height, speed and so on. The idea was to keep them all in the right ballpark for each stage of the whole flight, managing various hazards that occurred like being blown off course. If they went out of the right ballpark, the screen started flashing blue and there was a horrible alarm sound. If you corrected whatever was wrong in time, you were back on track, and if not you were screwed. No one can say this game aged well, even six months after its release, but its significance to me can’t be underestimated. I was actually flying a plane in my bedroom! That was something you only imagined doing at that time, so using that same imagination to fill in the gaps demanded by the presentation of this game was a very short stretch. I probably flew enough hours in this to get a pilot’s license! 

1984 would then bring Bomber Mission, complete with my first proper cockpit view!

Okay, proper cockpit view was a bit of a stretch. More like view of a cockpit, as most of the time there wasn’t a lot going on outside the window. If I remember right, there was the odd appearance of a fighter plane, but what was great was the feeling of helplessness when you met flak over enemy soil (represented by a cockpit view full of flashing asterisks). This was another groundbreaker though, because now you were really flying a plane. And it was a World War 2 bomber! You chose your target, chose your bomb, took off, navigated to the target, dropped your Tallboy then flew home and landed. And it was brilliant! 

Then there was Flight Path 737, which I borrowed from my friend Steven, who lived around the corner. That had a real cockpit view, but for some reason I didn’t borrow the instructions, so never actually got beyond take off before I crashed. Over and over. Which made it rubbish and therefore it doesn’t count…

Now we are in 1985, and with a 16K RAM expansion stuck up its jacksy, VIC is in its prime! I got Jump Jet for my thirteenth birthday and looking at the back of the box couldn’t believe what I was looking at on the back of the box… From the “CBM64 screenshot version.” Oh dear, this didn’t bode well. And I genuinely remember feeling that. As I remember playing this two months later on the morning of Live Aid. But that really is going to be another story! 

I didn’t have too much to fear though. The VIC version held up pretty well to those screenshots. In fact, the first time I loaded it up, my black and white portable TV screen was displaying something beyond my wildest dreams! The realistic cockpit instruments. The aircraft carrier take off section. And once you got high enough, the endless blue ocean where you’d hunt the enemy in virtually lifelike splendour! 

That would come some time later though. Taking off wasn’t that straightforward. You had to sort out your flaps, give it some vertical thrust them up you went. But get anything wrong and you incurred penalties. After nine penalties it was game over. And you could easily incur those while you were still looking down from above onto the aircraft carrier deck. Get off the deck and you got split head-on and sideways views of your plane ascending off the deck, as long as you got your thrust back under control in time or more penalties. Get to the top of the screen and you’re flying properly, for a few seconds at least, because there’s plenty more penalties to be had if your thrust isn’t right before you sort out your flaps. But once you prove to the game that you’re not flying that badly, it’s time to seek and destroy. Or be destroyed, as shooting down the lurking enemy plane isn’t that easy either. Once you’ve nailed it though, it’s time to find your ship and land, refuel and restock on weaponry. And good luck with that! Taking off and taking down enemy planes was nothing compared to landing on the deck of the split-screen aircraft carrier! You would need to fiddle with your instruments no end here, with pinpoint accuracy, to get back on the deck safely. Fortunately, the instruction book included a handy guide to your cockpit instruments…

But for all these control formulas you had to get exactly right in each phase of the game, once you got them you got them. Then it became fun, and they just served to keep you alert and occupied as you trawled the skies, which was probably for the best… The instrument panel was cool, as were the various carrier views, but in reality the flight graphics were a bit plane. I mean plain. The horizon didn’t even tilt when you turned like the crappy 737 game’s did! But it was well after Live Aid that I even noticed that, and I didn’t care. There’s more to a dream coming true than a tilting horizon. 

Together with Pinball Wizard and Submarine Commander, this was a game I couldn’t part with when I eventually sold VIC, though it once came close after I rescued it from a school car boot sale, as the £1 sticker still on it attests to! 

Oh yes, I promised an aside! I dug some of my big plane books out for my ten year-old son recently, who is way too cool to show the slightest interest. But I had an interesting flick through anyway, especially when this dropped out….