A few years ago, my wife bought me a joystick that holds 30 different Commodore 64 games. Though I was a video game junkie in the ’80s, owning an Atari 2600, Atari 800 XL, Nintendo, Game Boy, and Super Nintendo, and I regularly played Sega Genesis at my friend’s house, I never owned or played a Commodore 64.
Upon receiving the gift, I excitedly tried out all 30 games (and even read all the instructions for them) in one night, and it took me nearly 3 hours. After plugging in the joystick and switching it on, the first thing you see is a fake, blue-and-white DOS Command screen, imitating the authentic feel of the Commodore (I’m assuming the original came with a disk drive and keyboard, like its competitive counterpart, the Atari 800 XL).
Scrolling through the myriad titles listed on screen, you can confirm that yes, you do indeed get 30 games with this package, but their pedigree is more than dubious. You get such gems as “Paradroid,” “Cybernoid” (parts I and II!), “Impossible Mission” (again, parts I and II, and not to be confused with “Mission Impossible,” a trademarked T.V. show at the time and now movie franchise), “Ranarama,” “Exolon,” “Zynaps,” and other hard-to-pronounce titles.
I recognized some games from Nintendo’s “California Games,” including “Flying Disk” and “Surfing,” and I used to play “Winter Games” on my friend’s home computer. There were also a few games I remembered playing on the Atari 800 XL, like “Jumpman, Jr.” (Incidentally, the original name for Nintendo’s Mario in “Donkey Kong” was “Jumpman.” They should sue.) And then, of course, there are those quaint magical quest games that provided maximum geek-out value for beloved ’80s nerds everywhere: “Gateway to Apshai” and “Sword of Fargoal.” If I had my hands on this sucker back then, I can only imagine what dorky exclamations I would use to rouse my friends: “Quick! We need to storm the Castle of Xercles and claim the Throne of Kartakos!”
The first thing you notice when you choose any one of these games is the opening music, which still sounds amazing 25 years later in the age of iPods, digital downloads, and home recording studios. All the advanced audio technology in the world these days just can’t duplicate the awesome, cheesy enthusiasm of an 8-bit theme song blaring through your T.V.’s tinny speakers. It made me get up and dance. Literally. Twice.
There actually is a movement in the techno subgenre of music with people/bands who create music specifically using 8-bit video game consoles, like The Commodore 64 and the original Nintendo, as musical instruments. After seeing a mini-documentary about this on the “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” DVD, I bought the album “Man of the Hour” from Brooklyn music maker Tugboat and loved every hummable track on it. Also, the band I Fight Dragons uses Nintendo technology, along with typical rock instruments, to create their sound, and they even perform the theme song for the ’80s-set sitcom “The Goldbergs.” But I digress.
I was surprised to see that some of these games have copyrights from 1987 and even as late as 1989, when Nintendo had fully saturated and monopolized the video-game market. I guess they still made games for the Commodore since, having a keyboard and disk drive, there were certain tasks you could perform that you couldn’t on a Nintendo.
The most startling aspect of any of these games was how innocent and charming they all were. Not one game, even the karate-fighting and war games, sheds a drop of blood. Of course, the graphics aren’t very realistic compared with today’s shoot-’em-ups, but the stories and action are so sweet and naive, even the “violent” ones like the sword and sorcery games amount to leaping your pixilated character from one box to another and tapping a green blob. That means you just “slayed the dragon.”
How quaint are these games? In one precious title, you actually play as a frog that throws snowballs in an enchanted kingdom. That’s your weapon: snowballs! (And I’m not just saying they look like snowballs; the instruction manual actually spells that out.) Compare that to any version of “Grand Theft Auto,” when in one stage, you have to rape a hooker, rob her, steal her car, and then run her over with it! People familiar with today’s games know I’m not making that up. Today, even a game as innocuous as “The Simpsons Hit and Run” has a violent streak, since it simply borrowed the drive-and-shoot premise from the infamous “Grand Theft Auto.”
Then there was the time I played “Call of Duty 4” (because, apparently, three weren’t enough) on PlayStation 3 (because, apparently, two weren’t enough) at my cousin’s house. The game is a very graphic depiction of war that you can play online with other players around the world. After my cousin quickly debriefed me on the controller’s oh, twelve dozen moves (that’s only a slight exaggeration), I spent most of my time spinning in circles and pointing my rifle in the air, shooting at passing sparrows. (There actually aren’t any birds to be shot for sport in this game, but it made me feel like I wasn’t wasting ammo.)
After an opposing soldier, operated by a real person somewhere in Hicktown, Nebraska, saddled up to me, he stared at first in befuddlement at my drunken pirouetting, probably wondering how anyone couldn’t figure out the controls to such an “easy” game, and then, I suppose out of pity, he proceeded to slit my throat with his knife. My character died instantaneously and dropped to the ground. For maximum effect, and much to my surprise, my controller shook violently so I could “FEEL the vibrations,” as Marky Mark might’ve rapped back in the day. Luckily, you’re resurrected almost as instantly as you die, a fact that unfortunately can’t be shared with the real victims of war.
Whatever happened to “Pac-Man,” “Q-Bert,” “Centipede,” and “Donkey Kong” when the most that would happen to your character was disappearing after getting hit on the noggin one too many times? I don’t even think the games were overly cute back then because they had to be, given the restrictions of the computing technology at the time. I honestly feel that even if those 8-bit games could be 8,000-bit ones (or whatever the real number is these days), you’d still be a frog lobbing snowballs in an enchanted kingdom. It’s just that you’d be a really sweet-looking frog, and those snowballs would look awesome.
Hell, the games still are awesome, 30 years later.