Commodore 64
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Launched in 1982 - 40 years ago this month, in fact - Commodore’s follow-up to the million-selling VIC-20 used the same distinctive case but crammed in two important custom chips. These were the VIC-II graphics chip, offering sprite graphics and smooth scrolling, and the SID sound chip with its amazing synthesiser-like capabilities that outplayed other machines of the same era.

With over 30,000 commercial and homebrew games created over the last forty years, this is an alphabetical selection of 20 must-play classics.

Armalyte (C64)

The Cyberdyne Systems team had a brief but influential C64 career, with this superb horizontally-scrolling shoot ‘em up the highlight. Marketed as a sequel to the earlier Delta by the legendary Stavros Fasoulas, the Armalyte team took ideas from R-Type and ran with it – for one or two players simultaneously. The graphic style was refined and revised to result in a beautiful crystalline and metallic look, enhanced by spotlighting effects. Sprites are superbly animated and massive motherships must be tackled. Formations weave and move through the landscapes in well-defined patterns. The player’s ship shoots and collects crystals to enhance its weaponry, with a solo player equipped with a handy drone, and can unleash one of three powerful superweapons (with their own charging system and batteries) to do extra damage. Backing it is a superb soundtrack from Martin Walker (creator of Chameleon, Hunter’s Moon and Citadel, all worth playing), the military drums and metallic sounds adding so much to the atmosphere. It is a challenging and well-made game across eight huge levels. Armalyte deserved its high review scores and represented the pinnacle of C64 shoot-‘em-ups until the recent works of Sarah Jane Avory (Zeta Wing, Soul Force).

The Bard's Tale (C64)

The computer RPG evolved from Dungeons & Dragons, and Interplay was a master of the genre. (Rivals SSI competed with the officially licensed AD&D Forgotten Realms games, playing in a similar style, housed in the collectable Gold Box packaging). A party of adventurers sets out to explore Skara Brae, searching the streets and buildings. The action is viewed in first-person as you explore, switching to a close-up animated portrait of enemies you encounter. In combat, fighters and paladins deal physical damage and the wizards cast spells. XP (Experience Points) earned are used to “level up” your characters, improving their statistics and allowing wizards access to new spells (which cost Magic Points). The unique Bard class has songs with magical effects but can only sing so many times before needing a drink (taverns are a reliable source of information too). Below the city lurk dangerous dungeons and the goal is to conquer the evil wizard’s tower. Originally released on disk, there was a cut-down tape version and two sequels expanding on the original (plus the closely related Dragon Wars). Interplay would also go on to produce the post-apocalyptic sci-fi RPG Wasteland, the direct ancestor of the phenomenally successful Fallout series.

Buggy Boy (C64)

As an arcade game, the huge screen display and big graphics gave Buggy Boy unique look. In tackling a C64 conversion Bob and Dave Thomas (who also created the Sir Arthur Pendragon games for Ultimate) took a clever approach. Rather than trying to make a huge buggy sprite, they kept it smaller and concentrated on the 3D. The result is a smooth and fast update as obstacles speed towards you convincingly. There are five courses to conquer, starting with the Offroad loop and then progressing through themed North, East, West, and South with varying landscapes. Time banners add extra seconds at the checkpoints and points banners add extra scores. The coloured flags can be collected in sequence to earn a bonus, the colours are then shuffled into a new order. Logs send the buggy into the air to jump, and it can ride on two wheels by hitting the small stone. Dodging boulders, trees, hurdles and the occasional opposing buggy, there is real satisfaction in making each checkpoint. Chasing a high score and reaching the finish line will become an obsession, the only downside being each course can only be played separately. This is fast and furious fun.

California Games (C64)

Starting out on the Atari 2600 Supercharger add-on, the 'Games' series initially concentrated on Olympic events with Summer Games 1 and 2, and Winter Games. Refinements saw the move away from joystick waggling into more complex control methods, with World Games tackling unusual global events (including caber toss and cliff diving). In recreating a series of extreme/summer sports, California Games raised the bar even further. The presentation is superb, from the title screen’s rendition of Louie Louie to the way you compete for sponsors rather than a country. Clever touches include an earthquake shaking the Hollywood sign during the Half-Pipe Skateboarding, and a UFO abducting an idle catcher in the Flying Disk (Frisbee) event. The BMX course is filled with ramps and obstacles, while the smoothly animated female Roller-Skater attempts to get down a cluttered beach sidewalk. The laid-back Foot Bag event relies on your position under the falling bag to determine the move you make, while the highlight must be the impressive Surfing. With an impressive curling wave, you catch air and avoid wiping out before your performance is evaluated by a panel of judges. Superb graphics and sound make this the ultimate in a highly-recommended series.

Defender Of The Crown (C64)

Early Amiga software such as the “interactive movies” from Cinemaware showed off the 16-bit advantage in graphics and sound. So could the C64 replicate it? In Defender of the Crown, the player takes the role of a Saxon lord in 1199, attempting to regain control of England from the Normans. Holding a territory brings in income to buy troops and build forts and catapults. These are then used in fighting sequences, including the famous catapult scene (break down the wall or send in a “disease bomb”) and open battlefields. Raiding a castle leads to a swordfight and the chance to rescue a maiden; an impressive animated sequence is your reward for freeing her. Robin Hood can be called on to help you too. And then there is the memorable jousting sequence, the first-person view letting you aim your lance to knock your opponent from his horse. The beautifully detailed static scenes are breathtaking, and the late Richard Joseph’s superb score recreated Jim Cuomo’s original compositions to a tee. The gameplay was more balanced than the Amiga original as well. TV Sports Football and The Three Stooges also made their way to the C64 from Cinemaware, proving the C64 could keep up with the 16-bits.

Ghostbusters (C64)

Greg Fishbach snapped up the rights to the motion picture before its release and put legendary designer David Crane in charge. He took elements of a prototype game (Car Wars) and produced a unique twist; you are running your own Ghostbusters franchise, rather than directly portraying the film’s characters. With the bank loaning money, you buy equipment and a vehicle then respond to ghost alerts as the city’s PK energy rises. Reaching a building, you set down a ghost trap and then use the proton beams to guide the roaming ghost over it. Trigger it at the right time and the ghost is trapped; make a mistake and the game speaks – “He slimed me!” There is also the Marshmallow Man to capture and then dodge past to reach the Temple of Zuul and a brief but brilliant end sequence. The title screen is truly memorable, playing Russel Lieblich’s brilliant recreation of the theme song with a bouncing ball following the lyrics so you can sing along. And if you earn more money than you started with, you are given a new account code to start with the higher amount next time – letting you try out different equipment and strategies.

IK+ (C64)

Arcade game Karate Champ directly inspired imitators and founded the whole one-on-one beat ‘em up genre. Way of the Exploding Fist from Melbourne House hit the market first, but System 3 published Archer’s International Karate (with the twist being the changing backgrounds with famous landmarks) to great acclaim. And then came the sequel which took things to a new level – by adding a THIRD fighter. This changed the dynamics of the fight, whether against two computer opponents or involving another human. The smoothly animated fighters have a range of moves, including an evasive cartwheel (traced from an acrobat in the movie Grease, no less). The bonus round sees the player deflecting bouncing balls with a shield. Rather than changing backgrounds, this iteration has a single detailed image with little animations (a crawling worm or descending spider). Composer Rob Hubbard had created a memorable tune for the original IK and surpassed it with the music for the sequel, while there are crunchy sampled FX that make hits sound painful. Oh, and a certain keypress makes the fighters’ trousers drop – in homage to a friend of Archer’s who had it happen during a real karate tournament.

Impossible Mission (C64)

Inspired by the movie War Games, this is an early example of procedural generation. The layout of Elvin Atombender’s mountain lair is different in each game, with pre-set rooms rearranged into a new map connected by lifts. Agent 4125 must search the furniture for pieces of the nine-letter password and dodge killer robots. Robot behaviour is randomised too, with some homing in on the player and others firing electric bolts in set patterns. Contact with the bolt or the robot is fatal, costing the player valuable time; falling off the screen will also reduce the time remaining. The password is made up of 36 punch cards that must be reassembled using the pocket computer, flipping pieces and changing their colour to make a complete card (a process that takes some learning, with the option to “phone base” costing time to give assistance). The unique look of the game is enhanced by the dynamic animation of the hero, who somersaults across the gaps. Memorably, Impossible Mission talks with clear synthesised speech; Elvin greets you with the phrase “Another visitor” when you start a new game, and the agent screams on each demise. A stone-cold classic that remains playable.

Laser Squad (C64)

Julian laid the foundations for this strategy title with the Rebelstar games, while brother Nick programmed the C64 version. In Laser Squad, the player is given control of a squad of Marines, equipping them with weapons and armour before choosing from seven scenarios (initially the game had just three missions before the separate expansion pack was incorporated into the main release by Julian’s label Blade). The mission might be assassinating a target, escaping the mines, or surviving in a hostile alien valley. Each turn a marine has limited Action Points to spend; by saving half, they can be left in “opportunity fire” to quickly attack any enemy that comes in range (as enemy movement is hidden until in a marine’s line of sight). In combat, weapons can be aimed at a distance or melee attacks conducted close up. Terrain plays a key role and doors must be opened or blown open. The overhead view allows for tactical play, and the strategic scanner shows the whole level. The graphics are detailed, while the sound is sparing but welcome. Julian also designed the fantasy-themed equivalent Lords of Chaos, where players summon creatures (inspired by his Spectrum game Chaos).

Last Ninja 2: Back With A Vengeance (C64)

This sequel managed to outshine the original, taking the hero to modern New York in pursuit of the evil Shogun Kunitoki. Fighting through Central Park, the Sewers, the basement, an office block and (via helicopter to) the Shogun’s mansion, the ninja must acquire weapons and objects he needs to progress. Police, thugs, and the Shogun’s forces will fight you, draining your energy with their attacks. Keys must be used in the right place; an empty bottle becomes a Molotov cocktail to deal with a crocodile in the sewer. Driving Last Ninja 2 is an amazing soundtrack from Matt Gray, drawing on influences including John Carpenter and Bomb the Bass. Gaining high reviews scores once more, there was controversy when shops refused to stock the limited edition – because it contained a rubber shuriken toy. While there are some tricky jumping sections reminiscent of the original game, overall it is a more polished and enjoyable take. It would be remade as Ninja Remix with a new intro, improved graphics, and an alternative soundtrack by Reyn Ouwehand before the third game returned to an Asian setting. System 3 has promised a new Last Ninja for years, but development has repeatedly stalled.

Maniac Mansion (C64)

With its series of point & click adventures, Lucasfilm brought humour and innovation. Here is the starting point, building on ideas from David Fox’s tie-in to the David Bowie film Labyrinth. Ron Gilbert devised a special game engine, known as SCUMM – the Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion, which went on to be legendary. At the start, you choose three kids to investigate strange goings-on in the Edison mansion; Dave’s girlfriend Sandy has been kidnapped, and there are tales of strange experiments and a crashed meteorite that landed nearby 20 years ago. The list of verbs at the bottom of the screen is clicked on to choose an action, and then parts of the room or objects can be manipulated. Throughout Maniac Mansion is a brilliant sense of humour and cutscenes telling the story; choosing different kids affects the puzzle solutions. Getting thrown into the dungeon when you are caught means you must escape somehow to continue. The large characters are brilliantly animated, and the rooms are filled with detail – and yes you can put the hamster in the microwave. Things got even zanier with more alien antics in follow-up Zak McCracken & The Alien Mindbenders.

Mayhem in Monsterland (C64)

The Rowlands created the brilliant Creatures titles for Thalamus, and Commodore Format published their diary as they made a new game. The magazine’s 100% review hyped it even more. Was it perfect? As a console-style platform game mimicking Sonic and Mario, it is incredible. Mayhem must turn Monsterland from grey and Sad back to Happy. First, he collects bags of Magic Dust by jumping on the heads of enemies. Taking them to Theo Saurus, the land is recoloured brightly and filled with Stars. Now Mayhem can gather up the Stars against a time limit. Helping him is the Charge icon, allowing him to rush back and forth at great speed and destroy weaker enemies head-on. He must cross the chequered finish line to move on to the next of five lands (giving ten levels in total to conquer). Later, enemies evolve to gain shields and spikes, requiring more caution. Hidden bonuses abound in Mayhem In Monsterland, and the music and presentation are brilliant throughout, from the tiny preview maps to the cartoon intro. This was the ultimate C64 platform game - until the arrival of Sam’s Journey and the conversions of Super Mario Bros. and Sonic The Hedgehog in recent years.

Microprose Soccer (C64)

Commodore fans often cite Andrew Spencer’s 1983 International Soccer cartridge as their favourite, and the later update as Emlyn Hughes’ International Soccer from Audiogenic was also highly playable. But MicroProse Soccer was the predecessor of the incredible Sensible Soccer and superb throughout – with the bonus of having both 11-a-side (outdoor) and six-a-side (indoor) modes. There are single match and tournament modes (including a World Cup), and settings can be tweaked. This includes weather for the outdoor game, giving slippery pitches and bursts of lightning. Overlaid sprites give the players a crisp look, but best of all is the graphical effects accompanying an instant replay of a goal – video bars and static, plus the flashing R sign in the corner make it look like TV. Control is sublime with overhead kicks and the swerving banana shot. At higher levels, the computer opponent is challenging, but it comes to life against a human opponent. The indoor game is even more fast and frantic, all backed by great jingles from Martin Galway (who joined Sensible for a brief time). It was all inspired by the arcade game Tehkan World Cup, and rates as the ultimate 8-bit footie game.

Paradroid (C64)

Andrew’s “making of” diaries for ZZAP! 64 made him a superstar. The robot crew of a series of Dreadnoughts have gone haywire, and your Influence Device is beamed onboard to regain control. The gameplay in Paradroid is viewed from overhead in a radar-style display, with enemies in your line of sight visible. The ship is broken down into decks accessed by lifts, with energisers to recover your health (at the cost of points) and computer terminals to give information. You can either shoot enemy droids to destroy them or attempt to transfer control to the other droid. This leads to a fascinating mini-game where you must choose connections to complete the circuit, gaining the most coloured segments in the middle when time ends. Droids are rated by their serial number, with the lowly Influence Device being 001 and the ultimate Command Droid being 999. There is real satisfaction in taking over a higher-level droid and clearing a deck. Uridium took the action to the surface of the Dreadnoughts in a superbly slick shoot ‘em up, among the best on the C64. Both Uridium and Paradroid had improved versions, with Paradroid Metal Edition adding shinier graphics and a new loading sequence.

Sid Meier's Pirates! (C64)

Sid Meier had co-founded the company with Bill Staley to market a flight simulator, and Microprose became synonymous with that genre through Gunship and Project Stealth Fighter. But this was a hint toward the strategic games Sid would become famous for. Taking the role of a young ship’s captain in the Caribbean, the aim is to make your fortune. Sailing between ports, you can trade goods and undertake missions for the local governors – with four nations changing allegiance and hostility. Sighting a hostile ship at sea leads to a tense battle of cannon fire and manoeuvres, before one ship boards the other and the opposing captain is fought in a sword duel. Victory lets you plunder and optionally take control of the vessel, while defeat can see you overthrown by the crew or locked in prison. With time passing, you can find treasure maps and track down the Spanish gold train or woo a potential wife. Intriguingly, large parts of the game were written in BASIC and multiple updates added extra animation and new features. The glossy packaging included a map of the Caribbean and historical research underpinned events in the game, making it in part educational.

Rainbow Islands (C64)

Bubble Bobble had a brilliant C64 conversion by Software Creations for Firebird, and this sequel was going to be published by Firebird too until a dispute with Taito saw it delayed and finally put out by Ocean. That led ZZAP! to say they had under-rated the delayed game. Over seven themed islands, Bub and Bob use rainbows to climb ahead of the rising flood water. Crushing a rainbow (jumping on top of it) will kill any enemy below, turning them into a rainbow-coloured gem based on where on the screen it lands. Collecting all seven in order reveals a giant bonus item at the end of the four rounds that make up each island – if you can defeat the cute boss. The cute graphics in Rainbow Islands are superb, recreating the varied themes (insects, ghosts, and even Arkanoid) and looking close to the arcade. The music is brilliant, including the jolly rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, and there are neat sound effects. It is supremely playable, with hidden items and power-ups to discover. A superb conversion and a brilliant game. Graftgold were also responsible for the port of Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off-Road Racer, and Andrew Braybrook’s original C64 titles.

The Sentinel (C64)

The Sentinel stands on its plinth at the top of 10,000 landscapes, and your Synthoid must climb high enough to absorb it. Procedural generation of the fractal landscapes makes for an impressive if slow-moving sight. Energy is constant, so you must absorb trees to let you create the boulders and robot shells to raise yourself higher. As The Sentinel slowly turns, it will scan you and drain your energy – creating trees to keep the balance. Increasing difficulty sees the addition of Sentries (that drain energy) and Meanies (that force you to hyperspace to a random point). Run out of energy and you can try again. The more energy you have left when you stand in place of The Sentinel, the higher the next level you will warp to – with a passcode given to enter at the title screen. The sound is sparing but atmospheric, with jingles and noises to alert you. Changing colour combinations and escalating difficulty draw you back once you are used to the deliberate pace. Geoff Crammond’s classic and his racing game Revs originated on the BBC Micro; other BBC games converted included the brilliant budget hit Thrust and the “physics engine” puzzles of Exile.

Turrican II - The Final Fight (C64)

There was controversy around Manfred’s first two releases, with The Great Giana Sisters pulled from shelves due to its similarities to Super Mario Bros., and Katakis the subject of an injunction for its closeness to R-Type (with Manfred then tasked with doing the official conversion). And so he chose a more obscure arcade title (Psycho-Niks Oscar) as the basis for his Turrican games. Turrican 2 pushed the C64 even closer to its limits. The massive scrolling levels are filled with enemies and hazards, and there are immense screen-filling bosses to take on. Three shoot-‘em-up levels add amazing variety, two going horizontally (and featuring a homage to Katakis) and the other moving in multiple directions. The metal-suited hero is well equipped for the task of taking on the evil Machine, with the rotating lightning bolt, energy lines and the gyroscope (think Metroid’s Morph Ball) allowing rapid progress. The main gun has spread, bounce and laser modes, and a new screen-shaking smart bomb does even more damage. Superb music plays throughout, whereas the original did not have in-game music. The series is back in the spotlight thanks to a recent compilation for modern machines, but its C64 roots deserve recognition.

Wizball (C64)

This deserves to be played on the original machine it was designed for. Taking elements of Nemesis/Gradius (the weapons system), the player must return colour to the world by catching droplets of primary colours and mixing them. Starting can be tricky, as you have little control other than rotating left and right to bounce the ball around. But pick up a couple of Green Pearls to activate the first icon and it becomes a superb shoot ‘em up. You also need the “catellite,” the orbiting satellite used to collect the colours (which include surprises, such as an extra life and the “filth raid” bringing a wave of police ships). The graphics in Wizball are by Jon Hare and are outstanding, including a mini-Mount Rushmore and heaps of animated enemies. The music by Martin Galway is amazing, based on guitar playing by Jon (bass riff for the bonus game) and Chris Yates (the bitching game over solo). Everything is so smoothly done and fits together well, with the unique method of travelling between three “open” levels to get red, blue, and green drops. The sequel Wizkid for Amiga went off into surreal realms and is under-appreciated, but this was a true C64 classic.

World Class Leaderboard (C64)

Bruce and Roger Carver had impressed with Beach Head and Raid Over Moscow. Their company then moved into sports, with the brilliant ten-pin bowling simulation 10th Frame and the first Leaderboard game. Its unusual courses of islands and water made for a tricky but challenging round of golf, with four courses built-in and an add-on tape with four more. You could even print out your scorecard after taking on one or more rounds. Executive Edition added trees and bunkers. But the ultimate 8-bit golf game was World Class Leaderboard, with three real courses (Cypress Creek, Doral, and the legendary St. Andrews) recreated in detail, and the challenging but fictional Gauntlet Country Club. The three-click “swingometer” made control sublime, and the smoothly animated golfer was created by rotoscoping (tracing over the video of a real golfer making a swing.) With three difficulty levels and more add-on disks with extra courses, there is depth. (The course “designer” within World Class Leaderboard simply lets you choose existing holes from any course disk and play them in a different order). Access would go on to create the famous Links series of golf games for PC, building on this excellent foundation.

It is remarkable that so many years after the bankruptcy of Commodore, this classic 8-bit computer not only continues to thrive but sees more new games each year and the expansion of new hardware that makes using it even easier (such as solutions for loading from SD card). The emulation in software and by devices like the C64 Mini will allow the C64 legacy to live on.