© Copyright 2021 Tom Crossland.
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The 100 Greatest Commodore 64 Games
The first C64 game I ever played was 1983's Falcon Patrol by Steve Lee. I suspect this game might have come free with the computer. Falcon Patrol is a side on shoot em up. The player plays the pilot of a jet fighter in the Falcon Patrol squadron. Other jets have to be battled and prevented from bombing the airfields. The player has to use the airfields to refuel and also be resupplied with ammunition. The player in Falcon Patrol has three jets - another is given every 3000 points. Falcon Patrol is a very basic side on scrolling shooter. It has fairly spartan graphics, the scrolling is a trifle jittery, and sometimes the missiles go right through planes without exploding. But to me Falcon Patrol was extremely addictive and very atmospheric. It was very special. The sound effects - especially the refuelling sound – add greatly to the game. Falcon Patrol was my gateway to an incredible range of games right through the peak golden years of the C64.
The list of games that follows is of course subjective and reflects my own personal tastes. Nonetheless, there is still a remarkably diverse and eclectic range of games in this book. You might disagree with a few inclusions (and exclusions!) but that's all part of the fun of lists. One could easily come up with a list of more than one hundred great C64 games because there were thousands of games produced for this machine and many of them were fantastic. By way of example, I could find no room in this list for games like Thrust, Bangkok Knights, Ballblazer, Fight Night, Exile, Curse of the Azure Bonds, and Pole Position. There are simply too many good games on the C64 to include everything.
The C64 did of course have its share of clunkers and terrible games but - happily - we don't have to worry too much about them. This book is about good games. Not just good games but classics of their era. The Commodore 64 was an incredible piece of tech for its time and left a generation with enough happy and nostalgic gaming memories to last a lifetime. Though these games often seem primitive now from a modern vantage point (as we battle our way through the likes of Doom Eternal) this was anything but the case in the 1980s. C64 kids from that decade will never forget pounding those planes with anti-aircraft fire in Beach Head or the digitised cry of anguish in Impossible Mission when you mistimed a jump and fell into what seemed like infinity. Even little games that seemed throwaway and simple like Hunchback II are ingrained in my memories forever.
The C64 was eventually even able to more or less (with a few miss-steps along the way) replicate the arcade experience for home gamers - which might not sound like much today but in the 1980s was a very big deal. To be able to play faithful versions of things like Ghosts n' Goblins and Kung Fu Master in your home was a novelty indeed in the mid eighties. It was like having an arcade machine in your living room. Best of all, once you'd shelled out for the game, you didn't have to put any coins in to play it!
As far as the C64 went, the games to approach with some degree of caution were the licenced games. Companies would get the rights to some popular movie or television show like Knight Rider and inevitably the game they knocked up with said licence would be terrible. That cover art would always lure you in though. Though it's far from the worst game ever made one of my least favourite licenced experiences was Airwolf. A game based on Airwolf! Eighties kids like me couldn't wait to get home and experience some high-tech helicopter action for themselves. What they got instead was a game where Airwolf is trapped in a cave system! Fiddly, frustrating, and nigh on impossible, Airwolf definitely wasn't something I was in a rush to go back to. I remember being dreadfully disappointed too by a game based on Judge Dredd.
Not all the licenced games on the C64 were terrible though. There were some gems hidden amongst them if one was willing to sift through the dross (naturally, Commodore User and ZZAP!64 were invaluable for research before you parted with any of your parents' hard earned money). There are a decent smattering of licenced games in the book which follows. A forgotten classic based on Alien for example and even a fascinating game based on a controversial Liverpudlian pop group.
A common tactic with games companies was to get a celebrity sportsman to endorse their game. So you'd get things like Frank Bruno's Boxing or Alex Higgins World Snooker. These sporting endorsements did not always guarantee a great game but there were definitely some classics. Barry McGuigan's Boxing and Emlyn Hughes Football are two notable examples of the good games in this specific genre. One of the most famous early C64 games was Daley Thompson's Decathlon. Though it didn't make this book I remember the game as being sort of fun but infamous for the dreaded 'joystick waggling' mechanic. To make Daley run faster in the game you had to waggle the joystick from side to side as rapidly as you could. Games like this must have destroyed a fair few joysticks.
Another notorious 'joystick waggler' was Hyper Sports (which is a much better game than Daley Thompson's Decathlon and DOES make it into this book). Years and decades later, I was playing FEAR 2 and encountered a moment in the game where you have to frenziedly stab at the mouse button to have a hand to hand strangling fight with a villain. Talk about Daley Thompson's Decathlon flashbacks! I really hope that mouse mechanic doesn't catch on again.
The golden age of the C64 was the mid 1980s. The machine endured for much longer than that but in the end many people upgraded to the Amiga (which was also fantastic but sadly doomed) or drifted away to other machines. Are C64 games still worth playing today - even if you have all the latest modern releases? My answer to that question is yes! Commodore C64 games are still fun and still worth exploring. Games like Summer Games II, Leader Board and Boulder Dash are still a pleasure to dig out and play.
And there are plenty of other classics too, as we shall see in the book that follows. Shooting games, strategy games, arcade adventures, space flight simulators, sports simulations, racing games, fantasy games, horror games, combat games, boxing games, platform games, and so on. So, without any further delay, let us begin our countdown (in alphabetical order of course) of the one hundred greatest C64 games. Let the nostalgia commence...
Label: Argus Press Software, Designer: Paul Clansey
Alien is an adventure/strategy game based on the classic 1979 film by Ridley Scott. Though it might appear simple on the surface this is a surprisingly sophisticated game that was way ahead of its time. The music is famously creepy (that opening theme is both jaunty and sinister to remarkable effect) and one might argue that purely in terms of atmosphere and tone this is one of the most faithful of the many games based on the Alien franchise. The game features all the characters from the film and takes place just after the alien has hatched and broken loose on your ship the Nostromo. The look of the game is a top down view of the layout of the ship. Using commands you move the characters around with the aim of killing the alien.
There are various ways you can kill the alien - like trapping the creature and blasting it out of an airlock. You have a number of tasks to achieve (capturing Jones the cat is rather pesky) and you have the added trouble of not knowing which one of the crew is the duplicitous android working for the sinister company in charge of the ship. The identity of the android changes with each new game just to make sure you never know who the traitor is. The android will attempt to sabotage the player's strategy to defeat the alien. Each time the game starts one of the crew is randomly killed by playing host to the creature. It's nice that the game subverts your knowledge of the film to keep you guessing. By the way, I love the box with this game. It looks like a mini VHS case and has a nice booklet with photographs of all the characters from the film.
The first part of the game is quite slow and gives you a chance to get hold of enough weapons for your characters so they can fight back against the acid blooded xenomorph.
The tension amps up once the alien enters the fray and it is genuinely spooky and scary when the game informs you that one of the characters is under attack. When this happens a graphic of the alien fills up the screen. You could argue that this game is actually the grandfather of the survival horror genre. The AI in the game is impressive for the era (characters might refuse a command if they are nervous or feel under threat) and no two games of this are the same. This is a fascinating and complex early C64 strategy game and fairly unique. There's nothing quite like it really.
The flaws in the game are the garish green screens which map out the Nostromo and also the fact that dispensing commands can be cumbersome and not exactly swift - which obviously doesn't help if you need to do something quickly! This game won't be everyone's cup of tea but it deserves a small cloud in C64 heaven. If you like strategy games and are a fan of the Alien franchise this can be a rewarding experience. Though the games don't last long it is very difficult to kill the alien - which does at least give the game more playability and make it more of a challenge.
Alien is sort of game that will divide opinion (I suspect a lot of kids in 1984 probably loaded this up and couldn't make nor tail out of it and so moved swiftly onto something else) but if you like immersive strategy games and the Alien franchise you should find this an interesting experience. You wouldn't say that Alien was a truly great game but it is an ambitious and clever one and left a big impression on me.
Alien is a game which illustrates how atmosphere is a fundamental part of computer games - especially ones that inhabit the horror genre like this. The fact that this game was was an acquired taste was illustrated by the spread of reviews of received. Some found it a challenging strategy game that would keep you engrossed with weeks and others found it a dull looking game which lacked action. Ultimately, it was all in the eye of the beholder. My own view is that Alien - for all its flaws - is a fascinating and atmospheric game.
Label: Electric Dreams, Designer: Mark Eyles
Aliens is based on the classic 1986 film sequel Aliens. In the game a remote planet has been colonised by humans. Unfortunately it is also host to dangerous aliens. The survivor of the first encounter with these dangerous alien creatures - Ellen Ripley - leads a team of individuals to go back to the planet and check the human base for survivors. The player controls the team members: Ripley; soldiers Gorman, Hicks and Vasquez; Bishop the android; and corporation representative Burke.
The player in Aliens can see the base through a camera on the team members helmets. The player moves the characters through different rooms in the base. Doors are locked, sealed or blown up. The Aliens move through the base leaving organic material - that creates face hugger creatures which attack and impregnate the team with an alien. Aliens and organic material can be shot and destroyed but ammunition is limited and the player must visit the armoury to be resupplied. Members have an energy bar and have to rest to replenish it. Crew members are sometimes captured by the aliens and must be rescued. The control room - for heating and lighting - must be defended. The aim is to guide Ripley to the Queen's chamber to destroy the Queen Alien.
C64 film tie ins were too often awful with companies simply trying to cash in on a licenced property and throwing out a game as soon as they could. They were usually some awful side scrolling platform game/shoot em up but Aliens is good movie adaption and at least tried something new. The gameplay in Aliens is a good representation of the film's plot. and the graphics are very good, again suiting the style of the film. Unfortunately there is no music for this one though. There are a series of suitably eerie sound effects though - such as the alarm that sounds when an alien is near.
The game is quite tough but fun to play. It is addictive and gets quite tense when crises start to happen. There is a great atmosphere from the film and the aliens are nicely depicted. One might argue that the game becomes a little samey in the end with the lack of variety in the backdrops but this is an interesting attempt at what is essentially a very early sort of first person shooter. C64 owners would have been impressed by the look of Aliens and if you fell for the immersive atmosphere of the game then it was an interesting and even spooky experience. This game is not perfect (and can be frustrating) but you can see that a lot of effort has gone into it.
Another official Aliens game was made (by Activision) in 1986 - the Activision going for a mini-game sort of approach with contrasting levels. The Activision game has some nice illustrations of scenes from the film and begins with a fairly impressive (for the time) sequence where you have to pilot the dropship to the surface of LV426. After this there is a bit too much of moving around corridors with little stick men Colonial Marines. This section of the Activision game is a lot less polished than the Electric Dreams game. There's a very basic shooting section after this and then you take on the Alien Queen in Ripley's power-loader in what is a fairly decent looking last section. The Aliens game by Activision is pretty average on the whole compared to the Electric Dreams one but C64 or Aliens completists should probably check out both games because the second one definitely has its fans too.
ARCHON: THE LIGHT AND THE DARK (1983)
Label: Free Fall Associates, Designer: Jon Freeman, Paul Reiche III
Archon: The Light and the Dark is one of the undisputed early classics of the C64 and a unique game with a genius concept. The concept is basically chess but with an arcade gameplay component. The game plays out on what looks like a chessboard and the goal is to secure five power point squares. When two pieces end up on the same square it doesn't work like chess (where the lower ranking figurine is immediately removed from the game) but instead the two opposing figures are placed within an arcade style combat arena and must fight it out to see who survives and wins the square!
The various pieces you move around in the game all have different strengths and weaknesses so an element of strategy is involved in choosing which piece to go up against another. Some of the figures have special abilities - like the ability to cast spells or shapeshift. This game is basically like chess crossed with Dungeons & Dragons crossed with some vintage arcade action. The concept was highly addictive to C64 gamers in the early eighties and many of them played Archon to death. There's no doubt that this game has a brilliant concept behind it. This is also a really good two player game.
This game was originally written for the Atari and ported to other platforms - including of course the C64. The game's graphics are nothing fancy but because a lot of the game is framed by what looks like a chessboard this gives much of the visual presentation a stylish and fairly timeless feel.
Chessboards just look nice don't they? The arcade fighting sections are where Archon shows its age more readily as these are fairly primitive to modern eyes. However, the arcade sections are fun. The gameplay is fine and because you are battling for power points in the game you are completely absorbed in the combat and not really taking much notice of the graphics anyway.
Archon: The Light and the Dark is a really great game on the whole. In 1984 there was a sequel to this game titled Archon II: Adept. The general consensus is that the sequel is not as good nor as essential as the original. Many felt the second game was too complex although ZZAP!64 complained that it relied too much on joystick waggling arcade action! If you like the first game you should probably check out Archon II at some point but the balance between strategy and gameplay patently wasn't as perfect as in the first game. If you lower your expectations though you might enjoy it. Don't miss playing the original classic game though.
Label: Cyberdyne Systems, Designer: Dan Phillips, John Kemp
Armalyte is a horizontally scrolling shooter and a sequel to Delta (which is also well worth playing). There were many games of this type on the C64 but Armalyte really stood out from the pack with its fast paced action and beautiful graphics. This is definitely a masterpiece of the C64 shoot em up genre.
The aim of the game is (naturally) to reach the end of each scrolling level. There are eight screens in all and some fiendish boss battles - just to make sure you get a proper challenge. As the game progresses you can power up your weapons and get power upgrades. Best of all you can earn various Super Weapons which dispense a satisfying amount of damage on the unfortunate enemies. There is also a two-player mode.
Where this game really scored was in the amount of detail on the screen. Not just enemy ships (which came in a variety of guises and designs) but huge obstacles and traps which had to be blasted at strategic points before one could make progress. This game is considered to be very difficult so if you find these types of games too easy at times you could be assured of a fairly decent challenge here. As far as horizontally scrolling shooters go there were several that were worthy of a place in this list and worth playing but I enjoyed Armalyte more than most for its bright trippy graphics and frenzied boss fights. It's obviously a matter of personal taste though. If you like these types of games this is definitely one to take a look at.
What really makes this game memorable is the fact that so much is happening on the screen at any one time. You could certainly never accuse this game of going through the motions. There are bright colours and objects, enemies glow and rotate, and the laser effects from your weapons are satisfying and striking. This is not one of those games either where it becomes easy once you learn the attack patterns of the enemy ships. This game poses a welcome challenge and will engulf you in more and more mayhem the longer you get into it.
Armalyte is a classic arcade style shooter and remains a lot of fun to play. This was one of the most polished shooters of the long and enjoyable C64 era and that's saying something because there were literally hundreds of them. This game earned a coveted Gold Medal award in ZZAP!64 with 98%. It's a game which really pushed the hardware of the C64 and showed what the machine was capable of. There were many games similar to Armalyte on the C64 but few were as polished and playable as this one.
AZTEC CHALLENGE (1983)
Label: COSMI, Creator: Paul Norman
In Aztec Challenge the player is an Aztec warrior obstreperously racing through temples and avoiding various deadly obstacles. The first level is The Gauntlet. The player runs towards a Temple and either side are Aztecs throwing spears - which must be jumped over or ducked under. If the player is hit by a spear they are placed at the start of the level again. Level 2 is The Stairs. The player is climbing up the stairs of the temple and must avoid stone blocks which are being thrown. Level 3 is The Temple. The player must avoid (you guessed it) various booby traps.
Level 4 is The Vermin - the player has to avoid various creatures like scorpions. Level 5 is Hopaztec in which the player has to cross a tiled floor - some of the tiles are booby trapped. Level 6 is Piranha where the player has to (as the title suggests) swim across a lake avoiding piranha fish. Level 7 is The Bridge - where the player runs over a bridge jumping over holes in the bridge which are different sizes. Yes, it's safe to say that the Aztec warrior you control is in for a very dangerous and pesky time indeed!
Aztec Challenge is something of a cult game. The graphics seem quite basic (crudely so at times) but the animations and scrolling effects are good and there is a nice variety in the levels. This is basically like an amusing spin on those multi-sports games which became a staple of the C64. If nothing else Aztec Challenge scores high marks for originality and it's very addictive and playable too. There are 3D perspectives from behind the player, side on view levels and top down view levels so the levels all seem different. This is one of those early simple and charming C64 arcade games which are extremely addictive.
Aztec Challenge has a great atmosphere with the Aztec setting and mysterious music. Aztec Challenge is quite difficult and unforgiving at times but this helps with the replayability of the game. The designer Paul Norman also made the Forbidden Forest games. He later made a new version of Aztec Challenge called Azteca: Queen of Quetzalcoatl and released it via his website. The original game was for the Atari 8 bit computers and was a complete side scroller without 3D sections.
If you like fast and frenzied (not to mention unusual) sports style games with a twist then Aztec Challenge is a lot of fun. This game is memorable too and not one you'll forget in a hurry. It isn't the best looking game in the world (even for the time it came out) but it has bags of character and atmosphere and the gameplay is engaging and compulsive.
Label: Place Software, Designer: Stanley Schembri
Barbarian is a swords and sandals fighting game. The player is a barbarian who is a highly skilled swordsman. Sorcerer Drax threatens Jewel City with destruction if he does not get his villainous mitts on Jewel City's Princess Mariana. Drax obviously cannot take the Princess if he's defeated in a duel so the barbarian takes him on. In the first part of the game different opponents are taken on in practice. In the second part the Princess must be fought for. Different fighters are taken on - finishing with Drax. There are sixteen fighting moves. Energy is signified by six dots. They go down in half or full amounts depending on strength of hit. A two player game is available.
Barbarian is a fun fighting game. It makes a change also to have a beat em up game outside the usual martial arts setting! The game has a great atmosphere with the fantasy setting. There are some nice touches - such as a gnome taking away a severed head. There are good controls and challenging computer opponents. There's a great music score too. While there were no shortage of fighting games on the C64, Barbarian was inventive and different enough to justify its own existence and is a really solid and enjoyable beat em up in its own right.
The only criticism one might have of Barbarian is that game seems a trifle slow at times. The combat is decent enough though and the backdrops and graphics make the game feel immersive and enjoyable. You could just as well include the 1988 sequel Barbarian II: The Dungeon of Drax in this book too. Barbarian II is graphically even more impressive than the first game with a wider variety of opponents and monsters to fight. The opponents in the sequel tend to have more elaborate (and enjoyably strange) designs and you can see that the game has been given an impressive graphical tweak in comparison to the original.
Barbarian II also has some impressive world-building in the way that it opens up the universe of the game and makes everything feel bigger and bolder. Most critics seem to think that Barbarian II: The Dungeon of Drax was even better than the original. The best thing to do of course is simply play both games! The Barbarian games remain classics of the C64 era and are a lot of fun. C64 gamers who were a trifle bored of pyjama clad kung fu capers with a far east backdrop at least got something fairly new and fresh with Barbarian. The atmosphere and graphics alone make these games memorable.
BARRY McGUIGAN WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP BOXING (1985)
Label: Sportsware Productions, Designer: Troy Lyndon
Barry McGuigan World Championship Boxing is a boxing game named after the Irish boxer and former WBA featherweight champion Barry McGuigan. In this side on simulation, the player controls a boxer who rises up the ratings by winning fights. The player can create a boxer and choose race, hair colour, trunks, image, attitude, stamina, agility, strength, endurance, best punch, and recovery. Each boxer has a different set of abilities - one, for example, might be a big puncher but not have much endurance. The player has to move up the rankings and has a choice of a few boxers at their current level. Before a fight the boxer trains and the different types of training have an effect on the different abilities.
“Light Bag" raises the boxer's speed. "Heavy Bag" on the other hand improves the force of the blows. "Spar Time" shortens the recovery time. "Weights" raises the boxer's strength. "Roadwork" improves the stamina. There are a number of different boxing moves - cross, block, body punch, jab, hook and uppercut. On the screen during the fight is the time of the round, round number, endurance, points in the fight, and count – for when a boxer is knocked down.
Barry McGuigan World Championship Boxing is probably the best boxing game for the C64 and all the more effective for eschewing the cartoonish 'comedy' style of other C64 boxing games. Although the graphics may look very simple, Barry McGuigan World Championship Boxing is very atmospheric and the boxers have real personality. Boxers can be created and the boxers in the game have different attributes. If you don't have much stamina left you have to box smart to try and not get knocked out. The boxing animations are very good. There are a wide range of punches so you can box in different style and the knock-downs are very satisfying.
The game is very playable and the ability to create a boxer gives the game longevity. The game was called Star Rank Boxing in the US. What I love most about Barry McGuigan World Championship Boxing is that it feels like it has more depth than other boxing games. In fights for example you can block punches to good effect and bide your time. This isn't just the usual button mashing all action combat game. It might not be the most eye-catching game visually but Barry McGuigan World Championship Boxing is a well designed and very playable game. This was definitely one of my favourite fighting games on the C64.
Another good boxing game released in 1985 was Accolade's Fight Night. This game is graphically impressive but it doesn't have the depth of satisfying gameplay offered by Barry McGuigan World Championship Boxing and goes for an overtly tongue-in-cheek approach. Fight Night is fun but Barry McGuigan World Championship Boxing was much better. The other famous boxing game on the C64 was Frank Bruno's Boxing - which was released by Elite in 1985. This game is basically a copy of a famous game called Super-Punch Out from other platforms. Frank Bruno's Boxing is quite cartoonish with comedy opponents. The game is perfectly decent and fun for a while but it was definitely a rung below Barry McGuigan World Championship Boxing and Fight Night. Elite definitely got their timing wrong with the release of Frank Bruno's Boxing because it came out very shortly after the much superior Barry McGuigan World Championship Boxing and Fight Night!
BATTLE THROUGH TIME (1984)
Label: Anirog Software, Designer: Ken Grant
Battle Through Time is an action and shoot em up game. It is a side scrolling game in which the player drives a jeep jumping over obstacles and potholes attacking enemies in the air and on the ground. When the player has driven ten miles the next level is accessed. There are seven levels: World War I, World War II, The Korean War, The Vietnam War, World War III, War Mutations (an alien looking landscape) and In the Beginning - back to Stone Age with a Tyrannosaurus Rex as an end-of-level boss! If the game is completed it restarts with a slightly harder difficulty.
This is a fun game with an irresistible time travelling element. The graphics are very pleasant and atmospheric though of course rather dated. This is one of those games that doesn't look much at first glance but then offers bags of gameplay. Appearances can de deceptive! You don't necessarily have to have the best looking graphics in the world to create a great game. Not that Battle Through Time looks bad anywhere. It is presented in pleasant
Publisher: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
Publication Date: 01-02-2022
All Rights Reserved