Video Games

The 20 Greatest Games on the Commodore 64

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impossible-mission.jpgBy Teague Bohlen

Once the Atari 2600, Colecovision, and Intellivision all started to fade, and everyone realized the Atari 5200 was pretty much a disaster, the Commodore 64 was the machine to have. There were other computers around at the time?Apples, IBMs, TRS-80s?but the Commodore 64 was king. It?s still the best-selling personal computer ever, at over 17 million units; Commodore 64 built itself a nice little corner of the game-platform market for a while.

And, of course, if you build it, they will come. That?s games, not the ghost of your Dad?s old ball team. (Commodore 64s didn?t so much bring you closer with your family as much as it did, you know, the exact opposite, making you want to skip having a catch with your Dad to find that Moongate from Ultima II.) What follows, then, is a list of the twenty most awesome games from the Commodore 64 era?maybe not the best games, or the most important?but these were the ones you traded on 5 ? floppies with your friends after school.

20. Return of Heracles (Quality Software, 1984)
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A role-playing precursor to Electronic Arts? Adventure Construction Set, Return of Heracles let players control any one of many Greek heroes and heroines in completing twelve divine tasks. Though many of these are based on the actual Twelve Labors of Hercules, some are not?which is a really bad thing to discover when you thought you could ace a Mythology mid-term because you?d played this game. Trust me on this.

19. Karateka (Broderbund, 1984)
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One of the many martial-arts games that would become a standard of video gaming, Karateka was known primarily for its animation and fluidity of motion. (Which makes sense, considering that the game designer would go on to produce Prince of Persia, which was known for the exact same thing.) But the game, which was otherwise just the usual chop-socky, save-the-princess set-up, had one other claim to fame: if you approached the princess in a fighting stance in the endgame, instead of kissing you in gratitude, she?d kick you in the head and kill you. (The lesson: manners still count, Crazy 88.) Cruel? Sure. But also a little awesome.

18. Elite (Firebird, 1985)
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Elite had two things going for it when it was released; one, a unique visual style produced by its wireframe 3D graphics, and two, a built-in audience from the then-popular space RPG Traveler, upon which it was loosely based. In turn, the game went on to inspire a whole genre of space-faring, fighting, and trading games, from Wing Commander to Privateer to a host of others. At least, this is what my friends tell me; I always died trying to dock with the space station.

17. Loderunner (Broderbund, 1983)
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Maybe it was the fact that it resembled Jumpman in terms of graphics and level-layout, but I was always frustrated by the fact that you couldn?t leap even a little in Loderunner. But at least you could fall from any height and survive. That?s something, I guess. What made this game hit so big wasn?t so much the gameplay, which was just fun, but the fact that there was a level editor, meaning you could plan deathtrap levels for your friends. Which was really, really fun.

16. Pool of Radiance (SSI, 1988)
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Dungeons & Dragons finally made it to the computer with this licensed game based on the D&D ruleset. And fans flocked to it. Even if it was a bit overpowered (you could find a longsword +5 near the end of the game, when your fighter was only level 8, max), it was still a good to see wizards casting magic missiles and clerics turning undead without having to gather a bunch of friends and buy pizza, Doritos, and Dr. Pepper. One last thing Pool of Radiance is remembered for: the copy protection. The clumsy ?decoder wheel? technology didn?t so much stop piracy as teach teens with no money how to disassemble, photocopy, and rebuild the wheel at Kinkos.

15. Castle Wolfenstein (Muse, 1983)
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Maybe it?s more a legend now that it?s been remade so many times (with yet another version due out soon), but Castle Wolfenstein was well-known in its time for good reason. It wasn?t that the game-play was all that great (all that sneaking around made for some glacial pacing), but the fact that you could actually hear speech (?Achtung!?) and hear death-screams (?EEEYAGH!?) was pretty amazing. Sure, maybe games weren?t to the point at which you could take on a robotic Hitler, but killing a Nazi and then dressing in his uniform? That?s Indiana Jones U-boat cool, brother.

14. Zork (Infocom, 1980)
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Sure, text-based games seem like the horse-and-buggy of computer games, especially in this World of Warcraft world. But in its day, Zork and most other Infocom games (notably the Enchanter series, the mystery Deadline, and the game version of Douglas Adams? Hitchiker?s Guide to the Galaxy) were industry leaders and perennial best-sellers. Elvish swords, brass lanterns, and grues in the darkness; in 1980, that was all you needed.

13. Forbidden Forest (Cosmi,1983)
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Long before there were Fatalities and Flawless Victories, there was Forbidden Forest. This game was blocky and poorly rendered, but the blood flowing from the monstrous victims of your arrows was among the first of its kind for American gaming. And as you progressed in levels, and the beasties got faster and more dangerous, you?d eventually fall?and the sight of your little archer wiggling on the ground as a giant spider feasts? Shudder-worthy.

12. Summer Games (Epyx, 1984)
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Maybe it?s the leftover charge from the Beijing games that lands this game on the list, but anyone who was around for this joystick-killer in 1984 loved it. And maybe that had something to do with the contemporary Olympic spirit at the time, which not only were being held in Los Angeles, but were also the USA?s moment to really shine, given the Soviet boycott that year. Two running events and two swimming events were a bit much, for sure, but the platform diving and gymnastics rocked. And this was back before the scoring changes?when your own little Mary Lou Retton could get that perfect 10.

11. Sex Games (Landisoft, 1985)
(Click here for the NSFW screenshot?it’s too pixelated to be pornographic, exactly, but anyone who catches you looking at it will think you’re a pervert with horrible taste.)
Okay, so this, as a game, sort of sucked. There was no real gameplay to it, it was all pretty much about moving back and forth until a bell rang, and it was over in about ten minutes. (Wait?maybe it was more realistic than I thought?) But it was still a legend, despite the end-game left turn into group bisexuality (I?d go more deeply into this, but my therapist has suggested that perhaps I shouldn?t), and every guy who owned a C64 had it, saw it, laughed at it, and probably loaded it up again later on when no one was around.

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10. Impossible Mission (Epyx, 1984)
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?Stay awhile?staaay forever!!!!? Anyone who played this game remembers the voice of the evil Professor, taunting them while they race to find the passwords to allow them entrance into his lab. Pretty basic and repetitive gameplay hampered this game in its initial release, but the digitized voice (much clarified and otherwise improved from the guttural German of Castle Wolfenstein) made this legendary. I knew players who?d suicide their guy off a ledge over and over, just to hear him scream. (Okay, it was me.)

9. Sword of Fargoal (Epyx, 1983)
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An early graphic dungeon-bashing adventure, and one that inspired many to come, Sword of Fargoal was both simple and very, very tough. Delve down in a dungeon, gaining levels, in order to find the titular blade?and then escape with your life. Not easy to do when the dungeon is falling around you, and monsters are on your heels. This is one of those games that almost everyone played?but few finished.

8. Bruce Lee (Datasoft, 1984)
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One of the first platform jumper/fighting combo games on the market, Bruce Lee is important for one other reason: the Green Yamo. A big Kermit-colored fat sumo-type, Yamo wasn?t just a game obstacle; he was also playable by a second player. So what?s a Yamo, and why is he green? I don?t know, but his tubby ass is kicking yours, Bruce.

7. Barbarian (Palace/Epyx, 1987)
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One word describes the draw of this two-person fighting game: decapitation. Yes, in true head-to-head fashion (sorry), one mighty 360-degree cleave of your Conan-like broadsword can cut your friend?s head clean off. Sweet! Add to that the buxom chicks in the background (and on the box cover), and man, no one cared that this was a game you could only play about ten minutes. That was a good ten minutes, man.

6. Telengard (Avalon Hill, 1982)
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A deserved classic in the fantasy genre, this game gave devoted D&D players a reason to skip gaming night in favor of their Commodore 64 now and then?mainly because you could find rad swag like Swords +56 and Rings of Protection +89. Insane! And insanely tough, too, since early versions of the game wouldn?t let you save a character—if you died, you died for good. It didn?t make for long campaigns, but it was still fun to venture out from the Worthy Meade Inn, find a glowing misty cube, teleport down to the 50th level of the dungeon, and hope to find something cool before you were killed by one swat from a 99th level gnoll.

5. Pirates! (Microprose, 1987)
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Officially, Sid Meiers? Pirates!, but the pirates were the thing here?and pirating you would gladly go. Like most of Sid Meiers? games, this one had deceptive depth?easy to learn, tough to master?but the combination of broadsides combat, on-deck swordplay, romance in every port, and letters of marque to excuse your every act of piracy was unparalleled. Pirates was cool long before pirates were cool?we didn?t need no stinkin? Johnny Depp.

4. Wasteland (Electronic Arts, 1988)
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One of the best C64 RPGs wasn?t of the fantasy genre. Wasteland was a post-apocalyptic romp from beginning to (if you could get there) end. It?s said to be the ?spiritual predecessor? to the much-later game Fallout (and its sequels?with another in the near future). Wasteland had mature situations, violent descriptions of combat, and a pretty bleak outlook on the future?and managed not to rip off Mad Max in the process. And for all this, it earned an unofficial ?PG-13? warning on its packaging. Mmmm?mature rating goodness.

3. Jumpman (Epyx, 1983)
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One of the true Commodore classics, Jumpman was one of those games that everyone had, and everyone played. It wasn?t ground-breaking in any way, but it did have a certain charm to it, especially given the grace of its movement and the creativity and variation from level to level. In some levels, Jumpman just jumped; in others, he was a dragonslayer chucking spears, or trying to avoid hailstones or chickens or gunfighters. It was crazy, and never boring, even when some levels were pretty tough. Even today, Jumpman could make Sonic the Hedgehog his bitch.

2. Archon (FreeFall/Electronic Arts, 1983)
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Remember when I said that Jumpman was one of the true Commodore classics that everyone had? Yeah, this is the other one. Archon was a variation on chess, of course, but with a difference; the pieces actually duked it out. Anyone who?s ever played chess and thought that there?s no fucking way that a little bishop should be able to take out a knight on horseback can appreciate this. Add to that the light and dark pieces, the switch from black pawns and white rooks to goblins and valkyries (and the different attacks for each piece in the game), and this is an excellent strategy game that could easily survive a direct port?with some graphic upgrades, of course?to current platforms.

1. Ultima IV (Origin, 1985)
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Richard Garriot?s Ultima series was one of the standbys of the gaming industry in the 1980s, and Ultima IV was the one that was most perfectly realized. Far from being just the traditional hack and slash fantasy game (of which its immediate predecessor Ultima III was a fantastic example), Ultima IV actually made being an ethical hero part of the victory conditions. This is something of a radical notion, even today?maybe especially today, given that grim ?n? gritty antiheroes are still standard for many FPS, and even role-playing games don?t always reward you for doing the ?right? thing. But Ultima IV did?and it did it without boring the player to tears. Of course, in your quest to reach Avatar status and master the eight virtues, you still get to collect loot and kill stuff, but you also have to meditate at shrines, give to the poor, and show humility in your interactions with the world around you. Pretty heavy stuff, but pulled off well, and in a world that at this point in the series was so well-rendered that it spawned several future (and lesser) installments. In terms of Ultimas, this is the pinnacle. And if you disagree, well then to hell with you. (See there? I just lost an eighth.)