C64 games I've heard of but never played before - The Staff of Karnath

by Paul Morrison


Oooh, everybody loved Ultimate, didn’t they? Just the name brings all kinds of nostalgic gaming memories flooding back. Knight Lore… Jet Pac… Tranz Am… the list goes on and on… if you were a Spectrum owner. For some reason, they never quite made the 64 sing as beautifully. Still, they did put out a couple of worthwhile exclusives, before the law of diminishing returns kicked in and everyone moved on to something else.

Could we not have gone to Skegness instead?

Could we not have gone to Skegness instead?

One of their most notable C64 efforts was Entombed which, like many of Ultimate’s Commodore exclusives, was programmed by the chaps behind Buggy Boy and which garnered a shiny ZZAP! 64 Gold Medal when it was released. Entombed wasn’t the first game in the series, though. That honour belongs to The Staff of Karnath, a game I’ve talked about before but which I realised I’ve never actually played. I’ve definitely played Entombed, but never this, so I figured there would never be a better time than right now.

I feel like these Arthur Pendragon games were a deliberate attempt on Ultimate’s part to invoke that Filmation feeling among Commodore 64 owners. I could be wrong, of course, but the forced 3D perspective certainly fits with what they were doing on the Spectrum (and other 8-bits). It just doesn’t look as elegant or feel as refined as the Sinclair classics.

Ehhhh, shut yer yap, you.

Ehhhh, shut yer yap, you.

That sounds overly negative, but there is a fair bit of fun to be had here. Exploring castles is generally good entertainment, and so it proves to be here. Having said that, I don’t think much of the decor and I’m pretty sure that this is THE game that convinced Spectrum owners that Commodore 64 games were not capable of displaying any colours aside from shades of brown.

After a while, though, it can grow a little frustrating. There’s no question that part of that is down to the fact I’m playing it 35 years later than I should have, and I don’t have the patience with it that I would have done then. I’m sure I’d have enjoyed mapping it and figuring out which spells killed which creatures a lot more back then. After all, I played Wizardry (the one by The Edge, not the one that went on to have seven sequels) quite happily and that reminds me of this game in so many ways.

Look, for the last time: I’m not Bananaman and you can’t have my autograph!

Look, for the last time: I’m not Bananaman and you can’t have my autograph!

The Staff of Karnath is probably quite an important part of gaming history, being Ultimate’s first game on the Commodore 64. For what it is, it works pretty well. You can move in and out of the screen easily, with it being perfectly clear when you’re going to pass in front of or behind enemies. The puzzles are all fairly simple, which means you’re less likely to get bogged down by riddles that seemed clever in the programmer’s mind but never enter into your own.

It’s not a stunning game, but I can see why The Staff of Karnath was so well-regarded at the time. The relative simplicity means I’m more likely to come back to it at a later date, and it’s fair to say it’s a definitive early example of an arcade adventure, with as much of the emphasis being on the arcade. I still feel that it doesn’t match the standards set by Ultimate’s isometric Spectrum games, but seeing as several of them have now been converted perfectly to the 64, it seems we have the upper hand at long last.


C64 games I've heard of but never played before - Wrath of the Demon

by Paul Morrison


I’m not sure if I can really say I’ve never played this before. You see, the first level came on a magazine covertape and I definitely played that. I never bought the game though, so I was interested to see exactly what I’d missed beyond level 1.

I’m not quite sure what this picture is trying to say…

I’m not quite sure what this picture is trying to say…

I’m not convinced it was all that much.

I will give the game its dues, though. As an alternative to Shadow of the Beast, it obviously provided a viable technical experience. Graphically, it’s really quite impressive. Large sprites move smoothly across beautiful backdrops, with those that scroll containing many layers of parallax effects. There are a few glitches, but by and large the effect is very impressive. It sounds good too, with some very nice David Whittaker music jollying things along in fine style.

Jump, horsey!  Jump like you’ve never jumped before!

Jump, horsey! Jump like you’ve never jumped before!

The game, though…

The scrolling levels, when you boil them down, are nothing more than beautiful-looking reaction tests. Whether you’re on horseback or on foot, things come towards you and you must either duck, jump or punch at the appropriate time. Get it wrong and you’ll take damage, take too much damage and it’s back to the start for you, my lad.

Yeah… it looks like you have a nasty case of athlete’s foot.

Yeah… it looks like you have a nasty case of athlete’s foot.

There are fighting levels too, but these are also very simplistic. In fact, you only have three attacking moves at your disposal so it’s just as well your opponents aren’t the sharpest tools in the box. Should you happen to find yourself struggling, you have a few basic spells at your fingertips which should help you to see off your foes before too long.

Even if you do happen to find any of the levels more taxing than you’d like, it hardly matters as you can replay them as much as you like until you get sick of your life and turn it off. It’s a shame really, because if there had been more variety or a few more interesting things to do, then Wrath of the Demon may well have been something of a classic. As it is, it’s nothing more than an artistic delight that you’ll play through once just so you can see everything, then never touch again.

Death provides this rather hellish landscape.  Better try not to die then, eh?

Death provides this rather hellish landscape. Better try not to die then, eh?


C64 games I've heard of but never played before - Flak

by Paul Morrison


For some reason, I used to get confused between this and FRAK!. I have no idea why, seeing as one is billed as “The Ultimate Flight Experience” and the other features a fat purple caveman with a yo-yo. Anyway, eventually I played FRAK! a lot back in the day, and I never played Flak at all. Time to see what it’s all about, then…

What you don’t see here is the title logo flashing away in glorious technicolour.

What you don’t see here is the title logo flashing away in glorious technicolour.

With a subtitle like “The Ultimate Flight Experience”, I was expecting something along the lines of Project Stealth Fighter… well, given its age, maybe something more like Strike Force Harrier, or ACE. What I was not expecting was an average clone of Xevious…

Yet, that’s what we have here. It’s a simple, vertically-scrolling arcade shoot ‘em up. Not that I minded finding that out… I prefer shmups to flight sims, any day. I’ve always liked Xevious, too, so I thought this one had a fighting chance of becoming a newly-discovered gem for me.

Let’s see if I can take out these deadly Doritos.

Let’s see if I can take out these deadly Doritos.

It hasn’t quite panned out like that.

The most obvious difference between Flak and Xevious is that this game doesn’t have any flying enemies in it, at all. Not a single one. That disappoints me, because I like fending off squadrons of enemy fighters and any vertically-scrolling shmup feels a little empty without them.

This all looks very serene.  What you don’t see are the masses of underground gun emplacements…

This all looks very serene. What you don’t see are the masses of underground gun emplacements…

That’s not to say that Flak isn’t challenging. It is. Very challenging, in fact, once you get a bit further into the game. Some might say that it’s unfairly challenging, in fact, as half the guns firing at you are underground and only appear when they feel like it… often, when it’s too late to avoid any bullets they spew. It’s especially annoying when you’re sure you hit the installation, only to find you missed it by a pixel as it blows you to Kingdom Come.

There’s another irritation here, too. Most people hate it when a game sends you back to the start of a level when you die. Flak kind of does that, and kind of doesn’t. By that, I mean that it does send you back to the beginning, but then it makes you sit and wait while your next fighter flies all the way up to where you just died. It’s one of those things that probably sounded like a good idea at the time, but in practice it’s annoying.

Does this remind anyone of Xenon?  No?  Just me?

Does this remind anyone of Xenon? No? Just me?

Still, for anyone who enjoys a challenging shoot ‘em up, Flak is still a decent proposition. It’s the kind of game that you can master through repetition, as everything is in exactly the same place in every game. If that’s your bag, then this would keep you going for ages. Me? I’m off to find something that features attack waves.


C64 games I've heard of but never played before - Ciphoid 9

by Paul Morrison


I remember seeing this in a mate’s copy of ZZAP! 64… this was several months before I got my Commodore 64 and a couple of months before I started buying ZZAP! 64. I never entertained the idea of buying it because the review destroyed it (18% overall, in fact!), but the title always stuck in my head. And yet, to this day I’d never played it. I can’t say that any more…

Nice title screen.   Lovely stills are a theme with this game.

Nice title screen. Lovely stills are a theme with this game.

Ciphoid 9 is not a game I will be able to write endless paragraphs about. It’s extremely simplistic, with all the action taking place on a single screen at a time. I make that distinction because the game scrolls from sector to sector… but I use the word “scrolls” loosely…

The basic premise is one you’ve heard before: Earth is under attack from aliens, and it’s up to you to defend the planet. You do this using a powerful gun turret on the moon which, for some reason, the aliens flock to like moths to a flame. You’d think they’d just avoid it altogether and attack the planet directly but no, they have to go showboating and take out what little defence we have first.

That’s not a flying saucer in your crosshair: that’s the remnants of a destroyed alien ship!

That’s not a flying saucer in your crosshair: that’s the remnants of a destroyed alien ship!

What follows is kind of a play on Missile Command, whereby you use a crosshair on the static screen to take out enemy ships and projectiles, and any missiles that reach the bottom of the screen cause you damage. Every wave contains a specific number of enemies and you must destroy them all to move on to the next screen.

That transition reveals the ugliest aspect of what is a gorgeous looking game: the scrolling is atrocious. Rather than smoothly sliding across to the next sector, the screen judders in large chunks. In all honesty, it doesn’t affect the gameplay in the slightest but it paints a very unsightly blot on an otherwise beautiful landscape.

Our dodgy scrolling can do more damage than any missile attack!

Our dodgy scrolling can do more damage than any missile attack!

Should you successfully limp across to another area, you may well find an alien mothership waiting. This behemoth is more hostile than its babies, and takes a lot more damage before it’s destroyed. If you fail to blow it to bits, you’ll see a couple of missiles launched at a poor defenceless Earth, which is promptly wiped from existence. Succeed, and it’s on for more of the same. You won’t win, but just think of the high score you might get!

Time to show this alien scum who’s the boss!

Time to show this alien scum who’s the boss!

I feel that ZZAP!’s 18% was a touch on the harsh side… although it’s a very simple game, it’s not completely without enjoyment. It did get my adrenaline pumping a little, at least… although I doubt if I’d have been very happy if I’d paid £9.95 for it in 1985. I suspect that review was unduly influenced by that horrible scroll, but even if it had been silky smooth, I wouldn’t have expected the game to receive a whole lot more.


C64 games I've heard of but never played before - Strontium Dog and the Death Gauntlet

by Paul Morrison


Hey, it’s C64 Month! And although I hadn’t specifically planned on writing anything for the occasion, I’ve been spurred into action by a Twitter post I saw earlier today. It was a post mentioning the very game I’m writing about here, and it inspired me to think about, play, then write about a few Commodore 64 games I’ve heard of, but never got around to playing. Strap yourself in and join me on this voyage of discovery!

There’s an old-school title screen for you.  Sadly, there’s only room for half of the title.

There’s an old-school title screen for you. Sadly, there’s only room for half of the title.

OK, so here’s the game I was talking about but before I start… just look at that title. Isn’t that possibly the most awesome and amazing computer game title of all time? It’s possibly only challenged by Metagalactic Llamas Battle at the Edge of Time in the “awesome and amazing computer game title” stakes. Magnificent.

As for the game… have you ever played an endless runner? I’m sure you have. Canabalt? Temple Run? Jetpack Joyride? Maybe Crossy Road, or Super Mario Run? They’re all examples of the endless runner. I was very surprised to find, though, that Strontium Dog and the Death Gauntlet just may be the first ever example of an endless runner game.

Strontium Dog and the Garish Backdrops of Death.

Strontium Dog and the Garish Backdrops of Death.

I was amused by the title screen… not only for its splendid chunkiness, but also for its assertion that publishers Quicksilva were “The Game Lords of Britain”. They were certainly notable, but that’s a very bold statement from a programmer clearly hoping for more work!

Pushing on beyond the title screen, I was disappointed to note that Strontium Dog is not a dog at all. I should have read 2000 AD back in the day, shouldn’t I? Disappointment soon turned to revulsion at the background graphics… three boldly-coloured stripes which work in conjunction with each other to hurt your eyes to maximum effect.

Poor old Dog somehow manages to impale himself on a set of weights.

Poor old Dog somehow manages to impale himself on a set of weights.

The titular Gauntlet of Death seems to refer to the run which Strontium Dog must undertake. Actually, his name is Johnny Alpha, but there’s no denying that Strontium Dog is a much cooler name, which is probably why they went with that for the game title. That, or they didn’t want to get it confused with Ocean Software’s permanently-imminent Jonny and the Jimpys. We may never know.

At first, it seems exceptionally difficult as the path is strewn with obstacles which only serve to impede and injure poor Dog. To compound his misery, there are all kinds of machines and beings wandering about the place, and as befits a lawless, irradiated landscape, they tend to be armed.

The Planet of Renegades is paved with gold.  Oh wait… no, it just looks horrible.

The Planet of Renegades is paved with gold. Oh wait… no, it just looks horrible.

Fortunately, Johnny is more than capable of dishing out a bit of laser death himself. Not only that, he has a couple of extra tricks up his sleeve to help him successfully run the Gauntlet. Electro-Flares stun the roaming reprobates while his time bombs actually send him back in time to get him out of a predicament. It’s a bit like a hyperspace, really. Can’t say I’ve ever used it though.

Johnny can run at whatever speed he likes, but moving faster reduces his strength and if he collides with anything while out of strength, he’s a dead Dog. There are useful items littering the place though; some of these replenish Johnny’s strength, while others add to his collection of flares and bombs. Best try and pick them all up, if you can.

Strontium7.jpg

I said that Strontium Dog was an endless runner whereas technically, it isn’t. The objective is to reach your mates, Wulf and Grunt, so you can escape this treacherous planet. I haven’t succeeded yet, but I don’t think doing so will be all that difficult. Having said that, I’ve read that if you do reach the end, you start again but on a harder difficulty level so to all intents and purposes that description is correct. It’s not a terrible game by any means, but it does get repetitive. Still, as the game which may have inadvertently kicked off a genre, it’s another noteworthy entry in the Commodore 64’s catalogue.


Games I used to be better at - Ikari Warriors

by Paul Morrison


I’m not sure what possessed me to buy Ikari Warriors for my C64. I wasn’t a big fan of Commando in the arcades, and I enjoyed Elite’s conversion of it more for Rob Hubbard’s incredible soundtrack. I much preferred Capcom’s follow-up, Gun.Smoke, but the home version of that was mutilated beyond belief. Hmmmm. Maybe I do know why I bought it, after all…

Not the most handsome of lads, but they’ll get the job done.

Not the most handsome of lads, but they’ll get the job done.

Ikari Warriors is not flashy in any way (well, with the possible exception of the amount of characters on-screen at once).. Its looks and sounds are serviceable and effective, but they don’t go out of their way to wow you. They are there to do the job of putting you in a war-torn jungle that you have to blast your way through, and they achieve that aim with little to spare.

I think we all know how this is going to end.

I think we all know how this is going to end.

Gameplay is the be-all and end-all with Ikari Warriors. It’s designed differently to Commando, in which you simply pile up the screen as fast as you can, taking out the occasional enemy or two along the way. Ikari Warriors is more like Commando - The Board Game as it requires a far more strategic approach. From the moment you exit your downed plane, you’re set upon by a squad of enemy soldiers and they never let up through the entire game.

Alright lads? Just having a bit of engine trouble. Fancy giving me a push?

Alright lads? Just having a bit of engine trouble. Fancy giving me a push?

Unlike Commando, these fellas don’t run around aimlessly, letting you stroll by at your leisure. They come onto the screen then position themselves strategically so that you have to deal with them. You find yourself thinking abut which ones to take out first; learning, as you do, that some are more dangerous than others. It’s really interesting in that you’ll often find yourself forced backwards by the onrushing masses and you need to regroup, pull yourself together and work out the path forward.

This river is FILTHY!

This river is FILTHY!

I like this approach to the run-and-gun game. It’s not run-and-gun at all, in fact… more of a stroll-and reconnoitre-and-plan-and-gun game. The second you think you’ve cleared a path and go charging up the screen, you’re dead. Seriously. Try it. You’ll see.

Lads, let me tell you what’s wrong with your plan…

Lads, let me tell you what’s wrong with your plan…

Commando on the C64 is a game I can play infinitely. I don’t mean because I love it so much; I mean that I can go on and on forever with one game because it’s so easy. I don’t have any such luxury with Ikari Warriors as it’s brutal. I used to be quite good at it and I really fancied a go so I loaded it up, but was shocked at how hard I found it. It’s taken me quite a while to re-learn how to play, but I’m slowly getting back into it and the more I play it, the more I re-enjoy it (if that’s a term). I’m not under the illusion that I’ll complete it, but it’s going to be a lot of fun making some proper progress. Maybe I can be good at it again?

NOTE: You’ll find a small entry on Ikari Warriors in Why I’m 64, when it’s released.


It's C64 month!

by Paul Morrison


It's August which, according to Twitter, is #c64month.  If that leaves you scratching your head, then just consider this: the Commodore 64 was released in August 1982.

It would go on to impact the lives of umpteen million people across the globe, being (allegedly) the biggest selling home computer of all time.  It certainly impacted mine... it's probably responsible for my school grades going down the pan.  Thanks, Commodore!

Still, no point having any regrets and I don't.  My school qualifications are but letters on a piece of green paper, whereas the Commodore 64 is ingrained on my soul.  It's provided me with way more enjoyment than maths or physics ever did, so I'm happy enough.

It's also inspired me to write, and I have two books on the go which are heavily inspired by the machine.  In fact, one of them is called Why I'm 64, and it features my write-ups on 64 Commodore 64 games which are iconic, legendary or simply have some meaning to me.  There are also a couple of bonus sections, so you'll have plenty to read when it's finished... which will be soon.  I'm just adding the finishing touches then, once I have a foreword (for I would like to have one) and run it past my graphic designer, we'll be looking at ways of getting it into your hands or onto your screens.

Exciting stuff, and I'll be pushing on with that, as well as my main project, They Were Our Gods.  As it's C64 month, though, I intend to make a few posts this coming month in celebration.  Keep an eye out for them...


Why I'm 64

by Paul Morrison


You're probably wondering what this new section is all about, on the first day of 2017.  Let me explain.

First of all - don't worry.  They Were Our Gods is still progressing quite nicely.  It will still be finished, it will still be released, it is still my main priority.  But let me explain Why I'm 64.

I'm not sure if you're like me... well, that depends on whether you write or not.  If you do, you might be stricken with writer's block at times.  I'm no exception, but I found a way to combat that, and that way was to write about individual Commodore 64 games.  Then I thought, why not compile these into a book along the lines of the excellent Speccy Nation?  So that's what I'm doing, or intending to do.

It's been a great way of being able to continue writing when I was a bit stuck.  It's had no effect on They Were Our Gods at all... in fact, it's actually helped as it's galvanised me and put me back in the mood to write on my main project.  Win/win!

The book will have write-ups on 64 Commodore 64 games, mostly the system's undisputed classics but there will be the odd obscure game that was special to me.  There will be a couple of bonus sections too... in all, this book will weigh in at around 150 pages.  It'll be nothing like as in-depth as They Were Our Gods, taking a different tack altogether, but for Commodore 64 fans I'm hoping it will be a fun look back at this classic computer and why we fell in love with it.