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Pixel Heaven: Celebrating the best looking Commodore 64 games

Pixel Heaven: Celebrating the best looking Commodore 64 games

There have been approximately 10,000 commercial Commodore 64 games since the computer’s release in 1982, and as developers have improved their skills on the legendary home micro, the standard has risen, especially visually. With its dedicated display chips, the Commodore 64 always had the potential to produce beautiful computer games, so join Bitmap Books as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of this famous computer in tandem with our first-ever book, Commodore 64: a visual compendium.

The Pawn – 1985
Artist: Bob Stevenson

Adventure games were a staple of the Commodore 64’s early years, and there was no better exponent than Magnetic Scrolls. The Pawn may have been its first game, but already there were many hallmarks that would define the developer, including its magnificently high standard of presentation. Bob Stevenson’s static images for The Pawn, precisely rendered, perfectly carry the rustic beginning of the game before moving to an appropriately grim and warped realm for some of the later scenes.

Winter Games – 1985
Artist: Michael Kosaka

Epyx had already established the template for its games series with Summer Games, and a wintry edition was the logical next step. The colour white predictably gets plenty of use, and the scenery is gorgeous, the snow-dappled mountains a constant backdrop together with a sky full of wispy wind-blown clouds. A fantastic selection of imagery that brings a chill to your spine – in a good way!

Uridium – 1986
Artist: Andrew Braybrook

Uridium is the game that firmly established both Andrew Braybrook and Hewson on the Commodore 64, although it is influenced visually by Braybrook’s earlier game, Paradroid. There, the coder used bas-relief metallic graphics – skilfully created using shadow techniques – and they are incorporated seamlessly into the dreadnoughts of Uridium. The icing on the cake is the player’s craft, the sleek and graceful Manta, complete with its masterful flip when turning.

Defender Of The Crown – 1987
Artists: Master Designer Software Team

From trumpeters to castle battles and jousting tournaments, Cinemaware’s debut on the Commodore 64 constantly stuns the player with its incredible visuals. An early example of team-based creation rather than being the work of a single designer, its graphics uniformly evoke the spirit of middle ages England.

International Karate + – 1987
Artist: Archer MacLean

The original International Karate incorporates several backgrounds, usually reflecting a famous city or location. For this update, MacLean uses just one backdrop, but it’s such a cracker that it trumps all the others. An ancient Japanese gate or torii dominates the scene. Behind it, the sun sets, casting a charming hue over the water and land. Eloquently designed, it’s the perfect contrast to the violence taking place in the foreground.

Nebulus – 1987
Artist: John Phillips

Nebulus originated as a tech demo and one that few could see turning into a game. But it looked amazing, and when coder John Phillips returned to Hewson with a playable game, jaws dropped. It’s essentially a platform game, albeit one with a unique twist: the player’s character travels around a series of rotating towers, dodging and shooting enemies. It’s a wonderful aesthetic that translates particularly well to the Commodore 64, even surpassing the 16-bit Amiga version.

Wizball – 1987
Artist: Jon Hare

Like Nebulus, Wizball takes a traditional genre – in this case, the shoot-‘em-up – and infuses it with its own particular style. Bouncing around the landscape (sometimes accompanied by the smaller Catelite), Wiz collects spots of droplets to return colour to the achromatised landscape. The real miracle here is how Sensible permeated its game with such character considering (at least at the start) the lack of colour.

Katakis – 1988
Artist: Andreas Escher

While it may not be the most original of games – Irem’s R-Type is a manifest influence – the Manfred Trenz and Andreas Escher team certainly produced the goods with this vivid and shining shoot-‘em-up from 1988. From the streamlined and flowing design of the player craft to its wide variety of bio-mechanical enemies and massive bosses, Katakis cannot fail to impress. Yet best of all is its backgrounds, each as impressive as the last and diverse enough to make every level a memorable experience.

Myth: History In The Making – 1989
Artist: Bob Stevenson

System 3’s trawl through history begins with an outstanding level set within a rocky underworld. Skeletons and demons pepper this segment as the hero, a modern-day man transported back to battle the evil Dameron, lops off heads and leaps around the platforms with remarkable dexterity. There are plenty of impressive bosses, including a massive Hydra-like creature, while the scene set aboard a Viking longboat during a thunderstorm is terrific, the constant flashes of lightning briefly lighting up the violent events. Brilliant and precise detail is evident throughout this marvellous game.

The Last Ninja 3 – 1991
Artist: Robin Levy, Arthur Van Jole

The Last Ninja series is Commodore 64 royalty, publisher System 3 ensuring the games remained strong throughout its run. This third game considerably improves on the display of its predecessors, providing a perfect mystical eastern vibe and some sweet environmental effects, such as a glittering waterfall. The atmospheric intro, where a lone figure approaches across a bleak landscape, is a positive indication of the quality to come.

Turrican II – 1991
Artists: Andreas Escher, Manfred Trenz

Fast and technically accomplished, the superb Turrican II: The Final Fight wowed reviewers and Commodore 64 fans upon its release in the early Nineties. With its immense bosses, a sharply-defined main character and some imaginative level design – a level full of animated cogs is a particular optical delight – there’s no doubt that this is one of the most visually arresting and complex games on the Commodore 64.

First Samurai – 1992
Artist: Mat Sneap

By 1992, developers were devising increasingly astonishing ways of extracting more from the Commodore 64, even if its user base was dwindling in the face of the 16-bit revolution. First Samurai is a shining example. Inspired by games such as The Last Ninja, the beautifully-animated hero character leaps around each landscape, battling the minions of the evil Demon King. Converted from the Amiga original, First Samurai is reminiscent of Turrican’s finest moments and includes a stunning level set on board a speeding train.

Mayhem In Monsterland – 1993
Artist: Steve Rowlands

The Commodore 64’s demographic had changed dramatically by 1993, so it was no surprise to see games such as Mayhem In Monsterland appearing more regularly. Evincing the colourful platformers of Nintendo, it has a twee and enchanting appearance that, while at odds with most of the games on this list, lends Mayhem In Monsterland an amiable façade of its own.

Sam’s Journey – 2017
Artist: Stefan Gutsch

Like Mayhem In Monsterland, Sam’s Journey brings the charm of the Nintendo Entertainment System and SEGA Master System’s platform games to the Commodore 64 – albeit 24 years later.

Having been grabbed by a claw from within his wardrobe, Sam’s Journey incorporates a range of inventive locations, a constantly-changing main character and large levels that encompass free-directional scrolling. It’s a tremendous achievement, encapsulating the talent that’s still creating exquisite-looking Commodore 64 games, 40 years after the computer was first released.

These games and more feature in Commodore 64: a visual compendium, the very first book from Bitmap Books, and a personal project of its founder, Sam Dyer.

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