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that won’t die

The Commodore 64 celebrated its 30th anniversary in August 2012. Time and technology has moved on since 1983, but the 8-bit home computer continues to survive as a viable gaming platform.

Its support comes from a dedicated homebrew scene that’s combining old school programming skills with a modern-day indie mentality.

James Monkman, the project leader at Retro Gamer CD (RGCD), and “C64 hardware guru” Tim Harris are helping drive this C64 renaissance, handcrafting and mailing out new game cartridges from their U.K. base to countries as far afield as Japan and Tasmania.

Commodore 64: The little computer that could (and still can)

C64 advertisement

Entering the market in 1982, the C64 gave consumers an affordable and competitive home computing option. It become the most popular single model computer during its 12 years of production, with an estimated 17 million units sold. These sales remain unsurpassed today.

The machine’s hardware features — including 64KB RAM, 16 colors, and a dedicated sound chip — meant that millions of households ended up with a powerful gaming machine at their fingertips. Commodore even turned its C64 hardware into a dedicated gaming console in 1990, releasing the short-lived “Commodore 64 Games System.”

“The 64 was and is a very unique system that no other console or home computer replicated,” says C64 aficionado Eric Nelson. “The combination of recognizable graphic elements and SID [sound interface device] chip make it a very viable gaming system, even today.”

The birth of RGCD

The Retro Gamer CD team, led by railway engineer James Monkman from his Exeter, U.K., home, started out writing a CD-based magazine dedicated to retro gaming. Its emphasis soon shifted toward development and publishing.

“One of our early review writers, Jason Kelk, had programmed a few small Commodore games that weighed in at less than 8KB each,” says Monkman, “and I found an incredibly dedicated C64 guy called Tim Harris who was selling newly manufactured C64 cartridge PCBs [printed circuit boards].

Mollusk Redux cover art C64“Initially sold via the Retro Gamer magazine forum at cost price, these first simple little game cartridges proved popular, and over time we evolved as a group into producing and selling bigger and better games, both in-house and as a third-party publisher.”

Monkman is especially proud of the way RGCD presents its physical releases, and rightly so.

“Artwork is key,” says Monkman. “I’m really proud to have people like [Denmark based illustrator] Flemming Dupont and acclaimed pixel artist iLKke involved in the team. The box designs for Get ‘Em DX and Mollsuk Redux surpass many box designs of the past, in my opinion.”

In total, RGCD has 17 cartridge-based C64 games available at its online store. Its most ambitious release, Soulless, comes in an internally illuminated transparent cartridge shell along with a fold-out map and poster, stickers, a companion CD containing bonus material, and a 16-page comic book.

Such care and attention to detail seems even more impressive when Monkman explains RGCD’s lo-fi production process.

Soulless deluxe edition C64“Tim Harris of Shareware Plus and Ray Lejeuz of Arkanix Labs design and mass-produce the components we use, including the ever-increasing variety of colored cartridge shells our games end up being housed in,” he says.

“The rest of the package includes a DIY-printed glossy sticker wrapped around a cardboard carton, or an inlay inside a customized U.S.-imported Universal Game Case with a foam insert, plus a printed paper manual and vinyl stickers from Moo.com. It’s all pretty modest stuff, but still takes quite a lot of time to pull together.”

C64anabalt: Reimagining a modern classic

RGCD’s highest-profile game is a C64 version of modern indie classic Canabalt, the title that spawned the endless runner genre. Monkman explains how two hobbyist developers unknowingly created the port at the same time.

“Paulko64, a relatively new coder, introduced himself to the C64 scene with a preview of a VVVVVV conversion, originally a PC-based indie game by Terry Cavanagh. He then entered our first C64 game development competition, announcing that his game would be a conversion of one of the biggest indie games of the decade. Paul remained tight-lipped about the project until he had a near-finished version of the game, and then – much to our surprise – it turned out another C64 coder, going by the name of Mr Sid,  had developed his own port.”

C64 C64anabalt cover artNeither developer wanted their hard work going to waste. “Eventually it was decided that Mr. Sid would release first, and Paulko64’s version would feature the ‘official’ tag,” says Monkman.

RGCD had already talked with Adam Saltsman, creator of the original Canabalt, who gave his full blessing for the C64 conversion. Not only that, he also came up with the title “C64anabalt” and designed the box art for game.

Veteran game journalist Julian “Jaz” Rignall reviewed C64anabalt last year, with the game taking him firmly back to his C64 roots. “My first job in the games industry was at ZZAP! 64,” said Rignall, “a magazine dedicated to Commodore’s brilliant home micro, and during my time there the machine became engrained into my gaming DNA.

“I just love the idea that three decades after the debut of the system, there are programmers out there who are not only still making games for it but are dedicated enough to hand craft them into cartridges.”

In a suitably retro-style review, harking back to the classic days of ZZAP! 64, Rignall concluded that “RGCD showcases how classic platforms can still continue to entertain many years after they were thought to be redundant. The game’s beautifully minimalist graphics and somber music work harmoniously to create a great atmosphere, and its fast-moving gameplay delivers highly enjoyable, short-burst arcade action that’s addictive and fun.”

C64 Super Bread Box screenshot

A fresh approach to retro gaming

C64anabalt is just a small window on the world of RGCD. Monkman and his team are creating a wide range of titles that are proving either welcome or perplexing, depending on who you ask.

“The hardcore C64 community is essentially divided into those who only play ‘classic’ retro games and those who embrace both the new and old with an open mind,” says Monkman. “We’re popular with the latter, but not so much with the old school, mainly because we’ve been trying to focus on crossing over modern game designs rather than sticking with a tried-and-tested standard formula. Quite simply, some C64 gamers just don’t ‘get’ some of our games – Super Bread Box and Get ‘Em DX in particular.”

Super Bread Box is a great example of RGCD’s approach. Originally an indie sensation on PC, Super Crate Box, RGCD managed to get approval from developer Vlambeer for an official C64 conversion. Paulko64 is again handling coding duties, and the game is set to release later this year. The reworked title references the bulky design of the original C64, often referred to as a “Bread Box.” Viewed side-by-side, Super Bread Box (C64) stands proudly next to Super Crate Box (PC).

Shipping worldwide, one cart at a time

James Monkman RGCD

Above: James Monkman, RGCD project leader. An early, pre-name change, version of C64 Super Crate Box is running in the background.

Image Credit: RGCD

The demand for new titles is greater now than at any time since 1994, when the C64 ceased production. “There’s certainly a greater number of active game coders now than 10 years ago,” says Monkman. “Mainly due to increased interest in the retro scene, game development competitions, and people like us offering to sell physical copies of new releases.”

As for RGCD’s cartridge releases, Monkman says that sales tend to sit at around 50 units. “It’s a bit hit or miss,” he says, “and we’ve recently lost a few of our ‘collector-only’ customers, because we typically don’t make limited runs of games. They are made in small batches as and when required.

“We can make batches as small as one to 10 cartridges at a time,” he says, “because Tim [Harris] assembles each and every game cartridge by hand, and all the printing and so on is D.I.Y. Tim and I are both based in the U.K., so it’s relatively cheap to mail stuff back and forth as well during prototyping.”

This approach means that the more popular titles continue to be produced and sold on an order-by-order basis. C64anabalt has now sold over 200 units, and Soulless over 150, with both titles still available to purchase.

In total, RGCD has mailed out 650 Commodore 64 titles since April last year to countries including Japan, the United Arab Emirates, and Tasmania. But Germany is home to the most active C64 scene, with around 80 percent of sales shipping there.

The Commodore 64 gamer

“Nostalgia plays a large part in why I still play games on my Commodore 64,” says Eric Nelson, an avid C64 player who regularly shares his gaming adventures on Google+. “But more than that, the 64 is a very unique system that no other console or home computer replicated. The proof being the huge number of people who still program, use, and collect Commodore hardware and software.

Commodore 64 keyboard close up Choubistar“Physical copies are important to me. I think it’s very cool that boxes, disk covers, and cartridges are still produced,” he says. “I also think downloadable, digital copies are important, too, for ease of play. Keeping old 1541 floppy drives tuned-up can be a challenge. Using devices like Ultimate 1541 II [floppy disk and cartridge emulator] makes loading games faster and more reliable than back in the day. I try to get key titles in both formats whenever possible.”

And how do these modern releases hold up against the original C64 classics? “I’ve thought a lot about this question,” says Nelson. “While the classics are amazing, I think the level of programming going into games has never been higher. Some of the titles coming out these days would have blown my mind back in the day. The games may not be as large as they were, but they utilize clever programming tricks that push the 64 to its limits.

“Soulless, Fairy Well, Assembloids, Super Bread Box, Knight N’ Grail, Trance Sector: These are all great, newer titles that have been very impressive.”

The Commodore 64 gamer

Monkman believes that the capability to emulate C64 games on PC is the one thing that has really helped modern-day developers. “It’s the major advantage that the classic era coders never had,” he says. “A direct result of this is that development is faster. Sharing techniques and knowledge has [also] lead to greater compatibility between hardware variations and getting more out of the machine.

“I’d like to believe that we’re on a par at least with the budget titles of the day with our 16KB games, and our 64KB releases are of the same standard as a classic, full-price game. But it’s difficult to not be biased with something you’ve been so heavily involved in. The reviews and feedback we’ve received has generally been positive, though.”

New RGCD storeDespite that “there’s not a lot of money in retro publishing,” Monkman continues to devote his spare time to the business. RGCD is much more than a hobbyist endeavour now, and the small profits the company makes get shared equally between RGCD, the coder, the artist, and the musician.

As for the future, Monkman is hopeful that the new RGCD online store will mean he spends less time dealing with email about combined shipping and more time driving the business. “It’ll also allow us to support/host downloads,” he says, “and link directly to Psytronik’s store for games that we’ve joint published.  It’s taken a lot of time and investment, but will certainly be worth the wait.”

There are other plans, such as publishing on modern hardware, on the horizon, but for now he’ll keep doing what he does, simply because “it’s fun to publish new 8-bit games in the 21st century.”

[Main image via axeldeviaje/Flickr, advertising image via blakespot/Flickr, featured image Choubistar/Flickr, ZZAP!64 image via Phillie Casablanca/Flickr, all other images via RGCD]