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The Commodore C64 and Me

What can you say about the Commodore 64? What an awesome machine that was and still is today. Unfortunately, my first proper computer wasn't a C64, but a 48k rubber keyed Spectrum. It was what I wanted because most of my friends had them and there was a ready supply of games for it. I got it for my 13th birthday, just as most of my friends were growing tired of theirs - story of my life! The main reason the speccy took off initially was down to that age old decider, money. A 48k Spectrum back in 1984 was £129, while the C64, the far superior machine was around £250-£300. The speccy's manual had instructions regarding programming instructions in Z80 but as I had never programmed before it was a bit of a task for me to get my head around how the machine code instructions and memory management worked. I did write a couple of small machine code programs on the speccy but nothing of any note, I was more interested in hacking games to get infinite lives or immortality which is how my programming knowledge grew.

My saviour came in the unlikely shape of Alastair, a school friend nicknamed "Igor", possibly due to his general demeanour and the way he got a heavy 5 o'clock shadow at age 12! Igor was selling his Commodore 64 and I was one of his potential buyers. He knew I was into messing about on computers and hacking games and stuff and asked me if I was interested in buying it. I'd seen the C64 a couple of times, there were a few guys at school who had them but there seemed to be a dearth of good games around for it. Nevertheless I went and had a look and Igor demo'd a game called "Spyhunter", that was it for me. The sound and graphics for the C64 so obviously much better than the Speccy's colour clash and single channel beeper. The 64 had more colours than the Spectrum and better capacity for managing them without any colour clash. The c64 also had the legendary 3 channel sound chip, SID, which to this day is revered by 30 and 40 something year old men around the world (me included) who still remember with a nostalgic tear in their eye the first time they heard Rob Hubbard's "Monty on the Run" or Martin Galway's "Parallax".

My parents could never have been described as well off, we lived in a 3 bedroom terraced house in a nice area and I was aware at a young age that mum was very careful with money! I was fortunate then that since I was little my parents had put £4 a month into a bank account for me until such time as I needed it - they obviously had some recollection of what it was like to be a teenager! I had just over £400 in the account, and the c64 was going to cost £75, an absolute bargain! I remember telling my mum of my plans and the seemingly endless questioning of the "Are you really sure you want it?" variety, apparently when the money was gone, it was gone...

So I had a Commodore 64 and a tape drive which seemed to take a lot longer to load than the Spectrum but the games were much better so it was worth it! My best friend at school at this time was a boy called Johnny Scarr, we were very different characters but both of us shared a love of computers. Johnny never really bothered at school, he'd sit and look out the window and draw endless boxes on his jotters and then get straight 'A's in any technical subject given him. He had a BBC Micro computer, probably one of only 2 or 3 of the pupils who did. He'd been programming 6502 assembly language since he was 11 years old and had an intimate knowledge of how it all worked. When I was trying to learn the basics of assembly language programming, he'd spend a large amount of time trying to help me, I remember he spent what must've been days trying to make me understand about how logical AND'ing worked. I don't remember that Johnny really ever produced anything much on the BBC, he'd write scrollers and stuff but I don't remember any demos or games or anything. I suppose though that Johnny's life at home wasn't really conducive to creating software. Anytime I was up at his house, which wasn't very frequently, it was mayhem. He had two younger brothers and there was no father around to keep everything in check.

I can't quite remember how I made Rab's acquaintance as he was a year or two above me at school and the years generally didn't mix with each other. Add to that my almost outcast status at school, my teachers called me a loner, which I was. I wasn't interested in hanging around with all the groups and the cliques. Rab had a 64 as well and was probably around the same stage as me learning to program through game hacking. We'd found out about this shop in the Cambridge Arcade in Glasgow that did a game lending service, you rent a game for a day or two and then return it. Perfect! Me and Rab were very frequent customers... One day we got a tape of the guy that owned the shop that had some c64 demos on and one of the demos, Mindsmear, had the phone number of someone called Barry on it. The phone call that Rab made to Barry was to change my life forever.

Barry told Rab about a computer club that occurred every other Wednesday at Steel Street in Glasgow, so we took a wander along and met a number of other guys around our age, some of whom were very accomplished programmers, artists and in Barry's case, musicians. The "Club" was to become our staple haunting ground every other Wednesday for a good number of years. Everyone at the club, apart from us, had disk drives. It didn't take long for me to make another withdrawal from my "nest egg" and get myself a 1541 drive. I think I got it out "The Computer Depot" but my memory's a touch hazy. Once I had a drive, the slow flow of c64 software became a torrent and I had more than I knew what to do with. All this time, my programming skills were getting more and more honed and I was challenging myself to accomplish increasingly difficult programming tasks to try and get up to level required to be a games programmer. I did write a few games on the Commodore 64, most of them were absolute pish but after every game, I'd learnt some more.

My only commercial foray for the Commodore 64, came from me applying for a job to do a conversion of a Mastertronic (master chronic!) game called "Deathstalker" by Tony Warriner. I got the train down to Hull to meet Tony and I'm sure it was a white Ford Escort XR3i that he picked me up in. It was the first time I'd laid eyes on a "PDS" - Programmer's Development System, at his office. He gave me the game, all the Spectrum graphics to work with and the maps and I went to work! I'd left school by this time, so all my time was spent in my room programming. The only code compilation tool I had was a crap assembler program whose name escapes me, but it worked (or not) by me writing the machine code mnemonics in basic language format, ie. with line numbers as opposed to "floating" instructions. This made it very difficult to insert extra instructions if your line numbers only had single increments and it really slowed development time. I had got quite far on in developing "Deathstalker" for the 64 complete with Spectrum graphics when one day I tried to compile the code and I got an "Out of memory" error. I saved the code, rebooted and tried again, same story. That was effectively the end of "Deathstalker" on the 64. If only I'd known about Omikron's Turbo Assembler at that time, things could've been a lot different...

For some years now, I've tried to get my old Commodore 64 disks working, just to look at some of the demos and games I wrote 20 odd years ago. I became almost obsessive at one point, sending some of my demo disks to a data recovery company. They had the disks for 6 months, even going as far as to ship a special machine from the Ukraine to try and read my disks but to no avail. The only surviving C64 program of mine that I'd found to date was a demo of a game called "Shylock" that Mark Wilson (he did the excellent music for it) had posted on a C64 site. I'd all but given up hope of ever seeing any of my demos again when I came upon some c64 disks that I hadn't found on my first trawl of my parent's loft. The disks worked, sort of. I ended up buying a couple of old 1541s of ebay so that I could read the disks reliably but I finally managed to get them on to the PC in all their 8 bit glory. For anyone that's remotely interested, links to the games and demos are below with a link to a very good c64 emulator program.

CCS Commodore 64 Emulator


Mark's C64 Demos

Big Scroller - coding by me

Drax Evilblood - coding by me, graphics by Ed, music by Drew

Drax Evilblood - the Remix - coding by me, graphics by Ed, music by Drew

Deathstalker - coding by me, graphics from the Speccy version of Deathstalker

Flexidemo - coding by me, graphics by Ed and me

Shylock - coding by me, graphics by Ed, Music by Mark Wilson


http://www.c64.com/  has info on c64 games and demos as well as some interviews...

Lemon64  is another excellent repository for c64 stuff.

The Games That Weren't  site has a review of "Shylock".

All content (c) 2008-2012 Mark Gallagher