Aah that’s a screen I haven’t seen in a long long time.
1982 saw the founding of the Apple II computer magazine-on-disk Softdisk. Soon after Softdisk Publishing produced disks for other home computers too. One of them, Big Blue Disk, has gone down in history as previous employer of some of the original principals of id Software, especially John Carmack and John Romero. But another of Softdisk’s legacies was their Commodore 64 product, Loadstar, probably the longest-lived Commodore 64 software publisher. They published C64 software from 1984 to 2007. And most, if not all, of it is available online!
Loadstar is yet another of those computer gaming stories that must be told, and I’m in a pretty good place to tell some of it, because I beta tested for them for many of those years, and sold programs to them as well. Yes, several of their releases bear the programmer name John “The Mad Gamer” Harris. You have to understand, this was long before the word gamer reached common usage. In fact, as someone who may have primacy over the use of the term, I hereby forbid its use by anyone with misogynistic, anti-trans or racist intent. It is so decreed, hey-nonny-nonny!
Loadstar was lots of fun. Every month they’d send you two disks in the mail with several new pieces of Commodore 64 software on it. Under the watchful eyes of Fender Tucker and Jeff Jones, and later on Dave Moorman, it’s not that they grew an empire of Commodore programs, but they did manage to sustain that platform for a small but avid userbase for far longer than you’d have thought possible.
I plan to start doing Loadstar reviews eventually, but in the meantime, you can try out some of the later issues of this important piece of computing history at the site linked below. Note that you’ll have to have a means of running C64 software to use them, of course. The emulator VICE is known to work well. And if you want to hear the words of Fender, Jeff or Dave yourself, all three are on Facebook.
Hope Bellingham at GamesRadar tells us that U.S. Customs wrecked a sealed-in-box copy of Pokemon Yellow valued at over $10,000. I rather disagree with that valuation too. I thought all the misguided young people were losing their money in crypto these days? (Note: GamesRadar is one of those sites that waits until you start reading an article then puts up a blocking box begging you to subscribe. Hint to GamesRadar: NO, and if I were interested in subscribing my generous impulse would have been destroyed by your prompt!)
At the Guardian, the very British-named Oliver Wainwright reviews Super Mario World, not the game but the theme park in California, a part of Universal Studios Hollywood. The verdict: 8/10, good graphics, some replay value. I’ve been in a melancholy frame of mind as of late, so seeing those brightly-painted dioramas makes me wonder what they’ll look like in twenty years, when Universal Studios’ attentions have drifted to another big thing. Nothing ages quite as badly as a happy prop painted in primary colors.
Long, long ago, three full ages before Zuckerberg’s doomed Metaverse, there was Lucasarts, formerly Lucasfilm Games, and Maniac Mansion, and the SCUMM engine.
Lucasarts went on to have a long legacy of adventure games, and while it’s gone now and most of its progeny is owned by some mouse creature, it survives in a number of forms, like the upcoming Monkey Island re-revival.
Another legacy of Lucasarts and SCUMM is what is possibly the first graphical MUD, called Habitat.
What? You don’t know what a MUD is, or a MOO or a MUCK? A lot of knowledge is in danger of being lost, but we don’t have time to remind you of rudiments here.
Habitat was an early experiment in online communities, a server-based virtual world whose clients were Commodore 64s. In appearance it looks a whole lot like a multiplayer version of Maniac Mansion.
It never went public, but did eventually become a paid feature, in modified form. on the C64 online service QuantumLink under the name Club Caribe. Then, with the wane of the Commodore 64 as a viable platform, QuantumLink closed their servers and rebranded as America On-Line, a.k.a. AOL. And that is not only history at this point, but ancient history. Read more about it here.
While there was still competition in the dial-up online service space, two creators of Habitat, Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar, partnered with Fujitsu to have another go at a Habitat-style service, this time called WorldsAway. They partnered with AOL competitor CompuServe, and didn’t do badly for a while.
There’s all kinds of things to talk about here, and I have rather more knowledge than most because I was involved with this, I was volunteer staff at the flagship WorldsAway world, called Dreamscape. I was a participant in the CompuServe forum before the main service even opened, I spend an entire night on the phone as a teen, our old 486DX running Windows 3.11 downloading the client software.
WorldsAway was basically my life for a few years. It could be incredibly addicting, and spirits were high in the early days. There was a feeling of being at the forefront of something. The Internet was just starting to become really big. Who knew what it would become?
What happened to WorldsAway is a story, one that I’m probably not qualified to tell. I know there were problems with business management even from the start. The world staff was constantly said to be fighting with higher-ups, who wanted to cheapen or diminish the project. In size, certainly, the initial world Dreamscape never got anywhere as large as what we hoped for. Even compared to the size of its Commodore 64 predecessor Club Caribe, it was pretty small.
It’s said that they were a west coast operation, and many of their staffers were queer. One of the eventual spinoff worlds that WorldsAway would spawn was explicitly queer-friendly. Given the successes and continued struggles of queer-friendly media on the internet today, I feel like WA’s acceptance of alternate lifestyles should probably be better known.
I still have a couple of friends from those days. Others I’ve sadly lost touch with. A few friends from that time, notably Tiggles, Esme, and Rosaleah, have departed our physical world as well. Maybe some comfort could be had in the idea that maybe they’re users in some higher-order reality, who may have logged-off of our world, but are still out there in a more profound form. If they’re out there and somehow seeing this: please spare a thought for me. I’ll be back out there some day.
The Reno Project is a website devoted to preserving as much of those early projects, those ancient times, as possible. You could immerse yourself in the screenshots there, and dream of a past era that barely was. One of its competitors at the time, which is a bit better known today, is The Palace. One other service that still exists that competed with it is There, although good luck making an account (I tried). And Second Life of course continues to chug along. All of these things seem to me like more worthy projects than Zuckerberg’s latest progeny.
“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter
It’s been a bit difficult getting consistent signals from Earth lately, and what has gotten through hasn’t been of too much interest to my gelatinous brain. Maybe some of this might pique your interest?
Jonathan Bolding at PC Gamer says that playing dual-screen with a Steam Deck proves the Wii-U was a good idea! I knew it! What they’re talking about is the ability of a Steam Deck to play dual-headed via HDMI out. This play style is explicitly supported in Wii-U emulator Cemu. The article also notes that Valve has stated that the Steam Deck has out-performed sales estimates, which is good! After the Steam Link and Steam Controller were put on sale for ultra-cheap, I was feeling bad about scooping them up as Valve was clearing out stock. Not too bad, though.
Here’s some news from a different source than usual. At romhacking.net, creator Michael Nix has been working on a pair of GUI rom editors for Super Mario Bros. 3! One, SMB3-Foundry, is for editing levels, and the other, SMB3-Scribe, edits overworlds. A game like SMB3 is a bewilderingly complex beast under the hood, and the strictures of platform, rom space and development time sometimes force unorthodox decisions, like hardcoding some object placements. There is an article to be written some time about the lengths NES carts had to go through to encode their data, which was usually done using a kind of domain-specific data compression.
I have been avoiding linking CBR.com for a bit because of some excessively clickbait headlines, but a recent device change has reset my killfile, so they’re back. Shane Foley from there reports on series nadir Metroid Other M having one level that made it worthwhile. The “level” in question is in fact the entire postgame; up until the main boss, the whole game is heavily on rails, with full exploration only possible afterward.
At Polygon, Nicole Carpenter mentions the content warnings on new indie title I Was A Teenage Exocolonist, which has a number of traumatic events in the game, but is quite upfront about what will occur, going so far as asking the player if they’d like to be spoiled regarding which characters die, or may die. It is a heartening development.
(Note: the Guardian is in one of those phases where they nag you with a huge yellow subscription ad. It can be easily closed, and not nearly as bad as some sites out there, but it happens. One article I checked this time-I will not link them-had autoplaying overlaid videos in the corner, which resulted in them being ejected from this post. Bad web designer, no biscuit!)
Blogfriend Kyle Orland at Ars Technica reports on Fabrice Breton, creator of indie game Brok the Investigator, and their efforts to track down Steam key scammers, curators who would ask devs for free Steam keys but then sell them. As usual from Kyle it’s great and informative reading!
And for our weekly eyeroll exercises, it’s been reported everywhere but GamesRadar hasn’t been seen in these pages yet so let’s give the link to them: Benjamin Abbott relates that Disney is releasing a Magic: The Gathering style trading card game going by the name of (roll your eyes now!) Lorcana. I’m already brainstorming jokes to make about it as they leak its features over the coming weeks!
Why is this interesting? The machinations of the old old days of video games are so easily forgotten now. K.C. Munchkin was a big seller for the underdog in the second-generation video game sweepstakes, but was taken off the market by court order way back then for being too similar to Pac-Man. Although Magnavox managed to come back a bit with sequel K.C.’s Krazy Chase, they remained a distant third in the market.
The C64 version has multiple modes, including a random maze mode and editor like the original, also has an arcade mode with 96 mazes!
The always terrific 8-Bit Show And Tell shows us some secret codes for old cartridge-based C64 games that reveal they were developed by Andy Finkel. These are recent finds! I had the C64 port of Lazarian growing up, and much later I was surprised to find out I prefer it to the arcade version, the C64 version feels more polished and has better music!
Along the way we’re also taught about the super-obscure Commodore product the Max Machine, which is like a severely stripped-down C64 with a bad keyboard, no ports for storage devices, and only 2K of RAM, but including the C64’s iconic VIC-II and SID chips. It was designed solely to run cartridge software. The Max is mentioned on the C64 Programmer’s Reference Guide, where I saw it long ago and had to wonder what the heck that was about. Turns out the Commodore 64 has a compatibility mode that lets it run Max Machine carts!
The Max Machine only saw release in Japan, where it was very obscure. Just think, if Commodore had put a full 64K into that, maybe it could have supplanted the MSX? Well maybe not, but it’s interesting to think about!
And it’s not strictly gaming-related, but Bryan Cockfield at Hackaday keeps us appraised of the progress of a modern-ish OS for Commodore 64 computers! It’s called C64OS. People who have followed the 64 since olden times know this isn’t the first, or even the second, time this has happened. This project uses a character-based display to show its buttons and windows. It’s worth noting that it isn’t out yet, and it’s intended to be a paid offering, not something which one can just download and tinker with, which may limit its reach. Still though, it’s an interesting idea, and one that can take advantage of some of the C64’s more advanced peripherals, like mice, ram expansions and WiFi modems.
Tutankham Returns (itch.io link, $0) is a port/expansion of the classic Konami/Stern arcade game Tutankham. While Tutankham had only three levels, this has seven, but otherwise is much the same kind of thing. Compare the above to the original. It matches the original’s sound, graphics, and presentation exactly! The games have especially good sound design.
The Commodore 64 was, for its time, quite a wonder, an inexpensive home computer with 64K of RAM and excellent for its time graphics and sound capabilities. Sadly, it came with one of the more limited versions of Microsoft BASIC out there.
Microsoft BASIC had its strengths, but many of them were not a good match for its hardware. The C64 had no commands to take advantage of any of its terrific features. To do nearly anything on the machine besides PRINTing and manipulating data, you had to refer to a small number of cryptic-yet-essential commands: POKE for putting values into arbitrary memory addresses, PEEK for reading values out of them, READ and DATA to read in lists of numbers representing machine language routines, and SYS to activate them.
And getting the values to do those things required obtaining and poring over manuals and the venerable C64 Programmer’s Reference Guide. Even then, Microsoft BASIC was notably slow, especially when doing work with numbers, due to its dogged insistence of converting all values, including integers, into floating point before doing any math on them. So while BASIC supported integers, which required less memory to store, actually slowed the machine down due to the need to convert to and from floating point whenever an operation needed to be performed on them. This doesn’t even begin to get into the many inefficiencies of being an interpreted language.
Vision BASIC, an upcoming commercial compiled language for the Commodore 64, looks to remedy many of these faults. The above video is a nearly 40-minute explainer and demonstration of the system. It requires the purchase of a memory expansion unit in order to be used on a physical machine, but it can produce executable code that can be run on a stock C64 as it came out of the box.
It’s not free, and at $59 for the basic package it may seem a little high for a system for developing software on a 40-year-old computer, but that price includes the software on floppy disk and a USB drive. It’s certainly capable, and runs much faster than many other compiled languages on the system. It’s definitely something to look into for people looking to make games on the system without digging deep into assembly, and if you have a desire to do that it has a built-in assembler for producing in-line machine code too! It is an intriguing new option for Commodore development.
I’d like to draw your attention in particular to the ad for GEOS on that page, the early C64 windowed operating system that breathed new life into the system. In the end it was probably doomed due to a number of factors: Apple’s head start and much better marketing, the fact GEOS had to be booted from disk while Mac OS was partly ROM-resident, and a bit of clunkiness. But you can do rather a lot with GEOS all by itself, and it comes with a capable word processor in GeoWrite. GEOS, and its weird legacy, probably deserves a post of its own eventually.
The image above is for a fake ad, but it’s based off of an iconic, and slightly disturbing, television ad from Austrailia, Keeping Up With The Commodore:
Say what you will about Commodore BASIC 2.0, the built-in programming language and makeshift shell for the Commodore 64, written by Microsoft employees and descending from code written by Bill Gates himself, it’s certainly, um, basic. Nearly everything that takes advantage of that machine’s graphics or sound features involves POKEing values into memory at various locations, requiring a programmer to memorize a long list of important numbers.
Because it doesn’t interface with the system’s unique features to any great extent, it’s a very generic version of BASIC. But this means it can be ported to other systems without tremendous effort. Fancy-pants commands don’t have to be converted to another architecture’s norms, because there aren’t any! And lots of systems used the instruction set and general capabilities of the MOS 6502, upon which the Commodore 64 is based, so now we have versions of its BASIC that work on the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Atari 800. They’re both based off of Project 64, an annotated disassembly of the C64’s BASIC and Kernal ROM code.
The NES port should be able to run on actual hardware, but you’ll need the Family Keyboard that was made to work with the Famicom’s own official BASIC to use it, which was only released in Japan.
By the way, the reason that I write BASIC in all-caps is, it’s an acronym! It stands for Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.