Wednesday 17 May 2023

Commodore 64: A Visual Compendium Review


Written by Dan Gill

The gaming scene in the UK back in the early 80s was very different to that of the USA. Market saturation and poor-quality releases led to the video game market dying, at least until Nintendo brought it back from the dead in 1985. In the UK you wouldn’t have noticed, as we had the holy trinity of the Spectrum, Amstrad CPC464 and the Commodore 64. Personally, I had the Commodore 16, a computer which was released after the Vic-20 and C64 but was never as popular as either due to its low-end performance. However, my cousins did have a C64, and every Saturday I’d go to theirs to experience the games my own computer couldn’t handle. Kane, Future Knight, Formula 1 Grand Prix, Beach Head... the list goes on. It was certainly an important computer for many, and the prolific game releases and ports courtesy of bedroom coders, talented artists and SID chip musicians matched with the affordable price of games made for a heady combination.

Putting my own nostalgic ramblings aside for a moment, I direct your attention to Commodore 64: A Visual Compendium, Bitmap Books’ chunky love letter to the beloved computer. If you’ve seen any of their other books (a few of which have already been reviewed on Retro101) you’ll know what to expect, and this release matches the high quality of the other titles in the “compendium” series. Over one hundred games feature, from stone-cold classics such as Turrican and Armalyte to later releases such as Mayhem in Monster Land, a lot of ground is covered, especially when you consider up to around 10,000 commercial games released for the system. While it would be nice to see Future Knight appear, there’s no way Bitmap would be able to cram so much in while keeping the art quality so high.

Most games have their art spread over two pages, giving it room to be fully appreciated by the reader, along with some sound bites from those that worked on the game, or opinions from a reviewer. Throughout my time with the book there have been many “I completely forgot about this one” or “ah yes, this is a classic” moments, and even the odd “how did this pass me by?”. Some developers and publishers have many titles feature (Epyx in particular), and while it would be nice if some lesser-known works appeared, these games really did define the machine, so their exclusion would be noticed. At just under five hundred pages, the book is already hefty. Any more pages and a lifting belt would be required.

Features appear throughout, be this in the form of interviews with key figures within the C64 scene, a look at retro magazines, along with some of the late, great Oliver Frey’s amazing artwork. These offer a little more insight into the work that went into the games, which is a nice touch for those who like a little flavour to accompany the eye candy. The book also looks at the demoscene, where coders, musicians and artists really pushed the limits of what the C64 was capable of. If you’ve read the review of Amiga: A Visual Compendium on this very site, you’ll already be aware of this reviewer’s appreciation of the scene and the effect it had on computing of the era. It’s as important to the machine as the games, even if the overlap between scene coders and game crackers often overlapped.

So, another triumph, then. Even though the C64 had a distinctive earthy colour palette and blocky graphics, Bitmap Books have managed to yet again collate some wonderful artwork and present it so beautifully that the graphics are appreciated rather than derided as old hat. It’s sure to hit fans of Commodore’s beige wonder with strong nostalgic flashbacks. The biggest criticism I can come up with is that it’s becoming harder and harder to find new ways to say good things about each new release Bitmap Books pass my way. The second gripe is that having looked through the book again and again, I’m urged to go back and play one of the featured games, which distracts me from my adult duties in favour of recapturing my misspent youth for a few minutes. Well, maybe one more go on Uridium won’t hurt...

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