The second part of a new Duffers’ Guide, celebrating the joys of 8-bit computing

Back in the 1980s, there was two main storage media for software and documents: cassette tape or floppy disc. At the start of the decade, our floppies were 8″ and 5.25″ in width. By the end of the decade, 3″, 3.5″ and 5.25″ discs. For many people, floppy discs were too expensive – especially in the UK when floppy disc drives costed almost as much as the computer itself. (Unless you had an Amstrad CPC 664 or 6128 which also came with a monitor).

This was the case with the Commodore 64, where the 1541 disc drive costed almost as much as the computer itself. Till 1991, Commodore bundled its C2N Datasettes with their C64 packages in the UK, which meant it wasn’t worth buying a disc drive in the first place. Hence over 90% of C64 users in the UK only having a tape drive.

But tape games have slow loading times. Its linear nature means arcane multiload sequences on complex titles better suited to disc (Gunship and Viz, we are looking at you there). Before the arrival of Novaload and several other fast loading systems, a cassette game could take between 10 to 25 minutes to load on the Commie. This was also true if you had a tape drive on your Atari 800.

Whereas disc drives and tape drives were sold separately, both the Atari family of 8-bit computers and Commodore’s 64 and 128 computers had cartridge slots.

Seconds instead of minutes

If you thought two minutes on a 1541 disc drive was fast (and they were slow compared with Acorn Computers’ floppy drives), this was nothing compared with the cartridge. Instead of two minutes, you are looking at two seconds, and… Hey, Mainstop, you are ready to play Saucer Attack or Yar’s Revenge. Yes, firing away with your joystick whilst your mate is listening to the Ocean Software loading theme on Target Renegade.

In August 1982, when the Commodore 64 first hit the shelves, we were already familiar with cartridges. The Atari VCS had them, as did the Odyssey II and Fairlight Channel F. On the C64 and Atari machines, cartridge ports were used for hardware expansion as well as games. For example: printer drivers, cheats cartridges like Datel’s Action Replay.

Before the C64, its older brother (the VIC-20) made great use of cartridges. As unexpanded VIC-20s came with 3k of RAM, the cartridge slot was used to expand its memory up to 64k. Commodore’s own RAM packs only went up to 16K with third party manufacturers adding 32k and 64k expansions to the mix.

Back in 1983, the expensive price of ROM chips meant the games were modest. An early C64 cartridge game like Saucer Attack and Jupiter Lander would only have 16k of RAM. There were similar limitations with the ZX Spectrum’s own cartridge system, which was part of Sinclair’s Interface 2 peripheral.

Only ten games were released on the Speccy’s Interface 2 cartridge format, and they costed twice the price of a bog-standard tape game. Back then, a full price game would set you back £6.99 on 16k and 48k ZX Spectrums. At £14.99, a serious chunk of change despite the convenience and lower prices in comparison with Atari VCS games.

Second wind: the C64GS and Amstrad GX4000

If you read most home computing hagiographies, many sources cite the Great Video Games Crash of 1983, an event which saw profound changes to the video gaming industry in the United States of America. It is often said that the video gaming industry was saved by 1985’s arrival of Nintendo’s Famicom (or the NES, Nintendo Entertainment System).

Over in Europe, the home computing scene saw no sign of ending. ZX Spectrums still rolled off the assembly lines; magazines and new computers were launched each month, though the latter stalled the following year. The video games console that was party to The Great Video Games Crash of 1983, the Atari VCS (later Atari 2600) was still sold at Argos and Woolworths, this time in a new, cheaper plastic case. In fact, you could buy an Atari 2600 in its latest design till 1993 in the UK.

Though the NES has icon status among American video gamers, it arrived late to the party in the UK, two years after its original US release. A feature in Zzap! 64 looked at the new machine with Julian ‘Jaz’ Rignall enthusiastic over instant access to arcade quality games. Also its interaction with ROB, its foam disc flinging robot.

Causing a bigger threat to the UK’s most popular 8-bit machines was Sega’s Master System, Game Gear and Mega Drive consoles. Where Sega succeeded in the UK was brand recognition. The name was associated with seaside arcades – games like Outrun, Hang On, Afterburner and Thunderblade. Sega’s UK distributor was Virgin Mastertronic, whose stock in trade was cheap and cheerful 8-bit computer games. Instead of computer shops, this meant department stores, newsagents and petrol stations.

With Mastertronic parking its cartridge tanks on the 8-bit lawn, Messrs Sugar and Pleasance had other ideas. This meant cartridge-based systems based on their 8-bit machines. With Alan Sugar, this meant a dedicated console and upgrades to their CPC 464 and CPC 6128 machines. For David Pleasance, Commodore UK’s head of sales, his solution was a console based on C64 technology, and bigger games. The C64C version of the Commodore 64 of 1986 retained its cartridge port.

“An oversized Fisherman’s Friend”

By 1990, the average Commodore 64 game was more complex than one coded in 1983. Programmers and programming teams began to stretch the limits of the C64, and this meant bigger games. Also fewer games with a single load. Thanks to the lower cost of chip prices and the magic of bank switching, a cartridge could carry up to 2MB of ROM chips with the joys of instant loading.

With this in mind, David Pleasance and Andrew Ball at Commodore UK thought the C64 Game System could give Sega and Nintendo a run for their money. They thought the existing installed user base would help sales, which means a cartridge game on a C64 could work on a C64GS console. Alan Sugar thought the same with his Amstrad GX4000, and its ability to use the cartridges on his new-look 464plus and 6128plus machines. Both the new generation Amstrad CPCs and GX4000s had some hardware enhancements.

Both consoles were launched in September 1990 for the all-important Christmas market. With Commodore, it was envisaged that cartridges would replace the Datasette as the C64 gamer’s medium of choice. With this premise, later C64 bundles (from April 1991) came without the C2N Datasette.

The C64GS pack came with a Cheetah Annihilator joystick and four games on a single cartridge. These being International Soccer, Klax, Flimbo’s Quest, and Fiendish Freddy’s Big Top O’ Fun. Mindscape’s circus simulator [Fiendish Freddy] was a fine example of how a cassette or disc game was enhanced by the cartridge format. On tape, its multiload had an effect on its review scores. On cartridge, the sort of game you would happily play with your mates over a pizza.

Flimbo’s Quest also had a multiload on tape and disc, and again the appeal of System 3’s Hawkeye style game was enhanced. One problem the cartridge version did have, even on a real C64, lay within its keyboard options. They didn’t work, which meant you couldn’t switch off Johannes Bjerregaard’s infectious music.

Though ancient, Commodore’s International Soccer was a dependable pack-in title for the C64GS. Also a good, intuitive two player game (which would have been better if Commodore packed the console with two joysticks). Even in 1991, its graphical touches like The Floating Princess and animated crowd still had charm. If anything, it was a gateway drug towards Emlyn Hughes International Soccer, which also had a horizontal 3D view of the pitch like Commodore’s 1983 release.

If there was one game that could get you losing minutes, hours or days out of your routine, Domark’s conversion of the Tengen coin-op Klax fitted the bill. The sliding tile puzzle involves matching three to five same coloured tiles in a row with Points Waves, Diagonal Waves, and Tile Waves over one hundred fiendish levels. Each tile would emerge from a conveyor belt. Quoting Julian Rignall, in relation to the Atari Lynx version, he said “the game is simple, but very, very addictive”. How right he was.

For the more serious user, it was envisaged that the C64C would be replaced by an enhanced Commodore 64, the Commodore 65 (which does deserve a blog post in its own right). The C65 would have a built-in 3.5″ disc drive, and full backward compatibility with the C64 (a la C128 by typing ‘GO 64’). In the end, only 500 prototypes were made, with the C65 having a similar case style to the Amiga 1200.

Ultimately, both the C64GS and the Amstrad GX4000 flopped. The installed user base premise was a fallacy, because many of the titles weren’t exclusive to the respective formats. On Amstrad GX4000, only one game used the enhanced hardware features: Gremlin Graphics’ Switchblade.

On the Commodore 64, the cartridge format fared better. Titles were developed for all machines within the Commodore 64 and 128 family (C64GS, SX64, C64, C64C, C128 and C128D). With the new 2MB cartridges, many titles were published by Ocean Software. In their two-page adverts, they extolled the joys of cartridge games: bigger games, instant loading times, and compatibility with all Commodore 64s and Commodore 128s as well as the C64 Games System console.

The C64 Games System only had a short production life. After being on sale for less than a year, the ‘oversized Fisherman’s Friend’ was sold at fire sale prices like its Amstrad counterpart. The circuit boards of future C64GS consoles were put to good use in another production run of C64Cs. As for the four game cartridge, they reemerged in Commodore’s Playful Intelligence pack of 1991.

The end?

By 1992, the commercial life of C64 and Amstrad cartridge games were over. Though the dominant media of Sega’s and Nintendo’s consoles, Pleasance’s and Sugar’s user bases were tape or disc led till the end of their commercial lives. Price was a deciding factor, being as Robocop 2 originally sold at £19.99 on the C64, compared with full price games on tape (£9.99 to £11.99) and disc (£14.99). In 1992, Ocean’s last cartridge game for the C64 (Robocop 3) sold for £14.99.

For Commodore and Amstrad, the relaunch and introduction of cartridge based formats came too late. Had cartridges been launched two years earlier, things might have been a bit different. The bigger games might have given Nintendo a run for their money; there might have even been a half decent conversion of Hard Drivin’ on the Commie.

Years after the 8-bit machines’ commercial life, home brew developers started releasing cartridge games. According to Wikipedia, 35 of them have been released for the VIC-20 since 1991. The most famous one is Cheese and Onion from 2017, as seen below.

Before I go…

Do you have fond memories of cartridge games on the 8-bit micros? Did you lose sleep over Klax on the C64GS or Burnin’ Rubber on the Amstrad GX4000? Feel free to comment.

S.V., 16 July 2021.

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