All of these choices are influenced by games that I loved at the time, and, in my opinion, retain superb playability to this day. With such a wealth of games available it is inevitable that this small selection omits some other classics, and for that I apologise in advance!
10. Head over Heels
Arguably one of the best isometric arcade adventures on any system. Featuring hundreds of rooms, clever puzzles, and a suitably daft plot, you control either Head (jumps higher), Heels (runs faster) or a combination of both (once you manage to get them together), in a bid to free various planets from enslavement by an evil Emperor.
Even with a generous 8 lives for each character (and more that can be acquired along the way), you quickly realise this is a game you aren’t going to complete in a hurry. Over 20 years later and this still proves to be the case for me, but that’s not to say there isn’t lots of fun to be had trying. To round it all off you have power ups in the form of cute bunny rabbits and the ability to fire doughnuts at your enemies, which is slightly odd, but still handy when you are in a tight spot.
9. Kikstart II
Inspired by the similarly named eighties BBC TV series (Kickstart), this one or two player game sees you trying to navigate your dirt bike across courses littered with hazards and obstacles, in an attempt to cross the finishing line first. A generous 24 courses were included, and if that wasn’t enough you also had an easy to use course designer at your disposal to create even more!
Whether you were racing against a friend or the computer, the split screen display ensured a certain level of tension as you could see where your opponent was at all times – which was great if you were ahead! With different obstacles requiring specific speeds of travel, and some that you couldn’t jump or wheelie on, it also became a test of memory and patience. Quite often you would speed up a bit too much when crossing a gate or brick wall, trying to make up some ground, only to be thrown off your bike as a result!
8. Defender of the Crown
Graphically splendid, although obviously upstaged by the 16-bit versions, this was one of the few games that combined looks with actual playability. Taking the role of one of four Saxon knights (such as Wilfred of Ivanhoe), you have to conquer the land and castles of your opponents in order to be crowned King of England. As part of your campaign, you can go on raiding parties (for either gold or to rescue a fair damsel), enter jousting tournaments, siege castles and even persuade legendary outlaw Robin Hood to lend a hand!
With an enjoyable blend of action sequences and simplistic strategy, this was a firm favourite – despite having to play the cassette version! To the uninformed, this meant enduring long load times (with the possibility of it not actually loading at all) every time the game went to an action sequence. Clearly a Virtual Console release would have no such problems, and if they wanted to spoil us we could even have sword fighting and jousting using the Wii remote… if only!
7. Who Dares Wins II
Based on the arcade game Commando, but, as anyone who has played it knows, far superior to the Commodore 64 conversion in terms of gameplay. As a lone soldier armed with a rifle and a limited supply of grenades, you have to fight your way through 8 levels of enemy territory (whilst avoiding patches of quicksand and water), capturing garrisons defended by hordes of soldiers at the end of each one.
Despite the difficulty perhaps being pitched a little on the easy side, this was nonetheless a decent enough challenge and, more importantly, a lot of fun. You really felt like a one-man army. If you wanted to be extra heroic you could also rescue the prisoners found on every level (you have to be quick though – take too long and they get shot by firing squad!), and blow up the various enemy vehicles that got in your way.
6. Spy vs Spy II: The Island Caper
Unlike it’s predecessor, the split screen action all took place outdoors as you battled the opposing spy in an effort to assemble the three parts of a top secret missile and escape the island. Not forgetting that you are up against the clock because a volcano eruption is imminent. As before, you can either play against the computer or a friend, with the latter option naturally providing the most entertainment.
Though I am a big fan of the first game, this one appealed a lot more because of the interesting location and hilarious traps. As traps could be placed pretty much anywhere, this also gave you a greater sense of freedom than before. The pits you could dig and then cover over were brilliant; even better was the napalm that exploded in the spy’s face and temporarily reduced him to a pile of ashes. Putting a trap on top of a buried missile piece was always a good tactic (unless you then accidentally set it off).
5. Boulderdash Construction Kit
Rockford returns for a fourth instalment of diamond hunting, but with the added bonus of being able to construct your own caves using the straightforward editor. Of course, searching for diamonds isn’t easy… there is the constant threat of boulders falling on your head, being entombed by the ever creeping amoeba, or having to flee for your life from lethal fireflies!
Don’t let the basic graphics fool you, this terrific blend of arcade action with puzzle elements keeps you on your toes and seldom grows stale. Even when you do tire of the 15 caves on offer you can turn to crafting your own devious levels, and test them out on unsuspecting friends and relatives. Making a cave with no possible way to the exit was funny, provided you weren’t the one playing it.
4. Split Personalities
On face value, this is just a sliding block puzzle game, albeit featuring famous faces of the time (Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and so on). However, once you factor in the sliding doors, wall sections that bounce pieces back at you, bombs that hinder your progress (costing you a life, should you let one detonate!), the fair but challenging time limit, and the many other small touches that make up this game, you end up with something special.
Although there are only 10 levels, which get progressively harder, the quality of gameplay makes up for the fairly short duration it takes to complete. Bonus items that appear on each level serve to provide more enjoyment, as you try to work out which item pairs belong together. Early on you realise that water will safely defuse the bomb, but there are plenty of other item combinations to be tried. There are few games that you complete and immediately want to restart in search of a better score – but I consider this to be one of them.
3. Bruce Lee
Essentially a platform game with a couple of fighting moves thrown in, it’s not until you actually play this that you realise just how delightful it is, and how the inclusion of the computer controlled Ninja and strange “Green Yamo” elevate it to a new level. Whilst collecting lanterns to progress from screen to screen (in your quest to defeat the evil wizard and gain immortality), the antics of this not-so dynamic duo prove extremely amusing.
A lot of pleasure comes from the fact that your two adversaries sometimes inflict damage on each other, instead of you. Even funnier is when they blunder into a trap intended for you (usually as a result of you kicking them into it!). The two-player mode (where a second player can control the Green Yamo) is manic from start to finish, with you either ganging up on the Ninja, or simply beating each other up non-stop. Another game that is relatively easy to complete, it’s the fun you have en route that makes it so worthwhile.
As Wiz, with help from his cat, it is up to you to restore Wizworld, which has been drained of all colour by the evil Zark. Jumping in your ball transporter, you move around the landscape despatching baddies and shooting coloured bubbles, collecting the droplets that fall using your faithful cat. Once you have gathered enough red, green and blue across 3 separate levels (connected by tunnels), the target colour is restored and it’s on to the next (via a bonus stage). Other coloured droplets also appear from time to time that, when collected, give a variety of results – including one that drives your cat crazy!
Initially slightly bewildering, due to the fact that you begin with limited movement (being able to only bounce left and right), once you earn and activate your first couple of power ups (from the several available) you can gain total control over the ball. Fortunately this never takes long, and you are soon charging around levels taking care of business. A fantastic single player game, with greater depth than first impressions give, this also features a two-player team mode where a second player can control the cat.
Beamed aboard a space freighter, your goal is to eliminate the rogue droids from each of the 20 decks. Your opponents range from basic menial classes through to a heavily armed “Command Cyborg”, classified according to number. You control a humble 001 droid, the “Influence Device”, which is equipped with a rather feeble laser, but also has the ability to temporarily take over other droids.
Entering transfer mode and making contact with your target droid triggers a sub-game based around a circuit board (it’s far better than it sounds!) which, if you win, grants you control of the droid. How long you get to enjoy this depends on how powerful the target was. The higher class of droid, the higher drain on your energy. If your energy gets too low, you have to revert back to being plain old 001. In this fashion you either shoot or transfer your way to victory, until you have cleared each deck. Successfully clear the entire ship, and you will be beamed aboard the next, except this time the droids will be a bit harder.
It’s difficult to condense the brilliance of this game down to a few small paragraphs. Being able to only see droids if they are in your line of sight is a stroke of genius. This can lead to some tense moments when you are low on power, but know there is still a powerful droid roaming around the deck. I’ve not even touched upon other things such as the consoles you can log onto for an overview of each deck (or to peruse the droid library). The variety in droids is excellent, and each really comes across as having it’s own personality. A shoot-em-up at heart, but with a deceptive amount of strategy required if you are to succeed, this is one game that truly is as playable today as it was on the day of release.
So those are my favourite C64 games. What are yours?
Note: If you enjoyed reading this then why not check out Kelvin's Commodore 64 hardware focus?