Revisting the C64GS
The Commodore 64 Games System is often called one of the worst consoles ever. Andrew Fisher looks back at what went wrong, and how it inspired some impressive games
Commodore had big plans to take on the home consoles with a system of its own. Andrew Fisher reveals what happened…
There is no denying the C64GS was a commercial failure, with under 20,000 units being sold. The idea grew from Commodore Germany, with its 1989 bundle of a C64 computer, joystick and Super Games cartridge (with International Soccer, Colossus Chess and Silicon Syborgs).
“We were first contacted by Commodore and Sonopress in May 1990,” says John Twiddy, Vivid Image cofounder. “I had been working with Sonopress for several years doing Cyberload protection on tape mastering so there was already quite a relationship. My first love had been electronics and I had been quite involved in the Trilogic Expert Cartridge. Therefore, I started by suggesting the required circuitry in early June. This would allow a 4Mbit EPROM/ROM to be bank switched in 8KB chunks. The hardware I had already created to develop for the Expert was ideally suited for emulating the cartridge, so I set about creating a development system which we hoped would make it much easier for other publishers to develop and master their games. Commodore
also asked us to create the first compilation cartridge which would be sold with the console.”
John remembers a particular with the prototypes. “Sonopress set about designing the circuit boards based on my design and prototype boards were ordered at the same time as manufacturing of many thousands of the finished product, which needed to be kicked off to production due to the short deadlines. This in itself created a lot of stress, especially when the prototypes were due to come back from manufacture whilst I was away on holiday on a remote Greek island. I managed to phone the office on the day they were due to be tested and was told that the circuit board did not work. Since no one at the office understood why they did not work, we then were desperately trying to arrange for me to return to England to find out why. Luckily, at the last minute, just before I was about to set off, leaving my girlfriend on the island, it was discovered that the reason the prototype did not work was because the circuit board was double-sided and although the finished board would have plated through holes, the prototype needed to be soldered on both sides and the person who had assembled it did not realise this. The local taverna received a lot of custom from me that night.”
Vivid cofounder Mev Dinc also remembers working on the system. “We had a special relationship with Commodore as we did some great work on C64 and Amiga,” he says. “I believe we sold over 15
development kits, which is quite an achievement when you consider the number of publishers at the time!” The GS was not the only console
Mev and John worked on. “We were involved with the early days of the ill-fated Konix system. John is one of the best programmers I know, his excellent knowledge coupled with great programming ability allowed us to experiment with stuff.” As well as a four-game cartridge (International Soccer, Klax, Flimbo’s Quest and Fiendish Freddy’s Big Top O’ Fun), the GS came with Cheetah’s Annihilator joystick. This had a secondary fire button on the base, allowing extra functions in-game. “The idea was good but not many games made real use of it,” says Mev, and the joystick itself was notoriously poor. John lists the cartridge’s benefits. “The advantages of speed, protection from piracy and durability were significant, although the downside was cost and also a longer manufacture time.” Originally, C64 cartridges were only 16KB, but this new generation allowed much greater memory. “Cartridges were able to occupy an 8K bank within the C64’s memory space and therefore the system of bank switching allowed almost limitless memory,” John says. “However, the cost of the ROMS/ EPROMS meant that realistically 512KB tended to be the largest it was sensible to go up to. Going larger put up the price significantly.” Vivid’s own games, including Hammerfist and First Samurai never made it to cartridge. “We never considered this because the cost of manufacture was too high for us as a small company.”
Commodore launched the GS in December 1990 into a turbulent market. At trade shows before launch, up to 100 games were promised “by Christmas” – but support dried up. Ocean created the majority of the 28 official GS games with its own cartridge development system, as developer Paul Hughes recalls. “Dave Collier wandered into my room with a foot-long cartridge and told me about the hardware he was designing for ‘a console-based C64’ that was coming out. It was basically a bank switchable ROM that mapped itself into memory and was then shunted around the C64’s RAM as required.” There was another advantage in going it alone. “It meant Ocean could control the supply chain; we didn’t have to license anyone else’s system or designs and we could manufacture as many as we needed when we needed them without going through a third party,” continues Paul. Size mattered to Ocean, proclaiming its 8Mbit cartridges in adverts. “As there was quite a large turnaround from sending the ROM image out to the
manufacturers to receiving cartridges back (weeks, rather than hours with cassettes) you had to be smart with your orders,” Paul says. “You didn’t want to order a huge quantity of 256K ROMS if you didn’t think you could sell them all. Only the perceived ‘slam dunk’ titles got the bigger ROMS. Carts usually started at 64K and went up to 256K. I did the low-level kernel that let the devs load from cartridge to anywhere they wanted in memory just as if it was coming off tape or disk. Because ROM was so expensive I had to compress the heck out of the code and data; the developers just had code that said, ‘Give me this block of data and put it here,’ and under the hood I was bank switching in blocks of data and decompressing it in place to the required location.”
cean’s titles made use of the cartridge capacity, says Paul. “Navy SEALS was a good example. Steve Thomson did some beautiful extra screens between each level which would’ve take a minute or so to load off tape, but off cartridge it was almost instant. Battle Command is a good example of quickly mapping different look-up tables in and out of RAM as they were needed.” Chase HQ II used the Annihilator ’s extra button for Nitro boosts, while in Battle Command it activated the pointer used to change tank controls. John’s favourite GS game is a System 3 title. “Ninja Remix was an ideal match because the game on cassette/disk was split into so many loads which interfered with gameplay.”
Looking back, with hindsight, Paul says, “The GS, well, it was a bit of a stinker. I remember Gary Bracey bringing in the final hardware to my office and Dave Collier immediately taking a screwdriver to it and opening it up – it really was just a
C64 motherboard with a ribbon connector. If memory serves even the cassette deck connector was still inside there! Clearly Nintendo were taking over the world with their cartridge based games and the GS was a way to rebadge old stock of their aging hardware. Alas everyone saw through the façade. Why buy a GS when you could just plug the cartridge into your C64?” Commodore failed to promote the cartridges as being fully compatible with the computer as well, but Ocean made that clear on all of its cartridge advertising. Unsold consoles were turned back into computers, and hackers have since added keyboards and drives to the console.
John Twiddy reflects on the
GS. “At the time I thought the
C64GS was a really good idea,” he remembers. It had the potential to transform the traditionally slow loading speeds on the C64 but one of the biggest problems was that without a keyboard, converting many games was too difficult and game developed solely for the C64GS had a limited market.” Compared to its competitors, how does John see the GS? “I am probably too biased here because the C64 was such a favourite of mine. Although I have to admit I was surprised that the C64GS was such a clumpy shape when I finally saw the finished product.” Mev adds, “The idea was good, but I’m afraid almost all the people involved saw it as an opportunity to make a quick and extra buck by simply putting existing games on the machine.”
Collectors will want to track down some of the GS’S now-rare titles. Ocean’s Double Dragon used the cartridge to store extra enemy types, and was only on sale at trade shows. Dinamic released several cartridges, including motorbike sim Aspar GP Master. Atrax licensed existing games and made several cartridge compilations. And Silverrock made games that are hard to track down.
The GS cartridge format lives on, however, with many quality releases. Paul Koller has wowed the audience with his demakes – including the recent Luftrauserz. James Monkman of RGCD decided to specialise in cartridge games as a publisher.
Many RGCD releases are specifically designed to be Gs-compatible.
The GS was not a success, but it led to top quality releases at the time and a new wave of cartridge games now. The console is highly sought after, selling for many times its original retail price. Its legacy has lasted longer than Commodore, which closed its doors in 1994.
With thanks to John, Mev, and Paul, and Mat Allen for photos.
"IF MEMORY SERVES EVEN THE CASSETTE DECK CONNECTOR WAS STILL INSIDE THERE" Paul Hughes