Retro Gamer magazine celebrated its 100th issue recently, with an utterly fantastic double-release.
Highlights included a Sonic ‘Making of’ with Yuji Naka, an interview with David Braben about Elite, a fascinating technical piece by David Crane on how he made the Atari 2600 do impossible things, plus a full reprinted magazine of the rare-as-hen’s teeth RG issue 1.
Oh, and a type-in game.
Yep, it was 1983 all over again… with pages and pages of lines like “DATA 15,241,48,35,81,etc etc etc….” All ready to type into your Commodore 64. Or – you could do what I did, and download a *.d64 file and load it into your C64 emulator.
So, how did such a thing come about, in 2012? Our story starts about 30 years ago…
Jason Kelk began playing and hobby coding for 8-bit computers in the early 1980s. “I’m from that generation who grew up with type ins, in fact I originally taught myself BASIC programming for the VIC 20 around 1981 by wading through magazine listings for all manner of 8-bits“. Not that he was content with merely putting in other people’s code. Time to tinker? “[I'd experiment] to see what specific routines did if I changed them and [try] to make them work on the VIC.”
But as someone who also pored over listings in those old days, only to find that there was “data error” at the end – was it all worth it? Jason thinks so. “Those listings were probably more of an education for me as a programmer than the computer studies lessions I sat through at school.” And what about when the game actually worked? It was all pretty basic [pun intended] stuff, wasn’t it? Mr Kelk agrees, to a point. “There was some truly terrible stuff published in those magazines, [but] at the same time a few absolute corkers appeared from coding geniuses like Jeff Minter and John Twiddy.”
Soon the market moved to 16 bit computers and consoles, but Jason happily stuck with those older machines. His platform of choice has remained the Commodore 64, though he’s dabbled with other 6502-based computers from Commodore or Atari. Kelk says he’s written or contributed to “…more games, utilities and demos than I can actually remember“, as well as writing articles for assorted fanzines, disk-based magazines and websites including “the excellent RGCD and my own (currently dormant) Oldschool Gaming“.
These days, Jason’s best known for running the Homebrew section of Retro Gamer magazine; a position that come out of a chance interaction on the RG forums. “About four and a half years ago, I rather cheekily sent [RG editor] Darran a private message offering to take the homebrew section over. He surprised me by saying yes!“
In November 2011, Darran approached Jason with a ‘cheeky’ suggestion of his own – to create a C64 ’type in’ game for Retro Gamer’s 100th issue in March. “We had a quick chat about the possibilities at the retro gaming event Replay in Blackpool. I took a little convincing initially; I’ve some practise at coding within size limitations but don’t usually work in such a restrictive space!” Soon enough, Jason was convinced, and it was time to start coding.
“How to cook up a Commodore 64 machine code game, as a type in.”
Recipe by Jason Kelk
- Fire up your old Windows desktop.
- Write your code using Crimson Editor.
- Assemble your code into machine code using ACME.
- Test it with the C64 emulator WinVICE.
- Produce your graphics with Sprite Pad and Char Pad.
- Etch your level designs straight into your source code.
- Write your own sound effect engine from scratch, and edit it also in the source code.
- Once you’ve baked your own game, test it on a real C64C with a new Turbo Chameleon cartridge.
- Write your own Windows-based tool to generate the BASIC listing.
- Copy and paste the listing back to the emulator – to ensure it still works.
- Then, serve piping hot to thousands of readers of Retro Gamer magazine.
As you can see from the above – it was a fairly complicated process. And that’s when you make a C64 game using ‘easy’ modern tools. God only knows how they managed to create games in the old days. I asked Jason about the level of difficulty involved in putting ‘RG Rampage’ together. “The biggest challenge was the size, the listing itself had to fit into my regular four pages but at the same time I didn’t want to sacrifice too much depth. In the end I set myself a 4K limit, so staying within that and getting everything finished on time are probably what I’m most proud of.”
For something crammed into just 4K of memory, Retro Gamer Rampage packs in a fair bit of variation and fun. Likewise, the feedback from RG readers was equally effusive. And then there were the readers who really miss the old type-in days. I mean, really, really miss them. As in, they fired up their (real) C64, didn’t they Jason? “I’ll be totally honest, when Darran suggested the idea I didn’t expect people to actually type the thing in! But quite a few did and the feedback I’ve received for RG Rampage has been fantastic”.
If you missed the 100th issue of Retro Gamer, you can still download the RGR game from the Cosine website. You can see Jason’s latest projects on his Youtube channel, or download his older work on his site.
CC licensed programmer's guide pic from BelieveKevin.