The Top Five Worst Commodore 64 Games

By Chris Federico

(November 15, 1999)

These aren't necessarily in order. There are a lot of excellent video games out there, but as with any entertainment industry, especially a fledgling one, there exists a ton of bad titles for every good one. So the following comments incorporate the five really really bad ones.

The list obviously excludes earnest tries at programming that were never meant to be great games, such as the stuff you were likely to download from bulletin boards during the 8-bit era. These were merely products of novice coders' interests in programming and weren't intended to compete with anything actually addictive or whatever. They were endeavors shared with others for free.

These games were also not picked because of difficulty or frustration. It should be pointed out, of course, that many unbeatable games are very bad; but this is mostly due to bad programming or bad design, rather than actual challenge level. The aspects that caused these five to be selected dealt mainly with the quality of their game-play, which of course incorporates interest-holding ability. Finally, this list doesn't include titles that aren't really video games, like Epyx's unbelievably terrible Break Dance. Enjoy (or, more importantly, don't).

1. Shamus II (Synapse) -- Although frustrating to the point of catatonia, the first Shamus was justifiably popular; the freedom of moving from room to room with such speed and firing at everything that budged, exploring for keys and locks and unearthing new rooms, is a concept that's hard for any gamer to resist. I do feel that the adventure was marred heavily by the overwhelming wall of enemy bullets that the player's constantly having to face (or, more frequently, backtracking to avoid having to face).

But the follow-up smashed any hopes of more finely honed pleasure. The idea of a video game sequel suggests an improvement and expansion on the original premise, or at least a renovation of the initial set-up and plot. Even the most minimally expanded examples of other game sequels succeed on at least the levels of their predecessors: Mindscape's Uridium II was like adding more levels to the exact premise of the first crack, and Sierra On-Line's Grog's Revenge took the hero from B.C.'s Quest For Tires and put him on a wrapping mountain, leaving intact the graphics' charm and definitely making for a more interesting game by adding the extra dimension. Others, like Nintendo's Super Mario Brothers and Electronic Arts's Archon II: Adept, retained only the barest elements of their forerunners, improving in depth to the point of making them brand-new.

So hopes were probably pretty high when one bought the sequel to Shamus, a game with an immeasurable amount of territory to explore in a largely free-form manner. But the innovation, lure of discovery and free mechanics all took several huge leaps backward in the second installment. The one attraction that the first game did have is gone: The free movement from room to room has been replaced with a series of nearly identical Breakout-style contests. The programmers didn't even retain the appeal of the old game's objective; the exploration is mostly linear rather than improvisational, as you can most often only exit a room to the left or right, since the playfield now offers a side-view instead of top-down. You simply keep moving to the next room and firing large bouncing balls at the cloud of bad guys above, who fire at you such ridiculous amounts of bullets (like in the prequel) that you can only conclude on a desperate need to keep the lateral room-to-room movement from being too easy. This, ladies and gentlemen, is called "cop-out bad-guy addition," and this worst characteristic of the first game is the only thing retained in the follow-up.

Cop-out bad-guy addition happens when the designer's too lazy (or in a hurry) to come up with something more unique or actually challenging than piled-on hack-'n-slash. This game also includes cop-out spectacle. The graphics are very good. But how much does that mean when the game-play is limited, the movement inhibited, the goal non-existent and the action repetitive? Right. Graphics mean nothing compared to concept and execution. You can see why this game is on the list: It has both cop-out bad-guy addition and cop-out spectacle; and it leaves out its prequel's good bits and keeps the bad. Also it's no fun.

2. Falcon Patrol (Virgin) -- You pilot a futuristic jet with shooting capabilities and guard a wrapping, repetitive area that scrolls sideways below you. A radar screen with small-scale dot representations allows you to view your entire beat at once.

Hardly a unique idea, but it's been reworked in inventive, satisfying ways (Psycodelic's Revenge of Defender, Sirius's Repton, Synapse's Fort Apocalypse), finding new possibilities by using the Defender format as a springboard rather than letting that format take predictable control of the whole shebang. Falcon Patrol is an excellent example of relying on a trite idea and offering nothing new. In fact, Defender's whole twist -- victims in need of protection or rescuing -- is ignored here, and the one type of bad guy doesn't match the standard set by even the most simplistic ancestral baddie.

First of all, you'd have to fly a long way over the scrolling city in Falcon Patrol to find one duller. The monotony is occasionally broken by your craft's ability to land on fuel platforms, but the repetitive terrain makes these platforms not only easy to find but an excellent overall test to see if you may or may not be clinically mentally retarded. (It does, after all, help to occasionally make sure.) Think of a non-forced-scrolling, side-view shoot-'em-up. Go ahead. Think of one. Come on, I'm waiting. Got one? It's better than Falcon Patrol. No matter what game you thought of, it beats this one in challenge, mechanics, innovation, excitement, interest, motivation for playing, reason to even turn on the computer, etc. etc. Even the public domain scrolling game Richtoven's Revenge, an intermediate exercise in machine language, is more fun than this one.

Once you've played Falcon Patrol once, you've pretty much got it down. I mean, there's literally nothing more to see, no matter how quickly your game ended. You can fly in either direction, but there's no minute adjustment of velocity; your speed menu comprises Slow, Less Slow and Really Fast. The enemy jets arrive in pairs (or -- GASP -- threesomes if you don't get too bored to turn it off before advancing), and they travel and attack together. Their "attack" on you consists of them zooming past you really fast, occasionally letting a stray bullet grace the playing area. They seem indifferent to your presence, in fact. They don't aim; they don't take evasive action; and their horizontal paths deviate upwards or downwards, describing a narrow sine wave with a consistent and predictable rhythm. There are two ways to engage them if you want to shoot them down (which is the whole object of the game -- that's it): You can face their route, meet them head-on and try to blast one before the formation sweeps by, or you can fly up behind them at your Really Fast speed and try to pick them off before you get past them. This is the closest thing we have to a video game comedy skit. If you live long enough to get low on fuel (which you will unless you're Really Bad), you can land on a platform to fill up. The enemy jets won't alter their behavior when you do this. They have no other role in the game besides flying super-fast over the city, taking inaccurate potshots at you when they get near. Your plane could pop out for a quick visit to Jungle Hunt for all they care. Even playing Combat (by yourself) is more interesting. At least you know it'll eventually end.

3. Congo Bongo (AtariSoft) -- "Was this ever a thrill-a-minute game in the first place?" You're asking yourself. Well, for godsakes, stop talking to yourself. It's a sign of impending mental collapse. Before you think it unfair that I'm attacking the home version of an initially dull coin-op, realize that the programmers who converted it to the C-64 took whatever slight deviations it did have and threw them away. Too much programming to make the deadline, maybe.

Let's be unnecessarily cruel and start with the soundtrack. All you hear is a single bongo-drum noise. Its nine annoying beats, involving a total of two interchanging notes, repeat over and over and over and over and over. Game music is always repetitive, but this is hardly even a background tune. After a while it makes your teeth hurt. The only variant you hear, unless you stay awake long enough to beat the screen you're on and hear the congratulatory ditty, is a brief concluding phrase when your little explorer bites it. You almost want to walk the poor bastard off a cliff just to give your ears a break.

The first (and third and fifth and seventh and ninth etc.) screen means well enough; it's an attempt at spicing-up the "make it to the top" idea of Atari's Crazy Climber and Nintendo's Donkey Kong. You push the fella up big stairs carved into the hill, which he struggles up with a single-frame addition to the bare animation. Movement is hesitant and jumpy, and hardly worthy of the computer. Even the backgrounds are blocky and devoid of detail. Even many Atari 2600 games leave these graphics behind. Some games make up for this by providing excellent play, but this one doesn't even try. Boring, lacking motive to continue on and utterly badly translated, Congo Bongo stands out as the single biggest waste of time Atari ever released for any 8-bit.

There's the usual platform inhabited by monkeys, of course, but these monkeys don't do what they're supposed to do, which is gang up and throw your guy off the cliff and into the waterfall. The arcade personas of these monkeys would look at their Commodore counterparts and throw themselves off the cliff instead, out of pure shame. I've left the explorer standing there for a long time, and not once have the monkeys even shared each other's personal space. One might attach himself to the explorer, but that just means that you can't move until you jump up and down a little to shake-off the assailant, who doesn't seem as concerned with killing you as wanting to be your pet.

When you get to the inevitable Big Monkey At the Top and beat the screen, I'm pretty sure you're supposed to be kicking the villain's campfire into his face, but this barely comes across in the single frame of action. It just looks like the poor ape is struck with a sudden onset of acne.

The second (and forth and sixth...) screen is a diagonal version of Frogger's top half: You leap from log to log and rock to rock, apparently extremely fixated on this ape with the campfires. Maybe you're trying to figure out how a primate could get something like that together. Anyway, this diagonal endeavor doesn't cater to your joystick very well. I dare you to move it in any direction, press the button, and see if the guy hopped at the angle you were pointing him. It just doesn't happen. Maybe it's supposed to be an exercise in telekinesis. Whatever it is, once you've memorized the joystick directions that convert into the direction you actually mean, this screen becomes as predictable and unchallenging as the first.

I once thought I detected a slight increase in obstacle speed a few levels in, but it was probably just a dozing dream.

4. Motocross (Tronix) -- With the myriad 3-D driving games we've seen, did anyone need to make especially bad ones? I'm not much of a driving game fan, but a few of them are at least entertaining for a little while. With some actually well-done steering contests available, it's kinda sad that some companies insisted on annoying computer owners with half-baked drivel like Motocross.

Even the driver's-view motorcycle genre has been optimized, with Epyx's Super Cycle, an excellent game with increasing curve frequency, changing scenery and well-planned pacing. Given its pristine graphics and well-programmed gearshift, it really needs no blood brothers. But the guys at Tronix decided to add to the looming pile of rip-offs by marketing what I hope to hell was a bargain title: a cycle ride that was apparently limited to a very small amount of creativity, perhaps for their own financial reasons. Your rider sits on a small, crudely rendered motorbike sprite that dips and turns with jittery, pathetically unrealistic movement and animation as the monotonous road -- indicated by two rows of single-color rectangles like the primitive Night Driver -- scrolls at you at only one speed. Shifting gears is an addition of poor spectacle that isn't relevant to playing the game. The road occasionally curves suddenly: so suddenly, in fact, that the whole screen changes immediately, like one big animation frame, and Straight Road becomes Road With Curve in an instant, sending your rider into the rectangles and making him wonder why he couldn't have been born in a different game.

It takes all of one movement that the player has to memorize to have this game down pat. Once you know how to use the bike's otherworldly physics to jerk it away from a rectangle during a curve, there's nothing else to do. The road goes on and on in the same way. Nothing new jumps out at you. I mean, I've played better type-in Compute! games. There are two main graphics used: motorcycle and rectangle. The same number of joystick movements are required.

5. Snokie (FunSoft) -- Run run run to the right. That's the object. I'm not sure what's at the end. Probably nothing. It doesn't matter. Nothing is worth this. Nothing.

There are things to jump over, but they're easy. Rolling rocks. You can jump them okay. But there are also consecutive ledges to jump onto as the ground's altitude changes, and there are cracks on the ground next to most of these. Landing in a crack inexplicably kills you. Successfully clearing a crack most always lands you against a tall hill from which you slide backward. Into the crack. If you make it far enough to get to the, no, I can't bear'll have to get a full explanation somewhere else...

What's funny is the name of the company (above). But I can't blame them for trying to sound marketable. How well could they have expected to do if they'd called themselves SuckSoft?

The first time I played this game, it upset me so much that I started smoking. A few years later, I tried it again -- for over an hour, in fact -- and developed a knuckle-cracking habit. Whatever neuroses I have can be directly attributed to Snokie. THIS GAME IS NOT SAFE. Screw the violence in Doom; Snokie is where the real danger to one's mindset lies. I don't know if a Snokie is that hot-dog shaped guy you're guiding over the rocky terrain, but whatever he is, he's not very tough. Cracks in the ground kill him. Maybe his calves are just really fragile. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that "Snokie" is the name of a demon in the ancient Hindu books. This is just a bad, bad game. It's just an utterly spirit-deflating entity. It twists the whole concept of the video game. It defaces it and perverts it. I'm getting a little angry now just writing about it. Video games are supposed to be fun, aren't they? I mean, I could handle it when I found out that there wasn't a Santa Claus. When I read that the Monkees hardly played any of the instruments heard on their first two albums, I was a bit disillusioned but I got by. Hearing that Jane's Addiction broke up was hard news, but I weathered it. But I just don't know if I can handle the existence of Snokie. It haunts dreams, lurks in shadows and laughs with chilling mockery of what can result from electronic progress if we're not careful. When a grown man cries, a little bit of Snokie is in his tears; when a bird dies, Snokie is smelt on the breeze that greedily floats its carcass off the road and into the ditch. Snokie is in the letters of every gravestone and Snokie is in the cracks of every earthquake. Snokie steals the taste from sweet kisses and taints the salt of the moonstruck sea. Snokie robs the joy of being a living person and eclipses the sun at daybreak. This is just really a very, very bad and terrible game. Is it fair that I'm crying when all I wanted to do when I first typed LOAD "SNOKIE",8,1 was have a little fun? Is anything fair? Is life worth living? MY GOD, IS IT?!!!!??!!?

Ahem. Sorry about that. To be honest, I really don't want to know what a Snokie is. There may be further disturbing truths in that direction. -- CF