INSIDE THE FUTURE:
This month sees rumours turned into reality, with the C64GS console appearing in the plastic at the UK CES show. The machine is set to completely revolutionize the C64 market with numerous software houses developing cartridge software. STUART WYNNE explains why Commodore could have a winner.
From its launch in 1982, the basic C64 has soldiered on as the definite 8-bit Commodore. While both the Spectrum and Amstrad CPC have enjoyed development as 128K, disk-based machines the ambitious, but expensive C128 never caught on. It was never really hyped, since soon after its launch Commodore acquired the Amiga. Yet while the 16--bit machine's success can't be doubted, its £400 price tag makes it unlikely ever to sell in the huge numbers the Speccy and C64 have. What is selling are consoles - cheap, extremely easy to use and with no piracy problems.
Step right back into the limelight the C64, the bestselling 8-bit computer in the world with a superlative specification. After years of neglect, broken only by periodic repackaging with new games, the C64 has finally returned to the spearhead of Commodore's marketing. While the standard C64 and C2N will still be sold, there's the new keyboardless model - the C64GS, Priced at just £99.99 the console will be packaged with a joystick and a cartridge containing International Soccer, Klax, Flimbo's Quest and Fiendish Freddy's Big Top O'Fun.
PHYSICAL: Six months after we first reported the console rumours, the C64GS turns out to be a rather unremarkable - looking piece of hardware: a cream lozenge distinguished only by ventilation slits at the rear and a black strip across the cartridge slot including a day-glow 'C64 Games System' logo.
Apart trom the cartridge slot being on top, the arrangement of ports is very familiar. Just as on the C64. at the rear of the machine there's a composite video output for monitors and a standard RF output tor . On the right side there's the two joystick ports, power input and on/off switch, There obviously aren't any datasette or disk drive ports, but apart from some minor ROM changes the circuitboard inside is the familiar C64 set-up.
The supplied cartridge has a four megabit (512K) memory - the same as an Amiga. The size of future cartridges will vary according to the needs of the game. Ocean expect to be able to compress most of their 460k multiloads onto one megabit carts (128K).
All the cartridges will be compatible with existing C64s and C128s (both of which have cartridge ports), Whether those ancient cartridges first released for the C64 will be compatible with the console is less likely, as many required key input.
The console has identical graphic and sonic capabilities to the C64: the same super-smooth scrolling, blended colours and impressive sprite-handling abilites accompanied by one of the most sophisticated sound chips around. The custom video and sound chips, VIC II and SID respectively, make possible some very impressive games. Just look at Turrican! Multiload games such as Turbo Out Run, The Untouchables and so on will be much more user friendly on cartridge. Programmers can also duplicate memory intensive coin-op intro sequences without irksome loading delays, but the potential of cartridges is much more than that!
The ability to rapidly snatch data from cartridge breaks memory restrictions. On the C64 conversion of Golden Axe a creature had to be cut because it meant loading in too much data for a single load. On cartridge the graphics can be incredibly detailed and levels vast, with fresh data being loaded in all the time, Already several software houses are developing cartridge- only games.
According to Commodore 'it has commitment from major software houses to release up to 100 new cartridges betore Chrislmas' - Of course, the key phrase is 'up to' but here's undoubtedly plenty of interest. The anti-piracy potential is as exciting to software houses as the capacity for expanded games. Another factor is the likely price tag £24.95. Although this may vary with software hous es, cartridge production costs and the maths of distribution, mean £25 is likely to be the aver age. Obviously if software hous es want to sell to C64/128 own ers as well as console owners. the cartridge games must use the expanded performance capabili ties. For console owners the price is below average compared to Nintendo and Sega products, and Commodore will allow any one to write for the GS - for a small royalty - which should encourage development.
In any case, Ocean's participation is obviously critical to the success of almost any new games syslem in the UK. They're not only the biggest and most successful software house in Britain, but also very closely associated with Commodore via various gamespacks for both Amiga and C64. They're already planning four releases: Batman: The Movie, Operation Thunderbolt and Shadow Of The Beast. The latter has yet to be released on tape or disk, but is a very nice looking conversion of the Amiga graphical showcase.
Oceans Software Developtment Manager Gary Bracey was very enthusiastic about the console which he obviously expects to succeed. It seems likely games will, or already are being developed for cartridge only. Games for tape or disk may be expanded, some digitized movie stills could be used for presentation. The excellent interlevel screens on the disk version of Untouchables are an example of what could be done. Both SCI and Robocop II seem likely to be released on cartridge.
Also heavily involved is Mindscape, the American company which specialises in disk-inten sive and very complex games, ranging from the huge Origin RPGs to the Gold Medal-winning Space Rogue to the slapstick- packed Fiendish Freddy's Big Top 0' Fun. Mindscape are particularly excited by the potential to put many previously disk-only products on cartridge. After all with the majority of UK C64 owners only having a datasette, the market for their games will be dramatically increased. Their games are also sophisticated enough to justify the high price tag, particularly with plenty of high quality packaging. They were involved in developing the cart which comes with the con sole, and already have a game under development for cartridge only.
System 3 haven't gone that far yet, but following on from Flimbo's Quest they foresee making all future games available on car tridge. They also foresee doing compilations and possibly even going cartridge only? Sales Curve are no less enthusiastic, and consider it 'very, very likely well be releasing new stuff on cartridge'. Again cartridge-only games are being considered. Palace see plenty of life left in the C64 all round and are currently discussing whether to put International 3D Tennis on carridge. Barbarian III, due some time in 1991, is also a possibility.
Hewson have yet to make a firm decision, although the prospects of releasing their glittering back catalogue on cartridge compilations is certainly under consideration. Thalamus are considering putting their 'greatest hits' compilation on cartridge.
One software house which would appear a natural for cartridge releases is MicroProse, which has a large range of first class disk-intensive C64 classics. Unfortunately they're currently concentrating on developing their coin-op system and are adopting a wait-and-see attitude to the cartridge market. Mirrorsoft are 'always very interested in new developments' and will be following the progress of the console.
While the '100 cartridges before Xmas' prediction seems optimistic, software support is clearly strong with many software houses developing cartridges and everyone very interested.
The GS is being launched into a crowded market. At approximately the same price tag there's the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System, both £80 in their most basic form. The C64 can beat most NES games for both graphics and particularly sound. However, Nintendo is producing expanded cartridges such as Track & Field which approach 16-bit quality for £30-£40. Superior marketing has made the Sega Master System the most popular UK console so far, although most games are graphically and sonically inferior to the NESs. The Sega does have some 16-bit like static screens, but is already being overshadowed by the UK launch of Sega's 16-bit Megadrive console. Golden Axe on Megadrive beats the coin-op! - for a price. The Megadrive is £189.99, and the few games available start at £30. Probably even more impressive is Nintendo's Super Famicom, which is due to be launched in Japan soon but is unlikely to reach the UK for years.
Another new console is the GPO-based Amstrad GX4000. Like the GS it's being launched at the UK CES for £99. It comes with two Japanese-style control pads and a free cartridge of Burning Rubber - written by Ocean in the mould of WEC Le Mans. Speed and graphics are up to 16-bit standards, but by comparison sound is mediocre and the CPU is still the old ZBO. Ocean are supporting the GX4000 with conversions, but whether it will earn a massive software base is still open to question.
Nevertheless the competition is such that already trade newspaper CTW have reported Commodore may reduce the price, although Commodore's Andrew Ball dismissed this as 'pure speculation, we have no intention of getting into any price wars.' Commodore plan a big ad campaign to push the machine before Xmas.
What is certain is that the GS will revitalise the entire C64/128 market. Cartridges offer consider able benefits in both anti-piracy and performance. Software houses which might otherwise have stopped writing for the C64 are now thinking of developing games especially written for the cartridge. While in the past C64 cartridges were overtaken by cheaper tape and disk, nowadays most games require so much muftiloading cartridges have a big advantage. Also programmers know enough to make cartridge-only games very spe cial indeed. Mark (Turbo Out Run) Kelly has already floated the concept of a racing game construction kit based on the Turbo code!
For the future, Ocean's Gary Bracey foresees the market split ting into two camps - CD-ROM based 16-bit computers for the older end of the market, and cartridge-based consoles at the younger. Cumbersome and sluggish tape would become obsolete, except possibly for budget, as might disks. This will mean more expensive games, but hopefully through discounts in magazines like ZZAP! the effective price might be nearer £20. This isn't too much more than disk and the potential is certainly there for awesome games. Of course for the moment owners of C64 and C128 computers have the best of both worlds: cartridge, disk and tape. So get ready for exciting times ahead?