Despite owning a massive range of consoles, computers and gaming devices, my all-time favourite systems has to be the Commodore 64. While all of the 8-bit computers released in the 80s each had their own strengths and weaknesses, all of which were pointed out with great passion by their supporters, it was the ease at which the machine could handle arcade style games and the stunning sound chip that really had me gripped from day one.
Eventually though, my C64 and I had to part ways when I needed to raise funds to buy my first Amiga but quickly seeing the error of my ways I bought a second when Commodore released a new version of the computer in the form of a console – the Commodore 64 Games System (C64GS) in 1990. Considered to be a strange decision by many, for me it was an essential way back to Commodore 64 gaming…
The C64GS was Commodore’s attempt to take on the console market head on. At the time the market was being dominated by Nintendo and Sega who at that time had four consoles on the market between them – the existing NES and Master System and the recently released SNES and Megadrive, all establishing a strong foothold in many homes across Europe. Taking a share of this was going to be a struggle for Commdore who had already established themselves as a major force in the 8-bit computing arena (not to mention Amstrad who had also released their GX4000 console based on their own computer technology) so Commodore were already facing a difficult task.
From a technical point of view the C64GS was essentially a Commodore 64 with the keyboard and external ports removed, leaving just the cartridge port, joystick ports and AV connectors. In essence, the C64 became a cartridge only games console. Opening the machine up, it was virtually identical to the C64C with just one or two minor changes to some of the ROMs needed for the cartridge system to function properly, repositioning the cartridge port vertically, and enhancing the joystick ports which could now work with two independent fire buttons. Infact, all of the other ports for the C64 – serial, cassette deck etc are still present but simply hidden by the casing as you can see here comparing the two systems.
It was released exclusively in Europe at a seemingly bargain price of £99.99, it shipped with a joystick and a cartridge containing four games – International Soccer, Klax, Fiendish Freddy’s
Big Top Of Fun, and Flimbo’s Quest. Despite its age, International Soccer remained a classic game and was worthy of inclusion in the pack, as was the excellent System 3 platform game, Flimbo’s Quest. Klax was one of those puzzle games that you either loved or hated, while Fiendish Freddy was probably only included to showcase the advantages of instant loading cartridges over tape and
disk. While none of the games were created specifically for the console it certainly hinted at its potential with instant loading, its storage potential and demonstrated to gamers who were new to the C64 what variety it could offer in terms of gameplay. In contrast, Amstrad’s console offered a single lacklustre game, Burnin’ Rubber.
The console soon hit problems though. Despite a large library of games being promised from day one, this failed to materialise with just a handful of publishers supporting it. Ocean were the main backers counting for more than 50% of the system’s catalogue but even with brand new cartridge exclusives like the arcade conversion of Pang and the technically impressive port of the Amiga game Shadow Of The Beast that didn’t impress gamers and in total less than 30 games materialised for the console during its lifespan. More disappointingly, Commodore themselves failed to release a single title for the machine either.
With such a limited library of games, backed up with compatability problems with existing C64 cartridge games that were dependent on the keyboard, the console was shunned by gamers and was quickly discounted in stores to try to boost its flagging sales. Within a few months its price had dropped to £69.99, then £29.99 before some stores reduced its price to an astonishingly low £10 – worth buying for the cartridge alone. The C64GS was dead, production was halted and any unsold machines were recalled.
So what went wrong with the C64GS? As with the failure of any console, it can’t be pinned on any single factor. Certainly the lack of software was a major issue for most gamers – seeing a new console on the market is always exciting but not seeing games to back that machine up is incredibly disheartening and quickly discourages potential buyers. No matter how good these games may be and what potential it may offer, if there are no games people won’t take a chance on any new system. Even most games stores failed to stock most (if any) of the launch titles leaving those who had invested in the console feeling more frustrated and despondant believing that they had bought a turkey… and they weren’t wrong.
I’ll come back to the games in a moment and the potential that the C64GS and the games had, but the real crux of the problem was the hardware itself. At the time of its launch, the C64GS was woefully underpowered. By the time it came out, the C64s successor, the Amiga, had already been on the market for five years and even the Sega Mega Drive had hit Europe in the same year as the C64GS two years after its release in Japan. In comparison with its rivals, the console looked extremely dated.
But as I said it had a lot of potential. Commodore 64 games were still being released at that point and the computer had a massive back catalogue of games that could have been turned to for release on the console which could have been enhanced with little or no effort. Certainly the larger games that were bundled with the system such as Flimbo’s Quest took advantage of the cartridge format making for a much better gaming experience and similar games that loaded in segments from cassette or disk would have been ideal candidates for re-release. Marketing these to both owners of the C64GS and the C64 would have made solid business sense and potentially could have helped to extend the life of the C64 as well, allowing developers to create more complex games that wouldn’t have been possible without the need for complex and awkward loading systems. Herein lies the second problem… the early titles made no mention that cartridges were compatible with regular Commodore 64s, just the C64GS (just take a look at the box art for Robocop 2 or Chase HQ II as an example) so many stores assumed that they would only would work with the console. This lead to reluctance in stocking the games and a lack of awareness for consumers.
This is quite reminiscent of the current situation for the PS Vita at retail. Stores generally don’t stock many titles for the console believing that there aren’t many games available. As such it’s seldom given a great deal of shelf space. By giving it little space, customers look at the Vita when it is on sale, don’t have a great deal of faith in the system and believe that it is either a dead console or that it has no games. The reality is far from that. In the EU alone, there are well over 200 games available that have been released at retail and including digital releases (and classic games for the PS1 and PSP that the Vita can run) it has a current library of well over 1,500 games with more released weekly.
But I digress… so C64 owners weren’t buying C64GS games, existing developers weren’t porting games because stores weren’t stocking them and sales of the console were abysmal. Frankly there was no turning back for the machine at this point and it was rapidly heading for the bargain bins and those who had commited to the console felt cheated. Even in-store promotional events failed to boost interest in the system. I remember one where a representative from Ocean visited a games store in Birmingham to do a promotional event regarding the C64GS and their games and they were giving away all sorts of goodies to anyone buying any cartridges that day… and I was the only person to show any interest and as a thankyou for buying an Ocean cartridge game, I walked home with an Ocean t-shirt for my trouble! While it was great to get a freebie, it was also quite troubling to see so little interest in the system.
So what happened next? After the continued price drops, the remaining machines were recalled and Commodore took the consoles and dismantled them. These were converted back into
C64Cs and resold. A relatively inexpensive task but certainly more cost effective than writing off the stock of the units completely. The rest of the package was then reused in the Commodore 64’s Playful Intelligence bundle which featured the computer, joystick and four-game cartridge.
But that’s not the end of the console’s story… As a result of its poor sales and the recall, and the throwaway attitude that many people took in the late 90s and early part of this century towards older consoles, there are very few C64GS consoles in existance today compared to its original production run. As with many retro consoles, many have simply suffered hardware failures and the rest took up permanent residency in their local tips. Finding one in good working order is difficult; finding one still in its original packaging – that’s another story altogether. Unlike Amstrad’s GX4000 that has dropped in price since its release and is still quite easy to buy for less that the price of its games, the same can’t be said for the C64GS. A loose console now fetches around triple the original RRP and boxed units… sellers usually have a free reign to name their prices.
Even with the stiff market competition,the console could have had a chance if only the games were promoted better. It’s only in recent years that the C64GS cartridges are being sought out by C64 collectors who are enjoying games that they missed first time around. Had they known about these back in the 90s, would they fared any better? Who knows but maybe the C64 and the C64GS could have seen a different future mapped out for them.
There is no denying that this is one of the true collectors items in terms of the Commdore C64. It’s a rare machine to find at the best of times and if you ever see one at a car boot sale or being advertised in a local paper then grab it while you can. If you ever find one still boxed and in mint condition, get your credit card at the ready as I doubt that you’ll ever come across another one
of these again on your travels.
As a former owner myself (sadly being forced to sell mine to the owner of a Commodore User Group about a decade ago) I have to say that the C64GS really was a great machine and when I parted with mine it was with a great deal of reluctance. There were some great games available for it with Shadow Of The Beast being far superior to the Amiga original, and it really showed just what the C64 was capable of. If only we saw a few more games being released or re-released on cartridge, and better distribution then the console’s place in history could have very different…