The C64 is 40 – my top 10 sci-fi games

Yes, the Commodore 64 is celebrating an anniversary this month, having arrived on these shores 40 years ago. I’ll spare you too much history here (this 10-year-old article does a great job of that); the psychology behind why retro games get so much love (Wired have already covered that) and discussion of its place in culture (this article offers a satisfying take on that). I’ll even resist the urge to talk about cult-favourite gaming magazine Zzap! 64 (Google the term ‘magazine’ if you don’t know what I’m talking about).

Instead, I’ll quickly show you a trade ad, which offers a fascinating insight into the era it arrived in – not least because it was, briefly at least, a machine that easily undercut its home-computing rivals… including the Apple II Plus.

64K. Very large

Growing up in the glare of the C64 

This beige powerhouse turned up in front of our cathode-ray-tube behemoth TVs a mere decade after what was effectively the birth of videogames – when Pong infiltrated our arcades and homes for the first time. In a real sense, my generation was the first to grow up in the sickly blue glare of the home-gaming machine and I, for one, believe this simple fact has had a seismic, almost unquantifiable effect on culture. 

Just beautiful

If you’re not of the same vintage as me, you may look at the jagged 8-bit sprites, the limitations imposed by a mere 64K of memory, hear the harsh chiptune growl and quite reasonably ask: in 2022, in the era of VR headset advances, quantum supercomputing and so on, why the hell is this old museum piece at all important? And also – given you’re reading about it here – what is its relevance to of all things, a sci-fi author, and a sci-fi reader or enthusiast? 

I think the answer is that, along with the arcade games it emulated and at times surpassed, the C64 was providing a generation of teenagers fortunate enough to afford it with their first meaningful interactive involvement in a possible vision of the future. In doing so, it was fuelling our collective dreams, imagination-building in a way even the great SF cinema of the time couldn’t possibly achieve.

A ‘videogame interpretation of the film score’

Don’t get me wrong. The classic 80s sci-fi films were of course the era’s ultimate collective glimpse of that future just over the horizon, that we were heading towards at what seemed like a breakneck pace. The films provided the vision, then games joined the conversation, to bridge the gap between home life and this exciting imaginative realm of teen-targeting, sci-fi pop culture writ large. 

For the first time, a virtuous circle was formed between the teenage imagination, the futuristic worlds on the silver screen and the joystick-manipulating escape route from the grey mundanity of everyday life in the UK. 

Key to it all was active involvement. Games back then, so long as you sprinkled on a very liberal dose of suspension of disbelief and imagination, were our way of not just seeing this future, but interacting with it. As laughable and unbelievable as it may seem, for us, this was the fairytale so brilliantly encapsulated in 1984’s The Last Starfighter – surely, the ultimate convergence of gaming culture, cinema and 80s teenage aspiration. Alright, perhaps second only toWeird Science.

Watching the primitive polygons of Elite glow onscreen was to be transported through a portal where you were, in some parallel sense, actually inhabiting the universe that the game so crudely but totally successfully hinted at. Something like Paradroid provides an even better example, in some ways. Thanks in large part to its perfectly pitched difficulty level, its avid fanbase felt as though they really were rolling around a dangerous transporter ship full of crazed, rebellious droids. They were themselves transported – and how? Via a handful of floating sprites which were literally ovals with three numbers written across them. 

The 80s-game aesthetic is thriving, as something like 2018’s Celeste shows

You can like old AND new things

Now I am not one of those people who chastises new games for a lack of inventiveness, or believes new gamers don’t appreciate what they’ve got. I love new games and gaming culture, on the whole, even if my Atari VCS- and Commodore-induced neural gaming architecture often means I can’t react fast enough or even get my head round what’s going on some of the time. We are talking about 40 years ago and counting since all this started for me, after all. 

I just think the work that one’s imagination had to do as a player back then is the key difference between that bygone era and the present… that process was where the sense of wonder was fed, where important and longlasting imaginative leaps were made. 

And that yawning chasm between the reality shown and the future being represented by the games is where the love of sci-fi – call it love of retro sci-fi, nostalgia, whatever you want – was forged, and still lives on today in a million different products. Including, I sincerely hope, the universe of and characters in the series of books I’m writing… which are of course peppered with loving references and homages to the primitive computer entertainment that fuelled my imagination back in the 80s, the magic awakening of the era of the personal computer. 

My top-10 C64 sci-fi games, for the hell of it

Enough sentimental balls. What are my top-10 C64 sci-fi games, I hear nobody in particular ask? Alright, alright, here you go (clue – there is no place for Leather Goddesses Of Phobos).

1] Elite

A whole universe in 64 kilobytes.

Load New Commander (Y/N)?

2] Paradroid

With respect to Gribbly’s Day Out, this remains Andrew Braybrook’s finest hour.


3] Delta

The attack waves still haunt my dreams.

One of Hubbard’s finest sonic contributions and a slick, hard-as-nails shooter to boot

4] Laser Squad

Turn-based combat done right.

X-Com, I am your father

5] Uridium

Sideways shooter taken beyond the C64’s creative limits

One of the latest and greatest of the 64’s side-scrolling shooters. Smooth

6] Thrust

A beguiling and addictive fight to the death against gravity and inertia 

I have crashed cars that have meant less to me than that circle you see up there

7] Shadowfire

A pioneering use of the icon-interface game. Was it the first? 

Innovative interface and a winning sci-fi scenario – pure genius

8] Enigma Force

Intervening in an interspecies alien war. Go insectoids 

I am still loyal to the Empire

9] The Sentinel

Will you absorb the Sentinel, or will it absorb you? High-concept SF, C64-style

Drekking Meanies

10] Beamrider

A compulsive grid-shooter outlier from Activision, originally for the Intellivision 

Argggh… tension

Massive apologies are due here to Zaxxon, Attack Of The Mutant Camels, Encounter, Mercenary, Alleykat, Sheep In Space, Dropzone… and too many more to mention.

Some further links

Lemon games archive of over 4,000 C64 games

Retro Gamer reviews of C64 classics

A deep-dive 40th-birthday documentary vid:

100 C64 games in under 10 mins

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