Coming to the C64 rather late in it’s life meant that programmers had really got the hang of Commodore’s brown beast. Not only were the games technically proficient, in terms of graphics, scrolling, and music, but they were getting genuinely out there and innovative in terms of concept. None were more out there than Wizball, one of the defining games on the C64 and one I looked forward to tremendously from all the preview articles and features that fuelled the imagination of the 11 year old me.
Wizball is pretty much unlike anything you will ever have played, so I was fascinated to see what Sam thought about it. We fire it up and are presented with a loading screen not dissimilar from the box art.
Sam: It’s Gandalf!
We’ve only got as far as the loading screen and Sam is a big fan of the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies. He’s in for a disappointment in that sense.
Me: Not all wizards are Gandalf Sam, Gandalf is a wizard, not a profession. Although he’d make a good Daz advert.
Sam: [irritated] What? Daz? What ARE you talking about Daddy?
Me: Never mind, I’m trying to be clever. No, that’s another wizard, who has to thwart an evil wizard with a high scoring Scrabble name, who’s stolen all the colour from the world. He does this, for reasons that are not entirely clear, by either getting in a big green ball or turning in to one. I can’t quite remember to be honest.
Sam: None of that made sense. At all. Can we just play the game then?
Me: Excellent idea, I’ll shut up then.
We start a game, I give the joystick straight to Sam with no explanation or anything. I’m miffed he didn’t get my Daz gag (Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White); it’s not as if he doesn’t watch a lot of commercial telly anyway. Sam bounces around the screen ineffectively and then dies when he scrolls far enough to find something that can hurt him.
Sam: Oh. Commodore games are just as hard as Spectrum games. And it’s all grey. And really chunky. And it sounds awful.
Me: It’s only grey because the evil wizard has stolen all the colour remember, and it’ll much easier to control once you shoot the DNA’y thing and collect a bubble because the first power up gives you better control.
I’m passed the joystick.
Sam: Go on then show me.
Me: Okay I will.
At first, left and right rotate the Wizball, allowing you to guide the angle of bounce. The firing makes a high pitched whiny sound that’s really irritating, almost as irritating as the music on the title screen. I bounce ineptly around a bit but manage to shoot one of those thingies that leaves a green bubble.
Me: Look Sam, my power up bar has moved along one at the top, I can select the manoeuvrability upgrade now.
Sam: Go on then Mr Smarty Pants.
Sam: Go on then.
Okay I admit it, I couldn’t remember or work out how to activate the power ups. It’s a humiliating situation but think about it for a moment. You’ve got your joystick with one button. That one button fires your weapon. I remember in other circumstances, you can control your cat with it by holding the fire button down (we haven’t got that far yet though) but I cannot for the life of me remember how to upgrade my weapons. Humiliated, I turn to the instructions. I mean, what self respecting man ever reads the instructions?
Me: Ahhh! Of course, you waggle.
Sam: Waggle? [He flaps his ears about with his fingers]
Me: Not quite, when you want to select a power up, you waggle the joystick from left to right.
Sam: But doesn’t that mean you might fly in to something.
Me: Probably but not if you waggle “properly”.
I proceed to get the first couple of upgrades, the “control” one that means you can actually move the wizball relatively easily and the shield one, that flashes a shield directly above and below you whenever you fire. Suddenly the game is a lot more playable and I hand the joystick back to Sam to shoot some more stuff.
Sam: There are some red drops! What do I have to do with them?!
Me: Shoot them, quick!
Sam shoots them and they turn into tear shaped droplets, which fall to the ground.
Me: I think you have to collect the droplets before they hit the ground mate. And I think that’s where your cat comes in. Do you know what it’s called? [Sam shakes his head] It’s called a catellite. Get it? [more head shaking] It’s a pun on satellite. Catellite because he orbits you like a satellite.
Sam: I don’t get it. Or at least it’s not funny.
I get a few more green bubbles and power up the catellite, still chortling to the name.
Sam: Aaah, So I just hold the button down and my cat can zoom around, shooting and collecting the drops without me getting killed?
Me: It’s a catellite.
Sam: I’m going to call him Dr Who Cat. You wouldn’t let me call our cat Dr Who Cat, we had to call him Johnny, so I’m calling this one Dr Who Cat. Argh!
Sam drops the joystick and instinctively covers his eyes. Wizball is a game that rewards you for filling your cauldron with the right coloured droplets but attempting to give you an epileptic seizure. The entire screen flashes, really quickly, in a hideous display of colour and it is nauseating. Sam is quite sensitive to sudden loud noises and flashing colours so he doesn’t like it one bit.
Me: It’s okay, the flashing has stopped now.
Sam: You do this bit, my eyes hurt.
The next bit doesn’t have any of the obstacles that the actual level is in- it takes place in space, with lots of stuff to shoot and completely random bursts of horrendous flashing colours. Eventually we complete that bit and the wizard teleports back to his castle or whatever it is.
Sam: I like the way he gets out of his ball. And there’s Dr Who Cat as a real cat too.
The colour is slowly (painfully) decanted from the cauldrons under the screen to the one we’re collecting for and we properly complete the level.
Me: Level 2 now Sam, can you see what’s different?
Sam: It’s red!
Me: That’s right, we’ve collected all the red drops and returned the level to the colour it should be. The fourth cauldron on the far right shows us what colour we’ve got to make, for whichever level we’re on…
Sam: How do we get to other levels?
Me: We go down those holes or pipes in the ground.
Sam goes down a hole and comes out a very familiar pipe in a new world.
Sam: That’s stolen from Mario! That pipe is right out of Mario Dad!
He’s right you know, and I never noticed it back in the day. Blow me. We spend a while flying around collecting lots of different coloured drops from different worlds, and end up completing a level almost by mistake- each world has it’s own combination of colours to complete it. The flashing colours return and Sam has had enough.
Sam: It’s quite fun, once you power up the Wizard to be able to move properly. If I was the wizard I wouldn’t go out until I could control myself properly, so that’s a bit silly. Dr Who Cat is cool to but the sound and the music are really annoying. They really screech and it’s not nice. But the flashing is horrible and I don’t want to play it any more.
Me: That’s cool dude, you’ve done really well. This was probably Daddy’s favourite game on the Commodore 64, so I’m glad you’ve tried it and I’m sorry about the flashing colours.
To be fair to Sam, the flashing is incredibly stupid. I don’t remember it being that bad when I was a kid but I suppose that’s the sort of thing you don’t tend to remember. Wizball is unlike anything else you’ll play though, and the catellite is great, in name and execution. The waggle to upgrade method is a bit odd but since we’re still a way away from having mutli button controllers in the C64 era, it certainly beats having to hit the space bar or something.
Wizball has the chunky good looks I remember from my youth and it’s still definitely fun to play, holding up remarkably well in this day and age. It’s probably something to do with the current fad for stylised chunky pixel art games, but the C64 low resolution sprites look quite good…