Our brief sojourn with the Commodore 64 comes to an end with Thalamus’ Delta. Delta was one of the handful of games that Thalamus released between 1986 and 1991. At the time I didn’t realise the controversy that their games engendered- Thalamus had been set up by the publishing house that published ZZAP64! which lead to accusations of biased reviews. All I know is Delta was probably the game that I most associate with the C64, after Wizball at any rate.
Delta was a game that was on my radar before I got my C64. I’d read the reviews of Thalamus’ first game Sanxion and was really excited. At this point one of my favourite Spectrum shoot ’em ups was Uridium, so the idea of playing something similar but a lot more colourful on the C64 was quite exciting.
And of course, the thing I remember most about the game? The infamous Mix-E-Load system. Basically the game eschewed the typical loading screen while the game loaded, instead preferring to give you a fully interactive sound synth that let you remix the main theme music of the game. The C64 legend Ron Hubbard provided the music for the game and if you listen carefully, you might notice that the in game music bears more than a little passing resemblance to Pink Floyd’s On the Run.
This is Sam and me’s second shoot ’em up, after the rather spartan Penetrator on the Spectrum, so it’s going to be interesting to see how he views it. Come to that, it’ll be interesting to revisit it myself as I have a slight nagging doubt at the back of my mind over it- is it going to be that good if all I can really remember is the Mix-E-Load?!
Me: Right Sam, today is a shooty game.
Sam: Like Penetrator?
Me: Yes and almost certainly no too. Don’t worry, there isn’t any headache inducing flashing lights or an unskippable fireworks display. But there is this…
Sam: What? Some really annoying wheezy music?
Sam is not a fan of the Commodore 64 sound chip. The heathen.
Me: Sam, this is the awesome synth programme that made me want to be an international musician.
Sam fiddles with the various settings for a couple of minutes, changing the stuff and generally appearing to have a great deal of fun. He then stops.
Sam: This is okay but I’m bored now. Why does all Commodore stuff sound so funny? Is that how everything in the olden times sounded?
Me: No, not everything sounded like that Sam. Different computers had different sound chips and made different sounds. Now days computers and consoles can play proper music but back then, a whole game was smaller in size than a spreadsheet.
Sam: What’s a spreadsheet?
Me: Oh never mind. Look, it’s loaded, lets watch the attract sequence.
Sam: What’s an attract sequence? I don’t understand.
Me: It’s taken from the arcades, when nobody is playing a machine it’ll scroll through a quick demo, the high score table and the title screen to make itself look exciting.
Sam: Like a lady in a bikini you mean?
Me: Um. That depends entirely why you think ladies wear bikinis Sam but look, it’s started now.
We watch the attract sequence cycle a couple of times. Delta has a really funky logo, I remember that much, and the text on the high score table is equally as cool. The game demo, really just showing you how the power up system works, is a bit of a let down though, it definitely looks like one of the chunkier C64 games, on a system famed for it’s chunky graphics.
Me: Shall we have a go young man?
Sam: Can we play two players dad?
Me: Theoretically yes, but I’ve only got the one joystick so in reality no. Shall I have a go first to show you how it’s done?
Sam: Go on then. Are we going to get to play anything two player? Ever?
Me: Once we get on to the first consoles I had, the Megadrive and then the SNES, yes. I’ve still got all the controllers for those and I’ve even got a Megadrive official joystick!
Starting Delta is quite an abrupt affair, one second you’re on the title screen, the next you’re playing it. Thalamus certainly didn’t muck around. There’s not a great deal to do on the first level- a few flights of aliens and some power ups to try. The level ends with a multi sprite enemy that you have to shoot the centre bit. Once I suss that the power up blocks are only collectable when they’re blue, I’m sorted.
Sam: You died twice Daddy. That’s not good, you’ve only got one LIFE left.
Sam puts an emphasis on the word life because he’s still not 100% certain on the concept, despite first encountering it way back at Manic Miner. Modern games don’t really have a concept of lives or even continues. You just keep on going until you’ve had enough or can’t be bothered any more.
Me: [through gritted teeth] That’s okay Sam, how hard can a level called Rocks of Death actually be? Did you like the way it went straight in to the next level? That was cool, it makes it feel like you’re really flying a ship.
Sam: I think I’d get dizzy flying that ship because it always seems to be spinning!
Me: I’d always thought it was just the wings that rotated?
Sam: That wouldn’t make any sense Daddy, how on earth would you land your spaceship?
Me: Hmmm. I hadn’t, oh bugger I’m dead. The problem with the bullets is they look quite similar to the star field…
Sam: My go!
Me: Take it away son, the button fires and the stick moves you around. Avoid the bullets, and only collect the power up icons that are blue.
Sam seems to adapt to 2D flying pretty well- I wonder how good he’d be at Space Harrier as most of his flying and shooting has been done in LEGO Marvel Superheroes.
Sam: The Rocks of Ultimate Deathy Death! And I’ve only lost one life. Hahahaha.
Me: I’m keen to avoid last weeks In Your Face type activity Sam, it’s not a competition, even though there is a leaderboard. What do you think about it?
Sam: It’s actually not that bad, once you figure out you just have to avoid getting hit and shoot all the time.
Sam avoids all the enemy bullets by the simple expediency of paying attention. I blame my preoccupation on the star field- I was trying to work out how many levels of parallax scrolling it has. Now I’m not playing I’ve twigged it as three. It looks pretty.
Sam: and that’s level 2 done. Oh yes oh y… OH.
Me: Oooh, that’s tricky isn’t it?
Me: All those lives gone, so quickly! My turn!
Level three starts off at high speed with some tall pillars, alternating top and bottom to avoid, Sam panicked and crashed repeatedly. Game over man!
Sam: Wait, I’m top of the high score table! And there’s enough letters to enter Sam.
Me: Well done, shall I see about getting past those pillars?
Sam: I’ll get you there, you get past them.
Me: You’re on!
The thing I hadn’t noticed when playing was just how short the levels actually are- most are well under a minute. Even when I get past the pillars and carry on to finish the level (easy after the tricky first bit), it only about 40 odd seconds.
Sam: Right, here we go! What’s the funny sound?
Me: EXTRA LIFE! You must have got 10,000 points, go you!
We get to level 6 but one too many speed ups makes it a bit tricky and Sam dies quickly in succession.
Sam: Once you die, it’s really difficult to get going again. I always die again.
Me: I know what you mean Sam, it’s like with your drumming, if you mess up a bar, it’s really difficult to pick up the rhythm again isn’t it?
Sam: I suppose so. I’m awesome at drumming though. I’m not awesome at this.
Me: Is that you saying you’ve had enough then?
Sam: Yes. It’s good but it gets really hard really quickly.
Me: When you only have 64K of memory to fill, games tend to be hard rather than long. Personally I’d have liked to be shooting baddy spaceships, not baddy blobby things but it’s pretty good. It’s not as bad as I feared it might be.
Sam: My name is still top of the high score table.
And thus ends our journey with the Commodore 64. I didn’t actually own one for very long, for reasons you’ll read about next week, not nearly as long as I actually lusted after one anyway. Next week you can read about how I got an Atari ST…