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Seattle, WA, USA

Posted Fri Apr 28, 2017 5:59 pm

There was a time in early 2016 when I started poking around with the idea of creating some blocky graphics art on my Commodore 64 (C64). It wasn’t long before I happened across some excellent posts from a man in the UK named Graham Axten. He was recording some of the steps he took towards making a brand new platformer for the 30 year-old machines. And he was building his game in such a way that, if successful, it would work on original hardware from a single floppy disk.

In Part One of his series, Axten explains how to initialize and move an image sprite. Originally he started designing his game using his old C64, but he soon moved to a PC where more modern tools (e.g. CBM prg Studio) are available, which saved a ton of time - like the ability to copy/paste code! Kinda handy.

Axten’s fascinating series of blog posts, published from late 2015 to mid-2016, went on to describe his process in building the game’s levels, collision detection, composing SID music and other valuable tips and tricks. The entire series is worth a read even if you have no interest in programming. It’s fascinating to follow his personal journey to gaining the knowledge needed for building an A+ title on the Commodore 64 all by himself.

Axten on using the C64 as his platform of choice for his game idea:
I had numerous attempts at making a platform game in Unity, with the goal then to be able to publish it to numerous platforms (probably starting with iOS). However, I found it difficult to get the pixel perfect platforming I was aiming for, and I struggled to make graphics assets that would suit the game I had in mind. In the end, I gave up on the idea, and Bear sat untouched for a good long while. I’m really glad that I decided to get my C64 out of the loft and set it up.  This is what sparked the idea of making Bear into a C64 sprite, and attempting to make my platform game again.  I’m surprised that the restrictions of working with a C64 has helped to bring the game to life, and that I found it much easier to create graphics with a 16 colour limit and a low resolution.
The series of posts, as they stand today:
Part 1: Initialising and moving a sprite
Part 2: Pixel perfect platforming
Part 3: The joy of plex [sprite multi-plexing]
Part 4: Studying SID
Part 5: Creating caverns (unpublished as of this writing)

I asked Axten if he had any plans for a new game in the near future. He responded:
I have a rough prototype made, but trying to keep it small, no pressure, fun at the moment! Not rushing to dive into a big again game yet ;)
Can't blame him for that. Bear Essentials was a pretty massive undertaking for one individual.

Which brings us to the actual game itself, which Axten did indeed finish and published as a free download through Pond Software (which I always mentally add on “Across the…” in my mind) in December of 2016.

Soon after the download was released a limited run of 250 physical boxed sets were available for ordering. That first batch sold out; I got #209. Pond is in the process of receiving pre-orders for a 2nd batch (check out this posting on the Pond forums for excellent photos of all you get).
Front cover of the boxed version of Bear Essentials.

Back cover of Bear Essentials. I got #209 out of 250 from the original first printing. Pre-orders for a 2nd batch are underway as of this writing. Ironically the screenshots look widescreen...

Some of the beautiful packaging found in Bear Essentials. This is an A+++ title.

The physical version only cost £10 + £5 for worldwide shipping. The game comes on a previously unused 5.25” floppy with a very nice label, an A5 jewel case which fits the disk, manual and extras perfectly. The extras included 4 stickers and a bonus game on the disk: Super Bonkey Kong (based off a fabulous level in Bear Essentials, which happily winks and salutes Donkey Kong with love and admiration). Frankly, the whole thing is a steal. Pond isn’t publishing this game to get rich. Graham and Pond are putting a gigantic smile on the faces of hundreds, if not thousands, of fans devoted to a scene, and it’s pretty freaking cool.

Bear Essentials Game Review

Bear Essentials (BE) doesn’t take long to impress. During the disk loading process you are offered a beautiful load-screen to gaze upon while the various bits are stacked in place in the background.
Loading screen

Then when the intro-title screen materializes, you’re introduced to your character: Bear. The details designer and developer Graham Axten paid attention to here are at a supremely high level. Had he done this back in 1985, he would have been granted legendary status. The game looks and feels like a well-funded gem from the likes of Electronic Arts, Nintendo or Sega, quite frankly.
Intro-title screen

The game world and genre is what could be called a “flick screen” platformer, meaning if you enter a new level the entire screen “flicks” over to the new design. There is no parallax scrolling or anything like that. Think “Donkey Kong” if that helps, or ”LodeRunner.”
Bear Essential’s level designs are broken across zones with their own look and feel: Jungle, Cloud, and so on. Each zone has several screens in which Bear must collect apples for his family to survive the winter. 350 total, in fact, which is a pretty steep order. But these games aren’t made to be easy, right?
It doesn’t take too long to understand the physics of Bear’s jumps. He has no weapons, and touching any baddies (spiders, monkeys, crows, frogs - anything) takes away one life. You start with 5, which is very nice, and you can earn more along the way. Interestingly, if you see an extra life icon on the screen, you have to actually go get it - they aren’t simply awarded. This pays nice homage to games like Mr. Do, 1-Ups in Super Mario and others from the time period. You can also earn Continues, and beyond that you can earn passwords that can put you at the beginning of certain stages. This game is hard, but it’s not impossible to finish for the dedicated or obsessed.
This level is named "Bonkey Kong". Really hope those are hairy coconuts he's throwing at me!

As you go from scene to scene the music changes, which is a nice touch, too. The songs themselves aren’t overly complex or even necessarily “pretty” but they are catchy and well made. The controls, too, are responsive and sharp. Only the ground spikes took me a few tries to understand where their invisible collision box was to learn how to successfully jump over them.
Had the game been made back in the 1980s, it would easily be regarded as a top-shelf classic. The amount of pixel perfection is stunning, not to mention the gorgeous character and level designs.

Check out the download when you get a chance. If a 2nd printing of the disk is released, absolutely get yourself a copy for your classic hardware. This game is a must-have. And for goodness sakes, thanks to Graham Axten and Pond for keeping our C64s fresh and relevant beyond nostalgia. This is an excellent platformer game, regardless (but especially because) of the system it was lovingly designed for. Bravo!

Review Notes: This game was played using an original C64 Breadbin, 1541-II floppy drive, 1702 C= monitor and TAC-2 joystick.

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