Loading. In the context of modern gaming it's a bit of a dirty word. No matter how cunningly it's disguised, nobody enjoys doing nothing while waiting for the next chunk of game to sort itself out. It's kind of strange, then, that so many gamers weaned from the 8-bit bosom remember the ceremonial act of loading with such genuine affection. But there's a damned good reason for that. The Commodore 64 loading screen.
Commodore 64 loading screens were/are ass-kicking old-school awesome. And they deserve to be celebrated without a hint of irony. Of course, we appreciate that the closest many of today's fashionable gamers have come to a C64 loading screen is Rockstar's own homage during the intro for GTA: Vice City...
So, first things first, clue yourself in to the C64 loading screen love with a little introduction and then enjoy reading some loading screen insight, memories and anecdotes from a selection of artists, coders and journalists from the glorious 'Commie' days.
C64 loading screens: A little introduction
Life accelerated in the 80s. MTV introduced mach-speed sugar-rush broadcasting. Styrofoam-packaged fast food was the supersonic staple diet of an entire generation. Fashion was a dangerous breakneck blur of neon absurdity. And then, arriving in 1982, there was the Commodore 64. A stylishly brown wedge that dared to defy the decade's obsession with high velocity lifestyle overdrive by being - as we lovingly remember it - a bit of a slow bastard.
In the early days, when it came to loading games the C64 was a tortoise. The vast majority of titles - in Europe, at least - were loaded from cassette tapes. At its most tedious this process could take the best part of an eternity. Or about 30 minutes in real-time. Even worse, if a game didn't load successfully at the first attempt, it was standard practice to simply rewind the tape, offer a prayer to the gods and try again. It sounds like a ritual reserved for the mentally challenged, but 8-bit gamers exhibited strong resolve and accepted that such hardships would have to be endured.
Then came 'fast loaders' - ingenious bits of code that made loading software up to five times faster. And, thanks to the way fast loaders worked, the C64 could now easily show a loading screen and play some music while the game continued to load in the background. It was a far more civilized way of doing things and what had once been nothing more than a necessary drudge became an integral part of Commodore 64 culture.
Above: As the loader for System 3's awesome The Last Ninja shows, loading sequences could have a screen (this one by Paul Docherty), killer music (by Ben Daglish), scrolling text and flashing stuff. Impressive
Much more than merely a way to make the wait before playing a game more bearable, the loading screen was a significant part of the experience as a whole. What better way to get gamers hyped for their latest software purchase than with a huge piece of beautiful 2D pixel art and some rousing music cranking out of the C64's SID sound chip?
The sprite-crushing imagery of these lo-fi teasers fuelled the imagination, giving a tantalizing prelude of what was to come when the tape stopped turning. A lovingly crafted loading screen was quality assurance. It was testament to a game maker's attention to detail and passion for their trade. It was the first impression that could sweet talk the subconscious way before any fire buttons were pressed.
C64 artists such as Bob Stevenson, Paul Docherty and Steve Thomson made some truly stunning loading screens. The incredibly primitive tools available to artists at the time make their pixel masterpieces even more impressive.
Above: We loved Thrust. And Bob Stevenson's load screen set the scene perfectly. Beautifully minimal, yet charged with a real feeling intrepid interstellar adventure
Above: You can almost hear the static crackle of lightning fizz from Paul Docherty's magical Druid II screen
Above: We don't know how long it took Steve Thomson to create such a convincing chrome look, but it was a real 'Holy shit!' moment when we first saw it. And it still looks absolutely nuts. Amazing
The accompanying music by hugely talented artists like Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway graced many C64 loading sequences and are regarded by many retro heads and chip tune enthusiasts to be some of the greatest 'computer' music ever composed.
Above: The Ocean Loader was used on most Ocean/Imagine games and rotated five different tunes. The first on the video is Ocean Loader 2 by Martin Galway and is probably one of the C64's most remembered tunes. The second is Ocean Loader 3 by Peter Clarke
So, that's a little introduction to the wonder of C64 loading screens. Next up, loading screen favourites and flashbacks direct from some of the people who were rocking it during the reign of the Commodore 64.