Introduction -- My First Love
In the early 90s I spent a minimum of four hours a day playing games like Paradroid (where you controlled an oval blob you had to imagine was a lethal robot), Rainbow Islands (you crushed the baddies by dancing on rainbows), and Theatre Europe (where you led either NATO or the Warsaw Pact and tried to win WW3 without destroying the world too much).
These incredible games were made possible by the single greatest product in the history of space and time -- the Commodore 64 (so named because it descended to earth from heaven on the wings of 64 seraphim).
Now in 2016 I spend four hours a day listening to podcasts. So when I discovered Sprite Castle, a podcast all about the C64, I was thrilled and subscribed right away. After listening to a few episodes I installed a C64 emulator on my PC and I’ve been playing 25-year-old games instead of writing the detailed review you’ve come to expect. So here:
Sprite Castle Podcast Review
Sprite Castle is the best podcast for Commodore 64 fans. Sound quality is perfect, the host (Rob ‘Flack’ O’Hara) is more than knowledgeable, and he makes proper use of one of the best resources available to him -- the best music from any video game system ever.
Rating: 64 Carat Gold.
And did somebody say best computer game music? Play it, Sam:
Interview with Rob O’Hara, AKA Flack AKA Commodork
To make up for the lack of word count I thought I’d ask the host, Rob O’Hara, if he’d be willing to do an interview. As you’ve guessed by now, he said yes.
Why do you podcast?
I started my first podcast (You Don’t Know Flack -- iTunes link) in the spring of 2008 as a way to promote my first two self-published books, “Commodork: Sordid Tales from a BBS Junkie” and “Invading Spaces: A Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Arcade Games.” I figured by putting out a podcast I might be able to sell a few more copies of my books, but the podcast took on a life of its own and is now probably more popular than my books!
In 2013 I decided to start a second podcast, one dedicated to my favorite home computer of all time, the Commodore 64. I originally launched Sprite Castle as a YouTube show, but it was too much work and I couldn’t get any viewers so I returned to the audio format. Today, Sprite Castle has as many listeners as You Don’t Know Flack. I have a pretty big listener crossover between the two shows, although a few listeners only listen to one or the other.
The thing I love the most about podcasting is hearing from listeners. I have received emails and voicemails from people halfway across the world telling me they enjoy my shows. I have heard from listeners not only in North America but South America, Europe, and Asia. I love it when someone from Brazil emails me to say they had similar experiences or memories!
What kind of setup/equipment do you have and how much time do you spend editing?
I have been podcasting for eight years now and have experimented with several different setups. I’ve used everything from USB headsets to studio quality microphones with huge mixing boards.
A few years ago I bought the “Podcart,” a metal tool cart on wheels that easily rolls in and out of my closet. I really hate breaking my equipment down and setting everything back up each time I record, so the Podcart allows me to leave everything set up the way I like it. Whenever I’m ready to record I just roll the cart out of the closet, grab a chair, and fire up my computer. I use a Windows-based laptop and a Blue Yeti USB microphone with a windscreen. I record my shows using Audacity and edit them on my main computer with Sony Vegas. I have experimented with all kinds of programs and plug-ins to tweak my sound, but these days all I do is slap on some compression and call it good.
When I started You Don’t Know Flack I spent hours editing every single episode. I would zoom in on the WAV file and meticulously cut out every single “um” and “uh” I uttered. For an hour long show I probably spent three hours editing. These days, I try to do as little editing as possible. If I really screw something up while recording I’ll note the time and go back and seamlessly patch things together. I try to keep my audio inserts down to two or three scheduled spots. I do a podcast called Multiple Sadness where I talk about bad movies. I put a ton of audio clips in each episode, and the show’s currently on hold because it was taking me eight hours to put together a 30-45 minute episode. The payoff just isn’t worth the effort. I’d like to jump start that show again, but if I do I’ll have to change the format to make it simpler to produce. I’m married with two kids and a full time job. I don’t have it in me to edit each episode for eight hours.
Do you listen to your rivals and what do you think about them?
I subscribe to probably a hundred podcasts, but I don’t consider any of them to be rivals. There’s an entire subgenre of “game by game” podcasts (http://www.gamebygamepodcast.
My biggest pet peeves when it comes to other people’s podcasts are poor audio quality, off-topic rambling, and excessive cussing. I’ve unsubscribed from podcasts for each of those reasons.
Did you enjoy Serial and how do you feel about the boom in podcasts since it aired?
I honestly didn’t get into Serial. Almost all the shows I listen to are about old computers, movies, or writing. The biggest shows I listen to are “How Did This Get Made?,” “Stuff You Should Know,” “Penn’s Sunday School,” and Kevin Smith’s “SModcast.” Those are the minority, though. Most of the shows I listen to are pretty niche with small listening audiences.
The boom in podcasts is good — the more big shows out there, the more exposure podcasts get in general as a medium. More people listening to podcasts means more people out there searching for content. One great thing about podcasts is that it’s a pretty level playing field. My humble little shows are listed on iTunes right next to Serial and those other high profile podcasts. You don’t need to be in Hollywood or have a dedicated studio to create a show.
Do you run the Throwback Network? If so, what’s it about -- how/why did you grow it?
In 2013 I discovered a podcast called Throwback Reviews, where three guys (Sean, Steve, and Door) watched and discussed movies from the 70s and 80s. I liked the show so much I emailed Sean and mentioned that I would be interested in coming on as a guest, if they ever needed one. One thing led to another, and now Sean and I host the show ourselves! (We didn’t kick the other guys off, honest!)
A couple of years ago I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a website where we could share all of our favorite podcasts?” That’s how Throwback Network came about. It’s a collection of podcasts that are all retro-themed. Probably half of the podcasts are about computers or electronic games (console, computer, arcade, pinball) and the rest are about old TV shows, movies, and toys. We try to only add active shows and all we ask in return is for people to plug the network on their shows — that way, listeners will hear about the network, visit the website, and find even more high quality retro shows. It really benefits everyone. There was a time when we dreamed about monetizing the network but it never happened.
On the Sprite Castle podcast, I saw you chose at least one game to talk about based on a listener request -- but in general how do you choose the games?
A lot of “game by game” podcasts simply run through their system’s game library chronologically from beginning to end, but for the Commodore 64 that would be impossible. There were (at least) 20,000 games released for the C64, and there’s no master list sorting them by release date.
In the beginning I just made a list of my favorite games, and started there. I currently have a backlog of roughly 50 games on my list, which is always growing as listeners are constantly sending me requests. When I start planning for a new episode I just randomly pick one from that list. Sometimes the picks relate to current events. For example, I reviewed the classic basketball game “One on One” when the NBA playoffs started, and did “Return of the Jedi” last winter when the Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released. Most of the time, the selections are purely random and I just select a game that I feel like playing and researching.
What was your fave Commodore 64 game?
Oh, man… Paradroid, Skate or Die, Pirates!, Jumpman, Lode Runner… I could go on for hours!
If I were sent to a desert island and could only take one system, I would definitely take a Commodore 64. 20,000 games? C’mon, man! Most of the games I play on the C64 are action/arcade games that don’t last very long. I would love to go to a desert island and spend some uninterrupted time playing some of the old adventure games that I never got around to beating.
Have you seen those videos where they show kids a C64 and ask them to guess what it is? And let them play the games? Did you ever try to get your own kids to play C64 games?
You know, it’s funny — when I’m playing Commodore 64 games and call my kids into my computer room, they will pick up a joystick and join in and have a good time. That being said, neither of them have ever asked me to play on the Commodore. My son is fourteen and only wants to play Call of Duty on the PS4. My daughter is ten and plays games on her iPhone all day. My kids appreciate retro games, but don’t prefer them.
Why does C64 have such a long-lasting impact?
That’s a good question. I’ve always felt like the best games are those that are simple to play but hard to master. If you look at a game like Bruce Lee or Lode Runner, it’s easy to explain how to play those games, but beating them is something else. I think the Commodore 64 was the best 8 bit computer in terms of graphics and sound, and for a lot of people it filled that gap when the home video game market was beginning to take a dive. So part of it is nostalgia, and part of it is the fact that those games were just really good.
For Sprite Castle, I check some of the Commodore 64-related news sites and people are still releasing new games for the system on a weekly basis. That’s a real testament to the system, that people loved it so much that they are still releasing games for it and we are still playing them!
My personal faves that you haven’t done podcasts about were Lords of Chaos, Paradroid, a racing game called Slicks, Emlyn Hughes International Soccer (!), Supremacy… Any memories of those?
Paradroid is one of my favorite games. I’ve played the Amiga version and the more recent DOS remake and neither one is as good as the Commodore 64 version was in my opinion. I actually covered Paradroid when I was doing Sprite Castle on YouTube, but definitely plan to circle around and cover it again on the audio show. I recently played Slicks and it amazes me how quick our reflexes were 30 years ago!
Did you have any ‘loading’ superstitions (you know, to help it load from cassette)?
Not that I can recall. For a while I had a bad power supply that would overheat and crash when I left my computer on for long periods of time. Usually it locked up when I was downloading games over the modem. It was so slow that you could watch the bits coming in and after so many it would clear the screen and start over. When it got to the last line I would literally hold my breath until the screen cleared and it started over.
I didn’t have a cassette drive for long. I got my first disk drive within a month or so of getting my Commodore and a second drive a few months later for Christmas. I went from asking Santa for Star Wars playsets to blank floppy disks real quick.
I can’t quite shake the feeling that I enjoyed some of those C64 games 20 times more than I like the AAA games of today. Do you ever feel like that? e.g. Fallout 4 is amazing in every way, but just somehow lacking the joy I used to get.
I do. For a long time I have felt like game manufacturers have put too much focus on graphics and creating massive online worlds and not enough on gameplay. I can certainly appreciate the amount of work that goes into creating one of those AAA titles, but twenty years from now I can’t imagine my kids will still be playing those same games, whereas I will probably still be playing Impossible Mission and Archon. Grand Theft Auto III sold more than 15 million copies, but when’s the last time you went back and played it? The game industry has been releasing essentially the same first-person shooter for twenty years in a row now and people are still buying them. I don’t get the appeal, and with online DRM and never-ending forced downloads and updates… sometimes I feel like the game industry is leaving me behind. There’s something about those classic 8-bit games that I enjoy. The ability to just load up a game, grab a joystick, and start playing without having to go through a long tutorial level is appealing to me. Part of me will always be stuck in that era.
I heard you mention a few times that you’re a hoarder and it seems you’ve got tons of C64 stuff lying around your home and garage. Why do you keep all that stuff? And have you got old cassettes and disks, too?
I’m not a real “hoarder” hoarder but I do have an awful lot of stuff — not as much as I used to, but still, a lot. A friend of mine recently told me that if he owns something that he hasn’t used in a year, he throws it away. I still own everything from my old Dungeons and Dragons manuals from the 1980s to the Star Wars figures I owned as a kid. I do have a lot of old computers and video game systems, but most of it is boxed up and in storage. It’s hard to pass up good deals, especially when things are cheap compared to what you remember they sold for new. I have two or three C64 computers and three or four disk drives and haven’t bought any more in a while. I still have all the old C64 diskettes I had as a kid, plus others that I have acquired over the past few years — probably 1,000 or so in all. I have converted them all to D64 disk images so there is no reason to keep them around… but I do.
I get why people keep playing C64 games but I was taken aback when you said people are still MAKING games and cracking the copy protection on old games. Why do you think people are doing that? Presumably they have the skill to make iPhone games that might make them some money.
That’s a good question. I think some people have more skills now than they did back in the 80s, so they are just now able to make their old dreams of creating a game. In the past couple of years we’ve seen games like Berserk and Donkey Kong, Jr. get C64 releases, things you wouldn’t be able to make and release for modern systems due to licensing. Some of those new C64 games are for sale and collectors buy them, but many are released for free by people simply giving back to the hobby.
Hoarding retro junk, playing ancient games, podcasting and running websites about all this -- what DOES your partner think about that side of your life?
My wife had a Commodore 128 and an NES growing up, so it’s all good. She’s not into the retro stuff at all, but she understands why I enjoy it. I don’t spend nearly as much time on the hobby as it might seem. My wife usually goes to bed by 10pm so I often record podcasts after she goes to bed or before she wakes up on the weekends. We have a nice sized house, which allows me to store most of my things out of sight (or at least out of her sight, haha).
Rob, it’s been great. Shall I put an Amazon link to your book here?
Contact Rob O’Hara