As I learnt through arranging my previous interview with Chester Kollschen on his game, Sam’s Journey, the Commodore 64 development community is very much alive and well. Not only that, but the concepts being brought to the table are fresh and exciting ones, not only reviving a lost medium, but putting a modern spin on the 8-bit game. The output of Pond Software, and of one of its creative talents, Graham Axten, is no different.
I stumbled upon The Bear Essentials while browsing Twitter, and instantly fell in love with the gorgeous cover art made for the limited-edition jewel case release of the game. The Bear Essentials is a standard C64 platformer, but with a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in a young child’s bedtime story.
The Bear Essentials focuses on a rather forgetful brown bear, who is too preoccupied (perhaps with playing a round or two of Bubble Bobble?) to collect fruit for the long winter. As you can imagine, his wife is none too happy that it slipped his mind to gather rations, so he sets off on a last-minute journey to stock up on supplies. Unfortunately for Mr. Bear, all of the other woodland creatures are on the prowl for sweet treats, too, and won’t let a small thing like a towering grizzly bear stand in their way…
I was fortunate enough to have a short email exchange with Graham Axten about the design process and any particular difficulties he faced while working with the hardware.
Charlotte Cutts: How did you come up with the idea for The Bear Essentials?
Graham Axten: It originally started out as a game for iOS, which is why the controls are fairly simple (left, right, jump), but I found that the lack of restrictions really held me back. I just couldn’t get the game looking and feeling right. When I moved to C64, the game just seemed to bloom in the platform’s restrictions so I stuck with it.
I wanted to keep the game mechanics very simple to give me a chance of actually finishing making the game, so I went with a collect ’em up.
I knew I wanted the character to be a bear and he would be collecting apples, so the story of collecting enough food for Winter just came from that really!
Charlotte Cutts: It appears to be an idea suited to introducing young children to the C64. Did this factor into your design choices?
Graham Axten: This wasn’t a conscious decision at all! I wanted the game to be cheerful and cute, and my nephew seemed to enjoy playing it, but I didn’t really design it to be universal.
It’s amazing to hear that the older C64 generation are playing Bear with their kids though! Makes me proud to think that maybe I’m helping to pass the torch to the next generation of C64 enthusiasts!
Charlotte Cutts: Retro platformers can be notoriously difficult, and The Bear Essentials seems quite challenging in places. How did you go about making sure The Bear Essentials was at the right difficulty level?
Graham Axten: This has been a big concern for me, as it’s really difficult to judge how hard a game is going to be, because when you’re working on it every day you naturally get pretty good at it and the challenge disappears. When I watched some members of my family playing it during the early days, they couldn’t even get off the first screen! So I knew I had to be careful then.
I really relied on the feedback from beta testers towards the end. There were a few changes made to bring the difficulty down a bit, but the main feedback I got was that the game was ‘challenging but not unfair’, so I was happy with that!
Charlotte Cutts: The soundtrack to The Bear Essentials is very catchy, as all platformer soundtracks should be. How did you come up with memorable 8-bit tunes for the game?
Graham Axten: This was something I found quite difficult, actually. I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to write music of the quality I wanted, as I’d never really used the SID chip before. The first piece of music I wrote was the title music, and it just stuck in my head for days, so I knew I was onto a winner there! Then, for the area themes, I kind of tried to make a small ditty that suited the area and build on it. It helped to not listen to the music for a few days once it was written, come back to it with a fresh ear, and then spend time improving the bits that stood out as not good enough.
Some tunes I’m more pleased with than others… I think my favourite is the jungle theme, and that was the quickest one to write.
The Bear Essentials is available for download to use on emulators here. First-edition physical copies can be ordered here for £15 (including international postage) while stocks last, including stickers, a manual and a bonus game.