Back in the eighties, I found out the hard way that the Commodore 16's budget games were often better than the over-hyped full price ones. The simple joys of £1.99 gems like BMX Racers and Formula 1 Simulator would be tempered by some serious wallet-rape inflicted upon me by cynical cash-ins such as Beach Head and Commando. Perhaps the tight deadlines programmers had for budget labels suited the 12K format and increased their focus. Certainly, Mastertronic did as much for the machine as any other software house, and their best titles were often completely different to the Commodore 64 or Spectrum versions, so the only way you could play them was on the C16. One such game, Kikstart, no longer belongs to this exclusive club, as Cosine have brought it over pixel by pixel to the C64 with some subtle changes that have arguably made what was a great game even better.
Kikstart is a sort of precursor to games like Excite Bike and Motocross Maniacs in which you have to guide your racer along an assault course avoiding numerous obstacles, both natural and unnatural. Boulders, dirt pits and double decker buses are the main hazards early on, but further on, things get so unpleasant that even the Gods conspire against you, sending bolts of lightning from dark clouds ominously hanging in the sky. All you have as a way of avoiding these traps are an ability to jump using the fire button and some nifty acceleration and deceleration skills. Balloons float above your head that if touched give you some bonus points, but don't pay too much attention to them or you'll crash - remember the highway code. If you somehow manage to clear sixteen of these booby trapped stages, you are the Kikstart champion, and are probably presented with some tacky silver trophy by Keith Chegwin, much like they used to do at the end of the BBC TV series with a similar name.
Indeed, the theme tune from that very programme greets you upon loading the game up, and its exquisite cheesiness will raise a smile. Thanks to Mr SID, the C64 version is kinder on the ear than the original, though unlike on the C16, this tune plays constantly throughout the game on a loop, not even stopping for the "game over" and demo screens. This makes the tune grow old quite quickly, and I would have preferred it to have only played at the start up screen and not in the game too. It's the only change from the original that I felt was to the detriment of this conversion.
In every other area though, Cosine have done a masterful job of transferring the game over. While the C16 is rightly considered a scaled down C64, one area where it does excel is in its 121 colour palette, unusually high for a budget 8-bit micro. It's a credit to the Cosine team that even though the C64 only has 16 colours, in this conversion the difference between the two visually is quite small, with the only real change being the removal of a small bug in the scrolling routine, making it a bit smoother. Special note must also go to the fancy-looking introductory screen before the game proper starts, which has some neat visual effects, storming SID-pop and an instructions page for those that have never played the game before, which I imagine would be quite a few.
The most important area of course is in the playability, and this is where the conversion really impresses as it seems to play exactly like the C16 version. Not only are the stages laid out just like on the C16, the bike handling is identical too, as is the speed and timing of the jumps required to get through the various stages. To all intents and purposes, it's the same game. Cosine have made this part of the conversion look so easy that it's tempting to take it for granted, but this would be a mistake: the poor collision detection on the C64 version of Manic Miner, for example, shows what happens when a competent programmer doesn't pay enough attention to detail. With Kikstart, Cosine have proven themselves too quick for that particular trap.
Twenty one years and one conversion later, Kikstart has lost none of its addictiveness. This is a game that can still swallow you up whole after just ten minutes of play. Admittedly, there will be the odd swear word uttered further on as later stages can see your lives disappear very quickly, but it doesn't deter you from trying again, and the early rounds never become a chore. Kikstart is the real thing: a classic game that has been hidden away for over two decades on a little known format. It may be too late for Mastertronic to make money out of it, but perhaps this excellent C64 version will finally give it (amongst the retro gaming community anyway) the bigger audience that it deserves.