Bits from my personal collection – Cosmi in the ’80s, an affordable games fest

In 1982 George Johnson began assembling a team of programmers to expand his business into the new and emerging personal computer software market. Johnson had a magnetic tape recording and manufacturing business where he sold audio cassettes to primarily the European market, cassettes that were produced cheaply in Asia. While from producing audiotapes to computer software might, for the average person, seem worlds apart, the crossover made more sense from a technical standpoint, since the newly released Commodore 64 home computer used both tapes and floppies (earlier personal computers had also used magnetic tape for data storage). Johnson, with experience in moving big quantities of products to customers and with an understanding that it wasn’t always the revolutionary products that would make the business – while these products might fetch a higher individual price, the market was also, to most extends, very much smaller. The big market was the average household, which not necessarily wanted the newest and the best but more relied on already proven concepts in entertainment.
While Johnson’s philosophy didn’t quite hold water since the first games developed and published by his company were quite groundbreaking in both visual, audio and gameplay – but more on that later.
Johnson, who had no real experience with computers, understood that the now very much accessible personal computer, which only had emerged a handful of years earlier, was on its way to becoming a household item in average American families.
-It’s believed that in 1982 there were around 500.000 personal computers across the US, a considerable market indeed, an only growing exponential in the coming years. Johnson’s wanted to cater to the average consumer looking for electronic entertainment and utility software.

Cosmi, the venture into games
Johnson’s vision was to only produce inhouse titles and selling them at affordable prices, a vision he would stick to for decades to come.
While Johnson, in 1982, was assembling programmers for his new venture he also acquired a small company called Synchro, while synchro was a small and pretty much unknown company without any noticeable assets, not counting the chairs, which Johnson was initially after, one of the Synchro employees would turn out to be a gold mine in himself.
The potential programmers assembled by Johnson were invited to his mansion in Pasadena, California to hear out his and his partner Bill’s vision for Cosmi Corporation and the awaiting venture into the personal computer software market. When the guest would show off of their creations one guest, in particular, would make a deep and lasting impression, the guest was Paul Norman, the employee from Synchro.

Paul Norman
Norman had a career in music, as a guitarist and composer, in the ’70s, but when Disco started sweeping the musical scene, the room for live musicians was shrinking, Norman bought himself a Commodore VIC-20 and started to learn BASIC, not before long he had developed a couple of games. Norman, greatly inspired by the great movies of his youth understood that visual and audio, hand in hand with the story were the most important parts of any experience, movie or game, pair that with his background in music and his approach would be unlike most programmers of the time, who typical were techies or hobbyist, most young and inexperienced in life, Norman was in his early thirties.
In the summer of 1982, Norman was hired by Synchro and started working on what would become Forbidden Forest, but before he could complete the game, Johnson swept in and bought out Synchro and thereby Norman as well.
What Norman showed at Johnson’s mansion in Pasadena that night was not only a well-written piece of software, it was graphical, eerie and moody, with sudden lightning flashes and blood spewing gore, the sound and music accompanied the visual to set a scary and emotional mood. Norman had also incorporated a parallax feature, and as soon as the protagonist started moving the game suddenly became pseudo 3D like. Both Johnson and Bill knew when they had a hit on their hands, Norman went home (literally home, since Cosmi didn’t have any office space at the time) to finish Forbidden Forest. Unlike his earlier games this was written in machine code which without a doubt gave an etch to performance, which was needed with all the elements Norman ended up putting into the game.
When Forbidden Forest was released for the Commodore 64, in 1983, it became an instant hit and would go on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies.
Johnson’s prophecy of selling affordable entertainment to the masses would prove a success in one of his first tries, thanks to Norman’s masterpiece.

Paul Normans first Cosmi title, Forbidden forest for the Commodore 64 and Atari 8-bit, released in 1983

Before Norman had his Forbidden Forest game completed, Cosmi released a couple of games for the Atari 8-bit.
Aztec Challenge: a side-scrolling platform game originally created by Robert Tegel Bonifacio (who would start working for Cosmi as well), for the Atari 8-bit and released through the Atari Program Exchange in 1982, where it was released as The Bonifas. Cosmi picked up the title almost immediately and added a simultaneous two-player option and renamed it to Aztec Challenge. It was released by Cosmi for the Atari 8-bit in 1982.
Atari also wanted to publish the game under the Atari label but had some minor changes to it, these changes were never completed and subsequently, the Atari version was never published.
Bonifacio was only 17 at the time but was already a superb programmer and “champion” arcade game player.

Cosmi’s first released game, Aztec Challenge, here the “Trilogy compatible version” for the Atari 8-bit, TI-99/4A and Commodore VIC-20

The Crypts of Plumbous: A side-scrolling shoot’em up with deep roots in the earlier and very successful title, Defender – unfortunately, Plumbous wasn’t really that good and quickly faded into the dusty pages of the history books. The game was created by James Jengo and only released on the Atari 8-bit home computer. Unlike all of the other early Cosmi titles, this wasn’t ported to the Commodore 64.

The Crypts of Plumbous, released in Cosmi’s first year, 1982. It was only released on the Atari 400/800

When Norman had completed Forbidden Forest, he was asked to do a Commodore 64 port of Aztec Challenge, the game was Cosmi’s first big seller so naturally, Johnson wanted it on the Commodore C64 as well.
As it turned out, Norman pretty much went rogue and made a completely new game from scratch that in no way resembled the original except for the title and maybe a bit of the setting. While this could prove to be an issue for most not for Johnson, who saw another sales opportunity.
In the same year, 1983, Cosmi also released a graphically updated version of Aztec Challengen with added replay functionality at the end of each level, otherwise very similar to the original Atari Program Exchange release. If it sounds confusing, you’re right, Aztec Challenge were released as 3 “different” games over the course of a year, Norman’s being a completely different game.

With the success of Forbidden Forest, Norman went on to create his second original game for Cosmi, Caverns of Khafka. While the title was advertised as an adventure game it was pretty much an adventurous platform game, with inspiration from the Indiana Jones movie. It had a fairly complex control scheme with the ability to climb, crawl, run, walk and shoot but also to use your rope to either climb or to grab stuff. The game was released for the Commodore 64 in 1983 and ported the same year to the Atari 8-bit line of home computers. Even though the game is vividly and fondly remembered for its typical eerie “Norman” atmosphere and setting, the game also had some design flaws and at times felt quite unfinished.

Caverns of Khafka, created by Paul Norman and released in 1983 for the Commodore 64, it was ported the same year to the Atari 8-bit

Norman wouldn’t sleep on the laurels and in the next six years he went on to either create, be a part of or port a vast array of different games for Cosmi, all while working from his home.

Slinky was kind of an atypical game for Norman, it was a port of a clone – in this case, a Commodore 64 port of Vance Kozik’s Atari 8-bit clone of Gottlieb’s 1982 hugely successful coin-up video game Q*Bert.
This time around Norman didn’t go roque and kept the port very much true to the “original” clone

Moster Trivia, a quiz game riding on the succes of the best selling quiz game of the time, Trivial Pursuit. Released for the Commodore 64 in 1985
Norman and his friend put their own quirky spin on it and made about a tenth of the questions about beavers!

Norman revisited the Forbidden Forest, in 1985, with his next title Beyond Forbidden Forest. As with most sequels to any big hit, his and everybody else’s expectations where high. Norman added new features, bigger monsters, and a better control scheme but in the end, missed out on the spirit of the original (which in most cases is pretty hard not to do).

Beyond Forbidden Forest, released in 1985 and only for the Commodore 64. While most people would agree that despite its design flaws, being extremely difficult and missing somewhat out on the spirit of the original, Beyond Forbidden Forest was a really good game with an eerie atmosphere and a great Paul Norman soundtrack to accompany it

From fantasy to real-life
Norman’s best selling title would come from his next endeavor. Cosmi intrigued by the rising flight simulator market, wanted Norman to nosedive in and create a flight simulator, initially not too happy about the whole ordeal, Norman insisted that it had to be a helicopter simulator, which made sense since one of the hottest show on TV at the time was Airwolf. Norman went to work and in the process ended up getting really interested in working with simulations of real-life stuff. Norman’s bet on a helicopter simulator turned out to be a wise decision. Super Huey UH-IX became his best selling title and the Cosmi title that was ported to the biggest number of platforms – even to the Atari 7800.

Super Huey UH-IX, released in 1985 for all major platforms. It became Norman’s best selling title and spawned Super Huey II in 1986, also created by Norman. The second installment was more of an arcade game than a simulator

It turned out that simulation of real-life stuff, like with Super Huey, would shape nearly all of Norman’s Cosmi titles to come. It would also spawn one of the more controversial titles of the time.

Chernobyl, no not the HBO series
With a love for science and technology and with his new interest in real-life simulations, Norman sat out working on a nuclear power plant simulator. After much research, he ended up with a fairly realistic simulator, with the ability to run and caretake a nuclear power plant.
Unaffected what had happened just a year earlier, Cosmi went ahead and published the game in 1987 for the Commodore 64 – Just a year after the worst nuclear disaster in history had taken place at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine (Ukrainian SSR, at the time part of the Soviet Union).
In an act of probably some of the worst marketing in the history of computer games, the simulator was called Chernobyl – Nuclear Power Plant Simulation, a title that Norman had nothing to do with, but since Chernobyl was all over the news at that time, someone at Cosmi might have thought it was a proper and recognizable name to capitalize on – Keep in mind that this was a disaster, that in the days and months after, ended up costing 28 men their lives from immediate blast trauma and acute radiation syndrome.
While the game in itself is not about blowing up a nuclear reactor it is still absurd close to the disaster – and as icing on the cake, Cosmi commissioned a cover of a blazing nuclear fireball engulfing the box and using the Soviet hammer and sickle as the “o” in Chernobyl.

Paul Norman’s nuclear power plant simulator, which tragically ended up with the name Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Simulation. While nuclear power plant simulators wasn’t a new thing, the whole marketing from Cosmi was absolutely tasteless. The game was released in late 1987 for the Commodore 64.
I’m not sure if the game was completely pulled from the market, but I know certain stores pulled it from their shelves

While the science and technical aspect of the game was fascinating, the game itself was not – like in real life the chance of malfunctions and thus the nuclear core running wild is minuscule, to say the least. You’d have to go out of your way to make every single bad decision possible, turn off every possible safety mechanism, and even then it would require a core design flaw or natural disaster, like with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear powerplant in Japan, to cause a disaster.
The numerous safety routines in the game which kicks in if you negligees to caretake the plant in an orderly fashion, in part makes the game as exciting as watching grass grow – that is if your ultimate goal is to blow the plant into smithereens. Otherwise, the game is kinda educational, if you have an interest in running a nuclear power plant, watching gauges, analyzing numbers and have a Geiger counter constantly beeping in your ear.

Chernobyl wasn’t Cosmi’s first venture into nuclear plants and meltdowns, Bonifacio who created the original Aztec Challenge created the game Meltdown at Megalopolis in 1982, which were published by Cosmi in 1983. The game plays like Frogger, where you, to prevent a meltdown, has to get from the bottom of the screen to the top.
Meltdown, the game, was actually created upon some box-art Cosmi had produced earlier but wasn’t used and Johnson didn’t want it go to waste.

Meltdown at Megalopolis, released for the Atari 8-bit home computers in 1983

Bonifacio went on to create The E Factor, also in 1983. The E Factor, the time it takes for a planet to empty all of its energy ressources and then heading for extinction. The mission of the game, to deliver energy capsules to planets in the danger zone.

The E Factor, by Bonifacio, released for the Atari 8-bit home computers in 1983

Cosmi, like Norman, turned, in the mid to late eighties, most of their focus to simulators. Releasing an array of different simulators, from Wall Street and international finance to the racetrack, to the baseball field, to the shores of the Persian Gulf and not least, to save the United States from being wiped out from inter ballistic missiles.

A lineup of financial simulators for the IBM/PC, released by Cosmi in the late ’80s

Grand Slam Baseball for the Commodore 64, released in 1987. On the left a sealed copy and on the right a signed copy by Jose Canseco – 1986 Rookie of the Year, 1988 Most Valuable Player, and six-time All-Star.
Canseco won the World Series with Oakland Athletics in 1989 and with the New York Yankees in 2000

Norman’s last title before parting ways with Cosmi in 1989 was Navy Seal, initially released for the now aging Commodore 64. It used very much the same formula as his take on Aztec Challenge 6 years earlier. It might have been in the cards as the Commodore 64 was on its final legs so was Norman and Johnson’s relationship. Norman had always been about the creative process, composing something special and putting it into his games (especially in his earlier titles), Johnson was all about moving products and making a profit, which of course was his finest task – to keep the company afloat, but there might be a hint of “Norman” didn’t get what he deserved – Norman’s role at Cosmi was pretty significant and after 7 years it probably was a smart move to remove himself from Cosmi and Johnson.

Navy Seal, Normans last game before leaving Cosmi, here the IBM/PC version released in 1989

Cosmi is still around today (2019) and has survived as an independent software house relying on profits rather than capital investments. At the turn of the 21st century, Cosmi was selling more than 6 million pieces of software and still relies heavily on moved items – it’s not about being an industry leader but about producing items that are sellable at scale, at a cheap price.

It is not our job to innovate as much as imitate. We watch what is selling, then produce an enhanced version of the same product at a budget price. The advantage you have by being second is that you can focus very specifically on function. Our customers want easy, one-item software that does a specific application to fulfill a specific requirement.

Success Through Imitation, Not Innovation – An interview with George Johnson in L.A Times, 2000

Below my mostly sealed Cosmi collection, I’m a huge fan of the artwork, these items scream eighties as loud as an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo.

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