I’ve been meaning to write a post about the Commodore 64 for a while now. The problem is… where do you begin? How do you do something so important justice? I’m not sure, so lets just jump in and see where we go.
I owned computers before I had my Commodore 64. I had a Spectrum for a while, a BBC Acorn, and I had a Commodore Vic 20 too. All of these machines had their charms, but they pale into insignificance compared to the iconic truly C64.
The Commodore 64 was without doubt the best home computer I have ever owned. My friends thought so too, they all had one, well apart from one, he had a Spectrum and the only reason people liked him was that he owned a massive Scalextric set and a very good looking older sister.
For those of you too young to remember or those not fortunate enough to own a C64 in its glory days, it will be difficult to understand just how good this machine actually was. This was a 8 bit personal computer that was sold between 1982 – 1994. Thats 12 years of sales! It sold 17 million units! Over 9,000 games and software titles where officially released for it, not to mention huge amounts of freeware! This was a serious machine for a very early generation of gamers. I bet Steve Jobs never owned one! That’s how good they were!
The C64 had it’s problems. It had a terrible basic programming language written by Mr. B. Gates, which didn’t work very well. It didn’t work very well if you lived above the third storey in a building either because of “Interference”. It didn’t like to get too hot, and cold weather didn’t do it many favours either. The floppy drive, although not essential, was quite expensive; costing as much as the machine did, whereas the hard drive cost twice as much again! Tape access, as with all machines at the time was slooooowwww. Cartridge games where rare and expensive, as well as difficult to slot in and out, often breaking the machine in the process. Also the power leads were often badly soldered and broke after a while.
When the portable verison of the c64 was released – the SX64 (weighing in at 23 pounds), it failed badly – nobody bought one! (they are worth a fortune to collectors now). The small 5″ CRT screen next to the floppy drive, had magnets in it, as do all CRT screens. Floppy discs and magnetic fields do not mix well.
Still, if you were willing to over look these minor flaws (and we were as we know no better), the c64 had it’s own brand of magic. Long before the interweb existed in its current form, you could buy a modem for your C64. The only real reason to do this in the UK was to access something called Compunet! Many countries had there own version; in the US they had Quantum Computer Services – which later became America Online (AOL). Compunet was a magical bulletin board (a very basic forum) where people could post demos’ and you could download and save them. You could chat to people too and email them! It even had a WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) Text Editor. In 1985! Honestly! I was 12 years old, and this was arguably the first online community! Jaws, mine included, dropped!
The lack of a decent, easy to use BASIC language on the C64 meant that in order to write games or anything else with any form of complexity, you had to learn to program in assembly language. Some people saw this as a problem; Why build a machine with amazing hardware and not give it an easily accessible programming language? Simple really, they got it cheap. They paid Microsoft a one time fee of $25,000 for Microsoft Basic for the Commodore PET, and they used slightly updated versions of it on all there machines, never paying Microsoft or anyone else a penny more.
For many, Commodore’s decision to lumber its machines with the worst BASIC language you will ever come across was a blessing in disguise. You see if you learn to program in Assembly Language on one machine, it is very easy to do it for a different machine, you just need a memory map, which shows which bits of memory are used for which function for example sound of graphics, but the underlying code is very similar. As a result, a whole generation of Playstation, Xbox, Wii and Windows programmers were born, because Commodore was stubborn and cheap!
Some of the more spectacle wearing among you may remember GEOS too. GEOS (Graphic Environment Operating System), which was a bit like Windows for the C64, in that it didn’t work very well. It was impressive never the less. It had paint programs, calculators, word-processors, spreadsheets and databases, all written and designed by a small community supporting and sharing software and ideas with each other! It was all very Utopian and lovely.
With Compunet in place, at the hefty price of £0.80 per hour (in the UK at least) and GEOS making tape and disc management easier, fantastic people like Ashley Routledge & Dave Saunders (Ash & Dave) where creating remarkable demo’s and games. They pushed the c64 to its design limits, and then way beyond. They exploited bugs in the actual hardware to create astonishing effects. A new and original generation of programmers came along and designed all of the games genres we take for granted today, and this little machine was the first tool that really allowed them to do that. People like Ash & Dave have since gone on to shape the gaming industry.
Another fantastic piece of hardware the c64 had on-board, was the SID (Sound Interface Device) Chip, which provided three sound channels, allowing programmers and musicians to generate quality sound for the first time on a computer inexpensively. This lead to some truly awesome in-game soundtracks – Wizball’s theme music by Martin Galway is a prime example.
Games for the Commodore 64 were by and large rubbish if you take off the rose coloured glasses, but almost all of them were original, thought up by single programmers or a couple of friends coding over a cup of tea, in a flat somewhere. This is where modern gaming was defined and shaped, because this is where the original console programmers came from – my generation – the 8-bit generation.
Of course you may be lucky enough to have a Commodore 64 that still works. It may be in your loft, or in the bottom of a wardrobe somewhere. If so, get it out, dust it off, and load your favourite game while you make yourself a cup of tea or coffee. You might be suprised at how good some of them are.
If you don’t own a C64, may I suggest having a look at WinVICE, which emulates not only the Commodore 64, but most of the Commodore family, (Amiga excluded). Have a look at http://www.c64.com, where you can download most C64 games for the emulator. There are even some people out there now, who are developing games and demos for c64 emulators, all these years later. Astonishing isn’t it? Have a look at the Forums on Lemon64 for more information.
Of course you can always look on ebay for a second hand C64, there are still quite a few floating around out there, and they aren’t particularly expensive either. I just picked one up while writing this for£50 with 200 games! If you do buy a C64, bear in mind that there is still a huge “Modding” scene out there.
Have a look at http://www.64hdd.com which will show you everything from adding a huge hard drive to creating your own portable c64. Or how about an incredibly sexy c64 laptop? I have plans on building my own version of this at some point in the next 12 months when I am a little less busy than I am now.
I miss the glory days of the Commodore 64 when everything was new and exciting. Still it is good to know that I am not the only one, and that their are others out there keeping the Commodore spirit alive.
Enjoy, reminisce, be nostalgic and enjoy the magic that is and was the Commodore 64.