Sunday, 31 May 2015

Remembering... Commodore 64

Commodore 64

A monumental 8-bit computer this week

The school yards of the early 80s were home to such gaming wonders as British Bulldog, Manhunt and Conkers, but above all else, they were the battleground for who preferred the Spectrum over the Commodore.

To the Spectrum owners, the C64 was a toilet-coloured, uninspiring box that produced blocky graphics and was purchased by parents who had more money than sense. The truth, though, was something else. In fact, the C64 (however much I hate to admit it) was a far more competent and technologically advanced machine than its 80s 8-bit rival.

Full-colour sprites and hardware scrolling, thanks to the VIC-II chip, extra memory and a better keyboard than the rubber keys on offer on the Speccy were just the tip of the iceberg. The piece de resistance, of course, was the utterly amazing three-channel SID chip that produced some of the most impressive soundtracks and effects outside of the arcades.

Many of the games that appeared on the C64 were technically so far ahead of their time that even Commodore itself was amazed at what the coders of the time were getting the machine to do. Take Uridium, for example. Here was a game that featured 50Hz, multi-layer parallax scrolling and smooth-as-silk hardware sprites that drove forward in varying attack patterns. Although the Spectrum port was just as iconic and an incredible achievement, it simply didn't look anywhere near as good as the original C64 version.

Its History

Commodore had already seen much success in the business market and with the C64's predecessor, the VIC-20. Early 1981, it began work on developing the next generation of entertainment components based on what was available in the arcades.

The results of that work were the aforementioned VIC-II graphics chip and the Sound Interface Device chip (SID). These were to be fitted into a games console apparently called The Ultimax, which was cancelled after just a number of units. However, Commodore engineers Robert Russel, Robert Yannes Charles Winterble and Al Charpentier managed to pitch an idea for a follow-up machine to the VIC-20 to Commodore boss, Jack Tramiel.

The VIC-40, as it was then known, went through many design alterations until it was finally agreed on that it should resemble the VIC-20 to continue the available Commodore range, including the business machines. By the time it was released to the eager press in January 1982, the name was changed to C64.

The C64 soon became the highest selling single computer of all time, despite the fact that it cost £399 when it was released to the UK public. Its legacy to this day is still as strong as that of the Spectrum's and probably will be for many more years yet to come.

The Good

Often far better graphics then the Spectrum and naturally the untouchable audio from the SID chip, which is still going strong.

The Bad

Expensive, very expensive. A serial port for 10 and the famously dodgy 1541 disk drive. You have to admit that typing Load"" was better than typing Load" *",8,1.


The Commodore 64 was a singularly impressive home computer. Although I only owned one for a few months before upgrading to an Atari ST, the C64 still sticks in my mind as the computer I would have liked to have known better.

So which one were you: a Spectrum owner or a C64 owner?

Did You Know?

• There were an estimated 17 million C64s sold in its lifetime.
• You could run an Apple-1 emulator on a C64.
• The C64 BASIC was pretty much a series of pokes.
• One of the early Anarchist's Cookbooks was how to hack with a modem and a C64.