The History of Video Games #10: The Audio and Visual Capabilities of the Commodore C64

Updated: Aug 6


C64 Pixel Art

In the last article, we investigated the impressive hardware that powered the Commodore C64 Home Computer. This hardware allowed the C64 to display graphics and sound that were far in advance of the competition. This resulted in games that looked better, sounded better and due to smoother scrolling - played better than most of their equivalents on rival 8-bit systems. We will investigate the C64’s Audio-Visual chops below.



Graphics



The C64 benefited from a dedicated graphics chip, the VIC-II. This granted the C64 enhanced graphics compared to most of its competitors. One standout feature of the C64 was its use of two distinct colour modes. This gave devs the option of creating games for either mode and thus tailoring the look and feel of a game to the mode most suited to it.


  • The ‘High resolution’ mode allowed for two colours per character block - one in the background and one in the foreground - at a resolution of 320 x 200 pixels.


  • The ‘Multicolour’ mode allowed four colours per block - three in the foreground and one in the background - at a resolution of 160 x 200 pixels.


Some games used the ‘High Resolution’ mode, others used ‘Multicolour’. The choice of mode used could drastically alter the look of a game. Gamers, of course, were sometimes divided about which mode they preferred.


Games using Hi Res mode tended to look similar to ZX Spectrum games, only without the dreaded attribute clash. The Spectrum and C64 versions of Fantasy World Dizzy are a good comparison.



Fantasy World Dizzy ZX Spectrum




Fantasy World Dizzy C64 – High Res Mode




Games using the multicolour mode were more common and looked very different. They had more on-screen colours, but this was at the expense of resolution which resulted in a ‘blockier’ appearance. The Spectrum and C64 versions of R-Type illustrate this contrast well.



R-Type ZX Spectrum




R-Type C64 – Multicolour Mode




Colour Palette


The C64’s colour palette consisted of 16 colours. The colours chosen were notable in that they were all somewhat muted. These muted colours are what gave many C64 games their characteristic ‘earthy’ appearance.


C64 Colour Palette


Artwork and Demos



Similar to what we saw previously with the Spectrum there were a number of art programs created for the C64. This allowed artists to create impressive digital art, such as the images in the video below.



C64 Static Artwork




The C64 also spawned a dedicated community of demo creators. ‘Demos’ were programs created to show off the audio-visual chops of the C64. Some of the results were truly outstanding. Most of these effects could not be practically implemented in a game of course, but they provided an audio-visual treat which showed what the C64 was capable of in the right hands.



Comaland - Commodore 64 demo - First Place at X2014


Note the year - the C64 Demo scene has been going strong until at least 2014



Sound


The C64’s SID sound chip granted the computer superior sound compared to the other 8-bit micros. This, combined with the C64’s 64K of RAM, allowed games to feature both in-game soundtracks and in-game sound effects. Most of the early competing 16K and 48K 8-Bit home computers could only support one at a time - therefore either an in-game soundtrack OR in-game sound effects, not both.


(NB – I suspect that the ZX Spectrum games seen in the earlier articles that featured both in-game sound effects and music were running on the later 128K Spectrums)

The video below should give you some idea about what C64 in-game music sounded like.



C64 Music, My Top 60 favorite SID tunes




The SID was powerful enough to create digital renditions of recognisable songs, without the words of course. The days of games having in game songs with full vocal tracks were still a long way off.



Doctor Who Theme Song - Commodore 64 / Kompositkrut




The C64 was also capable of creating digitised speech. It still sounded ‘scratchy’ and ‘artificial’, but it was superior to that of the ZX Spectrum, both in quality and quantity. Even so, digitised speech was used fairly sparingly due to memory constraints. It would be at least another decade until games were fully voice acted.



Digitised speech in Commodore 64 Games


Not as bad as the Spectrum video, but you still might want to turn the volume down…



As time went on developers learnt more and more about the C64’s hardware and software. This allowed some developers to implement unofficial tricks to really push the C64’s graphical abilities to the absolute limit. This culminated in games such as 1993’s Mayhem in Monsterland. Many reviewers were astounded that an 8-Bit system could generate visuals of this quality. So impressed were Commodore Force and Commodore Format that they scored the game at 97% and 100% respectively.



Mayhem in Monsterland C64


This is running on an 8-Bit system!?!?



Conclusion



The C64’s impressive audio-visual chops translated well into games of course. As a result, the C64 soon amassed an impressive line-up of games to play on it. The best of these were among the best games released on any of the 8-Bit home micros. We will investigate the highs and lows of gaming on the C64 in the next article.


What are your thoughts on the audio-visual abilities of the C64? Do you prefer the sharper images of the high res mode or the extra colour of the multicolour mode? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.



Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at the_nomad78@outlook.com

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