Updated: Feb 26
In the last article, we investigated gaming on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum series of home computers. Although the ZX Spectrum was arguably the most successful 8-bit home computer in the UK, it did not have the market all to itself, as it faced stiff competition from several other 8-bit home computers. What’s more, the ‘Speccy’ sold relatively poorly internationally. Outside of the UK, the Commodore C64 dominated the home computer scene throughout the 1980s, becoming the best-selling home computer of all time. This is its story.
Full disclosure: My personal experience with the C64 is limited as I did not own one myself, therefore I am reliant on 2nd hand sources. Any inaccuracies are accidental and feel free to correct me in the comments section.
In the Beginning
Commodore International first showed their new 8-bit C64 home computer to the world at the 1982 CES (Consumer Electronics Show). To have the C64 ready for CES the computer was allegedly designed in just two weeks. This was made possible due to it using the same operating system and many of the same components as the earlier VIC 20. Much of the newer hardware used in the C64 had already been made for use in the ill-fated Commodore MAX console. Therefore, creating the C64 was largely a case of fitting the new chips, CPU, RAM, motherboard etc. into the new case – a case which was broadly similar to the VIC 20’s.
The C64 was aimed at the ‘top-end’ of the low tier home computers, i.e. above the ZX Spectrum, Atari 400 and Atari 800 but below the more expensive ‘big business’ computers. It was originally marketed as a business machine, particularly suitable for home offices and small businesses. As such the C64 boasted a range of peripherals, such as printers, video monitors, external HDDs and modems for connection to the then-nascent internet.
Such capability did not come cheap, however, which explains the C64’s rather hefty initial price tag of US $595 – which equates to approximately $1576 in today’s money.
As you would expect for such a price point, the C64 was considerably more powerful than its competition in almost every department. What’s more, it was able to cram this into a compact form factor very similar to the VIC 20. The length was kept to a minimum. However, it was rather ‘chunky’ which allegedly made resting your hands on it while typing difficult. This may have made for a less-than-optimal typing experience. Due to its shape and colour, it was affectionately nicknamed ‘the bread bin’.
Although it may have originally been intended for business use, it was often used to play video games. This is partly due to the C64 possessing several features which made it especially suitable for gaming.
For a start, connecting the C64 to a display was easy, as it featured multiple options. It possessed an internal RF modulator for easy connection to televisions. This would be familiar to anyone who had played on the Atari 2600 thus allowing for an easy transition from the Atari console to the Commodore computer. This might have been a significant factor at the time, as the C64 was released around the same time as the Atari 2600 was nearing obsolescence. I can imagine many existing gamers would have ‘traded up’ around this time just as I did when I went from the Atari 2600 to the ZX Spectrum 128K +3.
The C64 was also capable of outputting a composite signal, allowing the computer to connect to a monitor for enhanced picture clarity. Additionally, it could be connected to the Commodore 1702 monitor via S-Video which provided an even sharper image. This would have been among the clearest images of any of the home systems at the time.
The rest of the C64’s internal hardware was equally impressive. For a start, it featured 64KB of RAM, which is of course how the C64 got its name. This was significantly greater than the 16K and 48K ZX Spectrums around at the time. (The 128K Spectrums came later in 1985.)
What’s more, it featured a dedicated graphics chip, the VIC-II which allowed for smooth scrolling and hardware sprites. Games which took advantage of this scrolled notably smoother than their Spectrum, Amstrad etc. equivalents.
The audio capabilities of the C64 were also well in advance of the competition, mostly thanks to its SID (Sound Interface Device) chip.
The C64 was even capable of connecting to the internet (such as it was at the time) via a phone line and modem. Much of this revolved around Bulletin Board Systems - which were in many ways the ancestor of the modern-day World Wide Web and Social Media. This on-line access led to some of the first online games and arguably the world’s first MMORPG.
If the C64 had an Achilles Heel it was its MOS Technology 6510 / 8500 CPU. Its clock speeds of 1.023MHz for the NTSC version and 0.985MHz for the PAL version were notably slower than the Spectrum’s 3.5 MHz Z80A CPU. However, the Spectrum lacked a dedicated graphics chip, resulting in the CPU having to handle all the graphics effects itself.
The two main input devices for the C64 were the Commodore 1351 Mouse and any of the near-ubiquitous 9-pin joysticks - which were compatible with the C64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC and the Atari 2600. Rather handily, the C64 featured two 9-pin joystick ports, which allowed for hassle-free couch multiplayer gaming.
Use of the standard 9-pin joystick interface was both a blessing and a curse for all the systems that used it. On the plus side, it meant joysticks purchased for (or bundled with) one system should work on the others - for example, my Atari 2600 sticks worked on my ZX Spectrum and vice versa.
The downside is that this meant that all these systems were limited to only one-button joysticks. Therefore, most games on these platforms implemented an ‘up-to-jump’ control scheme in lieu of a separate jump button. This lack of multiple separate action buttons is something that would plague the home computer market well into the 16-Bit era.
Physical Media - Cartridges
Carts were initially popular as the C64 features an internal cartridge port. However, carts were limited to either 8KBs or 16KBs of ROM, which prevented devs from taking full advantage of the C64’s advanced hardware. (I also hear that they took far longer to manufacture than discs or cassettes.)