The History of Video Games #9: The 8-Bit Home Computers - Commodore C64 - Hardware

Updated: Aug 6


The Commodore C64

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 Commodore VIC-20 home computer – the ancestor of the C64

Target Audience



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’.


The Commodore C64

Gaming Capabilities



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.



Input Devices



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.



Commodore 1451 mouse

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.



The Cheetah 125+ Joystick. It had four buttons, but they all did the same thing

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.)



C64 Cartridge

Physical Media - Discs



Far more popular - in some parts of the world including the US - were 5 ¼ inch floppy discs. These had considerably greater storage capacity – 170KB to be precise. This allowed devs to make full use of the C64’s impressive hardware.



8 inch (Black), ​5 ¼ inch (Red/Orange), and ​3 ½ inch (Blue) floppy disks. The C64 used the one in the middle.

Later computers, such as the 16-Bit Commodore Amiga, would use the later 3.5 inch discs. Before HDDs became common most data was saved to floppy discs - this is why many programs to this day use the 3 ½ inch disc as the ‘save’ icon.


If you are wondering why they are called ‘floppy discs’ it is due to the original 8-inch discs being quite flexible. They could bend and flex to an extent and would sometimes ‘flop’ if held at one corner. The later 3 ½ inch discs were far sturdier, being made of stiff plastic with a metal cover. Because of this they were sometimes erroneously referred to as ‘Hard Discs’.



Physical Media - Cassettes



In other parts of the world - the UK and much of Europe in particular - most software came on cassette tapes, probably because they were less expensive. If you have read the article about gaming on the tape versions of the ZX Spectrum you will know what this means.


However, it appears that tape-gaming on the C64 was not (quite) as arduous as it was on the Speccy. For a start, the loading sound on the C64 was arguably not as ear-splitting as on the Spectrum, at least for some games. Secondly, some games played music whilst the game was loading, which was far more pleasant. Some even *allegedly* allowed the player to play mini-games whilst the main game was loading.



C64 cassette loading noise (Nightbreed)


I did say ‘arguably’ not as bad. You be the judge…



Commodore 64 game Robocop Loading Screen and Music from Tape


Now that is a definite improvement



The C64 used the proprietary 'Commodore Datasette'. This improved the reliability of games on tape compared to the third party tape players used with most other systems.



Commodore 1530 (C2N) Datasett - the official ‘tape deck’ of the C64

Unfortunately, this did not result in the flexibility that the Spectrum enjoyed. Whilst many games on the Speccy were released on both disc and tape - thus giving players the choice of purchasing the game on either medium - it appears the same could not be said for the C64.


Some games were released only on floppy disc, whilst others were released only on tape. Only by possessing both the tape deck and the disc drive could someone access the entire C64 games library. Since the C64 came with neither an integral disc drive nor tape deck, and the external drives were quite pricey, few people could afford to own all three. (The Floppy disc drive often cost as much as the C64 itself.)

As a result, the C64 video games market became ‘fragmented’ with gamers in America playing one set of games on disc, and gamers in Europe playing another set of games on tape.



The Commodore 1541 5 ¼ inch floppy disc drive – the official FDD of the C64



If you would like to find out more about how tapes, discs and cartridges work in video games then YouTuber 8-Bit Guy has an excellent series of videos on the subjects. Links below;


How Old School Cassette Tape Drives Worked

How Old School Floppy Drives Worked

How Old School ROM Cartridge Games Worked



Meet The Family



The original ‘bread bin’ C64 spawned a whole family of Commodore computers. This included the Commodore MAX, Commodore Educator 64, SX-64, Commodore 64C, Commodore 128, Commodore 65 and the Commodore 64 Games System.

The two most notable members of the commodore family – from a gaming perspective and for all the wrong reasons – were The Commodore MAX and Commodore 64 Games System.

The Commodore MAX preceded the C64 and may have been sold exclusively in Japan. It was intended to be a console/computer hybrid with an emphasis on games. It featured an internal cartridge port and a tape drive could be used for storage. However, it lacked the ports required to connect to a disk drive, modem or printer. Its membrane keyboard was considered inferior to the 'proper' keyboard of the earlier VIC-20.


It sold poorly and was soon discontinued. The hardware developed for it would go on to be used in the highly successful C64 however, so it is worthy of mention.



The largely unsuccessful Commodore MAX

The Commodore 64 Games System was an oddity that came very late in the C64’s life cycle – December 1990. It was released solely in Europe and was intended to be competition to the Nintendo and SEGA consoles. However, it entered a saturated market that was already into the 16-Bit era, so a console based on 8-Bit architecture was unlikely to do well.


What’s more, it suffered from a serious drawback – its lack of a keyboard. Most C64 games were compatible with it, however since most of the games required a keystroke to start many of these games were impossible to play. Software support was limited, therefore there were relatively few games designed specifically for it. These problems – combined with the fact the C64 computer was still available at the same price – conspired to make the Commodore 64 Games System a commercial failure and it was soon discontinued.



The Commodore 64 Games System – AKA ‘The Bad Idea’

Sales



The stock C64 was anything but a commercial failure, however. Quite the opposite in fact. The C64 sold between 10 and 17 million units (sources vary) making it the most successful 8-Bit home computer ever. It was allegedly listed in the Guinness World Records as the highest-selling single computer model of all time.


This was aided by Commodore’s aggressive marketing and price war with its competitors. This would see the C64 drop in price considerably, making it a far more economical option than it was at launch.


Something else which helped its sales is where it was sold. Many of its competitors were sold only in electronics or dedicated computer stores. The C64, however, was also sold in regular retail stores, thus making it far more accessible.



Conclusion



Of course, some of this success was no doubt due to its impressive audio-visual capabilities, which will be the topic of the next article in the series. See you all then.

Did you own a C64? If so, were you using carts, tapes, discs, or a combination thereof? What were your experiences with these? Did you have any experience of the VIC-20 or the other members of the Commodore 64 family? What were the best things about these, and what were the worst? Did you ever try using the internet with the C64 either back in the day, or more recently? Feel free to write your answers, or comments in general, 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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