“Holly Crap, how old am I? I just became 30 this year! I have no wife, no money, but still many fans and people who love me, even if there are other good-looking and rich guys around”. Commodore 64 could probably say this if he was a human being. How did a home PC look 30 years ago and how does the same computer look today? I would like to invite you to my time-machine, where I will present you some of my experience with the Commodore 64 – The first and last successful home computer in the universe!
The first Commodore 64 was introduced in January 1982. On YouTube you can find a lot of commercials from that year informing why you should buy Commodore instead IBM or Apple (like this one). The main reasons were the RAM memory and the price, but also the hardware and simplicity had a big part in the success.
The hardware was amazing
C64 had 64 KB of RAM memory built-in (and 20KB ROM memory). It allowed to use the text mode with 40 rows and 25 columns using PETSCII character set and 16 color palette. It’s graphic was divided into two modes: hi-res 320×200 with 1 bit color and multicolored resolution 160×200 with 2 bit color per pixel. Everything was controlled by a 1 MHz MOS Technology 6510 8-bit processor.
A standard Commodore 64 had at least a tape data drive – called Dataset. You could use a common compact cassette to store data on it. It had also a 5’25” floppy disk drive with a separate processor, which allowed for just plugging it into a computer without installing any drivers.
Commodore 64 could also use a dot matrix printer, modem, mouse and also had a special Commodore monitor. You could plug it directly into your TV using an antenna cable or a composite video and audio output without any additional hardware – this was a great solution for low-budget home users.
A computer is nothing but a stupid box without software. Commodore 64 had BASIC V2 installed in ROM which allowed to manage the computer with some commands just after switching the power on without loading any operating system. C64 BASIC version was based on Microsoft’s BASIC, so now you know where the blue screen came from :). You could command the computer with some special PEEK and POKE prompt commands by setting two values – address of a memory cell and value of that cell – you could set and get the background and foreground color, manipulate the sound generator, change the look of a character and cheat in games by changing the memory before running it.
Many additional software tools and also a GUI system called GEOS were available. It was released in 1986 (one year after Windows 1) and had a mouse cursor with a desktop, icons, a word processor control panel and more.
There was no special IDE environment. You could write your application in BASIC just after switching the power on. You had full control of any hardware part in this computer – from changing the layout of a character, generating sound and hi-res graphic up to controlling the peripherals. Many games and programs were written in assembly getting everything that was available and possible from the machine in the most efficient way.
You could use a feature called SPRITE. This was a piece of memory that could be used by a programmer and displayed on a screen. It gave you the possibility to create some graphic icons and animations available also in text mode. What’s interesting, you could detect collisions between two sprites without making any collision detection algorithms.
Games… and porn included
I remember the days, when in a PC shop I could buy a tape with tons of games and tool applications for C64. Sometimes you needed to calibrate the header of a Dataset with some tool application and a professional hardware – a screwdriver, just to load the app without any problems. After this ‘surgical’ operation you could play Boulder Dash, Lode Runner, Pirates, Ninja Massacre, Formula 1, Soccer and… some erotic games (seriously, here you needed to go far away from your monitor to being able to enjoy what was on the screen).
With special extension cards you could play games directly without loading them from a tape or a floppy drive by inserting it into a special port designed for it. A so called cartridge, allowed to extend the BASIC with some additional commands (like SIMONS BASIC) but mostly contained some tools or games. My BLACK BOX cartridge had a “turbo mode” module which allowed to load programs faster from a tape or a “header tape” to calibrate datasets tape header. You could also use your keyboard like a piano by enabling a “yes tones” command or run a… voice synthesizer which allowed to speak, and sing!
A computer with a
In my opinion computers from those years had a soul (like music from the 80’s and everything which came from that time). A good representative of this age is Commodore 64. To learn more about each PC you need to open it and see from the inside. When you saw the motherboard from C64 it looked like a city with many streets and buildings. The smell of the hardware (warm microchips, resistors, capacitors) with the use of a 5’25” floppy disk, tape storage and tons of amazing logic and graphic games brought you the real nirvana during days and nights.
The beautiful days are gone
The last machine was produced in 1994 reaching about 30 million manufactured computers. During 12 years the hardware did not change (from a developers’ perspective). In ’94 you could still run programs created in ’82 without any problems. However, over the years only electronics and design of C64 changed. Many other Commodore based computers were created with a bigger or smaller success – like Amiga or Commodore 128. Unfortunately, the age of a PC changed everything.
Today a home computer, is not the same like it used to be. A big ‘cold’ central unit (well it’s not so cold, sometimes it’s warmer than my heater) which takes about 0,7MW of power gives me a different feeling. The motherboard is not the same, you can see at least a few micro chips with almost invisible paths. A single processor is not only responsible for calculations but also for other IO operations. The power of C64 is available on an old mobile phone. Games are not the same, the atmosphere that could take you into that special mood is now long gone.
The C64 community is still alive worldwide. There are lot of Commodore fans, user groups and forums that are discussing how to make some software, use tricks and create additional hardware. Many music performers use C64 sound in their compositions. You can still buy or see many extensions and programs for original Commodore. Some of them extend the CPU frequency, memory, use hard drive, flash memory. Some models of C64 manufactured in 86′ in Germany (so called C64 Gold, or C64 Gold Editon) can achieve about 4000 euros on the market, depending on the serial number.
Last year Commodore 64x was introduced. A a 64-bit x86 Intel on board packed in the old-fashioned design is not the same, but by installing any simulator you can go back to the old, good times. For sure, C64 was the best home computer which will not be forgotten for at least the next 30 years.
Did (Do) you had (have) your own C64? Which games have you played? Have you written any programs? Do you know any C64 pages/forums or rare hardware ?