Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Hardware Profile: Commodore 64

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c64Release Date: August 1982
Manufacturer: Commodore
Retail Price: $595.00 (approx $1400 with inflation rates today)
Units Sold: Over 12 million (conflicting reports of 12-17 million)

Not So Humble Beginnings

Before personalized computers were called “PCs” (or MACs for all you Apple people), they were better known as “microcomputers”.  The name derives from the relatively small size and price of a computer with a microprocessor as the CPU and the same basic input/output structure for data and information.  Much like PCs of today, this allowed software and game programmers to design a title all around one basic data flow and configuration and then optimize each specific microcomputer release for the specifications of that computer.  American consumers even today are used to much lower prices than other countries and were slow to embrace the cost and concept of a microcomputer. That is, until the Commodore 64.  At the time of its release the only major competitors in the US were the Apple II and Atari 800, boasting hefty price tags of $1200 and $900 respectively.  With most game consoles priced at the time around $200 and some, like the ColecoVision, having computer add-ons for $400, the price endured for a microcomputer was restricted to certain households of higher income (and this doesn’t even include the cost for a monitor and desk to put it all in).  Commodore had a different plan and thanks to vertical manufacturing and two strong chips to handle graphics and audio, the company went about making a microcomputer that could compete with the Apple II and less than half the price.

In 1981 Commodore was celebrating wide success of its business computer the VIC-20, which was a Personal Electronic Transactor (PET) computer integrated into a keyboard, whereas previous models had been an integrated monitor/computer/keyboard and much more expensive and large (although it may have been seen as a laptop).  While the VIC-20 had worked great for at home accountants and small businesses because it could hook up to a television, Commodore had shown more interest in the side software of gaming that had been quite popular.  Unfortunately the VIC-20 only had 5kb of RAM, even small by BASIC (the programming language) standards, but allowed for many educational programs and text adventures.  Instead of bridging the gap between worlds the VIC-20 graphics processor by Robert Russell and the SID sound chip by Robert Yannes – both of whom preferred “Bob” and I like to refer to as “the Bobs” – were to be bridged together in a gaming console codenamed the Commodore Max or UltiMax, which was eventually scrapped.  Instead the Bobs went to CEO Jack Tramiel and proposed making an all-in-one solution that was a sequel to the VIC-20, codenamed the VIC-40, for the consumer market at an inexpensive price.  Tramiel retorted with a tall order: 64 kb of RAM (the VIC-20’s 64 kb RAM cart was the most popular and requested feature integrated in current versions), low cost (exact numbers unknown, rumors were a $600-$700 price tag), and a prototype ready in 3 months (it was proposed in November 1981) for Winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES).  At the show it was Atari employees blown away by the ability to generate such an impressive machine that beat the specs of the Atari 800 and around the specs of the Apple II for under $600.  As complicated as it sounded, the answer was simple vertical integration with Commodore purchasing the semiconductor plant that supported all of its parts, making the cost for a C64 a mere $135.  After an arduous holiday season with no days off to make CES, a rename to the C64 to support the new naming conventions of Commodore’s other business computers, and certifications for mass production, it proudly entered the market in late summer 1982.

Taking Over

Like so many other success stories in history, timing played the most critical role in securing the C64.  Not only was it on par with the highest competing computers of the time (the updated Apple IIe only barely beat its specs and that decision seemed almost intentional at the time, but it remained twice the price), but it had the versatility of being compatible with televisions and any S-Video monitor.  Additionally due to this output decision the C64 was priced and positioned to now take on game consoles of the time, which were drastically gaining ground, and the C64 appeared to be the all in one solution for anyone seeking both a computer and console.  Commodore even had the foresight to add an expansion slot, allowing it to support not only C64 carts but also tape and later disc drives as well.  You could even use Atari VCS/2600 controllers thanks to the port being identical (the 2600 was built solely from off-the-shelf parts to lower cost, but this choice also meant you had no rights to the hardware).  The result in America was huge, moving millions of units and at its highest peak manufacturing was over 400,000 units produced a month.  In Europe it was a bit tougher with the ZX-Spectrum boasting a price tag of less than half the price of the C64, but import costs made the computer much more on par outside of its home base of Europe.  Even then, the worldwide success of the C64 and software produced ended up with the Commodore 64 leading in sales against the Spectrum later in the 80s.

Aside from a price and hardware perspective, the programming language of BASIC and simple requirement that all games had to be 64 kb or less (the size of the RAM it would be loaded in that would need to consistently refresh after a certain period of time or power disruption) made software extremely popular both to produce and purchase.  Gaming magazines would include instructions for programming games into your C64 one line at a time – which anyone who has done this knows its 2 hours of typing for 10 minutes of demo – however it does stand as one of the earliest demo/shareware distribution models.  Later in time the C64 even had alternative operating system (OS) options, a mouse for graphical user interface (GUI), and even a modem for limited online use.

For most of us that grew up quite young in those days, myself definitely included, the C64 was first and foremost a gaming platform.  It offered experiences that seemed more in depth than the average Atari title and with a functioning keyboard could also be more story driven than an NES title.  It really was the convergence of two worlds and not until the late 90s and again in contemporary times would we see this hybrid between computers having the full package of personal, business, educational, and gaming software.  That’s why although it is hardly the most impressive microcomputer in history, it definietly stands as one of the most popular.

Written by Fred Rojas

October 1, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Posted in Hardware Profile, Lessons

Tagged with ,

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