• Martyn Carroll

Beige Days: The Story of the Commodore 64



As the Commodore 64 celebrates its 40th anniversary this month, former Retro Gamer

editor, Martyn Carroll, looks back at the history of what many believe to be the king of 8-bit

computers.


Looking at old Commodore 64 print advertisements is an education – quite literally. So

many of them show young kids crowding around the computer, grinning at some god-awful

edutainment program. If it’s not the classroom it’s the home office, with the C64 plugged

into a telephone line via a modem (it’ll never catch on).


One popular ad places the computer at the heart of American family life and shows mom,

dad and the kids using various programs at different times of the day. In the morning you’ve

got the son composing a quick symphony on Music Machine, before mom jumps on to

search Micro Cookbook for a new recipe (of course). In the afternoon sonny returns to play

some International Soccer, and then at night dad fires up Easy Calc to sort out the

household accounts. A truer picture would probably show the C64 in sonny’s bedroom next

to a pile of games (while mom and dad argue in the kitchen about her drinking and his

spending), but Commodore was keen to promote the machine as a true multi-purpose

device. This was a proper computer that could be used in school and at home, for work and

play, by kids and their parents.



However, the truth was that the C64 was built for gaming. Unlike the Sinclair Spectrum and

BBC Micro, which became good games machines almost by accident, the C64 was spun out

from a blue sky project to devise a state-of-the-art gaming console. This is obvious if you

look at the C64’s video and sound chips.


The VIC-II video chip was the successor the original VIC chip found in Commodore’s first

colour computer, the VIC-20. The new chip was more capable, outputting 40x25 characters

and 320x200 pixels. Crucially, it introduced advanced features designed with gaming in

mind, including hardware sprites, collision detection and smooth scrolling. In fact, around

75% of the chip’s surface area was dedicated to its sprite functionality, showing how integral

it was to the overall design.



Sound was provided by the SID chip, a versatile three-channel audio generator. The SID

needs little introduction as it’s surely the C64’s signature feature. Compared to the sound

capabilities found in rival 8-bit machines, the SID went up to 11.

The VIC-II and SID chips were finalised in 1981, but the console plans were soon abandoned

and the new tech was instead earmarked for Commodore’s successor to the VIC-20. To keep

production costs and development time down, the new computer borrowed quite a bit from

the VIC-20, including a similar 6502-family 1Mhz CPU, the same version of BASIC, and most

obviously, an almost identical keyboard and dowdy beige case. By the time the new

computer made its debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 1982 it had been

officially titled the Commodore 64, on account of it coming with 64K of memory. Outwardly


it may have looked like the VIC-20, but thanks to its dedicated audio/video chips and

generous amount of RAM, under the hood it was an 8-bit bruiser with real gaming potential.

The C64 was both capable and affordable, relative to rival machines, and this proved to be a

winning formula when it started shipping in August 1982. Worldwide sales hit 2 million in

1983 and rose to 2.5 million the following year. By the end of the 80s it would have

surpassed 13 million units on its way to being crowned the world’s biggest-selling single

computer model.



Commodore had built a games machine and a huge amount of entertainment software was

released for it. Initially there were a lot of simple arcade-style games, often updates of VIC-

20 titles like Blitz and Jupiter Lander. But that soon changed when Access, Datasoft, Epyx

and other American developers began to support the system. The C64 games market was

more mature in the US than elsewhere, but UK owners didn’t have to miss out as

Birmingham-based US Gold was established with the sole purpose of localising hit American

games like Beach Head, Bruce Lee, Impossible Mission and Winter Games.


The UK scene would soon catch up, with star coders like Jeff Minter, Tony Crowther and

Andrew Braybrook making a name for themselves on the system. Their quirky titles such as

Attack of the Mutant Camels, Son of Blagger and Gribbly’s Day Out were very British and

very brilliant. Equally well known were the composers – Ben Daglish, Rob Hubbard, Martin

Galway and many others – whose mastery of the SID chip resulted in the finest 8-bit

soundtracks of the era.


One factor that had a bearing on the UK scene was the continued reliance on cassette tapes.

It’s believed that only one in ten C64 owners had access to a disk drive, which meant that

some of the more expansive disk-only titles (think RPGs and graphic adventures) didn’t

achieve the same levels of popularity as in the US. As games got bigger, painful multi-load

routines became a bugbear for many, but there were still many impressive titles that

managed to squeeze whole worlds inside just 64K of RAM. Wizball, Mercenary and The

Sentinel, we’re looking at you.


The C64 would prove so popular that it was never actually superseded, despite Commodore

releasing a number of new machines over the years. The most likely successor was the

Commodore 128 which was released in 1985 and expanded significantly on the C64’s spec –

twice the memory, double the clock speed, an 80-column mode, CP/M support and more.

To ease the upgrade path the 128 included a C64 mode, but this proved to be something of

a double-edged sword as software publishers continued to target the massive C64 user base

and barely any native C128 games (decent ones at least) were ever released.


Instead, Commodore returned its focus to the C64 and revised the hardware several times.

The most obvious update was the C64C which featured a new slim-line outer case which

was more homogeneous with the C128’s appearance. This cost-reduced model would

ensure the system remained a strong seller well into the 90s (Commodore was reportedly

still shifting 800,000 C64s a year in 1991). Around this time the company announced the

Commodore 65, a new backwards-compatible machine that would bridge the gap between

the C64 and its own 16-bit Amiga system. Prototypes were produced, but the project was

cancelled when Commodore presumably had a light-bulb moment and realised that pushing

people towards the entry-level Amigas made more sense.


Still, the company continued to crank out the C64 until 1994 and the only thing that

managed to halt production was its bankruptcy in May that year (damn those liquidators).

The C64 would move into its hobbyist/homebrew phase, which never really diminished and

has actually grown in recent years. This culminated in 2018 when Retro Gamer Ltd released

The C64 Mini, the first of its plug-and-play devices. These have proven to be a focal point for

the C64 community, reigniting interest in the system and fuelling the number of new game

releases.


The C64 may be the world’s bestselling computer, but for those that grew up with it and

truly embraced it, it’s simply the world’s best computer. And when you factor in the many

thousands of great games released for it during and beyond its commercial life, the C64 is

also one of the best gaming platforms – regardless of what Commodore’s marketing team wanted you to believe.




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