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
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
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
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
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.