With over $1 billion in hardware sales in 1983, Commodore was bringing “computers to the masses”, just as its president Jack Tramiel wanted. His next aim was an 8-bit computer that would sell for less than $100 to beat the company he saw as his main rival – Sinclair. A trip to Europe to see how the Commodore 64 was faring convinced Tramiel there would be a huge market for such a low-cost machine. To keep production costs down, Tramiel wanted the machine to have just nine main chips. Central to this was the 7501 processor, an updated and faster version of the 6510 that had powered the C64. In a similar fashion to the VIC-20, the graphic and sound functions were combined in the new TED chip, or Text Editing Device. With the deadline of the Winter CES (Consumer Electronics Show) looming, it looked like the MOS Technologies design team had cracked the nine-chip limit. However, Commodore newcomer Bil Herd spotted that the reset switch added to the machine would not work properly without an additional chip and it was added.
The graphic resolution possible with TED matched the Commodore 64 at 320×200 pixels, but the addition of the luminance control gave it a much larger palette of 121 colours. Sound was two channel only, and with less waveforms than the highly regarded SID chip in the C64. At the Winter CES show in early 1984, reaction was mixed to the 264 range of machines shown – the 116 with 16K of memory, the 264 with 64K, and the V364 with its built-in speech synthesizer. (The proposed numbering system was oddly reminiscent of the Amstrad range that was to be launched later that same year). There were concerns about the lack of hardware sprites – a feature that made games programming easier on the C64 – and the lack of backward compatibility. Users would have to buy new peripherals (from Commodore) – the connectors were different, requiring a new Datasette (tape player) and joysticks.
The repercussions of the poor reactions did not have a lot of time to sink in. Just days later Jack Tramiel left Commodore, and would take control of rivals Atari. With Jack Tramiel’s firm hand on the rudder now gone, marketing began to dominate the planning of the new range and things went off course. The 116 with its rubber keys was effectively dumped, seeing only limited sales in Europe. The 364 and its Magic Voice (often referred to as the ‘Tragic Voice’ by Commodore employees) was scrapped. Wanting to emphasise its business potential, a set of four applications was added to the 264 and it became the Plus/4 (and is deserving of its own Retroinspection). Production problems with the software ROMs and a shortage of DRAM memory chips delayed the Plus/4’s release until the autumn of 1984. But the Commodore 16 and the Plus/4 both made their first European appearance at the Commodore Show in May 1984, taking place at the Novotel in London.
The new-look Commodore 16 model – dubbed by marketing in the USA as ‘The Learning Machine’ – would keep a link with the past by using the same style of case as the VIC-20 and Commodore 64, in a dark charcoal colour for the surround and light grey for the keys. Commodore UK’s general manager Howard Stanforth announced, “The Commodore 16 is the perfect entry point for anyone interested in serious home computing. We’ve packaged it in a Starter Pack because the VIC-20 has already proved that that’s what the public wants and we believe that in this form it offers the best deal anywhere for programming, education or games.” The Starter Pack contained the computer, Datasette, Introduction To BASIC Part 1 (to teach programming) and four games. Commodore stopped production of the VIC-20 to concentrate on the new machine, and supported the C16 and Plus/4 with several games from its own software division.
Competing for space on the shop shelves was difficult for the C16, with the Spectrum at its height and the new Amstrad machine attracting a lot of customers. Magazines paid limited attention, with few specialist titles and patchy coverage in existing titles (such as Zzap’s one-off C16 supplement). Large price cuts for the Commodore 64 also helped to reduce the C16’s appeal, while the Spectrum was soon priced below £100 and under-cut the C16. Software companies were left with a dilemma – did they put resources into developing a separate 16K version? Or did they concentrate on the larger Plus/4? There were many disasters – Elite’s cut-down Commando turned the vertically scrolling arcade game into a series of dull single screens, and the Commodore 16 version of Saboteur had a small playing area with badly animated sprites wandering around.
Three companies stood out for quality – Mastertronic, Gremlin and Anirog. Mastertronic produced several great budget titles, chief among them Jeff Minter’s Voidrunner/Hellgate double pack. Voidrunner was the third in the Gridrunner series, inspired by arcade game Centipede. Gremlin was a big supporter of the C16 and Plus/4, converting well-known titles Bounder and Monty On The Run and creating original games for the format. Kingsoft was lucky to have ace programmer Udo Gertz, who really got the best out of the machine in games such as Bongo and Winter Events. Anirog, later to become Anco, published several of the Kingsoft titles in the UK. A key market for the C16 was behind the Iron Curtain in Hungary, where Novotrade produced a steady stream of titles.