Year Released: 1982
Original Price: £349.99
Buy It Now For: £20+
Associated magazines: Zzap!64, Commodore User, Commodore Format, Your Commodore
Why The Commodore 64 Was Great: The Commodore 64 was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of many. Success on both sides of the Atlantic meant its software library covered ever genre, style and influence possible, with a panache most other machines struggled to equal. Despite Commodore’s insistence on pushing it as a business computer with a price to match in the UK, it truly was the gaming platform to own. Even though it looked like a biege breadbin.
Commodore was not immediately looking for a successor to the Vic-20. The launch had been a bigger success than expected, and work on the newly commissioned video and sound chips was reaching a conclusion. The new VIC-II video chip was an improvement on the chip inside the Vic-20 and utilised (or borrowed you might say) features from other leading computers and consoles of the time. The SID sound chip was something new, a three-channel synthesiser that would end up blowing away the competition for years to come.
Both chips had been scheduled for use in arcade or dedicated videogames. However upon their completion in November 1981, Jack Tramiel, boss of Commodore, decided they would instead be used in the company’s next home computer. A computer that he wanted to debut at the Las Vegas CES in January 1982. A computer that had yet to be designed! Not to be deterred, the new machine was designed in two days and five prototypes were built by the end of the year.
With the Microsoft BASIC of the Vic20 hastily rewritten for use on the new hardware, the machine was ready for show. Apart from the impressive specifications of the C64, which exceeded anything on the market, no one could understand how Commodore was proposing to sell it for just $595. Their jaws would have been through the floor if they’d known it would be initially manufactured for just $135.
The project and its inherent cost savings probably would not have happened without the acquisition of MOS Technology several years earlier. Not only did they have the expertise and experience, with many other companies using the 6502 CPU, but also the production line facilities enabled chips to be manufactured a lot cheaper and quicker than other companies could achieve. Using the same case and keyboard as the Vic-20 was another factor; aside from halving the cartridge slot size to make way for an internal modulator, the design of both was actually somewhat similar.
The C64 went on sale in August 1982 and was an immediate success. A few issues had been fixed before launch, and a few, including the notorious “sparkle” effect, would be dealt with in the months immediately after. Most of these were fixed by the time the second revision (B) motherboard was produced. Revision A machines are today hard to find (estimated less than 0.2% of the 25 odd million production run) and are collectable because of their quirks and bugs.
From the off it was obvious Commodore (aka Tramiel himself) meant business and was going for the throats of the competition, especially Atari. The price of the C64 was down to $395 before Christmas, and was under $200 by 1985, with manufacturing costs cut by two-thirds. By that time the C64 was the home computer to own in the US. This was in contrast to the UK, where Commodore’s operation was a little less price conscious. It stayed above the £200 mark for a long time, and peripheral prices were of a similar nature; at one point the disk drive cost more than the machine itself!
This does seem strange given the Commodore 64 had far more competition in Europe than in the US, especially from the Spectrum. Whilst the C64 won the hearts of gamers in the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia, it was beaten to number one in several other countries including the UK, France and Spain. In the UK the battle was always with the Spectrum. At almost half the price for much of the Eighties, the Spectrum was a cheaper alternative that was also home to many classic games.
Why pick the C64 over the Spectrum? Anecdotal evidence points to its form and function as much as its power (the “real” keyboard being a selling point), with the price tag partly seen as a badge of status. Playground battles would be fought with both sides arguing their case, with levels of tribal loyalty and dedication rarely seen since. Technically the C64 was streets ahead, but there were aspects where the Spectrum was superior. That was mainly isometric adventures, such as those perfected by Ultimate, and anything vector graphic driven. The design of the C64 was not suited to either. That wasn’t to say it couldn’t be done, as the classic Mercenary and the conversion of Head Over Heels demonstrate. The C64 made a better stab at anything coming its way from the Spectrum compared to anything going the other way.
However C64 users in the UK didn’t just have to rely on homegrown games to satisfy their needs. From early on, they were able to sample the delights of American games, courtesy of companies such as US Gold and Ariolasoft releasing or importing them for sale. Some users, though, would take to importing the games themselves. Quite often this would be the case with some high profile titles, until the companies in question (Infocom, we look at you) decided to send them over here.
For the first couple of years of the C64’s life, games from the likes of Epyx, Access, Synapse, Broderbund and Infocom were better than almost anything programmed in Europe. Watching Impossible Mission, Beach-Head, Choplifter or Lode Runner being demonstrated was amazing. This was also a time when Electronic Arts published innovative games such as M.U.L.E., Racing Destruction Set and Skyfox instead of bundles of shovelware. Thankfully programmers this side of the pond got their backsides in gear and started matching the imported efforts.
You have to begin with Jeff Minter, creator of weird addictive programs, who was given a C64 very early on as part of his deal with HES in the US. The three games Ancipital, Revenge Of The Mutant Camels and Iridis Alpha are some of his best work, and would have been hard to achieve on any other platform. He was just the first of many developers, as Tony Crowther (Loco, Blagger), Geoff Crammond (Revs, The Sentinel), Archer Maclean (Dropzone, IK), Jon Hare and Chris Yates (Parallax, Wizball), and Paul Woakes (Encounter, Mercenary) would all follow.
Just as can be seen between Western and Japanese game design today, there was a similar dichotomy in games produced here and over there. Different influences, different cultures, different trains of thought. There was also another good reason for why the US produced the majority of the RPGs, strategy games and adventures: the disk drive. By 1984 the datasette had all but been abandoned by users and publishers alike in the US, whereas in the UK it was seen as a cheap method of storage pioneered by the continued success of other computers. There are numerous examples of two versions of a game being written, one example being the movie tie-in Aliens. The Electric Dreams UK version is a first-person adventure type affair, whereas the Activision US release is multiload, and portrays the whole film in various stages. In terms of execution, the UK version recreates the terror of the film, whereas the US version is more “big-budget” but far less effective in its execution.
Like it or loathe it, the tape format would define the games written in the UK for the first few years of the C64’s life, until the inevitable progress and demand for bigger games forced more multiload antics onto the hapless users. Let’s face it, tape wasn’t really cut out for that sort of access, but with the introduction of fast loaders into the UK (another pioneering moment from Jeff Minter), things became a little more bearable.
Even at the peak of its popularity, it has been said that only around 10% of all C64 owners had a disk drive. Which by the powers of deduction means 90% were stuck with tape loading only. As mentioned earlier, this was mainly down to Commodore’s high pricing policy in the UK. Hence to accommodate this fact, it is no surprise that a lot of games were designed for single load only, squeezing as much as possible into that 64K (or less). The benefit to those who had access to both formats is obvious; the C64 repeatedly delivered quality games in all genres and interests and wasn’t confined to a subset of possibilities.
Those Commodore 64 owners out there are already no doubt counting on their fingers all the games they loved and separating them into single and multi load. Unless you had a disk drive fairly early on, it would be expected that the single loaders are going to win out here. Anyone who played Turbo Outrun on tape will know how excruciating it could be (having said that, before fast loaders appeared, loading from disk was almost as bad). Sometimes it was done right; having the next level load during sequences in Dragon’s Lair 2 or Hawkeye for example, or playing a small mini-game such as Invaders or Painter. It also gave rise to the “loader tune” to occupy gamers as they patiently waited for their latest epic to dribble into memory. Music for the C64 would turn out to be probably the defining point of its lifespan. It wouldn’t be the only thing that would define Commodore’s 8-bit machine though…
Four Great Commodore 64 Games
Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 30, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com
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