Year Released: 1980
Original Price: £199.99
Buy It Now For: £20+
Associated magazines: Vic Computing, Commodore User, C+VG
Why The Vic-20 Was Great: It may not have been as successful as its successor, but the humble Vic-20 was a great entry point for many gamers back in the day. What it lacked in power it made up for with a great selection of genuinely enjoyable games.
The Vic-20 was such a success in the West that it led to the creation of the Commodore 64 and then the purchase and production of the Amiga. Of course what happened to the company several years down the line is now a major part of computing history, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s go back to the start, indeed before there was any thought of the computer itself.
One of Commodore’s most stunningly brilliant pieces of acquisition had been to buy MOS Technology, creators of the 6502 CPU used in many electronics for the next ten years, in 1976. Two years later, in 1978, the VIC (Video Interface Chip) was designed by Alan Charpentier for third-party sales to arcade manufacturers. Although it could produce both graphics and sound, no one was interested. Their loss. It was kept in-house, awaiting some project to come up that it could be used in.
Although the VIC-20 had many notable people working on it, the most prominent and the person to whom a lot of credit should go is Mike Tomczyk. Hired in April 1980 as Jack Tramiel’s assistant, within a month of joining he had managed to visit both Germany and Japan, fired the entire marketing division and come up with the outline to the machine that would eventually turn into the VIC-20. He would become known as the ‘VIC Czar’.
His first day at work would be one that defined the rest of his career, due to his attendance at the now infamous meeting just outside London. Tramiel outlined his vision, possibly inspired by Sinclair, of producing a low-cost colour computer to complement the existing PET series. Most present were in favour of continuing the high-end business line, questioning whether such a move was economically feasible. Only a few supported the idea, including Tomczyk himself, Kit Spencer (head of Commodore UK) and Tony Tokai (head of Commodore Japan).
Tramiel listened to the arguments, pounded the table and announced, “The Japanese are coming, so we will become the Japanese.” He had reason to worry, however. While Commodore was number one in Europe, it lagged behind Apple and Radio Shack in the US, and Texas Instruments was gradually nudging out its calculator business. Tramiel was worried that the wave of subsidised mid-priced computers in Japan could arrive in the US and do the same to his computer business. And so, he planned a pre-emptive strike to counter this threat.
As was the case when later designing the Commodore 64, the company was not averse to examining the competition and ‘borrowing’ good ideas from them. Tomczyk’s visit to Japan proved fruitful, the function keys of the NEC line, for example, ending up on the VIC-20 but vertically instead. By the end of the month he had typed a 30-page memo to Tramiel outlining everything that needed to be done to turn the idea into an actual computer. Tramiel’s sole response was to tell him to “make sure all this gets done”, effectively making him head of the project.
In response, two teams at Commodore began work on producing a prototype utilising the VIC produced earlier. Within MOS Technology itself Robert Yannes, who would go on to design the SID chip, cobbled together one prototype from spare PET parts and a desktop-calculator casing. His aim was to promote it as a games machine, a concept that was carried forward to fruition.
The other prototype was constructed by Bill Seiler and John Feagans, literally from hacking bits of other machines together. The graphics half of the PET motherboard was removed and replaced with the VIC, and then a 9-pin joystick port and cartridge slot (à la Atari 2600) was added. Seiler felt the machine should be a computer, not just a games machine and insisted on having a BASIC language installed for programming. In the end, the finished prototype was a mixture of ideas from both teams.
With the machine receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback at the June 1980 CES, the PET engineers were corralled together to complete the final design in under a month. Although the cost of the computer could be kept low due to Commodore’s vertical integration, only 5K of RAM could be installed per machine to keep it below Tomczyk’s proposed $300 price point (and leave enough margin). While the design was being finished, the team in Japan were busy putting together the first set of software titles for launch. The machine was truly a combined effort and would not have succeeded without either. All that was left was to decide on a name.
At the beginning it didn’t have one except MicroPET, probably because it was created from hacked parts. Many people dubbed it the ‘Vixen’ as an extension of the VIC name, Tomczyk going as far as doodling little fox logos. In the end though he decided to name it after the primary chip inside. However, ‘VIC’ sounded incomplete on its own; he felt it needed a number afterwards. Tomczyk doesn’t know why Tony Tokai chose the ‘1001’ number for the Japanese launch, but he chose ‘20’ because it sounded friendly. This was a theme he was to pioneer.
The VIC-1001 debuted at the Seibu Department store in Japan in September 1980, taking over 100 orders by the end of the month and officially launching in October. While Tomczyk calculated that NEC and other Japanese companies would take a few months to digest this new offering, it would give his team time to prepare for the US launch and hopefully arrive before the competition tried to conquer America. Having worked for two years in Asia he was familiar with their business practices. It was a tactic that worked.
Tomczyk’s prime directive to marketers and developers at Commodore was to promote the VIC-20 as a “user-friendly computer”, going as far as to trademark the phrase “the friendly computer.” Part of this push was to make the VIC-20 available at general retail outlets instead of specialist dealers, putting it on a competitive front with consoles. As it turned out the VIC-20 was advertised positively, comparing its features to consoles as there were no computers available in the same price bracket.
The aim was that if an ‘ordinary’ person bought the computer, then it should be simple enough for them to understand. Tomczyk himself was responsible for a number of features including the use of symbols and the name of each colour of the front of the keys. The team attempted to make the user manual as friendly and uncomplicated as possible for new computer users, leaving the technical nitty-gritty to the Programmer’s Reference Guide.
Helping Tomczyk for the American launch were some new recruits including Andy Finkel, Neil Harris (his eventual second-in-command) and Englishman Paul Higginbottom. They were responsible for preparing manuals, fixing the Japanese software for Western launch and getting new games ready. To assist, Tomczyk hired a group of ‘hackers’ dubbed the ‘VIC Commandos’ who wrote the initial batch of 12 tape games to complement the higher-priced cartridges. Finkel later wrote a number of games for the VIC and C64, while Higginbottom became one of the main product managers overseeing the computer’s success.
Come the launch of the VIC-20 in the US and Europe during 1981, everything seemingly fell into place. The computer was a huge hit with the public and garnered mainly positive reviews from the specialist press. Promotion of the VIC-20 as a ‘user-friendly’ computer had struck a chord, helped by the use of a familiar face (William Shatner) in prominent TV and magazine adverts. Most major retail chains had their own VIC-20 demonstration display for potential customers to try out. Commodore really was operating at full throttle to promote the computer…
Four Great Vic-20 Games
Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 46, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com
Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from ImagineShop