Hardware Focus - Commodore 64
Posted by Kelvin Green
In 1982, TIME magazine named the home computer as its annual "Man of the Year".
It was a non-specific award, given to home computers in general, but looking back, it could be argued that the Commodore 64 deserved the accolade more than most; although TIME had no way of knowing it back then, the C64 went on to become the best-selling home computer ever, with about thirty million units sold.
The machine's unprecedented success came as a result of a number of factors, including clever construction, aggressive marketing and of course, sheer luck. Commodore always had a habit of packing their machines full of custom hardware, which helped to give them an edge over their competitors back in the days when there was far more choice than just PC or Mac. In the case (literally!) of the C64, this clever custom hardware came in the form of advanced graphics chips and the now-legendary SID sound chip. Such advanced technology was, as it is today, expensive to produce, but as Commodore owned the company that produced their high-tech chips, production costs could be kept down, making the C64 far more advanced than its price point suggested.
Commodore also took an aggressive approach to the marketing of their machine, selling it not only through specialist computer retailers, but in department stores, toy shops and other high profile areas where the average person on the street could walk in and buy one. The C64's ability to display via a normal home television set also helped it to gain an edge with average folk, few of whom owned, or wanted to buy, the dedicated monitor so many other computers demanded.
So the C64 was cheap to produce, relatively cheap to buy, and technically advanced for its time and price point; in hindsight, it was no surprise at all that the machine was an instant hit, and it wasn't long before C64s were everywhere. With such a large user base, and all that advanced technology going to waste on spreadsheets and word processing, it wasn't long before games developers took notice, and it that was the first step on the C64's great journey from home computer to gaming legend.
The first games were unimpressive, especially considering the gaming giant the machine would later become. Commodore gamers saw many ports of titles from the brand new consoles of the time, some good, some not so good, but none truly pushing the C64's unique strengths. Things may have continued in that vein if it weren't for the great US gaming crash of 1983/84. Some argue that Commodore itself helped the crash to happen, selling a machine that was in many ways superior to the consoles of the day, that could do more than the consoles could, and that was priced at a competitive rate; it is said that Commodore even offered console trade-ins against the sale of a new C64.
Whatever Commodore's role in the crash, the result was that US business lost confidence in computer and video gaming, a situation that festered until Nintendo returned to American shores with the NES two years later. For the C64, the situation was not so dire, as it was, after all, a home computer capable of doing much more than playing games, but with the games developers shaken and wary, the machine's days as a gaming platform may have been numbered.
The console crash didn't cross the Atlantic, however, where the new home computers had already gained a foothold and dominated the gaming market, thanks to low price machines like the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and, of course, the Commodore 64. Taking advantage of the gap in games production created by the US crash, as well as the low costs of development and distribution (while the C64 could run software from floppy disk or even cartridge, the main storage medium was the humble audio cassette), European bedroom programmers and smaller developers took control. While US companies continued to develop and publish games (Epyx, home of Impossible Mission and California Games, is a notable example), European developers began to dominate C64 gaming, a situation that lasted throughout the rest of the machine's life.
It was in this market that groups like Thalamus (Creatures), Rainbow Arts (Turrican, Katakis) and System 3 (The Last Ninja trilogy), and individuals like Jeff Minter (Attack of the Mutant Camels, Sheep in Space) and Andrew Braybrook (Paradroid, Uridium) were able to push the C64 hardware to its limits, wringing out every last bit of power from the machine. Eight years after the C64's release, Commodore fans saw games like the Creatures series prove that there was still great potential in the system, even as the 16-bit computers began to dominate, and the consoles were returning from their long exile.
The hardware itself received a minor revision in 1986, in which the technology inside was tidied up and, in some cases, tweaked, and the casing underwent a redesign to bring it more in line with Commodore's Amiga line of 16-bit machines. Commodore created the first truly portable personal computer in 1984 with a version of the machine called the SX-64, and the company even attempted to take on the burgeoning console market in 1990 with the Commodore 64 Games System. The C64GS was a basic C64 stripped of its keyboard and tape and disk inputs, relying instead on the underused cartridge port. However, by then the technology was already eight years old, and when competing directly with the new Sega and Nintendo machines, Commodore should have been adding more features, not taking them away. The cartridge format was not properly utilised either, and the few games released for the system were ports of regular tape based C64 games with a much higher price tag. Unsurprisingly, the system failed.
Roughly twenty thousand games later, after a long life in which it fought off the US gaming crash, and emerged triumphant from a bitter war of attrition with its European rival, the Spectrum, the Commodore 64 was never officially discontinued. The company planned to eventually retire the venerable machine in 1995; to put that into context, and show the long-lived resilience of the C64, that was the launch year for some minor system called the PlayStation! However, the mighty "breadbox" proved to outlive even its own company, as Commodore folded in 1994.
The C64 continues to live on; the flexible and advanced hardware continues to hold a fascination for enthusiasts, particularly in the demo scene, and that revolutionary sound chip, the SID, has proven to be particularly resilient, finding its way into the modern recording studio as a gizmo called the SIDstation, as used by artists like Timbaland and Machinae Supremacy.
Best of all, the Commodore 64 as a gaming machine has returned in the form of the C64 Direct-to-TV plug-and-play system, as well as, of course, the announcement of the C64's induction into that prestigious modern Hall of Fame of gaming, the Wii Virtual Console. In Europe at least, but there's something fitting about that.
Long live the C64!