Commodore 64 Overview

Commodore 64

Active from 1982-1994

8-bit Processor:
6510 @ 1.023 MHz

64 kB RAM

The Commodore 64 was not the first popular personal computer and it wasn't necessarily the best of the 8-bits either. By the time the C64 was released, the Apple II was five years old and the Atari 800 three. Each computer has its strengths and weaknesses, but ultimately, they are roughly comparable—particularly the Commodore and Atari systems. However, the Commodore 64 does have one claim in its favor, over 15 million units sold, making it the best selling single computer model of all time.

Commodore changed how computers were marketed by selling in department stores (not just in electronic and specialty shops) and by drastically undercutting the competition on price. Much of the credit for this successful strategy goes to Commodore founder Jack Tramiel, whose phrase "Computers for the masses, not the classes" became a de facto motto for the company. The C64 was so popular that the company became a victim of its own good fortune, as successors to the system, notably the Commodore Plus/4 and Commodore 128, did not sell nearly as well.

Released two years prior to the videogame crash of 1984, humming along through the NES heyday and salad days of 16-bit computers, and even sticking around during the early time of the 16-bit consoles, the C64 has quite a varied software library. Early titles included surprisingly faithful versions of classic arcade games, and more experimental software from both established publishers (e.g. Activision, Electronic Arts and Epyx) as well as motivated hobbyist programmers who found publishers after coding their games in their spare time. This later gave way to more established original games and arcade ports that properly took advantage of the hardware, but somehow, often lost the surreal charm of earlier titles. Finally, the 64 started to show its age, as ports of complex 16-bit computer and arcade games strained with the system's relative lack of computing power.

Initial games were often released on cartridges, or on cassette tapes for use in the very slow Datasette tape drive. More elaborate software with multi-load capabilities was released on 5 1/4-inch floppy disks, but the relatively expensive 1541 disk drive was almost as large the computer itself and nearly as slow as the tape drive! This created a market for cheaper 3rd-party disk drives as well as various "fast loader" cartridges.

The C64's SID sound chip deserves special mention. While mono and limited to three sound channels, it proved to be quite versatile. In many games, the title screen music was so good that you would boot them up, just to listen. Noted game music composers Martin Galway, Rob Hubbard, Jeroen Tel and David Whittaker all seemed to be able to squeeze more out of the hardware than seemed possible.

While primarily known for its games, the C64 (along with other 8-bit computers) also exposed people to the world of programming.  With its inviting READY prompt, users could type in BASIC programs from magazines or how to books.  And many games were actual construction sets, inspiring tinkering and creativity.  While crude, the C64 could be a tool for creation, not just a method of consumption.

- Ben Langberg

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