Sorry for being a little bit late this week. I was able to see a fantastic concert for the first time in many moons. I had to take full advantage of that fact. I got to see The Dollyrots for the second time ever (They don’t get out to New England very often), and it was awesome. An area band, Chaser Eight opened for them, and had an absolute killer set. Then the Dollyrots got on stage, and crushed it too. If you’ve never heard either band, and you like rock n’ roll, do check them out. Chaser Eight is pretty great, with elements of Alt-Rock, Glam, and straight up rock. It just works. The Dollyrots on the other hand, are an amazing Pop Punk trio led by Kelly Ogden, and Luis Cabezas. They have a really great blend of the sound of the early Rock groups like The Ronettes, and 1970’s Punk bands like The Ramones. Over the years they’ve grown as musicians but the roots are still apparent. It was a great show. Both bands were very approachable, and kind. They hung out with everyone at the bar after playing for a bit, and visited with fans like family you love, but don’t get to see all of the time. It was awesome. If either comes to your area, go see them. If they’re in your town as you’re reading this, just stop reading, and go see them. What are you waiting around for? Go!
Okay, you’re back? Good. I hope you had as great a time as I did. Anyway, lately I’ve talked a lot about the mighty Commodore 64, its library, and a great C64 peripheral. It’s one of the best platforms of all time. It was sold more than any other computer in its day, and there are a plethora of great games on it. With those, the demo scene, and even a few great bands using its sound chip, you may have thought about getting one. As a lifelong fan of the computer, I can point to some facts, and information you’ll need to know if you’re going to collect for the C64. Now this isn’t going to be the most in-depth look at the platform. There are books that go into the detailed information over the course of several hundred pages for that sort of thing. But these are some key things to look for, and some things to be aware of. There may even be a few things that intrigue a casual reader. So feel free to read on.
First of all, there were a few models. The first version is often called the bread bin model. This came in a couple of variants. The silver label variant is the earliest version, and is sought after by the most devoted Commodore fans. These have the logo in a silver style paint. The drawback with this variant is it has a 5 pin DIN connector for video, where the later models (which had a rainbow of colors next to the logo) used an 8 pin DIN connector for video. Later models also added support for S-Video which is a major jump over the stock RF cable, and switch box that all models can use. The image will be much cleaner, and clearer. Provided of course you track down one of the cables. After the bread bin model, Commodore released the C64c, which has many of the same updates as the rainbow variant of the bread bin. It also has a couple of chip refinements, and a redesigned bezel. It should also be noted that while you gain the S-Video, and slightly better power connector in later models, you lose the ceramics for heat reduction on chips. To remedy this, later models have a metal shield inside to draw some heat, but this still isn’t always an effective solution. In Europe some later models didn’t have a metal shield, but a metal coated cardboard one, which trapped heat in some cases.
Aside from the revisions to the standard Commodore 64, there were alternate versions altogether. The SX-64 was one of the earliest portable computers, as it had a built-in screen, and floppy drive. These things weigh a good 20 lbs. though, so they’re not portable in the sense you’re used to. In Japan, there was a short-lived version of the C64 called the Commodore MAX. But this cut some functionality. So it didn’t compete on the games or business end, and quickly disappeared. There was also the C64 Game System. But this cut out all of the computer aspects of the computer to play cartridge games. Unfortunately this also broke compatibility with most of the game library as by 1990, the best titles were on tape or diskette. All three of these variants are considered collector’s items. But unless you just have to have a conversation piece in your collection, I would focus on a regular C64 instead. These alternate versions can also be expensive.
The one noteworthy alternate Commodore 64 is the Commodore 128. This doubled the amount of memory in the computer, and could run all of the C64 software. The catch is it has to be run in C64 mode, as some of the revisions to the hardware led to some incompatibility in 128 mode. But the 128 did well with business, and productivity users, as there were applications that did take advantage of the extra memory. There were two versions, the standard C128, and the C128D. The latter made the keyboard an external peripheral, and included a built-in 1571 floppy diskette drive. The C128D can get expensive as a result, as finding one with a working drive is getting harder.
There are a couple of risks involved when getting into the platform. But these can be mitigated if you’re wise enough to do a couple of simple things. First, when you find a potential C64 purchase, confirm it is working. If it’s a store, they should be willing to hook it up, and confirm it’s operational. Second, make certain the Power Supply Unit not only works, but is in great shape. The PSU actually has two rails inside. One powers the motherboard, and most of the system, while the other powers the sound chip. As a means to control costs, it is encased in a resin material. However there’s a chance even a working PSU can overheat. Depending on the problem, a bad PSU can fry components inside the computer. That’s why it’s imperative you get a plug-in as pristine condition as possible. You’ll want to make sure it sits out in the open where heat can escape, and if you’re paranoid, you can always have a small desk fan blowing on it. Also keep in mind some of the later bread bin releases may have heat issues from the cost reduced RF shield. These are mostly in PAL territory releases. But again, keeping things cool can help mitigate a problem.
With that out-of-the-way, you’ll want to start gaming. But what else will you need? This depends a bit on what territory you’re in, and whether or not you plan to do any importing. Since I’m in the US, I’ll focus on that, but I’ll touch a bit on other parts of the world in a bit. When the C64 arrived on the scene, games for it started out on cartridge. They had about as much space as the ones found on consoles that were out at the time. Not every user had an external drive right away either, so it made sense for publishers to put games on cartridges. Some of the earliest software also came on cartridges, and this even includes diagnostic software, which may or may not work depending on the hardware issue. If applicable you can turn on the computer with a diagnostic cartridge, and it will let you run simple tests to determine if a chip has gone bad. But this isn’t always a sure thing, since some hardware failures won’t give you anything other than the blackness of space on your screen. More on that later.
So a lot of the earliest stuff was out on cartridge. Activision ported many of its console games to the C64 including H.E.R.O., Beamrider, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, and River Raid. But there were a number of great games on cartridge. Eventually however, publishers found alternatives that gave developers more space at a lower cost. The first of these were cassette tapes. Games, and other programs could be published on audio cassettes. These were also cheap, and so many titles started being released on cassette.
In order to run these programs you’ll need a datasette drive. These are basically old school cassette decks. If you want an in-depth look at how these worked, I highly recommend this video from the 8-Bit Guy. In European territories this is the format nearly all of the biggest titles came on, due to the lower production costs. There is one thing for newcomers to be aware of though, and that’s long load times. A lot of larger games on tape can take minutes to load. In the grand scheme of things it isn’t that big a deal. Even today’s console games can take eons to load if you’re playing them off disc, rather than installing them. Still, if you’re short on patience, you’ll need to learn to gather some if you need to run a game off of cassette.
In North America, prices of writable media began to fall after a while though, and so many games began the move to 5.25″ Floppy Diskettes. these eliminated the storage concerns for a long time. When they cropped up again, many developers simply made games that took multiple disks to get through. To play these games you’ll need a 1541 or a 1541-II floppy diskette drive. There were a few aftermarket drives as well like The Enhancer 2000. In the USA, nearly every notable game came on floppy diskette. Even games that were previously released on cartridge or cassette tape. Most games released on floppy take a lot less time to load over cassette releases. However they’re not quite as fast as one would hope due to a slow port speed. To help with this, there are a number of Fast Loader cartridges you can get. These take some of the load off, and do shave some time off of loading. Again, 8-Bit Guy has a great video on the specifics of how this worked that I won’t go into here. Just know, that an Epyx Fast Load cartridge, or equivalent is something you want if you’re going to play games on Floppy Diskettes.
Once you have all of those in order, you’ll probably want to look into controllers. Most games took advantage of joysticks, though many also had keyboard binds. Almost any controller with a DB9 connector will fit the ports. Atari 2600 joysticks, Sega Genesis pads, and so on. However, it is NOT recommended you use a Sega Genesis pad, because the Sega Genesis pad draws more power than the controller ports need, so there is the chance you can blow a controller port in the process. So it’s best to stick to controllers built with either the C64, or Atari 2600 in mind. My controller of choice is the Slik Stik by Suncom. But there are no shortage of joystick options. Note that some games still utilized two button schemes, at a time when nearly all controllers were one button controllers. The work around most developers went with, was using the space bar. Depending on the title it may take a little getting used to. In slower paced games it’s rarely a problem, in action games, you’ll want the joystick right in front of the computer so you can easily press the space bar when you need to.
Now the thing to remember is, this is still a computer platform. So you can do more than game on it. In fact if you’re willing to learn the Commodore variant of BASIC, you can code your own homebrew games for the machine. Which a lot of people did. So you may even have fun tracking down old, defunct Commodore 64 themed magazines. Some of them have been archived like the entire run of Ahoy!. Not only do you get the sensation you feel when looking at an old Nintendo Power, you get programs. Long before the advent of getting a CD full of demos with your game magazine, computer magazines had program articles. You could type in these programs, save them to a diskette, and run them whenever you wanted. Many of them were written entirely in BASIC, although some were written in machine language, and you typed them into a HEX editor program. But you could save them to diskette! Some of these were really good too, like Mystery At Mycroft Mews, where you had to go around a town as detectives, solve murders, and bring the right suspect to trial.
Aside from gaming, there are a wealth of old productivity, and business programs you can find, but honestly, they’re not really going to be much value beyond the history. It is nice to see the original Print Shop in action, or some of the word processors of the time. But you’re probably not going to send your masterpiece novel to a literary agent on a 5.25″ Floppy these days. Still, you can still find old dot matrix printers, and the ribbons though they’re getting scarce.
But in the more interesting range you can find things like the Koala pad, which is one of the earliest graphics tablets. You could draw with a stylus, and save your art to diskette. There were a bunch of clones that came afterward. But if you draw on a modern Wacom graphics tablet, and wonder where the earliest versions of the tech came from, their infancy took place on 8-bit home computers. You can also find the original 300 baud modems, that let users connect to services like Quantum Link back then (LazyGameReviews did a wonderful video on that service.) But these days, there are homebrew network cards, and browsers tinkerers can invest in.
One of the craziest things I have in my collection is the Hearsay 1000. A cartridge, and software combo that reads whatever you type, back to you. In a kind of creepy robot voice. The software is far from perfect, it doesn’t account for pronunciation, so it can only read things as they are spelled. So if you type in the name “Barbara” it will say it back as “Bar-Bar-A”. But this is where stuff like Dragon Naturally Speaking got its start. Building off of this early tech, or properly doing what it was trying to. If you find a Hearsay 1000, don’t use it while playing games with voice samples. It will yell “HEARSAY ONE THOUSAND!”, and then crash the computer. Then you’ll have to turn it off, disconnect the module, and turn it back on. Then load your game again. Considering you’re going to wait a while for Ghostbusters to load again, best to know that up front.
Of course not too long ago, I reviewed the SD2EIC. This is a must own peripheral because you can make disk images, or download images of stuff you own to an SD Card. It’s also great if you do happen to have old disks with personal files on them, and want to save those along with your other programs. Plus the load times, are dramatically cut down.
One also needs to take into account the difference between PAL, and NTSC territories If they plan on importing. A lot of really great games including some of the best were exclusive to Europe. While most of these are playable on a North American C64, the speed differences can often lead to all kinds of glitches. Random characters popping up, graphics showing up in grayscale rather than in color, some extreme cases will involve lock ups, and crashes. One can convert their computer via modifying it, but this isn’t recommended if you don’t know your way around altering a circuit board. My advice is to either deal with the glitches if you import a game or follow the purist. Purists will import a PAL C64, peripherals, and either a PAL monitor or else using a scaler with their HDTV to run a native 50 hz signal from the computer. You’ll also want a power converter as the electrical outlets, and standards are different. If you’re in a PAL territory, and you want some of the NTSC exclusives, you’ll see similar issues. So again, purists will want to import an NTSC setup, and use a power converter.
While some of this may get a little complicated, it is worth the plunge. Once you have a fully functional C64 setup, there really isn’t anything else like it. The unique sound of its sound chip (known as the SID) is popular to this day. The wide, and varied library gets you a large variety of original games, multi platform games, and arcade ports. As is the case with every platform you’ll find a lot of good games, some truly great games, and a fair number of bad ones. I highly recommend visiting Lemon64 for its wealth of information, and its game archive. Plus they have a very helpful community if you do run into issues. Thanks to them I discovered a wonderful hobbyist who does repairs, and builds a lot of high quality homebrew accessories, and power supplies. When my C64c gave me a dreaded Black Screen Of Death last month I got in contact with Ray Carlsen, After some back, and forth messaging I ended up sending him the machine. Having some background in PC repairs, and upgrades I had taken it apart, checked the motherboard, found no bad capacitors. The fuse was intact, and working. I didn’t see any corrosion on chips. But I had no way to test them, and I was stumped. Well he was able to determine I had a minor issue with my power connector, and that my PSU was on its way out. He installed a breaker to prevent the components from frying from a bad PSU. I also ordered one of his homebrew PSUs. When the computer came back, not only was everything working the way it is supposed to, but he somehow got it looking much newer than when I had sent it in. Now he isn’t a traditional business, so he doesn’t do bulk jobs. Don’t go looking to send him 50 broken C64 computers. That isn’t what he is about. But he’ll charge you a fair price to fix a single machine, and take a look at some of his PSU models. With the originals drying up, it can’t hurt to have a spare.
The Commodore 64 may have been a home computer, but it was one of the most important platforms in video game history. It’s where many games went after the infamous crash in North America, and even after the rise of the NES it still retained a viable market share. In Europe it was also a major contender throughout the 80’s, and 90’s. Although there are some things to be aware of if you want to begin collecting for one, it can be a rewarding experience. Prices fluctuate constantly, but expect to spend between $50 – $150 for a working model with a good PSU. With that alone, you’ll be set for any cartridge games. But chances are you’ll want some of the higher profile releases. A 1541 Floppy drive will set you back about $50. There are deals out there to be had, but many of the cheap ones aren’t tested, so you may be buying a worn out drive. On the budget end though, Datasette drives are fairly inexpensive. So keep an eye out for one of those.
Then, you’ll be ready to pick up some C64 games! Just like on retro consoles, some games are cheap, and common. Some are rare, and expensive. A lot of times you can make out well, by buying lots. A lot of games don’t require anything beyond a floppy diskette, cartridge or cassette. But there are games that have manual protection. So do some research on a title before you buy it. For example, you’ll want to look for complete copies of certain RPGs as they require a code wheel, or manual as a means of copy protection. (IE: Type in the first word in the third paragraph on page 13.) Plus it’s nice to have the manuals, and keyboard overlays for flight sims, RPGs, or point, and click adventure games. Action genres usually didn’t have these vast control schemes requiring hot keys. But a handful did use manual protection so make sure the game you’re interested in isn’t one of them if you’re looking at a loose copy.
Also be sure to keep your disk based games in sleeves when you’re not using them, and don’t let them get too hot or cold. Definitely keep them away from magnets, as that will corrupt the disk, and destroy your game. It was a lesson we children learned quickly back when home computers were first gaining prominence. Finally, the Commodore 64, and other computers of the era were powered by variants of Microsoft BASIC. So you’ll need to know a few basic (Ha, ha!) commands. The most important being LOAD”*”,8,1 which for all intents, and purposes tells the disk drive to load the first file on a disk (Usually the executable) into memory. Then when the computer says ‘READY” you can simply type “RUN”, press RETURN, and fire up your game.
That should about do it this time. But keep in mind how many great things the retro games, and computing scene keeps pumping out for the mighty C64. Here’s hoping the new motherboards, network cards, card readers, and even homebrew games continue preserving one of gaming’s most iconic platforms.
2 thoughts on “Commodore 64 mini-guide, and a concert I went to.”
My dad had a C64, but it used cassettes for loading instead of disks. It died one day when I was playing Final Fight. Thank goodness that modern games don’t use code wheels. I hated those things so much.
Yeah, but modern protection schemes don’t always work out great either. I still have vivid memories of the StarForce debacle from a decade or so ago.
That said, finding code wheels, or paragraphs was a pain in the ass back then. But it’s still worth the minor inconvenience today. There are so many must play C64 games out there.