Sunday, 3 January 2016

Commodore 64 - The classical days of computing

Commodore 64 Startup Screen
I can't think of a better way to open this post
While there are many people who will look at this post and scratch their heads in bemusement, there are still many of us who grew up with this humble little home computer. Okay, maybe the Commodore 64 doesn't hold anywhere near the processing power of the computers of today (including those ones that we can hold in the palm of our hand) but the 64, as it was fondly known, formed an essential part of the lives of many of us in my generation.
I first got a Commodore 64 after repeatedly pestering my dad to purchase a computer that was much better than the dinosaur that he had occupying the back corner of his workshop - one that actually had colour and sound - as well as one that many of my friends also owned. In a way, to own a Commodore 64 back in the eighties was to be a part of the in crowd of the computer geeks because if you had anything else you simply were not able to share anything. Back in those days there was no such thing as compatibility, which meant that if you owned a different computer you simply were not able to trade software with anybody else or were pretty much reliant upon what you to purchase at the shops (and considering the price of store bought computer games, there were quite a few restrictions).

Commodore 64
And this is the machine
Floppy Disc
You can bend these
Look, I'm not intending on writing an academic history or encyclopedic entry on this computer, and if you are looking for something like that, then there is always Wikipedia. What I am intending on sharing are my memories on the what I call the classical days of the computer era, back in a time before the internet, where there were no harddrives or memory sticks, and games (or other programs) came on what were known as floppy disks and cassette tapes (and I originally thought they were called floppy discs because you could bend them, not that you were encouraged to do so because it would pretty much ruin it). Programs didn't load instantaneously, and if you wanted to load a complex game you would have to go and do something else while that happened, at times crossing your fingers and hoping that it wouldn't crash in the process (meaning that you would have to start all over again). Remember, I'm talking about discs here - they were considered to be quite fast, unlike the cassette tapes, which were much, much slower, and if you had multiple programs on the tape you would have to spool through it to try to find where the program was located. In fact it was not uncommon to have the covers of the cassette tape labeled as such:

Cassette Tape
A pencil was essential
0-156:      Space Invaders
160-217:  Pacman
218-324:  Labyrinth
325-327:  Poker .... and so on.

I remember at times having to regularly spool the tape right back to the beginning just so that we could reset the counter to be able to find the program that we wanted to load. Fortunately, since my dad was an electronics engineer, he readily understood the frustrations associated with cassette tapes so we rarely had to deal with them (unless I was at my friend's house) because he had purchased a disc drive.

Disc Drives
Some disc drives were much larger than these ones
Okay, a lot of the desktops that we use today still have an eight inch floppy drive installed (well, mine doesn't, but I believe the one I use at work does, despite the fact that they are pretty much obsolete these days) but I don't think I have seen a disc in use for a very long time. I still have some in my Dad's shed, but with the development of external hard drives and flash drives, they are simply no longer needed. However, I still remember carrying my box of floppy drives around to my friend's house, or down to the state library, so that we could swap games.
Okay, I notice that I have referred to programs above, but to be honest with you I only ever used the Commodore 64 for two things - playing computer games and writing computer games. Okay, we did have some programs that we used, such as Fast Hack'em (I can't believe there is actually a Wikipedia entry on this program, and I even noticed that you can download copies of it, not that it is of any use) and that was so we could copy games (it was one of the fastest available). However you also had cartridges known as 'Freezer' Cartridges, such as Freeze Frame and ICEPIC, which would dump the contents of the computer's memory into an executable file, which made bypassing the copy protection of some games rather simple.
C64 Disc Drive
The disc drive
c64 Datasette
The datasette

Now, I mentioned above that one of the things that I would use the Commodore 64 for was to write computer games. While I will probably say more on the topic in later posts, I still wish to touch on the subject here. Being the son of an electronics engineer I grew up around computers, and prior to the Commodore 64, the games that we had access to were very limited, so I had to learn how to write them myself. In fact you could get computer magazines where the back would contain listings of code (usually in basic) that you could type into the computer. That began to change where demos and free software would be included on a disc (and later a CD) that came with the magazine, but in the early days you had to type them out yourself.
Not all of the computer magazines had listings in them, but a few of them did (namely the ones that were targeted towards computer professionals and hobbiests, as opposed to those of us who simply used them to play games). One magazine I remember was Zzap! 64, which was purely a games magazine (which basically reviewed upcoming and recently released computer games, as well has having a section containing hints, cheats, and game hacks).
While you can still buy computer magazines in the stores, like all other forms of media, the internet is slowly taking over the sphere (and honestly, why would computer geeks even bother buying magazines when most of them are pretty proficient in the internet anyway). I've noticed that these days a lot of programmers have their own blogs which they use to share code with the programming world at large, such as my Dad's blog (if you can call it as such), or my friend Andrew's.
I think I'll finish it off here, though I will make a mention of MOS6502, a blog for Commodore 64 geeks, Lemon 64, a website that looks back on the many games of the 64 era, and, an archive of Commodore 64 software (which I believe you can also find an emulator, though if they don't have one, you could always try CCS64, an emulator we purchased years back using the old method of getting a bank draft and sending a cheque to Scandanavia - there was no Paypal in those days). As for the games, well here is a Youtube video commemorating a whole heap of 64 games.

Creative Commons License
 Commodore 64 - The classical days of computing by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me. All images on this post are © and/or ™ their relevant owners. If you are the owner of any of the images used on this website and wish them to be removed then please contact me.

Floppy disc: Use permitted by KENPEI under creative commons attribution share-alike 3.0 Unported
TDK Cassette Tape: Use permitted by GRAHAMUK under creative commons attribution share-alike 3.0 Unported
1541 disc drive: Use permitted by aFrank99 under creative commons attribution share-alike 2.5 Generic
C64 Datasette: Use permitted by Toni Saariko under creative commons attribution share-alike 3.0 unported
Zzap! 64: Used under the fair use provisions for illustrative purposes only. Source wikipedia.


  1. Our first computer was a Commodore 128, but we ran it in 64 mode more often than not, because most of the software was for that mode. We also typed in games, although I think because the computer was already obsolete when we got it, we just inherited the old magazines (and later disks) from friends. A few years back, I discovered an emulator program that runs on Windows, and also a few of the games we used to play, such as Crossroads. I haven't found Gauntlet, though, probably because that was a commercial game. We wasted more time playing that. Believe it or not, though, for a couple of years, I did all my word processing on that machine. In order to run it, you had to put a memory chip thing in the joystick port. Good memories.

  2. We also had a Commodore 128 but that ended up being a bit of a dead duck. Like you we only ever used it in the c64 mode. By that time the 16 bit computers had taken the market.

    As for Gauntlet try this like: - if you are using the emulator that I think you are using that should work. Pretty much all of the c64 games are available on the internet and is the go to site.