Original Commodore 64 ad

Love Letter To Commodore 64 Ads Takes Us Down Memory Lane

If you shop, you can get a pretty nice laptop for around $595. Maybe not the top of the line, but still pretty nice with multiple cores, a large hard drive, and a big color screen. But in the 1980s, the Commodore 64 bragged that for $595, they’d give you more than anyone else at twice the price. After all, 64K of RAM! Graphics with 16 whole colors! [Lunduke] dug up a bunch of these ads and has some thoughts on them and we really enjoyed the trip down memory lane.

If you look at other contemporary computers, they did cost more although sometimes it wasn’t a fair comparison. The TRS80 III, for example, cost $999 with 16K of RAM but it also had its own monitor — not color, though.

It is amazing to think that we’ve gone from where 16K was a reasonable amount of RAM in a personal computer to where it isn’t even worth having a flash drive with that capacity. We also can’t help but note that while computing power per dollar is through the roof now, computers aren’t actually that much more fun. We enjoyed interfacing a teletype to our 1802 ELF and working out a 300 baud modem for our TRS-80. Sure, we didn’t have Skyrim or HD movies, but we still have fun.

If you want to relive these exciting days, it is easy enough to build your own C64 with varying degrees of fidelity. It is trivial to emulate the thing on any kind of modern hardware, too.

Yo Dawg, We Heard You Like Retrocomputers

The idea of having software translation programs around to do things like emulate a Super Nintendo on your $3000 gaming computer or, more practically, run x86 software on a new M1 Mac, seems pretty modern since it is so prevalent in the computer world today. The idea of using software like this is in fact much older and easily traces back into the 80s during the era of Commodore and Atari personal computers. Their hardware was actually not too dissimilar, and with a little bit of patience and know-how it’s possible to compile the Commodore 64 kernel on an Atari, with some limitations.

This project comes to us from [unbibium] and was inspired by a recent video he saw where the original Apple computer was emulated on Commodore 64. He took it in a different direction for this build though. The first step was to reformat the C64 code so it would compile on the Atari, which was largely accomplished with a Python script and some manual tweaking. From there he started working on making sure the ROMs would actually run. The memory setups of these two machines are remarkably similar which made this slightly easier, but he needed a few workarounds for a few speed bumps. Finally the cursor and HMIs were configured, and once a few other things were straightened out he has a working system running C64 software on an 8-bit Atari.

Unsurprisingly, there are a few things that aren’t working. There’s no IO besides the keyboard and mouse, and saving and loading programs is not yet possible. However, [unbibium] has made all of his code available on his GitHub page if anyone wants to expand on his work and may also improve upon this project in future builds. If you’re looking for a much easier point-of-entry for emulating Commodore software in the modern era, though, there is a project available to run a C64 from a Raspberry Pi.

Thanks to [Cprossu] for the tip!

C64 Demo, No C64

Never underestimate the ingenuity of the demoscene. The self-imposed limitations lead to incredible creativity, and, the range of devices they manage to get their demos running on never ceases to amaze us. But we never thought we’d see a C64 demo without one central component: the C64.

Full disclosure: [Matthias Kramm]’s demo, called “Freespin”, does need a C64 to get started. The venerable 6502-based computer runs a loader program on a 1541 disk drive.  But from then on, it’s all floppy drive. And [Matthias] has laid bare all his tricks.

The video below shows the demo in full, including a heart-stopping on-camera cable mod. By adding a single 100 Ω resistor, [Matthias] turned the serial clock and data lines into a two-bit digital-to-analog converter, good enough to generate signals for both black and white pixels and the sync pulses needed for the display.

No demo would be complete without sound, and Freespin’s tunes come from controlling the drive’s stepper motor, like a one-voice Floppotron.

Watching nothing but a floppy drive run a cool demo is pretty amazing. Yes, we know there’s a full-fledged computer inside the floppy, but the bit-banging needed to make this work was still mighty impressive. It might be cool to see what you could do with multiple drives, but we understand the minimalistic aesthetic as well. And speaking of tiny little demos:  the 256 bytes of [HellMood]’s “Memories” or [Linus Åkesson]’s “A Mind is Born” still leave us speechless.

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A Commodore 64 As You Have Never Seen One Before: Game Boy Form Factor!

It’s now nearly four decades since the iconic Commodore 64 8-bit computer saw the light of day, and the vintage format shows no sign of dying. Enthusiasts have produced all kinds of new takes on the platform, but it’s fair to say that most of them have concentrated on the original style keyboard console form factors. A completely different take on a Commodore 64 comes from [UNI64] in the form of the Handheld 64, a complete Commodore 64 in a Game Boy style form factor that uses the original 64 chipset.

It achieves this improbable feat by sandwiching together several PCBs, with a tactile switch keyboard and LCD display at the top. It appears to bring the 64 ports out to headers, and the ROM cartridge port to an edge connector socket at the top of the device. A departure from the 1980s comes in using a Raspberry Pi Zero to emulate a 1541 floppy drive though.

Sadly unlike a Game Boy there’s no onboard battery, but don’t let that take away from the quality of this feat. A forum post from [3D-vice] has a set of decent-quality pictures, and even if you don’t have a handy 64 chipset lying about we’re sure you’ll still appreciate them. If home made 64s are your thing, take a look at how you can build one without Commodore parts.

Thanks [pbuyle] for the tip!

Commodore 64 Emulator In VR Delivers A Full 80s Experience

The simulated color CRT monitor looks surprisingly convincing in VR.

One way to play with vintage hardware without owning the hardware is to use an emulator, but [omni_shaNker] announced taking it to the next level by using VR to deliver a complete Commodore 64 system, in its full glory, complete with a native 80s habitat playset! This is a pretty interesting angle for simulating vintage hardware, especially since the emulator is paired with what looks like a pretty convincing CRT monitor effect in VR, not to mention a virtual 5.25″ floppy drive that makes compellingly authentic sounds.

The project is hosted on GitHub and supports a variety of VR hardware, but for owners of Oculus headsets, the application is also available on SideQuest for maximum convenience. SideQuest is essentially an off-the-books app store for managing software that is neither approved nor distributed by Facebook. Oculus is owned by Facebook, and Facebook is keen to keep a tight grip on their hardware.

As functional as the application is, there are still improvements and optimizations to be made. To address this, [omni_shaNker] put out a call for beta testers on Reddit, so if that’s up your alley be sure to get in touch. A video demonstration and overview that is chock-full of technical details is also embedded below; be sure to give it a watch to see what the project is all about.

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The Sixtyforgan Proves That Church Organs Are Definitely Chiptune

Church organs may be mechanically complicated and super old-school, but they share something in common with the earliest computer sound chips. In theory, and largely in practice, they produce very simple waveforms. The primary reason that church organs seem so full and rich compared to your old Commodore 64 is that they have the benefit of a whole church’s worth of reverb to fatten out the sound. [Linus] demonstrates this with the Sixtyforgan.

The Sixtyforgan is a Commodore 64 hooked up to a spring reverb tank. By running the relatively basic waveforms from the Commodore’s SID chip through this reverb, it’s possible to generate sounds that are eerily similar to those you might hear at your local Sunday service. While we won’t expect chiptune luminaries like [chipzel] to start busting out songs of praise at events like Square Sounds, it’s kind of awesome to think of the composers of antiquity rocking out to some mad Game Boy jams way back when.

It’s a great demonstration of the Commodore’s musical abilities, and we particularly like the application of the chromatic button layout borrowed from the accordion. We’d love to see this setup combined with an orchestra of the retro computers, like this demonstration playing The Sugar Plum Fairy. Alternatively, Billy Corgan on the Sixtyforgan playing Tiberius would be pretty great, too. Pretty sounding video after the break.

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Jack Tramiel Got A Good Deal, And Ruined Everything

A sideshow in the playground wars of the early 1980s over who had the best home computer lay in the quality of their onboard BASIC interpreters. Where this is being written the cream of the crop was Acorn’s BBC Basic, while Sinclair owners could hold their own, and the Commodore 64 was regarded as powerful, but not easy to program. It’s a teenage memory brought to mind by [Liam Proven], who argues in a blog post that Commodore’s BASIC left a problematic legacy that can still be felt today.

It’s an interesting proposition, and one with its roots in Commodore founder Jack Tramiel’s 1977 deal with Bill Gates to acquire a version of Microsoft BASIC for his machines, in which he paid a one-off fee for unlimited uses of the language rather than a per-sale levy. The argument in the post is that this led to later Commodore machines being hamstrung by an outdated BASIC interpreter as a cost saving measure. It fits well with those 1980s memories from school computer labs, because by comparison its competitors six years after the deal had the benefit of language extensions missing in Commodore’s 64.

Where [Liam]’s analysis becomes interesting is in how he perceives the effect of this long-in-the-tooth BASIC; he postulates that the sheer number of Commodore 8-bit machines sold ensured it had a dominant position in the market place and thus coloured the perception of BASIC as a programming language in the years that followed. We’re not so sure about his view that this led eventually to some of the shortcomings in computing today, but we agree wholeheartedly with him that Commodore were less than competent in marketing their hardware.

We look forward to hearing your take on the matter in the comments, and meanwhile for some perspectives on the Commodore of the day who better to relate them than somebody who had a ringside seat. Our colleague [Bil Herd] has shared with us some of his Commodore recollections over the years, including the Commodore 128 story, an account of the 1985 CES show, and a two-parter on the TED chip and its speech capabilities.

Header image: Commodore BASIC / Public Domain, and Evan-Amos / Public domain.