I Had That! #19: Commodore VIC-20 and Commodore 64

By 1983 I couldn’t take it anymore. I was begging for a computer. My dad relented and somehow didn’t get me a Radio Shack one; I have no idea how that could have happened, and can only assume they were too expensive. Instead I got a Commodore VIC-20.

Even at the time this was kind of a My First Computer. It only had 5K of RAM (note: that picture of it above uses 44K) and had a weird 22 characters by 23 lines display. Let’s look at how that would look.

Even at the time this
was kind of a My First
Computer. It only had
5K of RAM (note: that
picture of it above
uses 44K) and had a
weird 22 characters by
23 lines display.
Let’s see how that
would look.

Nevertheless, I loved having it and got what I could out of it. There were games on cartridges you could get (Gorf, Radar Rat Race, an a few others), I did BASIC programming on it, and I even got a modem for it, allowing me to set foot in the world of New Orleans BBSes, which simply cannot be overstated as a factor in my development, for good or ill.

It wasn’t too long before I was outgrowing the VIC-20. Again, my folks miraculously relented to upgrade me to a Commodore 64 some time in 1984. I suppose I finally had taken an interest in something that wasn’t in their minds a complete waste of time (they were wrong).

With the C64 I was now playing with power. I continued some programming and BBSing on its sprawling 40×25 display, but the games! Oh, the games! The C64 was probably THE machine for games until the Nintendo came along. When I met Joe, who had recently moved to town and had connections to a big pirate group, My collection of games exploded. (I’d trade him my Star Wars figures for disks of games; he gave the figures to his little brother.) I could do a series just on the C64 games I liked. I got the crazy slow disk drive (it was considered a major technological innovation when someone wrote a program that could format a 5.25″ floppy disk in only four minutes), the modem, a printer, and a monitor. Also joysticks galore, since the joystick port was compatible with the Atari 2600’s and there were a wide range of available options. I broke my favorite one during a savage game of Jumpman.

(The printer story is funny. My cousin was going to sell it to me for something like $125, which was more cash than I had at the time. My folks saw this as an opportunity for me to come up with a plan for paying them, be responsible, etc. Instead I immediately sold my VIC-20, plus all its accoutrement, including the black and white TV I used for it, to a different cousin for $125. My lesson in budgeting and managing money would have to wait.)

I say I did programming on the C64, and I did, but the vast array of available games stunted my interest there. There wasn’t much motivation to create games of my own since I already had plenty of great ones to play. I subscribed at the time to Compute! magazine, which had games and things you could key in, and I did those, but I seldom looked at the programs themselves to learn more programming. The C64 had more powerful graphics and sound, but they were also more complicated to use, and ready-made games won out over the learning curve.

There’s a lot of nostalgic love for the C64, and there’s good reason for it. It was a relatively inexpensive machine that was fat-packed with potential and a wide range of available games. I’ve briefly toyed with emulators, but they didn’t really captivate me.

When did I get it? Fairly certain I got the VIC-20 in 1983. On January 1, 1984, I logged into the Y’At BBS as “Big Brother” and posted “Big Brother is watching you!” on every one of the discussion topics, and I’m fairly certain I did that on the VIC-20. And I know I got the C64 not long afterwards, in 1984.

Do I still have it? As I said, the VIC-20 got sold to my cousin Shane to finance a printer for my C64. The C64 was sold in the winter of 1986 (after I got the Tandy 1000) to my friend Charlyn. She complained not long afterwards that a lot of the game disks weren’t working anymore, and I realized this was because she was storing them on top of the monitor. She is, incidentally, a for-real computer programmer now.

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