What did the Commodore Vic 20 (or contemporaries) do?

You could do a number of the same things you can do with a modern computer, only a hell of a lot smaller to fit in the RAM constraints. RAM is Random Access Memory. It’s the computer’s ‘scratchpad storage’ that is faster than going out to disk or (especially) tape but gets erased every time the computer is turned off. For permanent storage in the home computers of that era you had either big floppy disks or audio cassette tapes.

The tiny amount of RAM really dictated much of what you could do with the system: It had pretty lousy graphics because you need RAM to draw the next video frame in, and with so little RAM you can’t fit a lot of detail in. Software has to use RAM for both itself and all of its calculations, meaning that you either create a small, simple program that fits entirely in RAM or you find a way to partition a larger program so it can run with only a section of it in RAM at a time. The sound was primitive partially because the sound hardware was primitive, but also because (you guessed it) you had to fit everything you needed to generate the audio in the same tiny amount of RAM you were using for everything else.

In addition, the processor that actually executed the C64’s software was a lot slower than modern processors. I mean, three full orders of magnitude slower: It ran at right around a million instructions per second, whereas modern processors are running at around a billion instructions per second. It’s possible to get clever with software and write responsive applications anyway, but you can’t hide a difference that big.

Aside from all that, it was a general-purpose computer that could be programmed to do a huge variety of things, and was: In its era, it was a hugely popular system and found its way into homes, hobbyist shacks, businesses, schools, and, most likely, industrial applications as well.

In Spring of '81, my mom gave me a Vic-20 in exchange for a promise to silence my ham radio—the neighbors had been complaining about the broad black bands my transmitter caused on their television.

I didn’t have any games or cartridges with it, but I did have a good time writing BASIC programs, and even getting started in 6502 machine code. I still remember “A9” meant “LDA” (Load the Accumulator) and “8D” meant “STA” (Store the Accumulator).
What a great little machine for a kid to learn to program on.

I would type in those BASIC or machine code programs from the magazines and try to figure out how they did what they did. Usually, the machine code ones were two pages of comma-separated numbers, with little hope of ever finding a mistake should you make one.

Some time later, my folks gave me an 8K expansion cartridge, and cartridge called a “super expander”.

The super expander added another 3.5K or so to the computer, but its real claim to fame was that it provided a very primitive library for programming graphics. In other words, you could do things like draw lines from point x,y to x’,y’

You couldn’t use the cartridges together.

There were always neat hacks in the Commodore magazines, I tried several of them.

The cartridge port was actually a bus kind of interface, so I was able to solder together four edge connecters in parallel and make a “four cartridge extender”

Then I learned that inside the 8K cartridge case was a set of dip switches that allowed you to choose the memory block where the 8K started. I cut a small hole in the case to access these switches.

At that point, I finally found out what use that cartridge was: there was a little machine language app that a friend gave me that would rip the ROM program code from a game cartridge and serialize it to a cassette tape. You could then plug in the 8K expander, set to the correct memory location, and use the same little program to load the cartridge code into the 8K RAM.

A couple of hard switches added to the case, wired to pins on the mother board, finished the package: one for hard reset, the other for soft reset.

After loading the game object code, hit the reset switch and the game would boot.

And no, this wasn’t the way the games were meant to work—they were cartridge games, just like for a Nintendo system.

I had a class in high school (1982-1983) on computer programming. We were using Radio Shack TRS-80s. Among the programs we had to write was one which would slowly “print” Robert Frost’s poem Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening on the screen, and then have the screen randomly light up with white dots (simulating snow “falling” on the poem, and slowly covering it up). Like the VIC, we saved our programs on a cassette tape *. I remember spending hours after class typing in the program for an Asteroids-style video game, which I found in the back of a computer magazine. Unfortunately, I probably typed in an error somewhere along the way, as it never worked.

A college friend had a Commodore 64. She had a fairly full-featured (for the era) word-processing program called Paperback Writer – another friend of ours had written his own fantasy role-playing game rules, and he spent weeks typing up the rules on the C64, and then printing them out on the dot-matrix tractor-drive printer. She also had several primitive video games, and a text-based adventure game based on “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”.

    • Parenthetically, I didn’t see an internal hard drive on a personal computer until one of the IBM PCs at my college work-study job got an upgrade with a small hard drive, in about 1986.

Seemed like all the hobby PCs from the era had biorhythm programs, simple chess and board games, terminal programs to call into bulletin boards, loan calculators, flashcard-type trainers, and sine wave generators.

I still have my VIC-20! This was my very first computer. I ran down to my basement when I saw this thread and brought it up. :slight_smile: Haha! “VIC-20, The Friendly Computer with Color and Music!” I haven’t looked at this thing in over 20 years. Interesting…the keyboard has both a $ and a ₤ key.

Hah! I still have the tape player/recorder and all my cartridges and tapes.

I have the following games on cartridge: Jupiter Lander (VIC-1907), Mission Impossible (VIC-1916), The Count (VIC-1917), Road Race (VIC-1909), Sargon II Chess (VIC-1919), and Omega Race (VIC-1924). Games I have on cassette are: VIKMAN, Krazy Kong, Alien Blitz, Space Pyramid, Splatman, River Race, Snakman, Amok, 3-D maze, and Reflections (whatever that is).

Non games cassettes I have are: Math Duel, Sky Math, CSA Composer, VIC Word Processor, and Home Inventory.

I also have two expansion cartridges: VIC-1110 8K RAM Cartridge, and VIC-1211A Super Expander with 3K RAM Cartridge.

Heh. I feel like a kid at Christmas again. I was in love with my VIC-20 until the Tandy TRS-80 drew my interest away and I chucked the VIC-20 aside like an old boot.

Now, what can I do with this thing? O_o …well, back to the basement it goes. :slight_smile:

I had a Commodore 64 from 1983 until I put it away around in 1990 or so. We used to clown the poor saps that had VIC-20s because… they couldn’t do shit. Keep in mind this was in UK, so the players were the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the BBC Micro, and the Amstrad… and the Commodore 64. Speccys and C64s were the lion’s share of all of the games and the scraps were left to the others. The VIC-20 and the TI-994A weren’t even in the game, so to speak.

We used to go into the Upper Heyford BX and type the following on the poor VIC on display:

20 GOTO 10

High point of comedy, I tell you.

The C64 had a Mac-like word processor, GEOS, that I used to write papers in high school.

there was a program called “Adventure Writer” for the C64 that let you write some nifty text adventure games without a lot of programming skills. OK, you were basically doing database management with it, and setting flags is KINDA programming-ish, but since they called it “Adventure Game WRITING” it was kinda … sorta … writing. I mean, you hardly noticed.

I wrote a game based on the Cthulhu Mythos back then for … oh, this’ll date me … a Quantumlink contest for an original text adventure game. Tied for third place! Ok, there were four contestants … but damn, that was fun! Still got the T-shirt I won.

I had a C64 way back when, then five or six years ago I got one of those games that’s just a joystick, with cables that plug the video and audio into your TV. On this joystick game was every game you ever saw on the C64, plus some. The little device had what was essentially a C64 inside it, with all the games on a disk drive emulator.

In fact, when you turn it on, you briefly see the two-tone blue screen and the command
LOAD “*”,8,1
(or something like that, it’s off the top of my head).

Ah, the memories. It’s amazing to think that this little device I bought for $5, we would have paid over $1000 for back in the early 80s.

I have one of these too. It has about 30 games (if your has more, I’d love to know where you got it!) and it was built by a young woman who figured out how to put an entire C64 on one circuit board. I got mine from a guy on a C64 board about a year ago… I planned to give it as a Christmas gift but I kept it for myself. :slight_smile:

I still play the game Paradroid on it. It was never about the graphics (on early 64 games). All about playability…

The Vic 20 was at the start of the glory days of the 8 bit computers. The Vic 20 was never all that popular. The Commodore 64 was much more popular.

Commodore had the absolute worst crappy cassette interface out there. They stored every program twice, which was its way of doing error detection. When it read in data, it read both versions and if they disagreed, it considered that a load failure and bailed out. So basically since it was twice as slow and half as reliable as other cassette interfaces out there.

The “vic” in Vic 20 referred to the Video Interface Chip. The C64 also had a vic, and also had a sid (sound interface device). These chips offloaded a lot of the video and sound processing so that the main processor didn’t have to worry about it as much. This is why the lowly C64 with its 1 MHz clock and 64k of RAM could run circles around later 5 MHz IBM PCs with 512 MB of RAM when it came to games.

The C64 also had the 1541 disk drive available. This whopping huge 170k disk drive (yes, I said 170k) was a huge improvement over the crappy cassette interface.

The Apple II and the TRS-80 (aka “trash 80”) computers were very popular at the time as well. Atari was also popular because they had Atari games available for them, and Atari was the big guy on the block back then as far as computer games went. There were a LOT of 8 bit systems out there. You also had Timex Sinclairs and TI 99/4s, the Tandy CoCo (color computer), and many others.

Aside from games, you had word processors available, programs that would balance your checkbook, and even primitive database programs that you could do all sorts of things with.

Computers back then came with schematic diagrams, memory maps, and opcode lists. If you wanted to do anything other than play games or simple word processing, you needed to be a halfway decent computer hacker. Most users were very technically inclined and knowledgeable people. Easy point and click was still a long way away in the future. The easiest it got for a Commodore was LOAD “*”,8,1. If that didn’t mean anything to you, then you weren’t computer savvy enough to use a computer back then.

With a blazingly fast 300 baud modem (hint - for those of you who don’t realize what speed that is, I can type faster than that) you could connect to bulletin boards, which were computer sites that you could connect to via phone line. You could download software, play games, and of course, there was computer porn, even back then. If you had access, you could even dial into primitive mainframe networks that were forming the beginnings of what would later become the internet.

Printers were certainly available. The two most common type were dot matrix and daisy wheel. Dot matrix would print in dots on the page, and they were really hard to read. Daisy wheels were basically like typewriters, so the text was easy to read but they couldn’t do graphics at all. The cheaper dot matrix printers printed on thermal paper, which was horrible. For a couple hundred bucks you could get a dot matrix that printed on real paper, which was a big improvement.

Programs, usually written in BASIC, were available in books and magazines, but you had to type them in, and they were hundreds and hundreds of lines long. If you made a typo, the program wouldn’t work correctly, and you’d have to debug it (with no real debugging tools available) to figure out exactly where you’d gone wrong. I typed a couple of programs in, but mostly I found it far too tedious.

Programs also came on cartridge ROMs or cassettes or disks, depending on what you had available in your system.

Word processors were generally very primitive, and were not WYSIWYG. On the commodores, you had a 40 column screen (until the C128, which had both 40 and 80 column resolutions available) and printers were typically 80 columns wide, so there was no way to make it look on the screen like it would look on the paper. The Apple II had an 80 column screen, as did the TRS-80, but they both required a special monitor. The commodores could hook up to a standard television, which is why their screen width was more limited.

Actually, it was worse than that. The C64’s 6510 ran at 1 MHz, but it was nowhere near 1 instruction per clock. I don’t remember how many cycles a typical instruction took, but I’m thinking it was more like 0.25 to 0.33 MIPs at best.

Its instruction set was also very limited compared to a modern processor. It could only handle numbers from 0 to 255, so if you needed to handle bigger numbers you had to do it with multiple instructions. The 6510, like most processors of that era, could not multiply or divide, so if you needed to multiply or divide you had to write a subroutine that used adds and shifts or subtracts and shifts to do it (google “Booth’s algorithm” if you want to know how you can multiply and divide without multiplying and dividing).

I used to write and sell video games for the trs-80 color computer back then.

This was the first one I sold through a company called Spectral Associates. It was a copy of the arcade game Xevious, I called my version Devious. I was pretty young when I did this one (high school) and it was my first, it ended up being ok but not great:
This one is a copy of QIX which I called Qiks and I was really proud of because it matched the original really well and had a natural feel when you played it. Also, the reviews say it is better then our competitors version, which was kind of fun because when I first sent out copies of my work to various companies to try to sell my stuff, that company rejected me:

I also started another one called Module Man but I’m really confused because I’m pretty sure I abandoned it, but I see it listed on the internet as one of Spectral Associates games - they may have finished it.

For a real education—or, for some of us, a trip down memory lane—take a look at some of the old issues of COMPUTE! GAZETTE magazine archived online. This was a magazine for users of the Commodore VIC-20 and Commodore 64. The articles, the ads, and the programs you could type in will all give you an idea of what people could and did do with these computers.

Was there a monitor available for the Vic 20 or was a TV the only option?

I wonder if it would be possible to connect a Vic 20 to a modern day flatscreen TV. In the early 1980s cable-ready was still a feature you paid extra for; I wonder if there’d be any way to interface one with a modern TV at all.

I had Adventure Writer too. It had a game prewritten for it that was like some generic Infocom game although not nearly as good but still fun. I wanted to enter that contest but I never finished my game well enough to send it in. Your 4th place counts for more than you think.

You can do just about anything to go back in time electronically if you have the patience for it to hook the right series of components together. I don’t know how easy it is to take an actual VIC-20 and make it work with a new TV but you can just skip that part. I run a Commodore 64 emulator on my PC hooked up to a large LCD TV so the final output is there.

The Commodore 64 and Vic-20 hook up to the auxiliary antenna connections through a little box like you used on video game systems like an Atari 2600. You flipped a switch on the connector box and tuned it in on a channel (usually 3 or 4). There has to be components at Radio shack that you can hook together to make that same connection to a new TV if you could find a working Vic-20 or Commodore 64.

There were dedicated computer monitors available back then. I don’t remember Commodore making one but I remember others being available.

A modern flat screen could connect to a Vic 20 as long as it can handle a plain old fashioned analog TV signal, which most can. Just turn it to channel 3.

As I remember, this was called an RF modulator.

The nice thing about the trash-80 color was that it used the 6809 which had some 16 bit operations, 16 bit addressing and a multiply operation.

It ran at 0.89mhz and, as you say, many if not most of the ops were > 1 cycle (I remember counting cycles in a routine and looking for ways to reduce them).

Commodore called it an RF modulator, but it really wasn’t one. It was just a switch. The actual RF modulator was inside the computer.

The Commodore 64 had an internal RF modulator, but the VIC-20’s modulator was an external box that hooked onto the composite monitor connector on the back. It was included in the base kit, as TVs didn’t have composite connectors back then.