What Happened To The Commodore 64?

In January 1982, a relative newcomer to the personal computer market demoed its latest model at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (via History Computer). The company was Commodore, and its product that year was the C64.

The "C," of course, stands for "Commodore," and the "64" represents the amount of RAM the PC had. You read that right: the C64 had a whopping 64 kilobytes of RAM (today's high-end computers have 1 million times more memory). Although this sounds laughably underpowered by today's standards, those specs put it at the high end of computers on the consumer market.

Those high-end specs, coupled with its low price point, made the C64 the best-selling computer of all time. At its peak, Commodore was producing around 400,000 units per month. It continued to produce the C64 as late as 1994, but by then, home computers were much more versatile, and video game consoles had entrenched themselves in the market. The C64 was no longer technologically dominant nor financially competitive, and Commodore filed for bankruptcy in April 1994.

Rise to the top

On the surface, the Commodore 64 doesn't look like it would take the home computer market by storm. It's a single-board computer in a keyboard housing; no monitor, no disk drive. Worse, it's kind of ugly: the plastic case is an unfortunate shade of brown, and the keyboard is awkwardly elevated, making it uncomfortable to use for extended periods (via The Interface Experience).

This was par for the course at the time, and externally, the C64 didn't differentiate itself from the competitors — what made it special was everything it had inside. Whereas most computers at the time had to connect to a monitor for video output, the C64 could connect directly to a television. It also had a powerful 1 MHz CPU specially made to handle all that RAM.

The video chip supported a massive-for-the-time resolution of 320x200 and was one of the first that supported sprite-based graphics, features that would make the C64 a gaming powerhouse. It also had one of the best sound chips on the market. In fact, Chiptune artists are still using it to make music, and it wouldn't be equaled for years (via Commodore.ca).

All of this debuted at the 1982 Consumer Electronics Show, a year when no other notable high-end computers were shown. And Commodore offered it at a price lower than anyone thought possible.

How were they made so affordable?

At the time, most computers of this caliber were retailing for over $1,000. In 1981, the IBM 5150 cost over $1,500, and the Apple II cost about $1,400. By comparison, the Commodore 64 was a bargain at $595 (via IThe Interface Experience). What enabled Commodore to undercut the competition by such a large margin was the fact that it owned its own semiconductor manufacturer, MOS Technologies. Although it might not be a name most are familiar with, its 6500 line of processors was used in everything from computers like the Commodore and Apple II to the new video game consoles like the Atari 2600 and the original NES (per Forbes). 

A big advantage to owning a semiconductor manufacturer is the time spent prototyping new designs. Whereas other companies like Apple and Atari (they also made home computers at this time) would have to spend money and wait months to design and prototype new chips, Commodore could do it for free in house and in a matter of days (via Commodore.ca).

A computer for everyone

One of the amazing things about the C64 is its accessibility. You didn't have to be a computer nerd to enjoy using it — it could be plugged directly into the TV, obviating the need for expensive computer monitors. If you didn't want to deal with the fuss of running a program from a terminal, the C64 had a cartridge input that would run software automatically. If you didn't mind getting your hands dirty, it had an integrated BASIC programming language so you could write your own software (via Commodore.ca).

Over its lifetime, there were thousands of software titles written for the C64. Everything from office programs to games and music synthesizers were available. There are no definitive sources, but there were likely between 5,000–10,000 commercially released games for the system, which filled a niche in the market brought about by the video game crash of 1983. Until the NES was released in 1985, the C64 was the platform for sprite-based 8-bit gaming (via History Computer).

The end of Commodore

Throughout most of the '80s, Commodore was the king of the home computer market. But despite this public-facing success, the company was in financial trouble. In 1985, at the height of its popularity, Commodore brought in over $300 million in revenue but still managed to be over $200 million in the red at the end of the year (via Commodore.ca).

By 1987, it had managed to pay back its loans, but by then, the winds had begun to change. The NES and Sega Master System had changed the face of home-based video games and were in the midst of the first console war. Meanwhile, MS-DOS had begun to take over the home computer market. In 1988, DOS-based games outsold both Apple and Commodore games (via Compute Magazine).

Commodore, which had once set industry trends, was now playing catch up. The company shifted its sales focus to its Amiga lineup of computers but was still selling the C64 unit that had once dominated the market. By the 1990s, there were no major developers making software for the platform. At the same time, Commodore never managed to tame its debt, and it filed for bankruptcy in April 1994.

Long live Commodore

Although there may not be any AAA publishers making games for the Commodore 64, that doesn't mean games aren't still being made. In fact, the homebrew C64 scene is thriving, with dozens of new games being released every year. There are also a number of emulators freely available to play these new games, which look just as good as anything that came out in the '80s (via Armchair Arcade).

Chiptune is another sector of the retro scene that is also keeping the spirit of the C64 alive. The MOS 6581 chip used in the C64 was so far ahead of its time that the only way to get a comparable chip was to spend $5,000 on a high-end synthesizer. Chiptune artists are still using the MOS 6581 sound chip to make music, and it's a vibrant niche within the chiptune genre (via The Conversation).

Even though the Commodore 64 is now in the dustbin of electronic entertainment, its memory is alive and well. The C64 may be gone, but there is a large and passionate community of gamers, programmers, and musicians making sure that it is not forgotten.