As a child of the 80s, I didn’t have an Atari, an NES, or even a Sega Master System. My first console was actually our family’s first computer: the Commodore 64. It was a passable gaming system, but more importantly, it was a device that taught me that technology was something that could be fun to explore and its secrets unlocked with patient trial and error.
As long as video games have existed, there have been concerns over what a childhood spent mindlessly playing electronic distractions would do to kids when they grew up. That’s probably one of the reasons my parents decided the Commodore 64 was a better choice for our household than a console from Sega or Nintendo. But the Commodore 64 was unique among the first personal computers to arrive in the early ‘80s. The Guinness World Records still lists the C64 as the “best-selling desktop computer of all time” with 12,500,000 units sold since it was first introduced in 1982, and its success can partly be attributed to the clever design of the machine and how it was marketed.
Featuring just 64 kilobytes of RAM, laughable by even the PC standards a decade later, the C64 cost a reasonable $US595 ($770) and could be easily hooked up to a family’s television set like a game console. With custom hardware on board, it also offered graphics and sound quality that was a step above what other personal computers were offering at the time. But more importantly, the Commodore 64 was sold in regular retail stores, not just specialty computer shops, which made it feel more accessible as a tool that every family could own, but also one they could actually use without a computer science degree. Our C64 came from the local K-Mart department store which also stocked a mountain of peripherals and software including games that could be easily loaded through cartridges like consoles did, and productivity tools like word processors, which is what made my parents go with the computer over an NES.
The first months with our Commodore 64 were mostly spent playing cartridge games like Sea Wolf using a pair of paddle controllers, or Radar Rat Race using a joystick. I also remember spending one Christmas afternoon with my uncle entering a long sample of BASIC computer code from a book included with our C64 that, after about an hour of hard work, yielded nothing but a fancy message on screen. I was not inspired to be the next Gates or Woz.
Our family’s Commodore 64 became considerably more interesting to me when my father received a giant box of floppy disks from a co-worker filled with random games and applications. What was missing from this treasure trove of ‘shared’ software, however, was any instruction manuals or explainers. This was decades before the internet could instantly answer almost any question you had about using a computer, and as a kid, I didn’t have much motivation to crack open a book to find the answers I sought.
Trial and error was my only tool for getting our C64 to do what I wanted it to. That, and a hefty side of patience as I slowly figured out how to load games from those floppy disks (LOAD “*” .8,1) but my experience with the Commodore 64 is probably best summed up with a game called Law of the West. In it, you play a sheriff in a series of encounters in and around your small western town where you have one-on-one conversations with the local town’s folk with a focus on keeping the peace. The gameplay wasn’t terribly hard to figure out; someone would say something to you and you’d respond by choosing from a small list of responses that were either agreeable or antagonistic. I would, of course, try to get the locals really angry at me and it wouldn’t take long for one of them to seek revenge with a pistol. I’d get shot, the sheriff would die (the doctor always seemed to be out of town), the game would end, and I’d start over. Fun!
But one day something serendipitous happened. While in a conversation with one of the locals the joystick I was playing with accidentally fell off my lap and onto the floor, which caused the sheriff to unexpectedly draw his weapon and a crosshair to appear on screen — a feature I didn’t realise existed. Without an instruction manual I assumed the game was all about the conversations, but suddenly I was a trigger happy man of the law ready to send anyone who sassed to me a pine box. More fun!
Even though I had been playing the game for months without actually knowing how to really play it, the discovery wasn’t frustrating. Far from it. As soon as it happened I started screaming at my siblings to come and they were just as excited about what I had accidentally discovered. It made a fun game even more enjoyable, and it helped encourage us to poke around even more with the other games and software we routinely used. (Yes, the joystick was deliberately dropped on many occasions after that, but lightning never struck twice.) More importantly, I think, it helped destigmatize technology for me. Growing up with the Commodore 64 made me more comfortable with other electronics and figuring out what they could do.
I can still see a degree of fear around technology with my parents. (A cataclysmic asteroid approaching the earth isn’t as panic-inducing as when the wifi goes out.) They’re always afraid they’re going to break something, or worried about the consequences of pressing the wrong button and having an expensive piece of tech suddenly break as a result of their experimentation. In their formative years devices like computers were massive million-dollar machines with a team of technicians needed to keep them running. For my generation, and those that followed, computers are no more intimidating than the microwave, toaster oven, or other appliances. A new device is something fun to explore, and while I do acknowledge the benefits of a well-written instruction manual, it’s even more enjoyable to unlock a gadget’s secrets through exploration, even if the process involves an accidental discovery, or if you happen to break it along the way. If only I had a nickel for every time I had to reinstall Windows….
Sales of the Commodore 64 started slow, but aggressive pricing, and promotions that offered steep discounts when trading in a video game console, soon made the C64 a huge hit in North America. Its popularity is often considered to be one of the causes of the video game industry crash in 1983, and by 1985 video games made up over 60% of the C64’s software sales. But two companies would eventually put a stop to Commodore’s success: Nintendo and IBM.
In 1985, Nintendo brought its Famicom video game console to North America as the NES, and it would go on to sell over 61.91 million units worldwide (compared to the 12.5 million C64s sold) and dominate 8-bit gaming where the C64 had found a big portion of its success. A few years before the Commodore 64 arrived, Apple had introduced the world to the idea of a personal computer, but it was the IBM PC, whose open architecture design and use of off-the-shelf components made it easy to clone and for enthusiasts to build themselves, that would eventually dominate the personal computing market. If you use a computer without an Apple logo on it, it can probably trace its lineage back to the original IBM PC.
Although the Commodore 64 remained popular in parts of the world well into the early 1990s, thanks in part to the fact it became incredibly cheap to manufacture, PCs were the dominant choice for most seeking a home computer. In 1994, Commodore announced that the C64 would be officially discontinued in 1995, but just a month after that announcement the company declared bankruptcy. Today the Commodore 64 only exists as throwback consoles packed full of retro games designed to appeal to those like myself who grew up cutting their gaming teeth on the computer. But for many of us the C64 was also our first experience with an expensive piece of technology where ‘user friendliness’ simply wasn’t a feature, and struggling to learn how to use it was all part of the fun.