Whether or not you played video games as a kid, you’ve heard of the Commodore 64. For several years, it sold more than a million copies per year, and to this day, it remains the best-selling computer of all time. And in many ways, we have the Commodore 64 to thank for our modern information age.
The Commodore 64 was one of the most powerful products of the 80s and 90s. Read on to learn more about this system, how it came to be, and what made it such a runaway success
Before we dive into the life and times of the Commodore 64, let’s talk some about its parent company, Commodore. Commodore was founded in 1964 in Toronto by Polish-Jewish immigrant and Auschwitz survivor Jack Tramiel. The company began by manufacturing typewriters, turning to adding machines when Japanese machines put North American manufacturers out of business.
By 1962, Commodore had gone public on the New York Stock Exchange. The company kept its innovative spirit, moving to producing electronic calculators when Japanese machines again overtook the adding machine market. By 1977, the company was manufacturing computers, which would lead to their most successful release ever.
The Commodore 64 got its start in 1981 when engineers at MOS Technology, a partner company of Commodore, were trying to come up with a new chip project. MOS had created several successful VIC-20 chips, but they were out of ideas for a new project. So they decided to create a state-of-the-art video and sound chip to make the world’s next video game.
Although video games were at that time mostly housed in arcades, Jack Tramiel didn’t want to put money into that market. Instead, he had a better idea: develop a 64-kilobyte home computer that would debut at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show just six weeks later in January 1982. The engineers at Commodore completed the design in two days.
One of the things that set the Commodore 64 apart from other home computers of its time was the quality of its chips. The audio chip, the now-legendary SID 6581, was unlike anything anyone had seen at that point. It could play as many as five different voices in very sophisticated patterns, blowing the competition out of the water.
The video chip was nothing to sneeze at either; the Commodore 64 contained the VIC-II 6567 chip. It could produce as many as 128 colors, though there were only ever 16 officially supported colors. But because the width of each pixel on the Commodore 64 was half of the NSTC color clock, when you alternated pixels of two different colors, you could get a whole new color.
Commodore 64 in Stores
Although the chips in the Commodore 64 made it extraordinary for its time, the thing that made it so successful was its placement in stores. Most home computers at that time were only available in computer or gaming stores. But Commodore wanted to make their new home computer more accessible, so they sold it in big box stores.
The new Commodore 64 launched in 1982 and was in full production by August of that year. You could buy it in Sears, Toys R Us, and K-Mart, and it was drastically cheaper than its competitors. Whereas Apple II and IBM computers were selling for more than $1,300 each, the Commodore 64 had a retail price of just $595.
The Best-Selling Computer of All Time
The combination of the amazing video and audio chips and the affordable price skyrocketed the Commodore 64 to success. Production on these lasted ten years, and one former employee said they were making 400,000 Commodore 64s a month while he worked there. It outstripped Apple, IBM, and Atari, selling more than 2 million units a year and holding a 30 to 40 percent market share.
To this day, the Commodore 64 is the best-selling computer of all time. Depending on who you ask, it sold between 20 million and 30 million units, and there were more than 10,000 commercial software programs available for it. Although these programs ranged from development tools to office applications, about two-thirds of these programs were games.
Some of the Best Commodore 64 Games
If you grew up with a Commodore 64, you likely have fond memories of playing some of the best video games of all time on it. Games like International Karate + and Zak McKracken and the Alien Mind Benders let us fight bad guys. Impossible Mission and Maniac Mansion led us on mind-bending adventures to rescue kidnapped victims.
Bubble Bobble was one of the lighter games, featuring a host of alliteratively named characters and fun bubble-based hijinks. Shadow of the Beast and Turrican showed us that even monsters can have a soft spot. And Ghostbusters, The Last Ninja, and Spy vs. Spy led us on amazing adventures that we remember to this day.
The Downfall of the Commodore 64
Sadly, no good thing lasts forever, and in time, the Commodore 64 met its downfall. The market shifted in favor of PC compatibles, and demand for 8- and 16-bit computers waned. But it wasn’t market trends or competitor innovations that finally did in the Commodore 64.
By 1994, the cost of producing the disk drive the Commodore 64 required began outstripping the retail price of the computer. In 1995, the Commodore 64 was officially discontinued, and Commodore filed for bankruptcy not long after. Without the freedom to explore chip design the way the Commodore 64 team had, the company never made another computer as successful as this one had been.
Relive the Commodore 64 Days
If you grew up in the 1980s, you either had or wanted a Commodore 64. This was the first home computer that was really accessible to anyone and everyone. In a way, we can thank Commodore for bringing computing into our homes and making it possible for you to be reading this article today.
If you’d like to relive more of the Commodore 64 glory days, check out the rest of our site at Retrothusiast. We discuss all the games you grew up loving, including those on the Apple II system, Commodore 64, and more. Sign up today and rediscover some of that simple joy of sitting in front of an 8-bit computer and playing your favorite games on a golden afternoon.