The Commodore 64, also known as the C64 or the CBM 64, is an 8-bit home computer introduced in January 1982 by Commodore International (first shown at the Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, January 7–10, 1982). It has been listed in the Guinness World Records as the highest-selling single computer model of all time, with independent estimates placing the number sold between 10 and 17 million units. Volume production started in early 1982, marketing in August for US$595 (equivalent to $1,545 in 2018). Preceded by the Commodore VIC-20 and Commodore PET, the C64 took its name from its 64 kilobytes (65,536 bytes) of RAM. With support for multicolor sprites and a custom chip for waveform generation, the C64 could create superior visuals and audio compared to systems without such custom hardware.
The C64 dominated the low-end computer market for most of the 1980s. For a substantial period (1983 – 1986), the C64 had between 30% and 40% share of the US market and two million units sold per year, outselling IBM PC compatibles, Apple computers, and the Atari 8-bit family of computers. Sam Tramiel, a later Atari president and the son of Commodore’s founder, said in a 1989 interview, “When I was at Commodore we were building 400,000 C64s a month for a couple of years.” In the UK market, the C64 faced competition from the BBC Micro and the ZX Spectrum, but the C64 was still one of the two most popular computers in the UK.
Part of the Commodore 64’s success was its sale in regular retail stores instead of only electronics or computer hobbyist specialty stores. Commodore produced many of its parts in-house to control costs, including custom integrated circuit chips from MOS Technology. It has been compared to the Ford Model T automobile for its role in bringing a new technology to middle-class households via creative and affordable mass-production. Approximately 10,000 commercial software titles have been made for the Commodore 64 including development tools, office productivity applications, and video games. C64 emulators allow anyone with a modern computer, or a compatible video game console, to run these programs today. The C64 is also credited with popularizing the computer demoscene and is still used today by some computer hobbyists. In 2011, 17 years after it was taken off the market, research showed that brand recognition for the model was still at 87%.
In January 1981, MOS Technology, Inc., Commodore’s integrated circuit design subsidiary, initiated a project to design the graphic and audio chips for a next generation video game console. Design work for the chips, named MOS Technology VIC-II (Video Integrated Circuit for graphics) and MOS Technology SID (Sound Interface Device for audio), was completed in November 1981. Commodore then began a game console project that would use the new chips—called the Ultimax or the Commodore MAX Machine, engineered by Yash Terakura from Commodore Japan. This project was eventually cancelled after just a few machines were manufactured for the Japanese market. At the same time, Robert “Bob” Russell (system programmer and architect on the VIC-20) and Robert “Bob” Yannes (engineer of the SID) were critical of the current product line-up at Commodore, which was a continuation of the Commodore PET line aimed at business users. With the support of Al Charpentier (engineer of the VIC-II) and Charles Winterble (manager of MOS Technology), they proposed to Commodore CEO Jack Tramiel a true low-cost sequel to the VIC-20. Tramiel dictated that the machine should have 64 KB of random-access memory (RAM). Although 64-Kbit dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) chips cost over US$100 (equivalent to $232.95 in 2018) at the time, he knew that DRAM prices were falling, and would drop to an acceptable level before full production was reached. The team was able to quickly design the computer because, unlike most other home-computer companies, Commodore had its own semiconductor fab to produce test chips; because the fab was not running at full capacity, development costs were part of existing corporate overhead. The chips were complete by November, by which time Charpentier, Winterble, and Tramiel had decided to proceed with the new computer; the latter set a final deadline for the first weekend of January, to coincide with the 1982 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
Commodore had a reputation for announcing products that never appeared, so sought to quickly ship the C64. Production began in spring 1982 and volume shipments began in August. The C64 faced a wide range of competing home computers, but with a lower price and more flexible hardware, it quickly outsold many of its competitors. In the United States the greatest competitors were the Atari 8-bit 400, the Atari 800, and the Apple II. The Atari 400 and 800 had been designed to accommodate previously stringent FCC emissions requirements and so were expensive to manufacture. Though similar in specifications, the two computers represented differing design philosophies; as an open architecture system, upgrade capability for the Apple II was granted by internal expansion slots, whereas the C64’s comparatively closed architecture had only a single external ROM cartridge port for bus expansion. However, the Apple II used its expansion slots for interfacing to common peripherals like disk drives, printers, and modems; the C64 had a variety of ports integrated into its motherboard which were used for these purposes, usually leaving the cartridge port free. Commodore’s was not a completely closed system, however; the company had published detailed specifications for most of their models since the PET and VIC-20 days, and the C64 was no exception. Initial C64 sales were nonetheless relatively slow due to a lack of software, reliability issues with early production models, particularly high failure rates of the PLA chip, which used a new production process, and a shortage of 1541 disk drives, which also suffered rather severe reliability issues. During 1983, however, a trickle of software turned into a flood and sales began rapidly climbing, especially with price cuts from $600 to just $300.
With sales booming and the early reliability issues with the hardware addressed, software for the C64 began to grow in size and ambitiousness during 1984. This growth shifted to the primary focus of most US game developers. The two holdouts were Sierra, who largely skipped over the C64 in favor of Apple and PC compatible machines, and Broderbund, who were heavily invested in educational software and developed primarily around the Apple II. In the North American market, the disk format had become nearly universal while cassette and cartridge-based software all-but disappeared. So most US-developed games by this point grew large enough to require multi-loading.
By 1985, games were an estimated 60 to 70% of Commodore 64 software. The year, UK-based Gremlin Graphics released the game Monty on the Run, which was noteworthy for marking a turning point in music composition for the SID chip as musician Rob Hubbard discovered a method of “overdriving” the SID to produce music more advanced than the default sound envelopes. The revolution that Hubbard started quickly spread to most European developers, although more conservative American programmers seldom composed SID music with anything other than the default envelopes. At a mid-1984 conference of game developers and experts at Origins Game Fair, Dan Bunten, Sid Meier (“the computer of choice right now”), and a representative of Avalon Hill said that they were developing games for the C64 first as the most promising market. Computer Gaming World stated in January 1985 that companies such as Epyx that survived the video game crash did so because they “jumped on the Commodore bandwagon early.” Over 35% of SSI’s 1986 sales were for the C64, ten points higher than for the Apple II. The C64 was even more important for other companies, which often found that more than half the sales for a title ported to six platforms came from the C64 version. That same year, Computer Gaming World published a survey of ten game publishers that found that they planned to release forty-three Commodore 64 games that year, compared to nineteen for Atari and forty-eight for Apple II, and Alan Miller stated that Accolade developed first for the C64 because “it will sell the most on that system”.
In Europe, the primary competitors to the C64 were British-built computers: the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the BBC Micro and the Amstrad CPC 464. In the UK, the 48K Spectrum had not only been released a few months ahead of the C64’s early 1983 debut, but it was also selling for £175, less than half the C64’s £399 price. The Spectrum quickly became the market leader and Commodore had an uphill struggle against it in the marketplace. The C64 did however go on to rival the Spectrum in popularity in the latter half of the 1980s. Adjusted to the size of population, the popularity of Commodore 64 was the highest in Finland at roughly 3 units per 100 inhabitants, where it was subsequently marketed as “the Computer of the Republic”.
Rumors spread in late 1983 that Commodore would discontinue the C64. By early 1985 the C64’s price was $149; with an estimated production cost of $35–50, its profitability was still within the industry-standard markup of two to three times. Commodore sold about one million C64s in 1985 and a total of 3.5 million by mid-1986. Although the company reportedly attempted to discontinue the C64 more than once in favor of more expensive computers such as the Commodore 128, demand remained strong. In 1986, Commodore introduced the 64C, a redesigned 64, which Compute! saw as evidence that—contrary to C64 owners’ fears that the company would abandon them in favor of the Amiga and 128—”the 64 refuses to die”. Its introduction also meant that Commodore raised the price of the C64 for the first time, which the magazine cited as the end of the home-computer price war. Software sales also remained strong; MicroProse, for example, in 1987 cited the Commodore and IBM PC markets as its top priorities.
By 1988 PC compatibles were the largest and fastest-growing home and entertainment software markets, displacing former leader Commodore. The company was still selling 1 to 1.5 million units worldwide each year of what Computer Chronicles that year called “the Model T of personal computers.” Epyx CEO David Shannon Morse cautioned, however, that “there are no new 64 buyers, or very few. It’s a consistent group that’s not growing… it’s going to shrink as part of our business.” One computer gaming executive stated that the Nintendo Entertainment System‘s enormous popularity – seven million sold in 1988, almost as many as the number of C64s sold in its first five years – had stopped the C64’s growth. Trip Hawkins reinforced that sentiment, stating that Nintendo was “the last hurrah of the 8-bit world.”
In 1982, Commodore released the Commodore MAX Machine in Japan. It was called the Ultimax in the United States, and VC-10 in Germany. The MAX was intended to be a game console with limited computing capability, and was based on a very cut-down version of the hardware family later used in the C64. The MAX was discontinued months after its introduction because of poor sales in Japan.
1983 saw Commodore attempt to compete with the Apple II’s hold on the US education market with the Educator 64, essentially a C64 and “greenscale” monochrome monitor in a PET case. Schools preferred the all-in-one metal construction of the PET over the standard C64’s separate components, which could be easily damaged, vandalized or stolen. Schools did not prefer the Educator 64 to the wide range of software and hardware options the Apple IIe was able to offer, and it was produced in limited quantities.
Also in 1983, Commodore released the SX-64, a portable version of the C64. The SX-64 has the distinction of being the first full-color portable computer. While earlier computers using this form factor only incorporate monochrome (“green screen”) displays, the base SX-64 unit features a 5 in (130 mm) color cathode ray tube (CRT) and an integrated 1541 floppy disk drive. Unlike most other C64s, the SX-64 does not have a cassette connector.
The first graphical character-based interactive environment is Club Caribe. First released as Habitat in 1988, Club Caribe was introduced by LucasArts for Q-Link customers on their Commodore 64 computers. Users could interact with one another, chat and exchange items. Although the game’s open world was very basic, its use of online avatars (already well-established off-line by Ultima and other games) and the combination of chat and graphics was revolutionary. Online graphics in the late 1980s were severely restricted by the need to support modem data transfer rates as low as 300 bits per second. Habitat’s graphics were stored locally on floppy disk, eliminating the need for network transfer.
Vertical integration was the key to keeping Commodore 64 production costs low. At the introduction in 1982, the production cost was US$135 and the retail price US$595. In 1985, the retail cost went down to US$149 (equivalent to $347.10 in 2018) and the production costs were believed to be somewhere between US$35–50 (c. US$80–120 today). Commodore would not confirm this cost figure. Dougherty of the Berkeley Softworks estimated the costs of the Commodore 64 parts based on his experience at Mattel and Imagic.
BYTE in July 1983 stated that “the 64 retails for $595. At that price it promises to be one of the hottest contenders in the under-$1000 personal computer market”. It described SID as “a true music synthesizer … the quality of the sound has to be heard to be believed”, while criticizing the use of Commodore BASIC 2.0, the floppy disk performance which is “even slower than the Atari 810 drive”, and Commodore’s quality control. Creative Computing said in December 1984 that the 64 was “the overwhelming winner” in the category of home computers under $500. Despite criticizing its “slow disk drive, only two cursor directional keys, zero manufacturer support, non-standard interfaces, etc.”, the magazine said that at the 64’s price of less than $200 “you can’t get another system with the same features: 64K, color, sprite graphics, and barrels of available software”.
Commodore 64 emulators include the open source VICE, Hoxs64 and CCS64. A iPhone app was also released with a compilation of C64 ports.