By request of Ben Langberg
I don’t know how, but the Commodore 64 somehow slipped beneath my radar when I was a kid. I envied my friends whose families owned computers, but the computers I knew about were things like the IBM PC and the Atari 800. Maybe it has to do with where I grew up — being in the city where Texas Instruments operated a major headquarters meant that TI99-4/As were everywhere in the first half of the ’80s. By the time those became obsolete, the school district moved along to Apple IIs and the occasional Macintosh… at least until I made it to junior high, where our computer lab had maybe two Macs and a whole room full of Acorns.
Yeah, the BBC computers. The semi-nationalized British computers. I have no idea how we ended up with a lab full of those in Texas in 1989, but nevertheless we were learning to program BASIC on decrepit European computers with no local support or value right up until “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
My first real encounter with a C64 happened around about 1993, when I went to a friend’s place to study one afternoon. He had his family’s ancient computer set up in his room, and I boggled to see how ancient it was. (Yes, I know, but perception is relative, even if teenagers don’t realize it yet.) He let me boot it up and mess with it a bit, but by that point it was just too archaic for me to deal with. I mean, I’d brought my Super NES along with me so we could play some Street Fighter II. The C64 was 8-bit! Unthinkable!
In hindsight, of course, I regret having missed out on the system. I missed some great gaming experiences… and, more importantly, I missed out on an essential slice of video game history. C64 was really the bridge between the US and European gaming markets, with enough penetration into both regions that it created considerable cross-pollination between two otherwise incompatible territories.
I’ve tried going back to the C64, but — and I say this with utmost sympathy to everyone under the age of 30 who reads my glowing paeans to NES games and finds the actual games being described entirely unrelatable — games on unfamiliar legacy hardware can be a tough sell even for the most open-hearted of explorers. It doesn’t help at all that I started by using familiar arcade conversions as my baseline; compared to the NES ports of games like Bionic Commando and Ghosts ‘N Goblins, the 64 renditions attempt to be more faithful to the source material but feel off. The scrolling’s choppier, the controls less responsive, the visuals blockier.
Of course, the one area in which the C64 comes out way ahead is in terms of music. Not that something like Bionic Commando sounds shrill and unbearable on NES; quite the opposite. But the C64’s SID chip was so advanced, so powerful that it sounds almost like it was ripped from a much more powerful system. Reconciling the comparatively chunky and slow visuals of a C64 port of a cool game with energetic soundtrack remixes from someone like Tim Follin makes for some genuine cognitive dissonance.
I’d like to be able to make a definitely, insightful statement on the C64 from personal experience, but unfortunately it’s proven personally elusive over the years. But I promise that once I figure out how to time travel into different points of my own personal timeline, I’ll make the acquisition of a Commodore 64 by any means available a top priority. If nothing else, I’ll go down in history as the cutest l’il bank robber ever.