Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 4    June 1998

Lost in Time

The Commodore Vic-20

by Adam Trionfo

Lost in Time will be a running feature. It covers home computers that never quite made the limelight like, say, the Commodore 64 or Atari 8-bit machines did. Some may have been popular for a short period of time, but most were not. Some of the topics that will be discussed are hardware, commerical and public domain software, periodicals and books. Future columns will include the Commodore Plus/4 and 16 as well as closer looks at the Coleco ADAM and Bally Astrocade. This month's focus is on the bestselling computer of 1981: the Commodore Vic-20.

The Vic-20 computer was the first Commodore product I ever wanted to own. My lust for the $99 TI-99/4a gave way to the Vic in 1983, when a student in my sixth-grade class brought in a Vic-20 as part of a science project he was working on for that machine. I saved money for over a year. In the end, I passed it up in favor of the much more powerful big brother that Commodore followed-up with: the 64.

I never regretted purchasing the 64, even when some of my other friends were bragging about the computers that they had, like the Vic-20, Atari 800 and Coleco ADAM. In hindsight, the Commodore 64 was the best choice I could have made. I wondered recently about the Vic that I never had. Had I missed out on anything?

I've had a Vic-20 for several years now, but I haven't bothered with it much. But whenever I come across something I don't have in my collection, I usually pick it up (the exception being Odyssey 2 stuff). I have at least sixty different cartridges for the Vic-20 now, along with countless other items that are quite interesting, among the neatest of which is an 80-column board for use with word-processing software.

Chris has asked me on several occasions about the AtariSoft products I have for the Vic. I thought it was about time I took a closer look at the system that I passed up in my youth.

The Vic-20 was first released in September of 1980 in Japan. About six months later, it was released in the U.S. for $299. The price was a breakthrough. Commodore had been worried that the Japanese were going to take over the home computer market. As a solution, they believed that a low-cost computer using their VIC display chip would be a strategy that would ensure that the market wasn't cornered by the East. Other companies had decided that a computer with a 22-column screen, the maximum that the VIC chip could display, was unmarketable. Commodore thought otherwise.

The computer that they ended up with was, of course, the Vic-20. With eight colors, high-resolutuon bitmapped graphics (176x184), sound and a typewriter-style keyboard, the Vic-20 was a worthy...game machine. Despite the ads and excited talk in the magazines, out of the box it was not up to word processing or telecommunications. For example, Hes Writer, a simple word processor, only allowed about 100 lines of text to be typed before memory ran out. The line limit works out to about 25 80-column lines; not even half a page.

The unexpanded (standard) Vic-20 only had 5K, of which only about 3.5K could be used from BASIC. Even the Atari 400, with its membrane keyboard, came with 16K. But the standard Vic is able to use a disk drive, which the Atari 400 can't do unless the memory is upgraded. Most Vic owners opted for the cheaper cassette drive anyway.

Despite the strikes that the Vic-20 had against it, it was still very popular. It really does make an excellent game machine, despite the fact that it has no sprite abilities. Programmers used redefined character sets to get around this. Companies released quite a number of impressive games on cartridge for the unexpanded Vic.

The Vic-20 might have lost support when the 64 was released had Commodore not made 64 hardware compatible with the Vic. Software for the Vic will not run on the 64, but most hardware devices will. This includes disk drives, modems, printers and joysticks. Commodore did this with all future machines to some extent.

I have used a 1581 3½" drive with my Vic-20 and it works fine. The 1581 holds over 700K -- about 200 times the amount of standard Vic memory. This is equivalent in ratio to any recent PC clone with 32 megs of RAM getting upgraded with a 6-gig hard drive.

Currently I am not able to get software for my Vic-20 unless I type it in, which was quite acceptable in the early eighties but which I am unwilling to do anymore.

See about getting a Vic-20. They are full of potential and quite a bit of fun. (As long as you lose that miserable datasette drive!) -- AT