The cultural impact and legacy of the Commodore 64 is hard to overstate.
Along with its predecessor the VIC 20, and rivals like the ZX Spectrum, in the early 1980s it made both playing games and learning computing more accessible and affordable. It guided the UK, European and wider global games industry through its Wild West period of unbridled creativity and risk taking, and on into a period of more consistency and convention, where bedroom coders could turn their passion into businesses. As a result the Commodore 64 gave many of today’s most respected names in game development their start.
The Commodore 64 is frequently cited as the best selling single computer model of all time, shifting somewhere between 12.5 and 17 million units during its time in production, which ran from 1982 until 1994.
But all of that almost doesn’t matter. Because in truth the Commodore 64 didn’t vanish in 1994. Far from it. The iconic computer has never gone away, serving as an ongoing place for innovation across homebrew game design, ‘demoscene’ and even the world of popular music.
‘Demoscene’, for those unaware, refers to a community and subculture focused on making computer art. That rather cold definition, however, misses what makes demoscene so special. It’s a place where programmers and artists push what is possible with myriad computing platforms, often meeting at large ‘demoparties’ to go head-to-head in friendly - if competitive - contests that set their demos head-to-head.
Demos themselves commonly combine animated visuals, audio and even storytelling, while competition classes group rival demo crews’ works by categories such as file size, platform or style. In one of its most purebred forms demoscene lets individuals and groups showcase their technical and artistic muscle by crafting creative works that are limited by certain computing hardware - frequently by using code and engineering over conventional computer art packages. The demos they build regularly endeavour to introduce new display techniques once thought close to impossible on the hardware in question - something that still happens today with the Commodore 64.
The Commodore 64 has historically proved a favourite of demo crews, and that remains the case. Throughout 2021 and beyond there are online and real-world C64-themed demoparties taking place across the globe. And the output? It is quite remarkable that close to 40 years since the Commodore 64 was released, demo crews are still pushing what the machine can do. Take a look at a spread of recent Commodore 64 demos, and you’ll see continued attempts to go beyond the computer’s own display resolution limitations and do new things that were likely never imagined as the machine was designed in the very early 1980s.
If you were after one demo that shows what the C64 - albeit via a slightly expanded machine - is capable of, ‘We Are All Connected’ remains utterly stunning. Created by Fairlight, Prosonix and Offence, it does so many remarkable things it is hard to believe a Commodore of any kind has anything to do with it. The demo also took home a win from Sweden’s Datastorm 2014 demoparty.
We Are Connected also showcases some impressively weighty music - which brings attention to another jewel in the Commodore 64 crown. The machine’s SID sound chip didn’t just make games sound great through the 1980s; it had a tremendous impact over numerous forms of music. Officially the MOS 6581 chip, the SID has been a fundamental of the chiptune music scene for decades - that is, music made using the audio hardware of older computers and consoles.
Essentially a musical instrument in chip form, the SID offered professionals and hobbyists alike a synthesiser more typical in specification of the hardware found in studio-quality music production kit of the time. And just as demosceners have continued to push what is possible, musicians today are doing remarkable things with the SID. Even early in the SID’s history a glitch was found that turned the three ‘voice’ synth into a four-channel version, letting musicians craft far more elaborate compositions. Back in 1989 SEGA’s racer Turbo Outrun asserted that four voice SID music could be rich, deep and meaty, and the game’s sound track continues to sound substantial and captivating today. Rush forward to 2021, and musicians like LMan are showing that three voice synthesis on a stock Commodore 64 can still pack a punch. It’s worth noting here, though, that much of the best contemporary Commodore 64 music comes from demoscene, rather than artists working solely with the audio form.
And as chiptunes rose from an underground icon to a chart pop-influencing powerhouse, the sounds of the Commodore were once again in the mainstream. The Commodore 64’s music production chops even became the focus of the mainstream press when famed producer Timbaland was accused of plagiarising a C64 remix when working on Nelly Furtado’s tune Do It. We’ll let you decide how close they sound.
So far, of course, we haven’t talked about contemporary games on the Commodore 64. Today a proactive, collaborative community has formed around the machine, and there are so many games still being made it can be hard to keep up. So much so, in fact, that the iconic Zzap! 64 magazine relaunched in March this year, with a view to reviewing the constant stream of new releases.
There are a few reasons Commodore 64 game dev continues to this day, including the original motivation - it remains a machine engineered to welcome its users to the world of creative coding. And while game development tools have progressed and evolved much since 1982, the Commodore 64 still offers a fantastic way to get to grips with the absolute fundamentals.
Certainly, nostalgia must be a part of the reason developers still pick the iconic computer to make games, but there’s also a truth in the allure of the challenge of working within limitations, and the creativity that technical restrictions can engender. Related, it's a perfect platform for hobbyists who may not want to invest in contemporary dev kits, costly software tools, and the somewhat daunting process of making a fully fledged contemporary game - even if platforms like Unity and Stencyl have to various degrees significantly democratised the world of modern game making.
There’s also been a physical return of sorts for the Commodore 64, making contemporary homebrew games for the system much more readily accessible - a considerable motivator for developers still supporting the system. A platform like the forthcoming MEGA65, which uses an FPGA-based approach to deliver a powered up yet compatible version of the original machine, also serves as a relatively accessible Commodore 64 dev platform. It may even be that we have another golden era of Commodore 64 dev ahead of us.
Which modern Commodore 64 games are worth playing? There’s a generous dollop of personal preference in answering that question, but if you want to see what’s possible 39-years after the computer itself, you might want to start with the characterful giant-robot-vs-monsters themed Mazinger Z, based on the 1970s anime of the same name. We, meanwhile, were rather besotted by Space Moguls, which gives the board game Catan and many of its genre mates a sci-fi theming. 2020’s simple, understated Rainbow Edge Run also deserves a shout out. The best work of recent times, however, might be the Galaga-inspired arcade shmup Galancia, which looks, moves and plays wonderfully.
But that hardly touches on the sheer volume of new Commodore 64 games - as demonstrated by this video compiling over 100 Commodore 64 games released through 2020.
Ultimately, the Commodore 64’s legacy extends far beyond games, music and demos made on the machine. Because so many fledgling C64 coders in the 1980s are now leading and shaping some of the most popular games on the planet. Looking to demoscene powerhouse Sweden alone, there are a bounty of examples. Frederik Liljegren, for example, founded a Swedish demo group, before going on to set-up the respected developer DICE - so there might be a little of the Commodore 64 in the DNA of series like Battlefield. Kim Nordstrom also built his skills up on the Commodore 64, before going on to help design the PlayStation 4, eventually moving to become Head of Studio at the Candy Crush Saga giant King. The same can be said of the music industry, where Commodore 64 coder Oskar Stål became CTO of streaming outfit Spotify.
The stories of those legacies - where individuals’ future careers were in part ignited by a love for the Commodore 64 - are all deeply fascinating, not just with regard to reto computing hardware, but also in terms of how single computers can have a profound impact on the lives of highly creative or successful people. It’s something covered in depth in Bitmap’s 2015 book Generation 64. For now the book is unfortunately out of stock, but we are looking to reprint it soon. Because the story of Sweden’s Commodore generation is also a tale of the 64’s impact on a country that is still a leading force in games and technology.
But if your appetite for more means you can’t wait for a Generation 64 reprint, we can’t help but point you to our other book looking at the famed platform; the expanded edition of Commodore 64: a visual compendium. Packed with lavish visuals and a wealth of information, it presents a comprehensive overview of one of the most important computers of all time - and the games that made it an icon.