Almost 40 years to the day since it first launched, the Commodore 64’s legacy can still be felt in the fabric of the modern video game industry. Often cited as the best selling single computer model of all time, the ‘C64’ had a huge role to play in bringing computing to the masses. It helped burst the doors of coding and creative computing wide open, and found a happy home in millions of bedrooms and living rooms.
And as much as it was a significantly influential computer, it was an iconic gaming machine. Back in the early 1980s, as millions of new Commodore 64 owners looked for games to play on their then-cutting edge machines, a vast new market blossomed. Game makers seized the opportunity of such a large audience, as users taught themselves to code and make. Over time, game consumers became game makers, with a great many of today’s industry veterans starting out on a Commodore 64, from PlayStation 4 co-designer Kim Nordstrom to Frederik Liljegren, the founder of Battlefield studio DICE.
Chances are, of course, that you knew all that. The beloved Commodore’s history is well told, and rightly so; it is a profoundly important piece of technology. How the Commodore 64 inspired what became Bitmap Books, meanwhile? That’s a corner of our history we’ve not really shared before. And while it's a story about Bitmap, in truth it's a story about what the Commodore 64 really excelled at; connecting people with computing and propelling them into a career in or around games and technology. We are one of the many who owe a lot to that machine, so we wanted to share our Commodore 64 history.
When our founder Sam Dyer was donated a second hand Commodore 64 by an uncle in 1989, it was love at first sight. It was Sam’s earliest opportunity to touch a computer; let alone own one. As with so many C64’s, it was quickly hooked up to the family TV, with bewildered parents handing the job of working it out over to the kids. So Sam sat down and started hitting keys, puzzling over how to even load a game. It didn’t take him long.
“Software-wise, there was an eclectic mix to get me started,” Sam remembers. “First up there was International Soccer on cartridge, which I have many happy memories of – those huge players at the start of each game are so iconic, and I used to enjoy pushing left and right to change the kit colours. It of course wasn’t the most realistic of games, but at the time it was magical. Next up was Theatre Europe. I’m not quite sure I should have been playing a Cold War simulator at nine years old, but it felt terribly grown up to be overseeing war strategies and ordering missile attacks!”
For so many that remember those kinds of experiences, ‘magical’ is the word. The visuals the Commodore 64 became famous for remain distinct and striking today, but back in the 1980s they really did something special. While the maximum resolution the C64 could output at was 320-by-200 pixels, the machine could deliver ‘double wide’ pixels. That ultimately let game makers apply different colours to pixels via a multi ‘colour mode’, putting it way ahead of most competitors when it came to visual fidelity. Behind all the complexity that let that happen, it meant a machine that allowed creators to do amazing things with hardware of the time. Sure, the Spectrum and Amstrad models could put out more vibrant hues, but the Commodore 64 didn’t suffer from the ‘attribute clashes’ seen on the Speccy in particular – a phenomenon that saw pixel colours bleed into one another. In avoiding attribute clash, the C64 arguably gave us considerably more glorious visuals. 40 years on, Commodore 64 users are still pushing what is possible with the double pixel method, making modern games and demoscene submissions that continue to astound and innovate.
The incredible loading screen for RoboCop
Back when the 1990s dawned, the young Sam was gradually building a library of games, including Batman The Movie, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, Ghouls ’n Ghosts, Cabal and Chase H.Q. It’s worth noting here that Bitmap Books is a design-led publisher, and Sam’s own career path is very much one of a graphic and visual designer. That, perhaps, was why his younger self became beguiled with more than just the games.
“I was growing increasingly fascinated with the loading sequences,” he reveals, dispelling any doubt that he was a designer in the making. “I often used to enjoy these more than the actual games! When the Ocean Loader music started with that electric guitar twang, you knew you were in for a treat. Then, line-by-line, this amazing image would appear. I remember thinking: ‘how on earth do they create such amazing images on a computer?’. I would stare at the graphics and try to work out how it had been compiled. I fondly remember one day when I begged my father for a new game and I got Slap Fight on the Hit Squad label. My tiny mind was blown when the loading screen started animating with twinkling stars. Wow!”
Ocean Loader 3 soundtrack by Peter Clarke
Again, it was a case of the C64’s near-unique abilities leaving an impression; as it did with so many others that fell for that most iconic of Commodores, igniting a passion that led to careers making and publishing games.
Here the SID sound chip deserves a thunderous nod too. Thanks to the SID – officially the MOS Technology 6581/8580 ‘Sound Interface Device’ – Commodore 64 games sounded as good as they looked. One of the first ever programmable sound generator chips included as standard in a home computer, it gave game makers and ordinary users the ability to produce a stunning variety of sounds. The crisp, crunchy audio it was capable of felt almost tangibly satisfying, and it’s still used today in physical and simulated form by musicians mainstream and experimental. Indeed, the chip’s sound is so distinct that you don’t really need to know what a SID is to know it when you hear it.
In Sam’s youth, though, the Commodore was really an opportunity to fall in love with games, creativity, technology and design, setting on the path to establish Bitmap Books.
“The C64 was the start of my gaming life,” he confirms. “Of course I ended up trading in my C64 for an Amiga and moved onto consoles, but the old bread box has always been special to me. I even started re-collecting for the C64 again in the late 90’s in a fit of nostalgia. Software was common in charity shops at the time and it was great fun to collect some of my favourite games again. Fast-forward to 2013 and I indulged in my love for the C64 with the release of my first ever book, Commodore 64: a visual commpendium. And yes, the extra ‘m’ was intentional. I believe that my journey into the world of the creative arts was inspired by the C64, and my creation of Bitmap Books certainly was. I owe it a lot.”
With that, there’s only one thing left to say. Happy 40th to the mighty C64, and here’s to Bitmap Books still doing our thing for four decades. We can only dream of leaving a legacy like that of the Commodore 64!