The First computer I owned was the Commodore VIC-20. This was an 8-bit home computer which was sold by Commodore Business Machines, or CBM in the early part of 1980’s.
At the time i got the machine the Commodore 64 had just been released, however i favoured the VIC20 as i’d played around on the machines some schoolfriends had & although the VIC20 was a far less superior machine, i felt the C64 was for games & although i liked computer games i really wanted to get into programming. So did my dad, who didn’t really want me mucking about playing games but perhaps writing them.
The VIC 20 was first announced around three years after the first personal computer from CBM, the Commodore PET.
So, let’s take a look at a machine that was very popular (becoming known as ‘The Friendly Computer’) and the predecessor to not very popular Commodore 16 and the uber 8-bit seller, the Commodore 64.
In fact, if the VIC had been blessed with more RAM as standard (instead of only 5 Kilobytes), it may well have been a far more popular machine…
Why was it called ‘The Vic’?
Many people did not even know why the machine was named ‘The VIC’ (me included) – it actually stood for Video Interface Chip. The Machine i had though had “VC20 on the keyboard bezel, probably due to the fact the machine was made for the European market & “VIC” meant something rather more obscene in the German language where the machine could of been sold.
These sort of names really did sound quite cool back in the early 1980’s. The ’20’ part was conjured up as it was a ‘friendly’ sounding number. The VIC did become known as ‘The Friendly Computer’. I suppose Vic sounds like a nice guy.
Blessed with only 5KB of RAM and a 6502A Central Processor running at approximately 1MHZ, the machine had around an average specification when compared to its competitors.
The RAM was expandable (phew!), meaning the machine could be upgraded to give an ample (at the time) 32KB to play with. Let’s be honest, 5KB as standard really was not enough.
It also had a co-processor on board (The VIC-I 6560) to spread the load when processing sound and graphics – which obviously helped with the computer game market.
Hardware and peripherals
The sound chip, (Commodore machines were always blessed with good sound capabilities) was a decent one and was capable of producing three voices spread over three octaves.
This was pretty good for a home computer in 1981 and was a nice feature in games on the VIC – especially when you consider the completely silent ZX80 and ZX81.
The machine could also generate very plain graphics and simple animations, but let’s be honest here – if you wanted detailed images and varying colours on your screen, you did not buy yourself a VIC 20.
Still, eight colours were available to use as character colours. The background and border area of the screen (many computers of the era used this method of display), could be varied with up to 16 colours – sort of similar to the ZX Spectrum.
Looks wise the VIC-20 had that ‘Commodore look’ to it, the off-white casing around the darker brown keyboard, which became synonymous with Commodore 8-bit machines throughout the 1980’s. Not a bad looker by any means.
With it being a popular machine, a good range of peripherals and software was available for it, including joysticks and those all important computer games.
How in the name of memory management did they squeeze games with colour and sound into 5KB or RAM? A remarkable feat for sure.
Some good games were developed for the VIC 20.
As a games machine it soon fell away to the competition from the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum.
But, some notable releases (a lot of arcade conversions too) made their way onto the machine.
Obviously the 5K built in RAM was a limiter leaving developers with very little memory to play with – and not everyone went for a RAM pack add-on.
Really by this point 48K of memory was commonplace and the VIC would have done far better with something akin to this rather than only 5K…
So the VIC-20, despite having only 5K of RAM, went on to sell over 1 million units. It was actually the first micro-computer to do so.
It was quite well marketed which must have helped sales along – with the likes of HollyTrek and toupee legend Bill Shatner advertising the machine and describing it as the wonder machine of the 1980’s.
The VIC-20 fell away (in the UK at least) once people got their teeth into the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum (and had a quick nibble on the Acorn Electron, Oric 1 and Oric Atmos).
Still, the VIC is a notable 8-bit machine that holds fond memories for lots of us.
Gaming On The VIC-20 Today…
Games are still being created for this classic machine today.
Look at titles such as the excellent Frogger ’07 – a brilliant modern version of the classic arcade game Frogger. It plays supberbly and really captures the heart of the original classic.
Chronosoft are a well known supporter of many retro machines, and the Commodore VIC 20 is one of them.
Chronosoft titles are always worth a look (and Blue Star for the VIC is a fine example of modern ‘retro’ gaming) – check out their site if you fancy a ‘modern’ experience on your VIC.
My Machine sadly expired after 4 or 5 years & i later progressed onto the ZX Spectrum, but even so i can remember buying magazines from newsagents & programming in pages upon pages of BASIC code just to play some BASIC coded version of Pacman or whatever was populat at the time. Something which todays youth will sadly miss out on as part of the fun was editing the code so your “pacman” would eat his own maze or the ghosts would have 3 eyes.