Ancient history is one of my stronger subjects and the study of times long past is fascinating to me. For video game ‘ancient’ history, the end of this period would be ushered in with the release of the behemoth that was Commodore’s ‘64’.
As any retro game fan/computer historian will tell you, the Commodore 64 broke ground when it came to having a computer in the home affordable for everyone. Roughly, the C64 was about ⅕ the price of the contemporary Apple Mac, it was able to do colour and was sold with video game peripherals. Its affordability, capabilities and eventually huge software range would make the C64 the first true mass market computer. It was a very important piece of hardware, as the video game industry had crashed in the USA back in 1983. The C64 filled the gap, by providing a mix of games and office applications. A household could feel that they were buying more than some video console fad.
My experiences with the Commodore 64 ran well into the 1990s and I often found myself wanting to use this older machine, and not my much newer Amiga 500. Perhaps it was an early wish to be more ‘retro’ on my part, but I remember being slightly disappointed when Dad told me he’d decided to get an Amiga over the older Commodore. As you, dear reader, would be aware, this was not a choice either of us regretted.
So it was that my C64 playing would be limited to at my cousin’s, and at a school friend’s house. All in all, I think I’ve spent less than 20 hours playing on a C64, which is not very much at all! Sadly, about 10% of that time would be consumed with waiting for games to load. Yeah, it’s slow.
Two fantastic games I remember were Platoon and Impossible Mission. They had in common a very high level of difficulty! Although Platoon was released on the Amiga, as was the Impossible Mission 2, the C64’s version had a special charm. The step from C64 to Amiga is similar to that of the NES to SNES. The crisp chiptune sounds were generally traded in for a higher quality but still rudimentary set of digital effects. It’s hard to explain, but although the Amiga and SNES are technically far superior, the result is often less lovable.
Pit Stop 2 was also fantastic, although I always blew out my tires and only rarely could I beat my cousin. I have mentioned this before, but the Epyx games on the C64 had some fantastic covers, some of the best of all time in my opinion.
I may end up buying a C64 in the mid term because I feel like I missed out on this formative part of video game playing history. I had better make sure to get a disk drive version or the loading times will have me pulling my hair out!
Last week, the computer industry lost one of its heavyweights. Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore International, died aged 83. Unlike Steve Jobs, who was taken decades before his full run, we can marvel at the gamut of Tramiel’s achievements, knowing (as far as we can) that he finished his work on this Earth.
Wow, I didn’t know this would turn into a philosophy blog!
Tramielwas a very colourful and divisive character during the earlier years of the Personal Computer. Born in 1928 into a Jewish family in Poland, he survived the Auschwitz death camps, but like so many others lost most of his family. After
working for the US Army repairing typewriters he decided to go into business for himself.
He’d founded Commodore as initially an importer of typewriters, then adding machines. However by the 60’s he’d worked out (correctly) that there was soon to be no use for these products and that Japan was too difficult to compete against in these areas.
While much is made of the rivalry between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, it was really Tramiel and Commodore who began the pricing war that made personal commuters affordable. ‘For the masses not the classes’ Tramiel once proclaimed and it is something he pushed very hard. A Commodore 64 was US$595 on launch, expensive but still within the reach of most Americans, West Europeans and Australasians. The Apple Macintosh, released two years later was priced at an alarming US$2,495, affordable by only the four richest Kings of Europe, if my knowledge of the 1980s is correct. Apple did not take part in the price war, but it ended up nearly ruining Commodore. However they were in a commanding position for the rest of the eighties having surged ahead of all of its competition.
The Tramiel pricing war finished off Atari in its original form, but surprisingly, he ended up acquiring it in 1984 as Tramiel had left Commodore earlier that year. He effectively resurrected his former rival and was running the company while Atari developed their ST, the BITTER rival to the Commodore Amiga.
So I will pour one out to this amazing man. While he was not present during the Commodore’s Amiga years, I doubt there would have been an Amiga without his vital input and drive. Affordable home computing owes much to this man and his aggressive marketing and shrewd business sense.
On a more serious note, I want to talk about just how far we’ve come in the last thirty or so years with computing. Broadly speaking, while being a PC gamer has always been more expensive than a being a consoler, the gap has narrowed so much, I often wonder why the PC has fallen away so much as competition to the major consoles. Since my experience in the early years was with the Amiga, the pricing I experienced (uhh my parents) was probably somewhere between the consoler and PC gamer of the day.
Is consoler a word?
From the early 80s, what we now know as the personal computer box has steadily decreased in price, both in real terms and raw dollar cost. Some offshoots (The Apple family) remain expensive as they always have, but even so they are well within the realms of affordability to even the most gross hippy. While even the term ‘affordability’ is contested it think it is fair to say that if you want something and can generally put away enough money for it in three months without it breaking you bank, it is affordable. Oh, forgot the quotations.
The real game changer with our old Amiga was the 512kb of expansion RAM. This so-called ‘SlowRAM’ brought the Amiga to its generally accepted full capacity. Quite a few games wouldn’t work without
the full 1mb of raw power, especially in the later years of the Amiga’s life. What really makes the mind boggle is the scale increase in power, The Amiga at full power ran 1mb of ram and a processor at about 8mhz. Using the crude logic of mathematics, my current PC rig is four thousand times more powerful. Not only is it more powerful, but much more affordable
As you can see with these two invoices, even in raw dollars not accounting for inflation, things have become much cheaper. That invaluable 512kb of RAM was $200! 8gb of RAM today will probably set you back no more than $70. Again, using the same simple, crude but in this case more correct method RAM today works out to be 47,000 times cheaper than twenty-two years ago. Both the current and past example are using Australian dollars, without factoring in inflation. This would probably bump it up another few thousand times. Yeah, big numbers.
Needless to say, storage has gone a very similar way. A 200mb Hard drive back in 1991 cost more than ten times the price of a 2012 ONE TERRABYTEhard drive. Yeah rough working out is about the same as the RAM. 50,000 times cheaper.
Monitors and other peripherals are harder to judge, since some things weren’t in common use at the time or conversely have gone out of use (the Joystick for one). I think though that such extras are roughly the same price, including inflation. I did a little story on the prices of games last year, and those have not changed very much in the last twenty years.
$499 for a printer?
As an aside, these invoices are from the same computer shop. The assistant bought the shop from the old owner ‘Kev’ in 1991, changed the name and has owned it ever since. Pay a visit. It’s a great little shop and my parents and I bought nearly every Amiga product we owned from there.
Long ago there were long loading times. Now they aren’t so long.
If you want to play a game, you must load it one way or another. This has changed much in the history of personal computers. Once, people had to type in a series of commands to find and execute a game, be it on a tape drive or hard disk. Now people have to merely click on the name of their game of choice and press play.
As well as having to type in commands, I can’t forget the time spent waiting. The earlier iterations of the famed Commodore 64 used a cassette tape for portable data storage, rather than the floppy disk. The ‘Commodore 1530 (C2N) Datassette as’ it was known was how you played games on this, the granddaddy of the affordable home PC (Apple Macs are and never have been affordable).
Casting my mind back, booting up a C64 game like Pit Stop 2 would take the best part of twenty minutes. My cousin and I would spent some time outside ‘shooting hoops’ (as they say on the street) until the game was ready to play.
Comparing the C64 to an Amiga, the load times on the latter were less than a fifth. Two or three minutes loading were normal in my experience. The Amiga also sported better graphics and sound so it was really win/win!
To think I almost preferred the C64 (for reasons I’ll go into later) when I was seven! It took my Dad’s reasoning to convince me that an Amiga would be the better choice. Both Amiga and C64 featured coloured flashes and sometimes psychedelic patterns during the programmes loadings. although it was likely included to cut boredom, I have little doubt that it left some unfortunate Commodore fans twitching on the ground.
Load times will always be with us. Turning a series of 0s and 1s into a moving image on your monitor will always take time. As speeds of computers increase, complexity of programmes will follow. Thanks to digital distribution, the days of buying a physical disc (or disk) may well be numbered. But I know I will always remember the days of opening a box, putting in a disk into a drive and hearing it clunk and grind for a while.
Speaking of that clunk and grind, it’s been included in this remix of a great Amiga game, Lotus Turbo Challenge 2.