The Commodore 64 turns 30 today. Reams of copy have been written in tribute to this machine. It wasn't the first personal computer, but it truly was one that democratized them to millions of middle-class households. Releasing in August, 1982, it stepped into the breach a year later, when console video gaming, as we knew it then, utterly collapsed.
Epyx offered an impressive selection of titles, particularly in Jumpman and its Olympics series (and spinoffs of both.) Activision survived the crash in large part because it leaped from the dying Intellivision and Atari platforms to the 64 and other home computers, producing titles like Ghostbusters, Hacker, The Great American Cross-Country Road Race and Alcazar: The Forgotten Fortress.
For me, though, the best example of the Commodore 64 as both a computer and a video game platform for the masses could be found in the back of Compute!'s Gazette, a magazine that launched about six months after the computer, published not far from where I grew up, in Greensboro, N.C. A spinoff nameplate from the main Compute magazine, the Gazette served Commodore 64 users only. By far its greatest feature was the dozen or so programs in the back of the magazine, many of them games.
These came with a cost. First, you had to type them in. That could take the better part of a Saturday, depending on the size of one (The Enchanted Journey, an extraordinarily sophisticated adventure game for the format, was one. I never finished entering it.) There were also helper programs like "Automatic Proofreader" (for BASIC programs) and "MLX" (a machine-language compiler), that also had to be entered — and themselves subjected to a helper program to verify their code. Sometimes Compute!'s Gazette published with errors in the code printed in the back, which led to agonizing syntax errors with no identifiable solution. Oil Tycon, a kind of inverted Dig-Dug, was another game I never got to work.
But there were so many others that did. Bagdad, Basketball Sam & Ed, The Frantic Fisherman, Sno-Cat, Cabby. And there was also a gaming application to Compute!'s Gazette's finest contribution ever — the word processor SpeedScript, by Charles Brannon. One day when my brother was home from boarding school he showed me how to use it to edit rosters in Hardball!, another title that makes old Commodore 64 gamers swoon.
My brother and I both had 64s. We got ours on discount from our next-door neighbour, the buyer for a catalogue showroom who let us refurbish a couple of returns (learning how to use a soldering iron in the process) and pay half price or close to it. When it was all over, I had a Commodore 64, two latch-gate 1541 drives and a dot-matrix 1526 printer.
I took that rig with me to college and was typing papers on it as late as 1993. It nourished my interest in writing as well as video games, and I know I'm not the only one who came to love both through the Commodore 64. Happy birthday, to a lifelong family friend.