A Commodore 64 home computer on a blue background
Evan Amos

40 years ago, Commodore released the Commodore 64 home computer, which set sales records, shook the American video game industry to its core, and introduced programming to a generation of kids around the world. Here’s why it was special.

Computers for the Masses, Not the Classes

Just one year after stunning the world with the Commodore VIC-20, which broke price barriers in the home computing space, Commodore upped itself with the Commodore 64, which included impressive sound capabilities, sprite-based graphics, and a whopping 64 kilobytes (KB) of memory for an equally shocking price of $595 (about $1,804 today, adjusted for inflation).

In fact, having 64 KB of RAM in a sub-$600 computer was such a huge deal that it became part of the computer’s name: Commodore 64. Its low price, which undercut similarly-equipped machines from Atari, Apple, Radio Shack, and Texas Instruments, perfectly aligned with Commodore founder Jack Tramiel’s slogan, “Computers for the masses, not the classes.”

Commodore rounded out its specs with a MOS 6510 CPU running at 1 MHz and an array of custom chips such as the VIC-II video chip and the MOS 6581 “SID” chip that could produce impressive multi-voice music and sound effects.

As a low-cost home computer, the Commodore 64 primarily competed against Atari 800 computer line, the TI-99/4A, the Apple II series, and to some extent, the IBM PC in the United States. In the UK, it faced off against the ZX Spectrum and the BBC Micro. It was a success right out of the gate.

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What Was Using a Commodore 64 Like?

With the Commodore 64, the keyboard and main computer circuitry were combined into one unit. Most people with a Commodore 64 attached the computer to a home TV set or composite monitor for a display. If they wrote any programs in the built-in Commodore BASIC programming language, they would save them to disk with the Commodore 1541—or to cassette tape using the Commodore 1530 Datasette drive. Commercial software came on tape, disk, or plug-in ROM cartridge.

A shot of the Commodore 64 from an advertisement

Although the Commodore 64 was a capable personal computer for productivity apps such as word processing and spreadsheets, many people (especially kids) used it primarily as a game console. The C64 came with two Atari-compatible joystick ports built in, which made gaming a breeze if you already owned a one-button Atari 2600-style joystick (which were readily available in the US at the time.)

Four Commodore 64 game images: Zak McKracken, Bubble Bobble, IK+, and Turrican
Some great C64 games: Zak McKracken, Bubble Bobble, IK+, and Turrican.

If you scroll through popular game database Lemon 64’s list of top C64 games, you’ll see that the C64’s titles spanned a wide range of genres, including action, RPG, simulation, strategy, adventure, platformer, and more. Popular C64 games include Maniac Mansion, Zak McCracken, Sid Meier’s Pirates!, M.U.L.E., the Ultima series, Bruce Lee, IK+, Turrican, and a great port of Bubble Bobble, among many others.

Over the years, publishers released a staggering number of games—over 4,000—for the C64 out of over 10,000 software titles overall). And the C64 platform is not technically dead: Retro fans continue to develop new Commodore 64 games today.

The Commodore 64’s Legacy

The Commodore 64 was a success from the start, quickly selling briskly. Between 1983 and 1986, Commodore 64 captured 30-40% of the US personal computer market. Estimates of Commodore 64 sales numbers vary wildly (and there are no hard records available to analyze), but over its 11-year lifespan, some believe Commodore sold 12.5-17 million C64 units.

To this day, the Guinness Book of World Records lists the Commodore 64 as the best-selling single model of desktop computer ever released. The “desktop” qualifier is important because some computers since then, such as the iPad, iPhone, or Raspberry Pi have exceeded sales of the C64, depending on how you count. Still, the C64 was wildly successful for its time.

One of the reasons for its huge sales numbers was Commodore’s scorched-earth tactic of undercutting competitors with ever-lower prices. Keeping up with Commodore’s aggressive C64 price drops squeezed Texas Instruments out of the home computer market and partially precipitated Atari’s famous business failure in 1983, leading to the North American video game crash.

Excerpt from a Commodore SX-64 ad.
The Commodore SX-64 (1984) repackaged the C64 into a (very heavy) portable form with a built-in monitor and disk drive.

Throughout it all, Commodore held on, and the C64 remained popular in Europe. Over the years, Commodore produced several variations and extensions of the Commodore 64, including the Commodore 64C, Commodore SX-64, Commodore 64 Games System, and the Commodore 128. Commodore stopped producing the Commodore 64 in 1994 when Commodore itself filed for bankruptcy.

Today, many people who grew up with the Commodore 64 as their first computer or game console look back on it fondly as an important and formative part of their childhoods.

How to Try the Commodore 64 Today

The Commodore 64 was not only a great computer in the 1980s, but it’s also fun to play today. Many of its best games are timeless. If you want to use a real Commodore 64 today, you could try searching eBay or asking older family members and friends to see if they have one in the attic. Before you buy one of the original brown models, make sure it’s refurbished or certified working because many old C64s don’t work without repair. Also, aim for the light beige Commodore 64C model if possible, which tends to be more reliable than the earlier unit.

If you don’t want to go the real hardware route, there are other options available. Amazon sells a miniature C64 replica that you can hook to your HDTV set. With an included USB joystick, you can play a selection of classic games that come built-in.

You can also emulate the Commodore 64 for free. If you prefer a local solution, you can download and run the well-renowned Commodore 64 emulator called VICE for Windows, Mac, or Linux. There are C64 emulators available on Android as well. Or if you don’t want to install anything, you can try using a Commodore 64 directly in your browser on almost any modern platform. You can even drag-and-drop disk images into the browser window to play games.

Commodore 64 Mini Console

A fun miniature replica C64 you can hook to a modern HDTV to play games.

Have fun, and happy birthday, Commodore 64!

Profile Photo for Benj Edwards Benj Edwards
Benj Edwards is a former Associate Editor for How-To Geek. Now, he is an AI and Machine Learning Reporter for Ars Technica. For over 15 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
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