Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Turning Japanese...

one of the last VIC-20s produced
Born out of fear that the Japanese would take over the United States computer market, Commodore beat them to the punch by first releasing in Japan (1980).  The VIC-20 (review|manual|sunset) was my first computer -- financed exclusively by paper route money in 1982.  Ironically, it would be this machine to spark my interest in retro-computing some 30 years later.

These things were great game machines and wildly popular.  Millions sold around the world.  Our family was lucky enough to own two; one for me and one for my brother.  My friends owned them.  We used them socially, and traded information about programming.  They inspired imagination and creativity, and had a certain charm or character that really caused a lot of their owners to absolutely love them.  It would not be until iPad that a gadget would have a similar emotional impact one me.

a great joystick for VIC-20 games
There is a ton of information out there and online about the VIC-20, so I'll not cover that here.  If you are interested you could read pages 3-10 of, "Compute!'s First Book of VIC;" or, "Home Computer Wars," by Michael TomczykMichael Tomczyk recently gave a presentation in Rome containing some rare photos!  Finally, "Commodore: A Company on the Edge," by Brian Bagnall, comes highly recommended. 

In 1996, when home computers were becoming powerful enough to reasonably emulate older systems, a software VIC-20 emerged onto the scene.  (Interestingly, this runs reasonably well inside of DOSBox on an iPad.)  Inspired by the new emulator scene back then, I was fortunate enough to reach out and interview a number of key figures who originally worked on the VIC-20.  That was eleven years after it was pulled from the US market and two years after Commodore itself folded.  The interviews were enough to get myself a mention in a demo (video) and podcast, and that was a real thrill.  You can almost see my full name from the Veni Vidi Vic! demo, Richard Melick, scrolling by in the screen capture below:

Richard Melick
 Veni Vidi Vic!

Mega-Cart v20, S/N #246
Another eleven years would pass before a new cartridge appeared on the scene that contained every cartridge ever made for this computer and a ton of other cool features.  ...All bundled up and presented in a fun, professional manner that is consistent with the way it was back in the day.  Software emulators are okay and they have their place, but that's when I finally broke down and said to myself, "Dude, your gettin' a DELL VIC."  My goal was to only have three things: the computer, a joystick and the Mega-Cart, but collecting never works that way.  The more you get into something the more you find out about the scene.  I soon found that there is a lot of other cool stuff happening...
DC2N w/LCD menu

Luigi Di Fraia was busy developing and releasing his DC2N units, and a metric ton of old cassettes programs were making their way on to the Internet here and here.  DC2N is just too cool.  It is a self-contained digital accessory for Commodore computers that 100% emulates the old Commodore 1530 ("C2N Datasette") units.  It uses an SD card instead of tape, and you can fit a lot of cassette images on one card.  For me to store every tape image I could get my hands on completely filled two 1GB SD cards.  More material than I could reasonably explore in a lifetime.
µIEC in a recycled project box

Jim Brain had already released his micro-IEC ("µIEC") units which are very reasonably priced.  The serial bus they run on is called the IEC bus, hence the name.  Like DC2N, µIEC is just too cool.  It is another self-contained digital accessory for Commodore computers that 100% emulates the old Commodore disk drive units.  Instead of floppy disks it uses an SD card, and you can fit a lot of programs and disk images on one card. ... Much more even than when dealing with cassette tape images.  As with the tapes, a mountain of programs and disk images were already online thanks to the emulator scene, and µIEC could handle them all with ease.  More programs are being added every day up to and including the old magazine type-in programs.

Check the forums at the Denial community for new releases.  The board was started by an Art Professor that uses BASIC programs on the VIC-20 for artistic medium.  It is great!

hard-wired numeric keypad
Speaking of programming, when I was kid I always wanted a numeric keypad because it would have made entering in data sequences so much easier.  One day I found a new one listed on eBay for Commodore that gets hard-wired on to the keyboard controller pins.  It is from Computer Place, and I have put its documentation online.  Hard-wired seemed so much better to me than the ones that fit into the joystick port, because they require a special driver to be used.  (When you have significantly less than 8K RAM, this really becomes an issue.)  Numeric keypads are challenging to find these days, and hard-wired ones for Commodore are next to impossible.  So, I would not find this one from Computer Place before having had the chance to work with Fredric Blåholtz to restore the Cardo Cardkey 1 numeric keypad drivers for VIC-20 and Commodore 64.  (The CK1 manual is online now, too, as of February 2, 2013.)

grumpy old VIC
Another controller that always fascinated me is the light pen.  It is hard today to find one still working, and they won't work with modern TVs that lack the traditional CRT ("picture tube").  Light pens were never really used by your average person.  They were either used on the high-end by professionals or by little kids at home.  Hardware wears out, especially when handled by little ones.  Working light pens are hard to find.  What you see in the plastic bag below there is a Cardco Cardriter light pen.  I've got the drivers online for that as well if you need them.

One thing that wore out on everyone were those stock Commodore 64 power supplies.  When they blew they usually took the whole computer with them.  

power supply disguised as disk drive
Since my little VIC-20 is the cost-reduced variety, it uses the same cruddy power supply as the Commodore 64.  I found an open-air, "bench," power supply that I could trust more readily.  Strangely, it was made by Coleco, but I don't know if it was used in the Adam or not.  Maybe in the printer?  Anyway, this thing was huge and looked really scary, so I stuck it in an old 1541 disk drive case.  It takes up the full width and almost the entire length, but it fit with room to spare for a small fan.  That disk drive you see there is just a facade.  Inside is one of the biggest, baddest power supplies adapted for Commodore that you have ever seen!

Trivia: William Shatner promoted the VIC-20 in early commercials.  In March of 2012, during an interview with Stacy Keebler, Jimmy Fallon stated on his Late Night show that he owned a Commodore VIC-20 ("the cheaper Commodore 64 knockoff") when growing up.  Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, used his grandpa's VIC-20 for his first computer.  In addition, the VIC-20 made brief theatrical appearances in these shows

For more information you can research the following resources:

Software Repositories:
requires Emulator
Documentation Archives:
Search Engines:

    I have additional VIC-20 material over on my web site:   Are you interested in computer history?  Join the irregular regulars Earl Evans, David Greelish, and Carrington Vanston, plus surprise guests, in the show where everything old is news again.  Gather 'round a virtual table where today's talk is about yesterday's computers. Get the skinny from the world of vintage computer hobbyists, collectors, enthusiasts, and old school geeks. They cover modern day vintage tech events, new developments for old hardware, the revival of retro tech, the best of 8 bit culture, and take many strolls down memory lane.  Head on over to and explore podcasts, review show notes and be informed of upcoming episodes.  You'll be glad you did! 


  1. Did I forget any VIC-20 web sites that should not be missed? Please contribute your suggestions, online resources and/or personal stories!...

  2. The "Computer Place" and "Cardco Cardkey 1" numeric keypad manuals are now online, with links added to the original blog posting.