VIC 20

The VIC 20 from Commodore

The Commodore VIC-20 was an 8-bit home computer which was sold by Commodore Business Machines, or CBM.

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.

These sort of names really did sound quite cool back in the early 1980s. 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.

Commodore VIC 20

The 'Friendly' Commodore VIC-20
The 'Friendly' Commodore VIC-20

A brochure on 'The Friendly Computer', the VIC 20

We just can't tell you enough how friendly this machine was... The VIC 20
We just can't tell you enough how friendly this machine was... The VIC 20

VIC 20 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 1980s. 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.

Centipede on the VIC 20

Gridrunner on the VIC 20

Pole Position on the VIC 20

VIC 20 Games

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:

  • 3D Maze
  • Asteroids
  • Bomber
  • Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom
  • Centipede
  • Dig Dug
  • Galaxians - an arcade classic
  • Gorf - an arcade classic
  • Gridrunner
  • Hunchback
  • Jetpac (By Ultimate: Play the game)
  • Krazy Kong
  • Lunar Lander
  • Omega Race
  • Pole Position
  • Space Invaders
  • Sub Hunt
  • The Wizard And The Princess
  • Voodoo Castle

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...

Legacy of the VIC 20

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 1980s.

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.

An Early TV Advert For The VIC 20

William Shatner Advertises 'The Friendly Computer'

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.

Modern Game Blue Star For The VIC 20

Modern Game Frogger '07 For The VIC

A Short VIC 20 Documentary

A short 'documentary' highlighting the technical aspects and classic gaming of the VIC 20 has been created. It also has a section on BASIC programming with features such as changing colours, saving your work and more.

Any fan of the VIC or even retro computers in general should find them interesting.

See the videos below and enjoy!

VIC 20 Documentary Part 1

Vic 20 Documentary Part 2

VIC 20 Documentary Part 3

The VIC 20 - It came and went

This is a machine that came along and went quite quickly when compared to the likes of the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC 464, ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro.

The lack of RAM was the main stumbling block with the machine as it was pretty much up to par with other 8-bit technology in other areas.

Mind you, if the VIC had been yet more popular, then the Commodore 64 perhaps would not have gone onto be such a huge seller.

We will never know, but the fact. That. William. Shatner. Endorsed. It. Makes it a classic machine in my eyes!

I suspect a lot of owners switched to a C64 or went the whole hog and upgraded to a Commodore Amiga or perhaps an Amiga 1200.

Once you got your teeth into those Amiga Games there was no going back!

More by this Author


Any fans of the 'Friendly Computer'? 4 comments

uridium5 6 years ago

Guys - Thanks very much for writing this article! I never realised they made pole position for the Vic 20.

A couple of Gems were two games by Pixel, called Trader, and Starquest, pretty hard to find these days.

Paratroopers was fun also!

Thanks again

Phil


PDXBuys profile image

PDXBuys 6 years ago from Oregon

You wrote a great overview of the Vic-20. I had one back in 1983 - my first computer. Really enjoyed learning programming on it. Did BASIC programming and a bit of assembly language. It really was an amazing little computer for the time. I built a relay interface board for it so I could control external devices. Also learned how to hack game cartridge programs so I could modify the games. Shatner looked so young back then, didn't he?


jeremyon 6 years ago

I still use mine all the time! It's a great relief from the hectic tech-laden world of today! The games are simple, and really hone hand-eye coordination. The MegaCart (www.mega-cart.com) turns the Vic-20 into a goldmine of fun! Back in the day (circa 1983) you had to fork out $20 a pop for the cartridges and wait forever to load tape games or tediously type in programs from a magazine. Now, you can get all the cartridges ever produced, utilities, and great tape/disk games on the megacart for $100 and a nice Vic off of eBay for $20. You can also get a uiec drive and store all your programs on an SD card. You can also download most every game made for the Vic-20 off the internet nearly instantaneously! Oh, how awesome that would have been in 1983! The denial community still produces new games for the machine and they are getting pretty awesome! Frogger 2007 and Berzerk MMX (2010) are fantastic arcade games. Psytronic software released an awesome hand-eye coordination platformer last year called 'Carling the Spider' and the most graphically enhanced RPG game ever for the Vic-20 called 'Realms of Quest III'. The Vic-20 was my first computer (bought new at K-Mart in 1983 for $88.88) and is still loved. I neglected it during the 1990s, and through most of the 2000s but now it's back with a vengeance and better than ever!


smithersonjones 5 years ago

i still have my vic 20 in mint condition with 4 games and a joystick still in the orginal box

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