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Commodore 16

Updated on June 13, 2013
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Martin is an experienced software developer with a passion for retro machines and gaming.

Commodore 16

The Commodore 16 was an 8-bit micro manufacured by Commodore which was developed and released back in 1984.

It was intended to be an entry-level computer to replace the 'friendly' VIC-20 - as endorsed by Bill Shatner.

The Commodore 16 (Or C16 as it would also become known) was intended to compete with other computers at the 'budget' end of the home market, such as those released by Timex Corporation (who had worked with Sinclair to produce the Timex-Sinclair machines), Texas Instruments and Mattel (which were not popular choices in the UK and had a stronger foothold in the United States).

Let's have a look at yet another machine from those once giants of the home computer market, Commodore...

The Competition to the Commodore 16

Other computers from the likes of Timex were a cheaper option than the Commodore VIC 20, and although the VIC offered marginally better expandability, a full size typewriter keyboard and more memory (if you expanded the base 5K of RAM), the Commore 16 offered a chance to enhance these specifications further.

Machines by companies such as Mattel and Texas Instruments (apart from Speak 'n Spell - anyone remember that?) were not very popular in the United Kingdom, so the C16 ended up competing against the ZX Spectrum from Sinclair (by now only 48K versions and the ZX Spectrum Plus being sold - the 16K model had been discontinued) and the Commodore 16's 'big brother' the Commodore 64.

Against these machines which were well established and already had a fairly substancial library of software such as games and utilities, it was not a fair fight.

These machines were also blessed with lots of hardware peripherals such as printers, joysticks, speech units and various other interfaces.

I suppose Commodore tried to fill a gap in the lower end of the market, but it would have only worked if this machine had been brought out a year earlier.

As the name would suggest, the Commodore 16 had 16KB of RAM, with 12KB available to use through the built in BASIC interpreter.

The range of colour available to the user was superior to that of the Commodore VIC 20 (as would be expected by 1984) which offerred an impressive 128 colours which were mixed from 16 base colours and 8 different shades.

This was really quite something and offere a superb colour palette to those with atistic tendencies.

To be honest it was far superior to the colour capabilities of the likes of the ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro.

What does a Commodore 16 look like?

That familiar Commodore look adorns the C16
That familiar Commodore look adorns the C16

Commodore 16 Technical Specs

The sound chip installed was an improvement over the sound capabilities of the VIC 20, giving two full sound channels spread over 4 octaves plus a 'white noise' generator.

It was still inferior to the famous SID chip that would be powering the C64's sound though - but to be fair no 8-bit machines could ever quite match the capabilities of the SID.

In a slightly strange twist, the BASIC installed in the C16's ROM (Version 3.5) was more powerful than the version 2.0 installed in the C64.

I can't understand why the Commodore 64 was kitted out with an inferior version of BASIC. Perhaps we'll never know.

BASIC version 3.5 actually had commands for bitmapped graphics and sounds. It also had simple tracing and debugging features which for a home 8-bit micro was something quite special - one of the real plus sides to the Commodore 16 making it a great machine for anyone who wanted to learn BASIC programming.

Many popular 8-bit machines at this point in time did not have programming features such as these, only the likes of Acorn's BBC Micro and Acorn Electron had such impressive BASIC programming tools.

The Commodore 16 could have perhaps made it as an educational machine for teaching programming, but it was not as robust as the machines from Acorn which could really take a beating and keep on smiling.

Now, some bad points:

Come 1984 16KB of RAM was nowhere near acceptable. 32KB was now accepted as the minimum amount, with many 8-bit machines sporting more.

48K or even 64K was regarded as the norm and pretty soon other machine would be released with a mind-blowing 128K of RAM. 16K really let it down - even though it was intended to be a low-end machine.

There was no port to connect a modem (which were becoming popular at this point, perhaps due to the movie War Games?), and no generic game ports to speak of whatsoever.

The lack of a game-port was a major oversight as many games were best played with a joystick, and a real downside to the machine. Let's be honest - although the computer was for your homework, it really was for games when the grown ups weren't looking eh?

Commodore did go on to provide a 'Commodore 16 specific' cassette player and joystick, but people wanted to use their existing and much cheaper peripherals that were already available (and already in the possesion of a lot of users) for the the likes of the C64 and the VIC 20.

Third party converters were released by a host of companies to allow users to use their existing hardware and peripherals.

Unfortunately it was not quite enough to save the machine from a quick downwards spiral...

Storm for the C16

Cassette sleeve for Storm on the Commodore 16
Cassette sleeve for Storm on the Commodore 16

The C16 As A Learning Computer

A Commodore 16 complete with box
A Commodore 16 complete with box

Commodore aesthetics and... the end

It has to be said that this machine resembled the VIC-20 and the Commodore 64, albeit with a reverse colour scheme of a black case and a white or light gray keyboard. At a glance it was unmistakeable as a Commodure unit.

It was actually marketed as 'The Learning Computer', and with it's impressive programming features it was an apt moniker. It is a shame that the machine never really got off the ground.

The lack of commercial software and the problem with peripherals for the machine caused it to sell poorly in the United States. It was quickly discontinued in the US, where the C64 (which already had a good library of software) was 'dropped down' a notch to become the Commodore entry level machine. Not a bad piece of kit for entry level eh?

This created a fan base of its own for the computer that contributed among others, several unofficial ports of popular Commodore 64 programs to the line. I suppose this adds to the character and charm of the C16 and makes it almost a 'cult' machine.

A machine that came and went without much of a fanfare in the UK, making them a rarer find these days. Check out Ebay listings as fully boxed examples are quite rare.

Punchy on the Commodore 16

Kickstart on the Commodore 16

Roller Kong - a version of the classic arcade game

The C16 was a nearly machine...

The Commodore 16 was a 'nearly' machine.

It was a decent computer but the small amount of memory and lack of expansion capability really let it down.

Commodore of course rectified the situation with the release of the Commodore 64.

It could never compete against the likes of the ZX Spectrum or C64 and once the likes of the Amstrad CPC 464 came along it's fate as a home micro was well and truly sealed.

Despite this there are a few games available for the machine, some well known titles and versions of arcade classics, (even budget kings Mastertronic got in on the act) and some other more obscure ones. Give them a go - it's worth it to see what the machine was capable of.

Emulation is available and files are available to download.

The Commodore 64 - the machine the Commodore 16 coulda been?

Tutti Frutti on the C16

Timeslip on an emulated C16

Timeslip was a popular game on the machine
Timeslip was a popular game on the machine

Budget Gaming on the Commodore 16

Even budget gaming kings Mastertronic got in on the C16 action with releases such as Squirm.

Budget games usually retailled at £1.99 - and ranged from being utterly dire to mildly playable (until the mid to late 80's when the quality of budget games increased).

Check out the video below to see what you could play on your C16 for a mere £1.99...

Squirm On The C16

Gaming on the C16 today...

Games are still being created for this machine today.

Chronosoft are a well known supporter of many retro machines, and the Commodore 16 is one of them. Chronosoft titles are always worth a look - check out their site if you fancy a 'modern' experience on your C16.


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