The First PC to Sell Millions: Commodore VIC-20 Turns 40

In 1981, Commodore released the VIC-20, a low-priced mass-market house computer system that served up terrific video games and taught a generation of kids how to program. Many people with a VIC-20 attached the computer system to a house television set for a display, and if they composed any programs in the built-in BASIC programming language, they would conserve them to a cassette tape utilizing the Commodore 1530 Datasette drive. In industry terms, the VIC-20 had an effect in terms of setting a design template for its follower, the wildly popular Commodore 64 (C64), which was released in August of 1982. At that point, the even lower expense of the VIC-20 didnt provide much over its inexpensive rivals, so Commodore pulled the plug on the VIC-20 in 1985.
These days, if you d like to get a taste of the VIC-20 experience on your contemporary computer, you can download an emulator like VICE, or even try utilizing a VIC-20 in this handy JavaScript emulator that runs in your internet browser.

My very first computer system was a VIC-20 with 4 KB of ram. https://t.co/5FRhpM9j2F.
— John Carmack (@ID_AA_Carmack) October 14, 2020.

The Wonder Computer of the 1980s
As the rate of computer elements dropped rapidly in the late 1970s, it ended up being unavoidable that some business would introduce a popular, low-cost, user-friendly computer system for the masses. That business turned out to be Commodore– and the computer system was called the Commodore VIC-20.
The VIC-20 got its name from its VIC-II graphics chip (” VIC” being brief for “Video Interface Chip”) and the number “20,” since it sounded friendly. From its creation, the VIC-20 served an essential strategic purpose: Commodore intended to preempt competition from Japanese computer makers with an inexpensive, mass-market maker.
Created from the ground-up to fit those needs, the VIC-20 used the fairly economical MOS 6502 CPU and only consisted of 5 kilobytes of RAM (of which, only about 3.8 KB were provided in BASIC). It likewise included a mere 22-column text display that drastically limited its appeal as a productivity machine. But its VIC-II graphics chip played color video games, with graphics that probably went beyond the Atari 2600, which was the reigning computer game console in the U.S. at the time.
Commodore
Due to its heritage as a machine created to contend with Japanese makers, the VIC-20 made its original launching in Japan as the VIC-1001 in late 1980. That design consisted of some additional features like katakana character support for the Japanese market, but it was otherwise practically similar to the VIC-20 that would launch in the U.S. the list below year.
When it did launch in the U.S. in May or June of 1981 (reports conflict, and some units were in reviewers hands in early 1981), the VIC-20 made waves for its terribly low cost of $299.95 (about $885 today). Completing entry-level machines like the Atari 400 and the TRS-80 Color Computer cost $399 and $499 respectively. (Around that exact same time, a 16K Apple II Plus offered for a massive $1195, putting it in another league totally.).
For the VIC-20s American marketing project, Commodore worked with Star Trek actor William Shatner to appear in print and TV commercials, asking “Why buy simply a computer game?” and promoting the machine as the “wonder computer of the 1980s.”.

Evan Amos
In 1981, Commodore launched the VIC-20, an inexpensive mass-market personal computer that served up terrific video games and taught a generation of kids how to program. It sold countless systems and inspired a generation of programmers. Heres what made it unique.

And a wonder it was: The Commodore VIC-20 was the very first computer system to sell a million systems, which it accomplished in its first year on the market. By the end of its run in January 1985, it had actually offered 2.5 million units in overall– sensational sales numbers at the time.
What Was Using a VIC-20 Like?
The majority of people with a VIC-20 attached the computer to a house television for a display screen, and if they wrote any programs in the integrated BASIC programming language, they would save them to a cassette tape utilizing the Commodore 1530 Datasette drive. Business software application could be run off of plug-in ROM cartridges (as was frequently the case with games) or packed from a cassette tape. Some advanced owners likewise downloaded programs from BBSes thanks to the affordable VICmodem offered for the VIC-20.
Commodore earned full marks (such as in this BYTE Magazine review) for the quality of the paperwork consisted of with the VIC-20, which taught computer amateurs how to utilize the maker and how to compose BASIC programs.
Pictures from the VIC-20s American retail box. Commodore.
While seemingly capable of balancing your budget or working as a word processor, the VIC-20 was also terrific for kids to play video games. The VIC-20 consisted of a single Atari-compatible joystick port that opened a world of action titles such as Jelly Monsters (an excellent Pac-Man clone), Demon Attack and Gridrunner, deep RPGs like Sword of Fargoal, and even text adventure games by Scott Adams (which were supposedly a few of the very popular video games for the platform).
Three VIC-20 video games (from L-R): Jelly Monsters, Scott Adams Adventure Land, and Sword of Fargoal.
In an incredible little trivia, the late Satoru Iwata, former CEO of Nintendo, set his very first business video game, Star Battle, for the VIC-1001 in April of 1981. Programming this Galaxian clone began Iwatas long career in game advancement at HAL Laboratory, which later on culminated in his terrific success as the head of Nintendo in the 2000s.
The VIC-20s Legacy.
Despite the fact that the VIC-20 ended up being a commercial boon for Commodore and set a brand-new requirement for the low-end of the personal computer market, the VIC-20s greatest impact was perhaps cultural. Due to its low cost, the VIC-20 became a popular newbies computer system, and a generation of kids around the world grew up discovering to program in BASIC on their VIC-20 computers.
A few of those kids matured to architect the modern software application world around us. Among them was former id Software developer John Carmack, who changed PC video gaming in the early 1990s with titles such as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake.
” I had actually utilized TRS-80s at Radio Shack and Apple IIs at school, but the VIC was the first thing I could truly apply myself to in the house,” Carmack told How-To Geek.

In either case you handle it, using a VIC-20 once again is a great way to commemorate this monumentally important maker on its 40th anniversary. Delighted birthday, VIC-20!
RELATED: Whats the Best Way to Buy a Vintage Computer?

Even at a young age, Carmack pushed the limitations of the VIC-20 with ingenious programs techniques. “Fitting things in 4K of RAM was a huge difficulty, and I made demos that progressively loaded multiple programs off of the disk drive to exceed the limitations,” he says. “My spiral-bound technical referral manual was tattered to the point of disintegration.”.
Its most likely that many other individuals who now work in tech likewise got their start on the VIC-20s in the early 1980s. In some methods, its the VIC-20s world– were just living in it.
In industry terms, the VIC-20 had an impact in terms of setting a template for its follower, the hugely popular Commodore 64 (C64), which was released in August of 1982. At that point, the even lower expense of the VIC-20 didnt use much over its dirt-cheap rivals, so Commodore pulled the plug on the VIC-20 in 1985.
Still, Commodore survived and went on to offer around 15 million systems of the C64, and then introduced the Amiga prior to losing ground completely to IBM PC compatibles in the early 1990s. We cant blame the VIC-20 for that– it had an effective run and made quite a mark in just a couple of years on the market.
How to Try the VIC-20 Today.
Nowadays, if you d like to get a taste of the VIC-20 experience on your modern computer, you can download an emulator like VICE, and even attempt using a VIC-20 in this useful JavaScript emulator that runs in your web browser. Or, if youre more daring, you can try to find an initial vintage device yourself. If possible, we recommend looking for a reconditioned device on eBay.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *