Saturday, September 4, 2021

Of Commodore 64 and ColecoVision

Data Driven Gamer does not, by any means, cover all platforms equally, or even in proportion to their popularity at the time. My methods for game selection are game first, platform second, but tend to create a bias towards personal computers as of late - a trend that I expect to become even more pronounced in the years to come - and so far, consoles other than the Atari 2600 have gotten pretty shafted, even considering that the Atari 2600 outsold all other contemporary consoles combined in the vicinity of 3:1.

This post was originally going to be my 1983/1984 intermission, but in it I digressed about undercovered platforms so much that it started to dominate the article, so I split it off into its own thing and developed it some more.

So, in this new unplanned post, I look at two strongly performing platforms of 1983 underrepresented by DDG, one of which surprises me by its lack of inclusion, the other of which doesn't surprise me at all.


On the Commodore 64

The 1983 phase of Data Driven Gamer saw much increased focus on computer games compared to previous years; 1982 had 15 computer game whales, and 1983 had 24. This is disproportionate to what was selling, but not entirely unjustified; like console games, computer games were selling in record numbers that year. They were also produced in record quantities - Mobygames lists a mere 209 Atari 2600 releases in 1983, the largest for any console, but the Apple II got 361, and Atari computers had 366. Even the quintessentially British ZX Spectrum, just over a year old, had 316 releases, up from 77 the year before.

But the real heavyweight system of 1983, by this measure, is the Commodore 64.

The C64 was undoubtedly a gaming powerhouse for its time. Its 64KB of RAM was an edge over the 48KB typical of Apple ][+ and Atari home computers of the day, though the inability to upgrade this further and its lack of legible 80-column text modes meant it could never be a real contender in the business world dominated by the far more expensive IBM PC's. Its real gaming prowess came from the VIC-II graphics chip, which allowed games to use powerful sprite and scrolling capabilities that anticipate the NES, and from the SID sound chip, a legend to this day. On the negative side, its floppy disk drive is nearly as legendary for its pathetic 300 byte/second read speed - though this was less of an issue among first generation games that were more likely to use cartridges or cassettes - and its immutable 16-color palette frustrated artists used to the flexibility of Atari's 128 colors.

Having only 70 releases in its launch year of 1982, the system was an amazing seller the following year, and had a whopping 548 releases, far exceeding any other platform. And yet, I haven't played a single one of them. Why not?

Jimmy Maher of Digital Antiquarian wrote much on the subject of Commodore's total war against Texas Instruments which killed off the TI-99/4A, took out Commodore's own VIC-20 as collateral damage, and damaged an already struggling Atari in the crossfire, setting the C64 up to become the dominant gaming system in North America for the next few years, and the most popular home computer of 1983.

In an email exchange, Maher says he feels that the C64, despite having an incredibly successful year in terms of units sold, didn't really come into its own as a gaming system until 1984, when the full effects of the video game crash were in effect. Epyx was among the first studios to really push it as a gaming platform - until then, the allure of the C64 had more to do with the prospect of just having a home computer. The gaming abilities weren't as aggressively marketed, and likely not as appealing, as its low price and then-luxurious 64KB of RAM.

But I wasn't quite satisfied - after all, the C64 had over 500 games that year, more than twice that of the Atari 2600. I took a look at the list on Mobygames to find some patterns.

What I found is that among the big ticket U.S. publishers, the Commodore 64 was the most supported platform in 1983, but none of them favored it, or tailored anything for its abilities. Its strengths as a gaming machine are well understood today, but in 1983, Atari and Apple computers were seen as more powerful and more established. It seems like major developers weren't yet sure what to make of it, and largely used it as a proving ground for their back catalogs. Budget publishers, especially in the U.K., where cheap cassette-based software was the fashion of the day, were more apt to bet on the C64, but the shovelware nature of these games means that few of them stand out today, and the rare (ha!) exceptional performers tended to be ZX Spectrum games.

Here's a partial list of C64 publishers in the US, in rough order of prolificity.

  • Commodore Business Machines themselves. Most of their titles fit into one of a few categories.
    • Conversions of Midway's coin-op games. The best of these was probably Wizard of Wor. All of these used cartridges rather than floppy disks, which meant a 16KB size limit. 
    • Conversions of VIC-20 and PET games.
    • Original C64 cartridge games by CBM. International Soccer is probably the most remembered of these early titles.
    • Original C64 cassette games by Commodore's UK division.
  • Cursor Magazine, a publisher of PET BASIC games on tape, ported a big back catalog to C64 BASIC, which was essentially unchanged. Perhaps vedder finds this to be an interesting exercise, but it's irrelevant to me.
  • Spinnaker, a U.S. educational software developer, supported C64, Atari, Apple II, and IBM computers, though it's not clear to me what their platform of choice was. We'll be talking about them more in the 1984 phase.
  • Adventure International ported their back catalog, mostly Scott Adams' classic adventures, to the C64.
  • Avalon Hill ported their BASIC games to the C64 but did not release anything original for it. Telengard is probably their best known game, and features enhanced graphics and sounds on the system.
  • Epyx, who would soon become one of the first major C64 houses, ported games including Jumpman, Crush, Crumble, and Chomp!, and Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai and its expansions. All of these took advantage of the C64's unique graphics and sound abilities to some extent. 
  • Sierra's support for the Commodore 64 was eclectic, including ports of computer-style arcade games Crossfire, B.C.'s Quest for Tires, and Oil's Well, plus Frogger, which they had previously ported to Atari, Apple, and IBM. The Hi-Res Adventures, Mission: Asteroid, The Wizard and the Princess, and Ulysses and the Golden Fleece were ported too, but not Mystery House or Cranston Manor. Ultima II was also ported by Sierra, but not Ultima I. Ultima III, which was never licensed to them, would be ported by Garriott's friend Chuck Bueche (aka Chuckles). By 1986, Sierra would abandon the C64 almost entirely.
  • Infocom ported its entire catalog of Z-Machine adventures from Zork I to Infidel to the machine and releasing them almost simultaneously. The virtual machine-based approach made this simple to do; all of their games were either made for the Z-Machine v3 or had already been upgraded to that standard. The Z-Machine only had to be written for the Commodore 64 once, and afterward, all of their games were already compatible. But as the C64 only supported 40-column text display, and as the games were heavily dependent on its slow floppy disk drive, it wasn't quite the optimal platform for these games.
  • Sirius Software, once a relatively major computer game publisher, supported the C64 with ports, but clearly favored Apple and Atari. 1983 was their last year of operation; they'd go under following a royalty dispute.
  • SSI, like Avalon Hill, would port their BASIC wargames to C64, but create nothing original on the platform.
  • Broderbund's Choplifter, Lode Runner, and David's Midnight Magic, among other Apple-oriented games, received C64 ports. Broderbund also received the computer game publishing rights to Star Wars, and the C64 was among its recipients.
  • Hayden Software, a developer best known for its chess program Sargon mainly supported the Apple II and ported nine titles to the C64.
  • Electronic Arts' policy at the time was to make the Atari 8-bit their primary platform and to port to as many computer platforms as it made sense to, but in practice, their games targeted the Apple II nearly as often. Every game they released in 1983 supported the C64, but none were made specifically for it.
  • DesignWare and Educational Information Systems were two U.S. educational software companies who developed mainly for the Apple II but supported the C64 incidentally.
  • Synapse Software, developers of Alley Cat, was the largest third-party Atari computer software publisher, and well known for their consistent qualities and dedication to the platform. They ported many of their Atari games to the C64, but Alley Cat, strangely, wasn't among them.
  • Atarisoft, the arm of Atari responsible for porting games to non-Atari systems, ported several old arcade games to the C64, including Pac-Man, Dig Dug, Donkey Kong, Defender, and Centipede. All of these had been previously ported to Atari's own line of computers in-house. I think it would make for an interesting article to compare the Atari and Commodore versions of these games, though I don't plan on doing this personally.

Of the games that were actually made with the C64 in mind, the most notable were both made by musician & programmer Paul Norman through Cosmi Corporation; Forbidden Forest, and Aztec Challenge, a remake of an Atari game. Neither comes close to whale status.

British publishers are less interesting to me but were no doubt active on the system. Among the C64 early adopters were:

  • Supersoft released 16 tapes exclusively for the C64 and VIC-20.
  • Anirog Software also mainly focused on the C64 and VIC-20, with some ZX Spectrum support on the side.
  • Channel 8 Software absorbed Brian Howarth's Mysterious Adventure series and re-released them on just about all of the British microcomputers of the day, plus the Atari and Commodore 64 which were the most popular imports. They also released two Atari-inspired games exclusively on Commodore 64.
  • Intercepter Software focused almost exclusively on the Commodore 64 with 11 original titles.
  • Rabbit Software supported the VIC 20, C64, and ZX Spectrum with no obvious platform preference.
  • Alligata Software released 12 games, 8 of which were C64 exclusive. 
  • Mogul Communications had 8 new C64 games, some of which were VIC-20 ports.
  • Romik Software had releases on most of the British microcomputers, even the obsolete ZX81, but most of their releases were for the C64 and VIC-20.
  • dk'tronics was primarily a ZX Spectrum house, but did have some C64 and VIC-20 support, including a few exclusives.
  • Jeff Minter's company Llamasoft was principally a VIC-20 and C64 house, producing six C64-compatible games, most of them multiplatform.

On the ColecoVision

A copy of Computer Entertainer magazine's January 1984 issue lists these as the top 20 selling games of 1983:
  1. Miner 2049er (Micro Fun / ColecoVision)
  2. Ms. Pac-Man (Atari 2600)
  3. River Raid (Activision / Atari 2600)
  4. Swords & Serpents (Imagic / Intellivision)
  5. War Room (Philips / ColecoVision)
  6. Q*Bert (Parker Brothers / ColecoVision)
  7. Donkey Kong Jr. (ColecoVision)
  8. Enduro (Activision / Atari 2600)
  9. Pole Position (Atari 5200)
  10. Ms. Pac-Man (Atari 5200)
  11. Centipede (Atari 5200)
  12. Centipede (Atari 2600)
  13. B.C.'s Quest for Tires (Sierra / ColecoVision)
  14. Looping (ColecoVision)
  15. Time Pilot (ColecoVision)
  16. Donkey Kong (Atari 400/800)
  17. Super Action Baseball (ColecoVision)
  18. Pitfall (Activision / Atari 2600)
  19. Centipede (Atarisoft / ColecoVision)
  20. Nova Blast (Imagic / ColecoVision)


Not surprisingly, there are a lot of arcade game conversions here. What's more surprising is just how much ColecoVision you see here; over half the list, including the top game. Not a single one of the original 1983 computer games I played are present, not even Lode Runner, an absurdly strong performer by Apple II standards, which went on to sell millions in the years to come. The ColecoVision may have been a short-lived system whose entire existence was overlapped by the shadow of the much less powerful Atari 2600, but it still sold millions during its brief shelf life. It no doubt disrupted some of the Atari 2600's sales, which was still the biggest seller of the year, but was already starting to slow down.

I've always thought of the ColecoVision as a console that obliterated the Atari 2600 technically, but assumed its library to be dominated by second-string arcade ports, which never interested me as much as games designed ground-up for the home experience, and seemed doubly pointless in an era where MAME can emulate the originals. This list, however, doesn't show the system to be any more defined by coin-op conversions than the others; of the ten ColecoVision games, three are original, five are arcade game ports, and two are ported from other platforms. Of the ten non-ColecoVision games, six are arcade game ports.

I took a look at the entire ColecoVision release list of 1983 - not an arduous task as there are only 47 games on it, and categorized them in a similar manner as the C64 list.

Arcade conversions made up 21 of the 47 games.

  • Coleco themselves made most of these; 16, which include:
    • Donkey Kong & Donkey Kong Jr.
    • Sega's Space Fury, SubRoc, and Zaxxon
    • Universal's Mr. Do! and Space Panic
    • Midway's Omega Race and Gorf
    • Exidy's Pepper II and Victory
    • Time Pilot, Frenzy, Front Line, Looping, and Slither
  • Parker Brothers made three - Frogger, Popeye, and Q*Bert
  • Atarisoft ported Centipede and Defender

 Of the 26 other games, we have:

  • Four original Coleco games, including Smurf Rescue and Super Action Baseball
  • Four games by Bit Corp, a short-lived developer who came and went in 1983, also releasing four games for the Atari 2600 that year
  • Four games by Spectravideo International, two of which were conversions of games for their failed Spectravideo console
  • Three games by Sunrise Software, a then Coleco-exclusive developer
  • Three games by Xonox, a company best known for their "double-ender" Atari 2600 cartridges.
  • Sydney Development's Evolution and B.C.'s Quest for Tires
  • Various one-offs, including Nova Blast, Miner 2049er, and War Room.


I can't say anything in the list excites me terribly, though War Room, being its second-best selling game of the year and a ColecoVision-original title interested me enough to look at some gameplay videos to see what it's about. On the surface, it looks like a much-expanded take on Missile Command, set on an 8-way scrolling map of North America that you must defend from incoming nukes before they destroy too many cities, featuring some simple economic gameplay elements.

While the Commodore 64 flourished in the aftermath of the video game crash, Coleco's video game arm tanked, and their attempt to break into the home computer market with the Coleco Adam flopped hard. However, the hardware was remarkably ahead of its time, and there's tangible proof of this - the MSX microcomputer series' hardware was largely identical to the ColecoVision and served as a solid gaming platform for years to come. Sega's first console, the SG-1000, came even closer, and its final hardware revision (albeit one with more RAM and a new video chip), the Mark III, is better known internationally as the Sega Master System.


Next post will wrap up 1983 and introduce 1984, I promise.


  1. Replies
    1. Check again :)

  2. My main period familiarity with the C64 was due to my elementary school having them exclusively in its computer lab, then my middle school's library still used them down the line. I briefly attended a poorly conceived "computer camp" that was just "teenagers with a box of floppies load C64 games for smaller kids". Absolutely the supply side of the software is a critical factor in what was available for home users, but I wonder if the ease of piracy might have played into its popularity. (Of course, that factor is irrelevant if there is nothing worth stealing!)

    My memories of that period, in the late '80s, are that I had a number of friends with computers at home, and they nearly all were mutually unintelligible -- one friend had an Apple 2, one had a C64, one had a PC, one had a Mac, one a TI-99, one a BBC Micro, etc. (Meanwhile I'm at home with my finger up my nose trying to get anywhere with Madness and the Minotaur on my Radio Shack CoCo...)

  3. Hi,

    It looks like in the USA, computer game design innovation was pretty quiet on the Commodore front, but the Atari platform was steaming on with, MULE, Archon, Dandy, Encounter. The ZX Spectrum platform in the UK had a number of innovative games, Stonkers (Imagine) early RTS, Ant Attack (Quicksilva) etc.

  4. I wasted a good deal of time on the C64 in 1983 with a basic version of Empire (not Interstil's wargame of the century). This shared fixation led to a good friend's failure in and drop out of college.

  5. Forgive me, I also meant to say, What a great stroll through this nostalgic and historic era! And what a terrific amount of effort it must have taken! Thanks for slogging through it all; really enjoying your blogs!


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