Category Archives: VIC-20

Commodore VIC-20: My first computer.

My very first computer was a Commodore VIC-20. At the time, I think I was interested in a new video game system like an Intellivision. My dad suggested that, for about the same money, I could get a computer instead that would do more than just play games. (Second generation game systems like Intellivison or ColecoVision were around $200.)

My desired to get a home computer was also inspired by a guy I met in one of my 7th grade classes. My new friend, Jimmy J., had shared a book on BASIC computer programming with me. We would go down to a local Radio Shack and type in programs on their TRS-80 Model 3s.

My dad began researching options, and I did the same. I ended up choosing something called a VIC-20. I was disappointed when my dad told me he had chosen a different machine – something he called the Commodore. When I realized we were talking about the same machine, it seemed like the perfect choice.

The VIC-20 marketing campaign was “Why buy just a video game?” and “A real computer for the price of a toy.” This may have actually been what got my dad thinking about a home computer in the first place. It was described as “the wonder computer of the 1980s for under $300” and “the first honest-to-goodness full color computer you can buy for only $299.95”, or so claimed launch spokesman William “Captain Kirk” Shatner.

A TV commercial for it parodied the Intellivison and the Atari VCS ads with Shatner “beaming down” between the two saying “move over for my friend VIC”. How could you go wrong with the computer that the Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise liked?

I received my new VIC-20 sometime in 1982. It was likely for my birthday in August.

I remember hooking it up to a small color TV I had, and staying up all night going through the manual and learning how to program “CBM BASIC V2” which had a whopping 3583 bytes of memory available. Since I had no way to save any programs I typed in, I had to leave the computer on all the time else I would lose all my work. The Commodore Dataset (their expensive and proprietary cassette player)  was about $75 at the time, and that was the first add-on I wanted. I still remember the problems I had with it, and that we had to exchange it at the store a few times (all with the same problem) until we figured out you just couldn’t use it on one side of the TV. There was too much electrical interference apparently.

Custom Programs Limited

My friend Jimmy also got his first computer around this time – a Timex Sinclair. Another friend of ours, whose name I forget, had access to TRS-80s at school. Somehow we got the idea that we could offer to create custom programs for people, and thus the idea of “Custom Programs Limited” was created.

CPU Software - my first "company" in 1982.

CPU Software – my first “company” in 1982.

Jimmy suggested we change it to “Unlimited” so the initials would be C.P.U. At the time, I don’t think I even knew the term “central processing unit.” And thus was born CPU Software.

I remember we came up with an idea for a horse racing game, and each of us created a version of it for our systems: VIC-20, TRS-80 and Timex Sinclair. I do not think we ever did much after that. We probably did not realize how big home computing would become. Had we seriously pursued this venture, maybe we could have all ended up rich and living on a private island somewhere.

I did write a series of games for the VIC-20, including one that was published in a newsletter called the VIC-NIC NEWS. I believe I was in the process of having some of my video games distributed through a cassette magazine called VIXEN (renamed to FOX 20 after their first issue), but I do not recall what happened with that. I know one of the programs they considered (Factory TNT, a graphically updated version of the one VIC-NIC published) they rejected after seeing my first version already published elsewhere.

I have created a special page listing more details about my VIC-20 programs.

Life After VIC

I think I only used the VIC for about a year. I had started frequenting a local Radio Shack store while my grandmother shopped next door. I was learning about their TRS-80 Color Computer. It wasn’t nearly as colorful as the VIC, but it had a better BASIC and much more RAM. I made friends with the workers there and they would let me hang out on Saturdays, writing programs or using their TRS-80 Model III and modem to dial in to local Houston bulletin board systems (BBS). I remember they would sometimes save off programs I wrote to cassette to use to demo the machine to other customers.

The salesman I interacted with most there was a man named Don Burr. He had a CoCo himself, and I remember the time he called me to tell me they had just gotten Extended Color BASIC in. He said I needed to come by and see all the new graphics and sound commands it had. When I did, seeing the ability to easily draw a LINE, CIRCLE or PLAY a musical note was magic. Everything on the VIC was done using POKE commands. (I did have the Super Expander cartridge that added similar commands to the VIC, but they were very slow and no one could run any programs you wrote unless they had the cartridge as well.)

Don was able to hook me up with a “CoCo” (expanded to 64K) for $300, and I moved on from the VIC. As part of the deal of getting me a new computer, I had to give all my old VIC hardware and software to my dad. I don’t know what he did with it after that. After that, until recently, I pretty much never looked back. Only with the discovery of my old VIC-20 games am I starting to understand how much I actually did with that machine.

Good times.

Up next: Dissecting some of my very first programs. Will I even remember how they work?

In search of VIC-NIC News

My first computer was a Commodore VIC-20. When I first received it (thanks, dad!), I stayed up all night going through the manual learning how to program it. In my short time with the VIC (I got a Radio Shack CoCo 1 about a year later), I wrote many simple games. Recently, I found a box of old VIC-20 cassettes that have these programs, and I have been trying to import them to run on an emulator.

This makes me want to find another aspect of my first computer. I had a program published in a newsletter called VIC-NIC NEWS. I cannot find my physical copy of it (but may still have it somewhere, since I still have all my old Compute’s Gazette VIC-20 magazines). I’ve done some searching for it over the years (and when I search now, I tend to find myself searching for it or talking about it).

Can anyone help me track down VIC-NIC NEWS? My game was a simple “catch the falling object” game called Eggs. I’d really like to see it again.

Online searches revealed issues of a magazine called Commander. I found this excerpt:

THE VIC-NIC NEWS , bi-monthly, $6 per year from The Byte House.

8 page newsletter consisting of several brief listings, a page of reviews, a crossword puzzle, some ads, a question column, and errata. A decent price from friendly folks, but what is a VIC-NIC?

As well as a listing under User Groups – New Hampshire:

TBH VIC·NIC CLUB
PO Box 981
Salem, NH 03079
Contact – J. Newman
Publication – VIC-NIC NEWS
Interests – VIC-20 Exclusively

I have had no luck tracking down J. Newman. (I also wonder if this might be a female, since I often see women go by an initial in publications and online. Anyone know who J. is?)

Any help?

Before Sub-Etha Software…

…it was going to be Custom Programs Limited.

My first computer was a Commodore VIC-20 back around 1981 or 1982 (whenever it first came out for “under $300” – $299.99 is what my father paid for it, I believe).

But my buddy, Jimmy*, suggested “Unlimited” because then it would be C.P.U. (I had not even heard the term CPU yet). And thus, CPU Software  was born.

Screenshot 2016-02-23 21.57.52

The letters appeared to the musical notes of 2001, one at a time, then the title screen would come up:

Screenshot 2016-02-23 21.58.07

That was to be our startup for all our custom programs. It was going to be me writing for the VIC-20, and Jimmy writing for a Timex Sinclair ZX81, and another guy at school writing for a TRS-80 Model III (he didn’t own one, but had access to them at school). We thought we could custom write programs for people.

Our first program was a horse racing game, and it was written for each of these platforms, though I don’t seem to have a copy of it (or it’s on one of the tapes that is bad).

I don’t know why we didn’t pursue this, but I did write a bunch of small games for the VIC-20…

Brick Layer

Bricklayer was a simple game based on the Atari VCS cartridge Surround. I apparently wasn’t date-aware back then, and the comments inside the program only list the title and author. Bummer. I really would like to know when I wrote these.

Bricklayer for the VIC-20

Bricklayer for the VIC-20

The game screen animated as it drew the black walls (with sounds), then the game began. Using a joystick (I think), you started “laying bricks” around the screen, trying to cover as much area as you could without running out of room or crashing.

Screenshot 2016-02-23 20.56.14

If you got over 200, it would congratulate you. If you crashed, it would summarize your accomplishment.

Bricklayer for the VIC-20

Bricklayer for the VIC-20

Yeah. There was a time when this would have been considered a game. Interestingly enough, the movie TRON would come out a year later, taking the “draw lines” concept to a new level with the Light Cycles. The TRON arcade game featured Light Cycles as one of the four games it had, and this became my favorite arcade game of all-time.

I guess I had a thing for drawing lines.

Gold Grabber

Next up was a chase game.

Screenshot 2016-02-23 21.26.39

You moved around the screen (you were the clubs symbol) trying to catch the gold (the diamond) while avoiding the bad guy (the +).

Screenshot 2016-02-23 21.27.05 Screenshot 2016-02-23 21.27.43

I have no idea what the “+” represented, and the game logic just had it wandering around randomly so I had to actually try to run in to it to see what it did.Screenshot 2016-02-23 21.29.30

Factory TNT

In my mind, this was called Factory TNT, but for some reason, the cassette was just labeled as TNT. This was a “Kaboom” catch the falling objects game. I had previously written a text version of the same type of game and called it Eggs. In it, you were catching falling eggs. This game was printed out in the VIC-NIC NEWS newsletter.

I almost had this program distributed by a company, but due to my very similar game being printed in a newsletter (which they also subscribed to), they decided to pass on it. (I’m not sure, but this may have been the “FOX 20: the magazine for VIC 20 users” newsletter, published out of Pasadena/Deer Park, TX. (I lived in both those towns at one point, and recall going over to the house of the publisher – it was a home run operation – and meeting them once.)

The tape is bad, so the custom graphics are not loading, but it should look like a conveyor belt on the bottom, and pipes on the top. Classic round bombs would fall from the top and you moved your cup along the conveyor to catch them. If they hit the ground, they would turn in to a mushroom cloud. It has decent sound effects.

Factory TNT for the VIC-20

Factory TNT for the VIC-20

Apparently, it tracked high score (not saved to tape or anything, so it would reset any time you reloaded).

Factory TNT for the VIC-20

Factory TNT for the VIC-20

Factory TNT for the VIC-20

Factory TNT for the VIC-20

Apparently I had different rankings! Cool. I need to check the listing and see what all they were.

Thick Brush

For some reason, I did a blocky drawing program.

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

Thick Brush for the VIC-20

What in the world was this good for? There didn’t seem to be a way to save the “artwork” either. I guess I was, yet again, inspired by the Atari VCS Surround cartridge, which had a simple drawing mode (but the Atari version didn’t let you draw in colors – take that, Atari!).

Sky-Ape-Er

In a previous post, I mentioned my Donkey Kong inspired game, Sky-Ape-Er. Actually, it was really inspired by a VIC-20 game I bought that was inspired by Donkey Kong. I remember seeing it at the only VIC-20 store in Houston (I had my grandmother drive me across town to go to it), and they were out of stock, but they made a copy and sold it to me, and said I could get the real tape when they got more (I never did). On the label, they hand wrote “Krazy Kong”, so it might have been this one, or this Super Kong one. They appear to be the same game, but with different colors.

The important breakthrough was that they solved the problem of ladders and such by just making the level wrap around and go up. I had been working on a Donkey Kong style game and planned to use teleporters so you would stand on a spot and it a button and be teleported to the level above (I guess I had no idea how to make the climbing work then). When I saw the Krazy Kong approach, I knew I could do that, and make it better.

I worked on a few versions of this, with some graphics that looked like Donkey Kong girders, and some that looked like bricks. I think the brike

Later versions had instructions!

Unlike one I bought, my version had instructions!

The graphics were more Kong-like here. Sorta.

I think mine looked better than the one I bought.

It turns out to be a very difficult game! I finally cleared the first screen and found out there were multiple levels! I wonder how many are in there??? This is level 2 (using the prototype graphics):

Sky-Ape-Er for the VIC-20

Sky-Ape-Er for the VIC-20

And the “continue” screen was kind of snarky. I seem to have put some work in to these things.

Sky-Ape-Er for the VIC-20

Sky-Ape-Er for the VIC-20

I don’t know what my intentions were with this game, but I expect I was trying to sell it as well. I had no idea that an individual could just make tapes and put ads in newsletters and sell copies back then. I wish I did — I probably could have made some money in those early days.

Maze Gobbler

I was annoyed with Pac-Man games not looking like Pac-Man (I’m looking’ at YOU, Atari VCS), so I started working on my own. I replicated the Pac-Man maze very accurately, but by the time I had done that, I was out of memory on this 3.5K computer. Nothing exists from that maze except a title screen, as far as I have found:

Maze Gobbler for the VIC-20

Maze Gobbler for the VIC-20

Meteor Clash

My attempt at a Defender-style game (maybe – I’m not sure that game even existed yet) was Meteor Clash. You moved a spaceship up and down and dodged endless meteors that headed to you.

Meters Clash for the VIC-20

Meters Clash for the VIC-20

This game had an intro that printed out text letter-by-letter like a typewriter, with beeping sounds! Fancy.

Meteor Clash for the VIC-20

Meteor Clash for the VIC-20

Spell checkers did not exist for the VIC-20, apparently.

Meteor Clash for the VIC-20

Meteor Clash for the VIC-20

I don’t know how to use those cursor control keys on the emulator yet, so I wasn’t able to play it. I was able to fly for a bit until a meteor hit me.

Meteor Clash for the VIC-20

Meteor Clash for the VIC-20

Oops. This screen shot was taken when the meteors were being redrawn, so it’s just the ship. It wasn’t much of a game yet, anyway. It did have sounds, and an explosion, though! Maybe that would have been enough to be a game, but I hadn’t even customized the graphics yet. (Maybe that’s “Meteor Storm” I keep remembering.)

Rover

I seem to recall that this was going to be a Moon Patrol style game, but all I can find is a test of the title screen.

Rover for the VIC-20

Rover for the VIC-20

I found a few other things, too, including stuff written for the Super Expander cartridge which I cannot run on the emulator I am using. I need to figure out if that is possible in another emulator, since I have some games I wrote for it (enhanced graphics commands and such).

I also did a bunch of video titles for a booth at the Houston Boat Show for my father. I remember having an animated fish that swam back and forth on the screen in one of them, and drawing blue water waves. I later did graphics using my TRS-80 CoCo 1, and my dad was never impressed with it since the colors were so much worse than the VIC-20.

Interesting stuff, even if most of the tapes won’t load in 2016.

Man… I was, like, 12 years old when I was doing this. I really should have done more with it, but who knew computers were going to become such a part of life!

To be continued…

*Jimmy J was a kid I met in 7th grade. I had seen a listing in TV guide for “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” on PBS and had watched it. In English (?) class, I quoted a line from the show, and he turned around and said something like “you watched that to?” We became friends, and I think he’s the one that let me know about Douglas Adams and the book versions of Hitchhikers. He also introduced me to computers. He had a book on programming and we would go down to Radio Shack to type things in on the TRS-80 Model III. He’s likely the one that introduced me to BBSes too (again, we’d go down and get online at Radio Shack before we had our own computers and modems), and he was also the one that introduced me to the concept of hacking and phone phreaking. Fun times! Beyond my parents, I can’t think of any other person that had such an impact on the direction of my life at an early age. Thanks, James!

My first programs!

Allen's first computer programs for the VIC-20.

Allen’s first computer programs for the VIC-20.

Tonight, I made an amazing discovery. I finally located a cigar box full of cassettes tapes containing VIC-20 programs I wrote in 1982 (when I was just 13 years old). I am eager to see what is on them!

Amazingly, not only where the games I remember writing here, but also a number of others I had completely forgotten about (and some I am not sure what they were). The list of programs I wrote includes:

  1. Brick Layer – likely a Surround type game (like TRON light cycles, which was not out yet).
  2. Factory TNT – the tape just calls it TNT, though. This was a Kaboom “catch the falling bombs” game.
  3. Gold Grabber – ???
  4. Meteor Clash – maybe this is the one I have been calling Meteor Storm all these years. If so, it’s a side scrolling spaceship dodging game.
  5. Sky-Ape-Er – a Donkey Kong style platform game, based on one I purchased and knew I could write better.
  6. Space Shot – ???
  7. Thick Brush – likely a drawing program.

I am very excited to see what these programs were. I also have (very faded) thermal printouts of some of them, though I don’t think I could scan them and OCR them or even read them enough to type them in these days.

Off to find a VIC-20 emulator, and figure out how to digitize these tapes and get them loaded in to it…

Sky-Ape-Er Lives!

Update: I managed to load a few files so far, but most have errors. But, I found two versions of Sky-Ape-Er!

This must have been an early prototype.

This must have been an early prototype.

Pinwheels where the original enemy. For some reason.

Pinwheels where the original enemy. For some reason.

Later versions had instructions!

Later versions had instructions!

The graphics were more Kong-like here. Sorta.

The graphics were more Kong-like here. Sorta.