Thoughts on Gaming in the Commodore Era

I’m back in Germany for some weeks, and have revived the Commodore Amiga 500. It still works! The gaming experience is different from what we have now, and that is not about better graphics or such. Got me thinking.. why is that?

The Technology of the Commodore era

I’m focusing here on the 2 systems from the Commodore era: the Commodore 64 (“C64”, released 1982) and the Amiga 500 (released 1987).
These systems were capable of displaying colors, and produced (considering their time) really good sound. With joysticks attached, they were often used for games. To get an understanding of their computing power: that was so low, that the chips did not need coolers. Typical available memory: 64kb (C64), 1MB (Amiga). No dedicated chips for 3D, but the Amiga hat blitter chips for making some 2D graphic operations more efficient. Up to 2 joysticks could be attached.

At that time, data was read from audio tapes (C64) or floppy disks (C64, Amiga). Software/programs were often so small that one could sit down and directly input the code which was printed in a magazine.

My social environment of that era

At that time, I was in school. At the beginning of the Commodore era, other pupils had C64, were playing point-and-click adventure games like Zak McKracken. People played at home, talked about the game at school and got new input on what to try out (“you need to use the radioactive water with the plant!").

I got an Amiga, and besides the time of using it alone, there was the experience I want to explore here: 2 or 3 people sitting together in front of an Amiga (or C64) and having fun. There were basically 2 categories of games:

  • multiple players would act at the same time, for example attacking an opponent together, or each one steering a small car on the screen
  • or competing with each other, at the same time or in turns, for example with Golfing games

Today, ‘playing together’ means that everybody is sitting at home in front of their computer, interconnected via the internet, and playing. In the Commodore era, we were sitting together in front of a single computer, playing, drinking beer or coke, talking. C64 and Amiga had no hard disks: data was mostly loaded from floppy disks, this took time. So we decided on a game to play, inserted the disk, it started loading. The programmers also were aware of loading times of their architecture, they provided music or animations already while the actual game was getting loaded - all of this resulting in this ‘Commodore era experience’.


There is a further piece: we were all in school, most had gotten the C64 or Amiga for present, we had no money to spend on games. Seeing a new game at a friends house, making a copy, taking it home, that was part of the experience. I think nowadays the block buster games are still expensive, but quite some people have decided to get only slightly older titles, for a fraction of the price. Games also got easy to obtain online via steam, while in the Commodore era you would have to buy in computer stores or order via phone and get the game shipped.

The described ‘experience’ is not limited to Commodore systems: I also had great ‘many people in front of one system’ experiences with Dynablaster and ‘Scorched earth’, both x86/MS-DOS. These did not have the ‘we need for the game to load’ part, and PC’s at that time had no sound card, taking down the experience a bit.

We might also have to consider graphics and gameplay: graphics were important also at that time, although the standards and capabilities were different from today. Gameplay though is mostly not connected to graphics, and many games of that era are also today fun to play, and immersive.

What other gaming is there?

To better understand what was special about that times gaming experience, I would like to compare with 3 other related experiences.

  • First is current board games: so things like physical Monopoly games. They have physical items like cards or game money, one gathers friends together in real life around a table and plays them. Like with the ‘Commodore era experience’, people meet in real world for this. Just switching to a different game is not as easy.

  • Then physical tech: I remember my grandpa on occasions like Christmas or Easter setting up a special machine on the table: a small steam machine. It had a water and a fuel tank, after turning on a wheel started spinning and would drive 2 or 3 other small appliances like a hammer, a small version of what a blacksmith is using. Grandpa was operating it, but myself and others were fascinated by this: what’s it about that experience? Fascination of seeing technology in action, getting the machine to run, together?

  • Also, LAN parties: a few years later, playing over the internet was still expensive and with high latency. We gathered with sometimes hundreds of people in big halls, bringing in our computer for a weekend full of playing and talking.

People are attracted by one or multiple of these factors also nowadays: the computers of that time were easier to understand than nowadays systems, making it easier to program - but also more challenging as the systems were slow by nowadays standards. At demo parties like Evoke, people challenge each other to create art on such systems.

Reviving the tech

I looked into reviving the tech this Christmas: the Amiga 500 starts up. My Samsung TV still has a SCART connector, the Amiga video signal has a decent quality, games run as they did at that time. I got a serial connection to a Linux system setup, so can send disk images in adf file format over that and write them to floppies. x86 systems can not natively write Amiga disks.

There are also software emulators like UAE (Unix Amiga Emulator), also emulators for C64 exist. Also FPGA’s like MiSTer exist, they are chips which get wired like for example Amiga CPUs.

Some tech drawbacks:

  • My external floppy drive no longer works, I debugged some time, to no avail
  • My power supply emits a high frequency sound. Opening up, I see no obvious issues like inflated components.
  • Visuals: in the Commodore era, CRTs were used as monitors, pixels were not as sharp as they are today but to some degree blurry.
  • Floppy disks are the medium of that era - and they are no longer produced now. They are scarce..

But then, there is also a trend to augment with new tech: replacing the floppy with sd-cards, using extensions to directly get the video signal and convert it to HDMI, and so on.


Anybody else having experienced this as a special era of gaming? Has it gone on for you and evolved into something else, or has it ended? Should this be made available for others to experience?

Mastodon thread for comments

Last modified on 2022-12-29