But really, what made the C64 so successful? The machine's rise to glory may seem obvious today, but that's hindsight. In 1982, the C64 cost $595 and looked like a VIC 20. Who was Commodore kidding? The reason for the similarity was actually quite pragmatic -- to speed up production of the first run, Commodore crammed all of the C64’s components into VIC 20 cases (Commodore soon adopted the famous brown “breadbox” case that most fans of the system remember).
“All we saw at our booth were Atari people with their mouths dropping open, saying, ‘How can you do that for $595?’” -- David A. Ziembicki, codesigner of the C-64
However, internally the C64 varies significantly from the VIC 20. The C64 is based on a MOS 6510 processor, with 64K of RAM standard. It can display up to 40 columns and 25 lines of text with 16 colors on-screen. Almost every program runs at a standard 320x200 resolution. Furthermore, game development is aided by built-in “sprite” capabilities, which simplify and standardize the basic graphic and animation routines used by most games. Perhaps more impressive still is the C64’s sound output, powered by a professional synthesizer chip called SID (Sound Interface Device). SID enables three voices (channels) at nine octaves and four waveforms -- enough power for serious electronic music. Like its predecessor, the C64 could be plugged directly into a common television set. This feature meant that the C64 could be marketed not just by authorized computer dealers, but also by the countless department and toy stores all across the country.
Perhaps the best explanation for the C64’s unparalleled success was the combination of talented engineering and executive management brought to bear on the project. The C64 was designed by Robert Russell, Robert Yannes, and David Ziembicki under the direction of the company president, Jack Tramiel. Tramiel had long been working to vertically integrate his computer company since the mid-1970s, with the most significant purchase being MOS Technology, who produced Commodore’s microchips.
The vertical integration meant that Commodore could acquire critical components at cost, driving prices much lower than the prices paid by Commodore’s competition -- each unit had an estimated production cost of only $135. As a result, the C-64 steadily dropped in price after its release; a few months after sales began, it was available for $400 at Kmart stores nationwide. In a bold move for market domination, Commodore offered customers a $100 rebate if they traded in their old videogame console or computer. For many videogame console owners, this promotion meant that they could acquire a full-featured computer for only $300 at a time when comparable machines began in the thousand-dollar range. A later price drop to $200 drove companies like Texas Instruments (TI-99/4A) clean out of the industry.
William Shatner continued to offer his endorsement to Commodore, starring in a number of ads that again asked consumers why they were buying game consoles when they could afford a computer. But no one was fooled -- the C64 was first and foremost a games machine, and a damn good one. Like Atari’s popular 2600 Video Computer System (VCS) game console, the C64 had a huge and rapidly expanding game library, and was even compatible with most Atari joysticks and other peripherals. Chances were, if you couldn't play it on your C64, it wasn't worth playing anyway. The C-64 was also fully programmable and supported a wide range of productivity applications, features that made a difference to parents shopping for Junior's gateway to college.
Although the C64 had slots for games on cartridge and supported a "datasette" tape drive, the medium of choice soon became the floppy disk. The infamous Commodore 1541, a singe-sided, 170K 5.25" floppy drive released in 1982, was by far the most common choice. The drive features its own microprocessor, the MOS 6502, and even contains its own operating system -- CBM DOS 2.6. It was also noisy, slow, prone to overheating, and downright unreliable. At least it didn’t eat crackers in bed.