Commodore 64 by Luke Bartolomeo
joystick is a monthly column chronicling games, nostalgia, and culture.
If you were to capture me after school in the early 90s it was probably down in my family’s basement, sitting in an old office chair at a long cold steel desk playing a Commodore 64 (C64). Above that C64 would have hung a deer skin from one of my father’s hunts and to the right of the desk were shelves and shelves of old magazines, random office papers, and several large disc holder storage boxes filled with floppies sheathed in paper sleeves.
The C64 was a light tan monitor and keyboard with a floppy disc drive. The keyboard, which housed the motherboard, had sharp-clicking buttons that went deep into the console. The monitor was a perfect plastic square that framed in a concave piece of glass. It had ports on the back for various controllers, cartridges, a printer. The floppy disc drive was an almost comically elongated rectangle, similarly colored, and when you loaded in the disks you had to make sure to lock them in with a black tab.
My father got this computer sometime in the 80s. In some ways, I envision the C64 as reflective of the 80s themselves. Released in 1982, it was a popular computer that sold well over 17 million in its lifetime, and by Guinness Book of World Records is considered to be the best-selling single computer model of all time. The device itself reflected middle-class values: something solid, stable, well-rounded, and affordable. What’s more, it was user friendly. If you didn’t want to deal with typing lines of code to start up programs you could purchase cartridges for easier use. The computer was also sold, uniquely, in department stores and other shops that weren’t simply for niche tech, making it even more accessible. Personal computers were still a somewhat vague idea in the 80s, and the C64, along with Commodore’s other machines, were some of the first computer tech to bring personal computing closer to the masses.
We had a whole stack of 5-inch floppies, I remember, my dad having bootlegged them from a friend. There were the classics: Joust, Centipede, Asteroids, and one of my personal favorites, Missile Command. We had the run-and-gun Commando, a soldier battling through the jungle, and some of the top-down plane shooters, most famously 1942. One of the more difficult games was Spy Hunter. The game begins with a big red truck that pulls up, your car drops out the back, and off you go shooting your way through traffic, careful not to hit the wrong cars, releasing oil slicks and banging into vehicles to push them off the road. Another of my favorites had to be Pitstop II. This F-1 racer involved replacing your tires when they got worn out, denoted by a few pixel changes of colors that went from various colors of white to yellow and red. Even when I wasn’t good at the races, it was fun managing these changes, and making sure my tires were all right.
Looking back, the games’ meanings take on new layers, significant to the time and to middle income family values. Spy Hunter was about chasing spies through streets, yes, but tinged with a capitalist dog-eat-dog mentality, about an endless road of accomplishments to achieve before someone else could get to you. Missile Command was, at its base, about protection. In the case of the game it was cities, a la Cold War nuclear threat fears, but to anyone growing up in the States a certain patriotism was involved, a protection of American beliefs and values, and preservation of family and democracy and the foundations of “civilization” that could not be destroyed by the Russians and their bombs. The game’s prescience held even truer when, several years after its release, Ronald Reagan’s “star wars” missile defense system was proposed as a viable way of protecting the homeland from nuclear missiles. The game Commando (though a Japanese creation) had more in line with American intervention in the 80s in South America or a reminiscence to the Vietnam War. A commando soldier is sent deep into enemy lines, freeing prisoners of war, and shooting down an unnamed jungle enemy. The overlay to American foreign policy is not without its irony here.
As a kid, some sort of bright hope and wild imagination was attached to all those 8-bit classics. They were basic playable concepts, little narrative structure, and simple joystick controls, all of which allowed for the imagination to stretch them into much larger worlds. Often, in the dead of winter, my mom would take my sister and me to the bus stop in our family car. Minutes waiting, I spent watching ice on the window drift down as I pretended it was a centipede falling from above, an asteroid that I had to shoot into oblivion, a plane that blew into red and yellow and white (three of C64’s whopping 16-color palette). Everything in and around our house became an object to be used to reflect the games’ structures: from pillows as steering wheels, broken sticks as ships, and dad’s office supplies as the mountainous landscapes of 8-bit worlds, all the way to any old junky container or box bearing some resemblance to a pixelated shape or form. As if I was the kids in Maniac Mansion, another classic, exploring stuff, picking it up and examining it.
That taking on of the game to inform my life may have seemed as if it reduced my life to no more than the 8-bit worlds I lived in. But it had another effect of fueling my imagination further. The simplicity of C64 games, and games in general from that era, were not the behemoth creations of today, but scaled-back renderings that almost required you to imagine something beyond a few pixels, a few lines and rudimentary shapes on a screen, and force you to translate the world into a much more imagined version of those worlds. I couldn’t get lost in it in exactly the same way, and even if I did, it ended up me being only lost in my own renditions of the game, a form of more advanced play than the games could ever provide. C64 provided a simple template to spark creativity, but it never overtook it.
From my family home’s old basement, the blue screen flashed with a cursor to enter lines of code. I typed in the code, always the standard boot-up procedure, listened to the disc spinning in the drive as I waited and looked around at the clusters of basement junk surrounding me. In my hands was a joystick with two buttons, connected through a 9-pin port. Out popped the bleeps and bloops of sound as a game booted up. An excitement every time this happened. And sometimes I’d spend hours searching through the wealth of discs I didn’t know, trying a little bit of every game I could get my hands on. The fresh and young joy of new worlds always at my fingertips, ready for the next great adventure.