First post, by badmojo
I'm not sure if anyone's interested in the Commodore 64 around here but I had one of those inexplicable yet irresistible urges to play one recently, so I thought I'd share my adventure. I didn’t have a C64 as a kid but a friend did, and I have fond memories of playing Commando, Bruce Lee, etc, all painstakingly loaded from tape. That must have been ’87 or so, when I was 10 years old. The C64 had been around for a while even then – being released in ’82 – but they were still popular into the early 90’s, and were eventually discontinued in ’94. It’s an amazing story really; truly a classic 8 bit PC.
Circa ’98 I went through an old-console-collecting phase – NES, Atari, etc. They were being sold cheaply in local ‘opportunity shops’ and I was a University student with lots of time and very little money. I lost the NES along the way somewhere sadly but I still had the Atari (2600 Jnr) and C64 sitting in a box in the shed, so I decided to pull the C64 out and see if it still worked. It was dirty when I bought it - full of dust and carpet fibre - and the intervening years haven’t helped that any. I remember, shortly after buying it, that I set it up and got it to boot, and then – with no games to play on it – I just boxed it up, dust and all. It hasn’t seen the light of day in 15 years.
It’s one of the original breadbin style machines, manufactured in ’85. I bought it with a tape drive and a PSU. The PSU is one of the original black box things and are not to be trusted apparently, but this one’s still producing the correct voltages (5 and 9v) according to my trusty multi meter. So it works, but I won’t be leaving it plugged in unattended for long periods of time all the same.
There’s a serial number roughly engraved on the bottom of the computer which makes me think it started life as a school or library machine, and that would usually suggest that it had a pretty hard life. But apart from being filthy, it doesn’t have any physical damage. Even the keyboard – which is prone to unresponsive keys after years of use – turned out to be very sprightly.
After a quick check to make sure there was some life in it, I set about pulling it apart and cleaning it up:
Brown? Yes! No yellowing here. It’s missing the case badge from the top left hand corner – I think it had one when I bought it but it had started to lift up, and I vaguely remember yanking it off and tossing it.
Like I said, this bad boy was DIRTY.
3 screws later and it’s open. The motherboard was sandwiched between a folded sheet of cardboard, one side of which has a metallic silver coating. This is supposed to act as an RF shield apparently; probably added at the last minute to meet some regulation or other. Whether it works as intended or not, an unwanted side effect is that it blocks all airflow and locks in heat, which is the last thing these old chips need. It’s recommended that this be removed, so I did just that.
Under the cardboard.
Spiders! Long gone thankfully - these look to be White Tailed spiders, my least favourite spider.
Did I mention that this thing was dirty?
Pulling the keycaps off can be tricky because the stems will break if sideways pressure is applied, and there’s a spring under each key which can go flying if you’re not careful. I saw somewhere online that an IC puller worked well and so it did; a short sharp pull popped the each key off easily, and the spring stayed where it was. The only thing I’d do differently is put some electrical tape around the metal parts of the puller, just above the hooks. This would have avoided some very minor scratches on the back of some of the keys.
Let the cleaning begin!
The keys had a nice long soak in soapy water:
Keyboard, dust free:
These are the springs which sit under each key; all exactly the same size except for the spacebar, which had a slightly longer one. This machine is simplicity itself, which of course is one of its secrets to success. It’s a no-nonsense design which was hardwearing, cheap to manufacture, easy to service, functional, and – dare I say it – it looks good too.
The 2 halves of the breadbin, washed (more soap and water) and drying:
The motherboard after a cleanup:
Keyboard going back together:
Complete (minus the cardboard heat retainer) and looking much happier:
And last but not least, a replacement case badge:
Next up is the PSU, cleaned and tested. Again, simplicity itself, although that’s perhaps not the best trait for a power supply. These run hot and aren’t very efficient:
Lastly there’s the tape drive (called a ‘datasette’), which was the saddest of the lot:
Mechanically it’s solid, but this thing must have been grinding away in a dusty corner of someone’s nasty shag rug because it was totally choked with dust and carpet fibre. Unfortunately, because of all the moving parts, the internals are sticky with grease, which meant that it wasn’t just a case of blowing the fluff out with compressed air. A more patient approach was required but I did my best, gave the head a good clean, and it came up quite well:
In with the washing up goes the housing:
Back together and looking much better:
Most action games on the C64 require a joystick. There was a decent range to choose from back in the day, made broader still because the C64’s joystick ports are compatible with Atari consoles. Keeping in mind that I have a 2600 in the shed that I might want to use one day, I picked up an original Atari CX40. It’s in decent condition, apart from some teeth marks on the end of the stick! Game rage can manifest itself in strange ways.
Again, a nice simple design that works, and is still working after all these years:
The CX40 is a bit small for grown-up man hands however, so I’ve also ordered a new “Zip Stik” (I spoil me), and the kids can use the CX40.
I bought some games on tape from eBay for a few bucks each (still surprisingly cheap and easy to find), and I was all set. The load times aren’t as long as I remember - waiting 10 minutes for a computer game to load was torture for a 10 year old. But now I welcome the excuse to sit and stare blankly at the screen, resting my world weary old bones while the datasette works its magic.
With a decent TV combined with the C64’s AV output, the image quality is great - beautiful colours and animation. The thing that struck me about this machine though is the sound, which is amazing. There are games - like California Games and Neuromancer for example - that I’ve wanted to play on PC, but I just can’t stand the racket from the PC speaker these days. The C64 versions, however, will still be playable thanks to the C64’s excellent SID chip, the limits of which are still being explored today by a dedicated demo scene.
And there’s still a huge, active community for the C64 itself; creating games, coming up with mods, etc. For example there are a couple of SD based devices available which emulate the original floppy drive (which is a computer in its own right), and allow for faster loading of software than tapes or 5.25” floppies, and obviously facilitate the safe backing up magnetic media which is well past its used-by-date. With innovations like that still being developed, the C64 still has a lot of life left in it.
So that’s it (for now) - project finished, bee removed from bonnet, etc. I’m thrilled with the results I’ve gotten from what was essentially just a clean-up job. I’ve fallen in love with this thing - it has masses of retro charm, sports a huge catalogue of great games, and is a direct link to the small, uncomplicated world of my childhood. I’m glad I hung onto it for all these years.
Life? Don't talk to me about life.