I just read the news that Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore, passed away on Sunday at the age of 83. He was a pioneer in personal computing, stating that he wanted to build computers for “the masses, not the classes.” More on his life and career here.
On a couple of occasions I’ve posted on the passing of an artist that influenced me in one way or another, and I try not to weigh this site down with too much of that. I prefer for this site to be a celebration of artists and creators. But this news hits home and got me reminiscing about one particular era of my youth. I admit I didn’t know much about Jack Tramiel until I read of his passing today, but to say the Commodore 64 was an influence on the course of my life would be an understatement. I have a lot of memories associated with the machine Jack Tramiel’s company created.
It was 1984, and my father took me and my brother to the Caldor’s department store in Port Chester, New York to buy our first home computer. That computer was the Commodore 64. The funny thing is, my brother and I didn’t really do too much research on it prior to buying it. We had used the Texas Instruments TSR 80 in school, but there was just something about the advertisements (possibly in a Marvel Comic) for the Commodore 64 that made us have to buy it. So to Caldor’s we went in our navy blue 1977 Ford Granada. And to my father’s credit he didn’t balk at the price, nor did he question why we would need it. He saw it as something that would help us with our school work, and it was a step towards giving us the opportunities he didn’t have. We wanted it for the games, too, but we didn’t mention that.
For those of you who didn’t have a Commodore 64 back in the day, it was simply a keyboard (with a cool design) and a separate floppy disk drive that was hooked up directly to your TV as a monitor. You could also purchase a separate dot matrix printer. Once everything was hooked up and the adapter was switched from “TV” to “Computer,” the following screen would come up:
We were mesmerized. A real computer. In our home. Put the Atari 2600 in the closet, we’ve got computing to do! But the next thought that crossed our minds was: Now what? We didn’t buy any games that day. And we didn’t now how to program in BASIC.
Fast forward a bit. Our local Waldenbooks had a very small section on Computers and Computing, and we bought a book called 20 Amazing Games For Your Commodore 64 to get us started. Great! We’ll have twenty games now! Wait, what’s with the weird code on these pages?
Yep, each game had to be entered into the Commodore 64 line by line, which in some cases took a couple of hours. And they would work, provided you didn’t add a “%” where you should have entered a “&” and have to go over your entries line by line all over again to find the mistake. When I think back to the summers of 1984 and 1985, I don’t think of cookouts, bike riding, or trips to the beach. My first thought is of sitting in front of that TV at our Commodore 64 keyboard. I’m not sure how many beautiful summer days we spent indoors with this machine, but it only got worse when we bought what would be our favorite game of the era: Zork by Infocom.
Infocom games were text based adventures in which you maneuvered through the game with simple commands (i.e. “West” to move in that direction, or “Get lamp” to pick up a lamp). Your command would then lead to a text description of your surroundings and interactions with characters, etc. In short, it was a cross between a choose-your-own-adventure book and a live screenplay. I try to explain the concept to some of my younger co-workers, and even show them YouTube video of the actual game play, but they don’t “get” it. The graphics are in your head. I still prefer those old games to any new video game. If you’re curious, you can download a C64 emulator and some old games online.
Zork led to Zork II and III, but Infocom branched out into non-fantasy genres as well. Ballyhoo was a mystery game that took place on the grounds of a traveling circus. Infidel took place in Egypt. Deadline involved a reporter. Infocom even licensed Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and turned it into a very good game. The last Infocom game I bought was probably around 1989: a Cold War mystery called Border Zone.
I didn’t finish Border Zone, but it’s on my list to finish one of these days. I still have our original Commodore 64 and all of our games. I haven’t hooked it up since sometime in the 90’s but I’m sure it still works. We used the original box to store some of our X-Men comic books. Still have that, too.
I always felt comfortable writing in screenplay format. It took me years to realize that comfort level came from the hours, days, and years I played those Infocom games.
Sorry if it seems like I’ve digressed from the original purpose of this post, but there is a good reason for it. Everything above was a direct result of my pop buying us that amazing little computer back in 1984. It defined an era of my youth that I wouldn’t trade for anything. The Commodore 64 led to countless hours of playing Infocom games. Those Infocom games led to my passion for writing. And I have Jack Tramiel to thank for it.
Thank you, Jack Tramiel.