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VIC 20: The Friendly Computer

Martin has been a software developer for many years. This is mixed with a passion for retro machines and game,

The VIC 20 From Commodore

The Commodore VIC-20 was an 8-bit home computer which was sold by Commodore Business Machines or CBM. The VIC 20 was first announced around three years after the first personal computer from CBM, the Commodore PET.

So, let's take a look at a machine that was very popular (becoming known as 'the friendly computer') and the predecessor to not very popular Commodore 16 and the uber 8-bit seller, the Commodore 64.

In fact, if the VIC had been blessed with more RAM as standard (instead of only 5 Kilobytes), it may well have been a far more popular machine...

Why Was It Called 'The Vic'?

Many people did not even know why the machine was named 'The VIC' (me included); the moniker actually stood for Video Interface Chip.

These sort of names really did sound quite cool back in the early 1980s. The '20' part was conjured up as it was a 'friendly' sounding number. Through time the machine did become known as 'the friendly computer'. I suppose this Vic fellow sounds like a nice guy.

Blessed with only 5 Kilobytes of RAM and a 6502A Central Processor running at approximately 1 Megahertz, the machine had around an average specification when compared to its competitors.

The RAM was expandable (phew!), meaning the machine could be upgraded to give an ample (at the time) 32 KB to play with. Let's be honest, 5 KB as standard really was not enough, even back then.

It also had a co-processor on board (The VIC-I 6560) to spread the load when processing sound and graphics, which obviously helped when running intensive programs.

We just can't tell you enough how friendly this machine was... The VIC 20 from Commodore

We just can't tell you enough how friendly this machine was... The VIC 20 from Commodore

VIC 20 Hardware and Peripherals

Sound Chip

The sound chip (Commodore machines were always blessed with good sound capabilities) was a decent one and was capable of producing three voices spread over three octaves. This was pretty good for a home computer in 1981 and was a nice feature in games on the VIC, especially when you consider the completely silent ZX80 and ZX81.

Graphics and Animation

The machine could also generate very plain graphics and simple animations, but let's be honest here: If you wanted detailed images and varying colours on your screen, you did not buy yourself a VIC 20.

Still, eight colours were available to use as character colours. The background and border area of the screen (many computers of the era used this method of display), could be varied with up to 16 colours, very similar in capability when compared to the ZX Spectrum.


Looks-wise the VIC-20 had that 'Commodore look' to it, the off-white casing around the darker brown keyboard, which became synonymous with Commodore 8-bit machines throughout the 1980s. Not a bad looker by any means.

With it being a popular machine, there was a good range of peripherals and software was available for it, including joysticks and those all-important computer games.

How in the name of memory management did they squeeze games with colour and sound into 5KB of RAM? A remarkable feat for sure.

The VIC 20 had the classic Commodore look

The VIC 20 had the classic Commodore look

VIC 20 Games

Some good games were developed for the VIC 20. As a games machine, it soon fell away to the competition from the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum.

But, some notable releases (a lot of arcade conversions too) made their way onto the machine:

  • 3D Maze
  • Asteroids
  • Bomber
  • Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom
  • Centipede
  • Dig Dug
  • Galaxians: an arcade classic
  • Gorf: an arcade classic
  • Gridrunner
  • Hunchback
  • Jetpac (By Ultimate: Play the game)
  • Krazy Kong
  • Lunar Lander
  • Omega Race
  • Pole Position
  • Space Invaders
  • Sub Hunt
  • The Wizard And The Princess
  • Voodoo Castle

Obviously the 5 Kilobyte built-in RAM was a limiter leaving developers with very little memory to play with, and not everyone went for a RAM pack add-on.

Really by this point 48K of memory was commonplace and the VIC would have done far better with something akin to this rather than only 5K...

Legacy of The VIC 20

So the VIC-20, despite having only 5K of RAM, went on to sell over 1 million units. It was actually the first micro-computer to do so.

It was quite well marketed which must have helped sales along, with the likes of Star Trek and toupee legend Bill Shatner advertising the machine; describing it as the wonder machine of the 1980s.

The VIC-20 fell away (in the UK at least) once people got their teeth into the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum (and had a quick nibble on the Acorn Electron, Oric 1 and Oric Atmos).

Still, the VIC is a notable 8-bit machine that holds fond memories for lots of us.

Gaming on The VIC-20 Today

Games are still being created for this classic machine today. Look at titles such as the excellent Frogger '07, a truly brilliant modern version of the classic arcade game Frogger. It plays superbly and really captures the heart of the original classic.

Game developer Chronosoft is a well-known supporter of many retro machines, and the Commodore VIC 20 is one of them. Chronosoft titles are always worth a look, and Blue Star for the VIC is a fine example of modern 'retro' gaming.

Please have a look at their website if you fancy a 'modern' gaming experience on your VIC 20.

The VIC 20 - It came and went

This is a machine that came along and went quite quickly when compared to the likes of the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC 464, ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro.

The lack of RAM was the main stumbling block with the machine as it was pretty much up to par with other 8-bit technology in other areas.

Mind you, if the VIC had been more popular, then the Commodore 64 perhaps would not have gone on to be such a huge seller.

We will never know, but the fact.




Endorsed. It.

Makes it a classic machine in my eyes!

William Shatner loved the Vic 20 from Commodore

William Shatner loved the Vic 20 from Commodore

Any fans of the 'Friendly Computer'?

smithersonjones on May 04, 2011:

i still have my vic 20 in mint condition with 4 games and a joystick still in the orginal box

jeremyon on September 10, 2010:

I still use mine all the time! It's a great relief from the hectic tech-laden world of today! The games are simple, and really hone hand-eye coordination. The MegaCart ( turns the Vic-20 into a goldmine of fun! Back in the day (circa 1983) you had to fork out $20 a pop for the cartridges and wait forever to load tape games or tediously type in programs from a magazine. Now, you can get all the cartridges ever produced, utilities, and great tape/disk games on the megacart for $100 and a nice Vic off of eBay for $20. You can also get a uiec drive and store all your programs on an SD card. You can also download most every game made for the Vic-20 off the internet nearly instantaneously! Oh, how awesome that would have been in 1983! The denial community still produces new games for the machine and they are getting pretty awesome! Frogger 2007 and Berzerk MMX (2010) are fantastic arcade games. Psytronic software released an awesome hand-eye coordination platformer last year called 'Carling the Spider' and the most graphically enhanced RPG game ever for the Vic-20 called 'Realms of Quest III'. The Vic-20 was my first computer (bought new at K-Mart in 1983 for $88.88) and is still loved. I neglected it during the 1990s, and through most of the 2000s but now it's back with a vengeance and better than ever!

PDXBuys from Oregon on August 30, 2010:

You wrote a great overview of the Vic-20. I had one back in 1983 - my first computer. Really enjoyed learning programming on it. Did BASIC programming and a bit of assembly language. It really was an amazing little computer for the time. I built a relay interface board for it so I could control external devices. Also learned how to hack game cartridge programs so I could modify the games. Shatner looked so young back then, didn't he?

uridium5 on August 26, 2010:

Guys - Thanks very much for writing this article! I never realised they made pole position for the Vic 20.

A couple of Gems were two games by Pixel, called Trader, and Starquest, pretty hard to find these days.

Paratroopers was fun also!

Thanks again