The Retro-Repair Adventures, Part 1

Shawn Delahunty's picture
Shatner & The VIC-20Shatner & The VIC-20

How to do "The Shatner Rub"...

Hello my fellow Armchair Arcadians! It's good to be back. Didn't mean to be gone so long again, but hey, Life happens. This time, I'm putting on my "Engineer Hat" (with the mandatory pocket-protector), and taking you on a Retro-Repair Adventure. In this first installment, we'll be delving into my own computing, programming, and gaming past. I'll take it easy to begin with, by giving you a close look at my very own, very beloved, and very much malfunctioning Commodore VIC-20. (We'll get to the nitty-gritty details of the electronics repair in my next posting.)

Retro-Repair Adventures:

The Scene:

Christmas, 1982.

The Bee Gees still haunt the airwaves with disco-riffic leftovers, like the fading echoes of screeching crickets in a gymnasium locker-room.

Bruce Springsteen is a rising star and not a crusty old guy in blue-jeans.

Michael Jackson is still black. Mostly.

Arcade games like PacMan, Defender, and even Ms. PacMan are getting long in the tooth, supplanted by new addictions like Time Pilot, Robotron, StarGate, and TRON. Reagan is in the White House and Russians are still the bad-guys.

I am 13 years old, a gangly kid with thick spectacles and a wooly mop of never-quite-combable hair. All I can think about is programming, computers, games, movie special-effects, and working for George Lucas someday...

The Major Gifts:

A particle-board desk, with that genuinely horrible, gaudy 1970's faux-woodgrain contact paper on it. I used that desk all through high-school. (My Dad, being the *cough* "frugal" sort, still has the thing--the new PC I built and configured for them as an Easter gift sits atop it. It's been reglued, reinforced, and modified, but somehow still holds together.)

One mysterious, rather heavy, rectangular package. It corresponds to nothing on my Christmas list.

The Event:

Opening that heavy box, and scarcely being able to even breathe for many long minutes. A VIC-20. A computer, a real honest-to-God computer of my very own. No more sharing with people at school or waiting for them to become available. No more madly rushed hammering on the keyboards in study hall, typing in the pages and pages of handwritten code from my dog-eared notebooks, and trying to get it saved on disk before the class bell rang.

End of over dramatic and really tacky flashback...

The only word to describe that moment, that Christmas morning, is "Awestruck". Up to that point in my life, it was the single greatest emotional moment I'd ever experienced. (Not until much later on did I discover women... and realized that I'd lived an awfully sheltered life. But that's a story for another time.)

Nowadays, even people who lived through that era might think I'm a little bit nuts. But it truly was, for me, a life-altering experience. Not the least of which because of the glorious status of the computer itself.

Status? For a personal computer? In the 1980's?!? Yes my friends, status. Status with a capital-S. Geek-cred, before there even was such a term. Why? My "first computer" was the very machine which William "Captain Kirk" Shatner promoted in that now-famous-for-it's-1980's-cheeziness TV commercial.

Gratuitous VIC-20 Shatner YouTube Link here. "Doing the Shatner...""Doing the Shatner..."

(Don't ask me what he was up to with that strange, vaguely unsettling, two-fingered swipe he does on the machine around the 10-second mark. Vulcan digital mind-meld? Rubbing off some dust or coffee stains? Electronic Foreplay? This predated Internet porn by about 15 years, but I'd still rather not know... My friends and I always made fun of that commercial, calling it, "The Rub." In recent years, I discovered that some in the retro-geek community call it, "Doing the Shatner".)

Anyway, I recently decided that I needed to dive back into some gaming, since I've been insanely busy for several months, and have been feeling like an out-of-touch "Grumpy Old Fart". I decided to begin by dragging out my meager retro-computer collection, taking stock, and finding out just what might still be working after all these years wrapped in plastic garbage bags. Here are some pictures of the original, now somewhat battered cardboard box which houses my VIC-20, "The Wonder Computer of the 1980's."

In the first picture you have my original VIC-20 in the box. Along with some chocolate-chip cookies. Because, well, chocolate chip cookies!:
Well, because... COOKIES!Well, because... COOKIES!

Here is the back of the box, as equally colorful as the front, if not more so:
Color blitzkrieg...Color blitzkrieg...

And here, for the first time in AGES, I get to see my VIC-20:

Voila VIC!Voila VIC! 8-bit VIC... a beautiful thing.8-bit VIC... a beautiful thing.

Note the gaudy marketing and advertising, plastered in-your-face, all over the box. This was a COMPUTER, NOT A TOY. It was FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY. It was FRIENDLY. It was CUTE. It had COLOR. It was (ostensibly) POWERFUL. Of course it did, the box says so!

(It's an interesting cultural and historical note that there existed little advertising for those machines which ever included girls or women. Save for a few photos of "the whole family" gathered around the machine, staring at it with vaguely drugged-out and vapid smiles on their faces, I can't recall any. Apparently technology had that effect on people sometimes... But more to the point, there simply wasn't an understanding that females could love these things too. This began to change with the C-64 advertising, where in one TV ad the Mom is shown filling out some kind of video-checkbook, and the daughter is happily typing "ASDF" over and over. Vapid, disconcerting smiles still abounded though.)

A Smidgen of Truth...

While advertised as a "personal computer that could play games", the VIC-20 could best be described as, "..a game console thinly disguised as a personal computer, which, with a lot of effort and no small amount of expense, could be upgraded far enough to actually allow you to DO something relatively 'computer-y' on the machine." Honestly, I kinda wish Commodore had spent less money on the full-color packaging, replete with splashy photos of the "Techno Brady Bunch Boys". Then they could've included more RAM in the base model unit.

For those who don't know, the VIC-20 shipped with 3.5K of RAM for program-storage. When you power the unit on, it even proudly displays how much RAM is available for you to use. The Fastest Boot in the WestThe Fastest Boot in the West

Even at the time the VIC-20 was released, that 3,583 free bytes of RAM was rather meager. The earlier Commodore machine, the PET 2001, came with almost double the free RAM; 7167 bytes. Though it was possible to increase the on-board RAM in the VIC by installing one of several expansion cartridges, those were terribly expensive. I knew this, even as I admired the machine, but I figured I could work around it for a while.

However my Dad had done something incredibly wise and generous in this regard. Normally silent (from exhaustion) during the "Most Holy Ritual of the Mass Unwrap" on Christmas mornings, Dad spoke up this time. I had opened the VIC-20, and sat there fondling it and drooling slightly. Dad interrupted my private little geek-gasm, and prompted me to next open a very specific set of small Christmas packages. If the VIC-20 took my breath away, the next package almost stopped my heart:

Commodore 16-K Expansion Cartridge: Would you believe this thing cost over $200?!?Commodore 16-K Expansion Cartridge: This thing cost $200?!? VIC-20 Fully Loaded: "My God!  It's full of RAM..."VIC-20 Fully Loaded: "My God! It's full of RAM..."

Bless him, my Dad knew how many hours I spent scribbling down programs in my notebook, and that I talked non-stop about programming the machines at school. Figuring that I couldn't really do a lot of programming in 3.5 kilobytes, he splashed out for the 16K expansion module. My machine would have a whopping 19.5K of RAM! Luxurious! I could do anything with that much space!

My jaw dropped even further, and began scraping along the carpet when I opened the remaining small package my father had directed me towards:

The Keys to My Future KingdomThe Keys to My Future Kingdom The Code--Enter My MatrixThe Code--Enter My Matrix

It was like a vision from Heaven. Really, no joke.

In that moment, my future as a computer and technology nut unfolded before me, like a magic carpet leading through to Wonderland. (Bear in mind that TRON had just come out not long before, so my vision of Wonderland was filled with light-cycles, data-discs, and a lot of curvy women in luminous spandex.) I've taken a couple bizarre twists and turns along the way, but ultimately, the vision of that day was right.

(By bizarre twists, I mean in my career, not in spandex--I'm not ballsy enough to be The Tron-Guy.)

A Cold Splash of Reality...

However, like many other things in life, that wondrous moment came with a caveat, a catch, a moment of cold and harsh realization that hit a split-second later:

There was no storage device--I couldn't save my work. Turn off the power, and it was "End Of Line." (Ok, ok--I had to slip in the obligatory TRON reference again. I'll stop now.)

As most folks here may know, virtually none of the personal computers at that time had a built-in mass storage device of any sort. Tape drives, and the much coveted floppy-disk drives, were large, clunky, external boxes. (Hard drives were something that only IBM knew how to make or could afford. They probably cost as much as a small country, and were the size of small cars.)

I can remember carefully scrutinizing the few remaining packages under the Christmas tree---nothing even vaguely box-shaped remained; only sweaters, socks, and that ilk. I think my father read my face, because he then made a comment about the cost of peripherals. Grateful and stunned by what I'd already received, I mentioned that I could certainly "make do", until my birthday or something.

The Quest for Storage... Some Really Slow, SLOW, Storage...

"Making do" consisted primarily of leaving the VIC-20 plugged-in and powered-on throughout that entire Christmas vacation, to avoid tedious hours of re-typing. However, when I discovered just how often our little house in the back-woods had power bumps (and also discovered that my sister kept unplugging it when I wasn't around), my mood changed. I realized then that I MUST figure out how get a tape-drive. As I was too young to get a real job, and as we lived too far out in the countryside to sweep sidewalks or mow lawns, I faced the one, grim alternative...

And thus began my 4-month period of meditation and fasting...

I meditated on how much typing in programs, over and over and over again, really sucked.

I meditated on how, after leaving my machine on for 2 days so I could play the same game, we would get a power bump.

I meditated on how, after spending HOURS typing in some program I'd devised, a bug in my code would occasionally send the machine rocketing off to LA-LA LAND. Requiring a reboot, and more HOURS of re-typing; which really sucked.

I fasted from lunches at school.

I fasted from candy and gum.

I fasted from comic books.

I fasted (and this one REALLY hurt) from the arcade games in Aladdin's Castle at the mall.

Every dime of lunch money, milk money, allowance, Christmas card money, and shaken-out-of-my-piggybank-savings, went into "The Great Tape-Drive Acquisition of 1983".

Every spare moment, at home, in study halls, on the bus, I spent reading the programming books, writing test programs, learning the fine art of debugging my heinously crap code. The whole time I watched for sales at every local store which carried Commodore equipment. And after a time, an eternity of waiting, punctuated all the while by the growling of my eternally hungry teen-aged stomach, I scrounged together enough money to buy an official Commodore Datasette unit. Nearly all of my liquid cash consisted of 7-1/2 pounds of loose change, but I had the $70, with a teensy bit of room to spare.

A Great Big Box of SLOOOWA Great Big Box of SLOOOW The Datasette Revealed: $70 USD in 1983The Datasette Revealed: $70 USD in 1983

(Yes, I honest-to-God paid for it with rolls of coins, sandwich baggies of loose change, and about 17 bucks in crumpled ones and fives. Randy and Dave, the guys who ran 'Freedom Computer Center' where I bought it, thought this somehow hilarious.)

I've always remembered the day I bought the Commodore Datasette as being a dark, wet, and cold Thursday night in April. But when going through the boxes and repairing my VIC-20, I found the actual receipt for the thing in a box--turns out it was a dark, cold, wet night in May. I guess I fasted a LOOOONG time.

You might think that my troubles were over at this point, that with this resource I could now explode in my rate of development. Not really. For those who never lived during that time, here's a hint: Cassette drive storage was slow; mind-numbingly slow; the go-and-make-yourself-a-sandwich kind of slow.

How slow? A 15-kilobyte program, painstakingly typed in over the course of hours could take 30+ minutes to save. And you'd better save it on the tape TWICE, to preserve your sanity when the first copy on the tape got corrupted. (It ALWAYS got corrupted, because I used crap tapes. I was a broke-ass kid, re-using old Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn tapes I'd swiped from my the back of my grandmother's smoky old stereo cabinet.) But it was better than hours of typing. I also kept careful records of which programs were saved on which segment of tape. Here's a shot of an expired day-planner which I scrounged up, and which served as my "data storage bible" for many years:

Spiffy Retro Vinyl Planner HotnessSpiffy Retro Vinyl Planner Hotness The Sacred Tape-Counter LogThe Sacred Tape-Counter Log

Most of my gaming on the VIC-20 was limited to the type-in programs published in magazines like, Compute! and Compute!'s Gazette. There were a mere handful of others, which I was fortunate enough to pirate from a cousin. There wasn't much of a pirated-games scene for the VIC-20, at least not in the little town where I lived. Everybody was too busy swapping Apple ][ and TRS-80 game disks.

Gaming on the VIC-20

There was one type-in game which held my attention for quite a while: Thunderbird.
Thunderbird gameplay video on YouTube.
Beware the might of THUNDERBIRD!Beware the might of THUNDERBIRD!

To my surprise, this game had my mother addicted for a WHILE. For the most part, I had to leave my VIC-20 connected to the little black-and-white TV in my bedroom. Occasionally though, I would be allowed to drag it all out and connect it to the big color TV in our living room. After getting Mom hooked on Thunderbird, I had much easier access to the big TV. However that came at the cost of losing control of my computer for an hour or so while she played.

Thunderbird was a decent knock-off of BreakOut, worked surprisingly well for a game written completely in BASIC, and even added a few new twists to the gameplay and look of BreakOut. For one, the players paddle was replaced by the character-graphics pictograph of a bird, "The Thunderbird". Another big change was that you played over the TOP of the game-field, rather than beneath.

The third twist was an interesting game-play element--the lightning strike. Hit one of the open circles in the playfield, and a "lightning bolt" would arc downward from your bird, hitting the playfield, and laying down some extra multi-color blocks on top of the existing ones. This made the game much harder, as it added a Tetris-like element. Namely, by giving you a lot less room to maneuver because the blocks were stacked higher, and thus closer to your bird. Towards the end of a level, it would not be uncommon for the ball to repeatedly smack several of the circles in rapid succession--stacking up extra blocks in the most inopportune places.

KERRZAAAPPPP!KERRZAAAPPPP! The Glowing Aftermath...The Glowing Aftermath...

After the video-game crash of 1983, I did acquire a few cartridge-based games for the VIC from various bargain-bins at Kay-Bee Toys and the like. These photos show the cartridges and game-insert flyers which I still have:

Some decent cartridge gamesSome decent cartridge games
A half-way decent titleA half-way decent title Then Ubiquitous - Game Instruction InsertsThen Ubiquitous - Game Instruction Inserts
Sooo complicated....: How did we ever MANAGE this complexity?!?Sooo complicated....: How did we ever MANAGE this complexity?!?

In keeping with the software of that era, the Black Hole (YouTube Link to gameplay.) game pamphlet also clearly displays the name of the game author; Tom Griner, of Creative Software. This was the time of "the bedroom coder", when most games were written by 1 or 2 people. In keeping with that, it's cool to note that both the Black Hole and Fast Eddie pamphlets have a 'Personal Note' from their respective authors, featuring game-play hints and the like.

For my part, I miss this kind of thing. Collecting games was like collecting record albums. Personal notes in the liner made for a much greater emotional bond to the game, because as a gamer I always felt a personal link to the creator of the software.

The Fast Eddie platforming game, was actually quite good compared to other games at the time. Note how the insert clearly features the author's name: "..originally written by Mark Turmell of Sirius Software, Inc." The faceless corporate B.S. hadn't yet begun.

Neat Historical Note: If you look closely at the Fast Eddie brochure, it reveals an unusual twist for that era: the VIC-20 port and the C-64 port were done by a lady; Kathy Bradley. I'm not aware of too many women in programming and gaming at that time.

Fast Eddie had fast, smooth action, and decent joystick controls--which was actually somewhat uncommon for the VIC. Many games released for it were rather rubbish in one area or another. (Fast-Eddie Gameplay on YouTube.) If you look closely at the front of the insert pamphlet, the game was modestly released by 20th Century Fox, with the tagline: "Games of the Century."

Another interesting historical/cultural aspect of the game insert shown here, is the "Top Hoppers" table provided in the Fast Eddie game pamphlet. It reflects an attempt of the software publisher to define the game in the cultural terms of the time, an analogue to the "Hi Score Table" of the full-sized arcade machines. It presumes that kids cared about the competitive aspect so much, that they would bother to not only hang onto the instruction manual (something which they probably only skimmed), but would want to post their scores on it. This may seem silly, even pointless, viewed with today's cultural context--but it wasn't. It shows how much the games, the companies, and the people writing them were struggling with a whole new batch of paradigms. The World's Top HoppersThe World's Top Hoppers

Sadly, I could not find my cartridge of Omega Race, possibly the best arcade-port for the VIC-20 at that time. It appears to have been lost to the mists of time. I may have to dig one up on EBay at some point.

Into the Future

Not being able to play many popular games on the VIC-20 seemed like an enormous drag to me as a youth. I wanted to play Defender! I wanted to play Pac-Man! I wanted to play BattleZone! (And I wanted to do it without having to watch all the quarters of my lumch money disappear into the arcade machines on Saturdays...)

With the laser-like vision of 20/20 hindsight though, I can now categorically state, "Not having a bunch of games was a good thing, nay, a GREAT thing." It forced me to write my own code, to research and read and test and devise my own algorithms.

(Part of the appreciation of great inventions, like "The Wheel" for instance, comes from the process of trying to invent one of your own. After you've devised 3,612 variations of, "..the slightly lumpy oblong-y thing, with bumps and points and corners..." you really begin to understand why "the wheel" just works so much better.)

Learning how my VIC-20 worked, inside and out, from BASIC to Assembly language to the physical electronics, formed me in profound ways. It gave me a love for technology, and drove me on to become the engineer I am today. (Infinitely curious, a little bit crazy, and prone to outbursts against stupid uses of technology.) I'm grateful now, for the struggle that was.

Next Time...

That about finishes the introductory look at my VIC-20. Next time, I'll take you on a tour of the magical electronic innards of the machine, and show details on the amazing documentation which was provided with the machine. I'll also cover the diagnosis and repair of my beloved beige breadbox. I'll also give a little peek at some of my old software and game-design doodlings, recently discovered lurking in that battered old cardboard box. (You shouldn't have to wait too long--my article covering Part #2 of my Retro-Repair Adventure is almost done.)

Until next time, Happy Gaming!


Mark Vergeer
Mark Vergeer's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006

Excellent read Shawn. Substitute Vic-20 with C64 and about one to two years later and you're me! :)

Joined: 01/21/2009
I to had a vic-20 and was

I to had a vic-20 and was quite lucky to move to the c-64 quickly.. so much of this rings with me and my experience back then. Especially the:

With the laser-like vision of 20/20 hindsight though, I can now categorically state, "Not having a bunch of games was a good thing, nay, a GREAT thing." It forced me to write my own code, to research and read and test and devise my own algorithms.

I copied very program, read all the books, and soon wrote my own code, i was far to interested in graphics over substance back then. I spent to much time trying to make stuff look good and worried to little about game play (ZOWIE i could work for most any major dev with that attitude!) My first true game was on a TRS-80 i made the crudest Pac man clone ever.. using hte "generate a random square on screen" program (one of the first one you learned in most books back then after the "hello world" stuff i stole the code and made a "box" (hey, the trs-80 didnt have much more then lego blocks for building.. 4 squares where the front 2 disappeared (slightly different times so it did look better then 4 block/2blocks) that you moved with your arrow keys (did it have arrow keys? i think i used the Oregon trail keys) and you had to eat the dot, and it would just reappear.. later i made more dots show and the last thing i did was make some poison.. you didnt want to eat them.. had it all on a timer.. if you ate like 20 in a minute you got 1 more minute, etc.. cool thing for me.. i caught teachers playing it. later i made a maze game .. i wont go into what a 14 year old made as its beyond juvenial and i cringe when i think about it..

yes very cool write up.. thanks, look forward to the 2nd part.

Shawn Delahunty
Shawn Delahunty's picture
Joined: 08/01/2011

Thanks for reading Clok, I'm very glad you enjoyed it!

clok1966 wrote:
...minute you got 1 more minute, etc.. cool thing for me.. i caught teachers playing it. later i made a maze game .. i wont go into what a 14 year old made as its beyond juvenial and i cringe when i think about it..

That is awesome... hahaha! You know you've done something interesting if others enjoy playing it. And I can sympathize with the struggle you had with the TRS-80 graphics... like trying to program with very slow Legos. (I'm debating about spending a little bit of time writing a couple of Z-80 assembly routines to spiff up and improve that Retro-Zap! game I hacked up last year....)

And I COMPLETELY understand cringing when you look back at what you wrote as a teen-ager. I'm going to be sharing some of my own ridiculousness in the next installment.


Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Epic post! I was a bit too

Epic post! I was a bit too young for the VIC era, being only four. I do remember when my dad bought it, though, and explaining how it was a Real Computer. We upgraded to a C64 soon after though, so I tend to blur the two together a bit in those early days.

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
Wonderful stuff as always,

Wonderful stuff as always, Shawn. It looks like you have an early model. I presently have two VIC's, one that's an early model with the darker styling and flat, square power plug, and another one that's from a later production run with brighter styling and round DIN-C-64 style power plug. I'd prefer the former because that has better shielding and produces a better picture, but the keyboard is a bit flaky, so I'm "forced" to use the newer one. I may eventually break down and eBay another original style model. Of course, like Mark, I have one of these to maximize the experience:

The VIC-20 was my first computer too. I got it in fifth grade, age 10, but soon sold it for a C-64. I never had much for my VIC-20 other than some cartridge games.

Shawn Delahunty
Shawn Delahunty's picture
Joined: 08/01/2011
Early Model == iffy power

Yes, mine is a pretty early version. I have it stuffed back in the box right now, so I can't easily check, but it's a low serial # model---something below 100,000. The problem with the early ones is that the power brick gets hot as blazes---Google fails me, but I remember reading in the newspaper about a couple house-fires where the power-block was suspected. (Growing up in Pennsylvania, there was a lot of news about Commodore... kind of like rooting for the home team.) The argument for switching to the same power supply as the C-64 was that it made sense from a parts/purchasing/cost-effectiveness point of view.... but I half-suspect it was also the fear of lawsuits that caused them to upgrade.

Another point, the quality of the power-switch on my early model is _GARBAGE_ compared to the later models I've played with. (I put in a new power-switch in the next installment..) It started acting odd after a couple years, and was utterly frozen up when I took the VIC out of the box last week.

As for the RF shielding and interference problem, that can be improved on the newer ones with some of that foil-backed cardboard & a couple wires grounding things together. Though in your case, it might be easier to disassemble the keyboard from the top-half of the clamshells, and swap them. (Or pick up a parts-only VIC on Ebay for $15 and pull the keyboard out of that.) I believe the connector/pinout for the keyboard is the same between all models.

Ahh, the mega-cart. I _HAVE_ to order one of those things.... the Llamasoft games alone would be worth it. And Frogger'07 looks amazing.

davyK's picture
Joined: 05/21/2006
Lovely was the

Lovely was the Oric-1 with me (google it!)

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