The VIC-20 was a direct descendant of Commodore’s PET computer – popular with educators, school districts and students who, like myself, got their first computer experience on one of Commodore’s all-in-one monochrome machines of the future. The VIC-20 was, in fact, developed under the code-name of “Micro PET,” and it was designed to be the future in a convenient, compact, user-friendly package.
It’s funny how that future kept changing. In 1981, when the VIC-20 was introduced by Commodore, America was in the thrall of video game mania, or at least more specifically Pac-Man mania. Atari’s star was rising, with no limit in sight; everyone and their brother, it seemed, was getting into the business of arcade games, or making cartridges for the Atari 2600. New consoles were being developed. And the most bare-bones home computer setup could scarcely be had for $500. The Apple II was already around, certainly, but even the most basic Apple setup fetched nearly $1,500 at the time. Atari’s home computers and their competitors from Texas Instruments could be had for less than a thousand, but often in such bare-bones form that getting a more fully-featured computer setup would often bring the price point back up to a grand.
And then Commodore introduced the VIC-20. With a price tag lighter than $300 in most areas, and a retail network that included such outlets as Sears and Toys R Us, the VIC-20 may have also been bare-bones upon arrival – but for $300, it could afford to be. Optional items such as disk drives, printers and the blazing fast 300 baud VIC Modem could be added on, for a price, naturally. But for a basic machine that could give kids (and their parents) some hands-on computer learning experience, and a machine that could play colorful games to boot, $300 was an insanely competitive price point, and many consumers took Commodore up on the offer.
And the VIC-20 was surely the machine of the future. Its game cartridges – the software we’ll be focusing on the most in this archive – were vast chunks of plastic with an impressively wide connector that surely meant there was more program, or more fun – essentially, more value – going on than there was with a little thing like an Atari 2600 cartridge. The VIC-20’s all-in-one casing and easy hookup were certainly a sign of the future too. Surely this was how a home computer was meant to be.
Futuristic advertising was in order for Commodore’s wildly successful new computer as well. While his erstwhile Star Trek crewmate Leonard Nimoy extolled the virtues of the Odyssey2 video game console in TV commercials, William Shatner endorsed the VIC-20, declaring it to be the computer of the future. Even with only 5K of on-board RAM (expandable with an add-on memory module), how could the VIC-20 not be the futuristic marvel that Captain Kirk himself described? And with major third-party software publishers like Imagic and Parker Brothers making games for the VIC, and even Atari’s own Atarisoft division porting popular Atari-licensed games, this was clearly a computer that would stick around. For the future.
Commodore introduced the Commodore 64 home computer a year later.