What do former Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, game designer Jeff Minter, and actor William Shatner have in common? They all contributed to the Commodore VIC-20.
For those wondering what the VIC-20 is, it’s an 8-bit computer that was first launched in Japan in 1980 under the name VIC-1001 and then in the West the following year with the VIC-20 name. At the time, the personal computer market was in its infancy and Commodore hoped many families would buy the Vic as their first one. It had an impressive start becoming the first home computer to sell a million units. Its initial $300 US price tag was closer to the average console than the average computer, and it was advertised as an alternative to game systems like Atari, i.e. the Vic was a machine that could play games but offer educational aspects as well. Commodore hired William Shatner to do the commercials.
Retro gamers who are focused on consoles often ignore it (even though many of its best games are on cartridge and you can play it with the convenience of a console) and computer game fans focus on its successor, the Commodore 64. This is somewhat understandable as there’s no doubt the C64 is superior and survived longer but the Vic had a few years of quality support.
I guess you could criticize it for its weak multiplayer selection (only one joystick port) and its relative lack of original content among its best games (it has lots ports and clones) compared to competitors like the Atari 2600. These are valid criticisms but I also find some of the VIC-20 versions are either different enough or more well designed than others so that’s why I can still go back and enjoy them.
Here are some games I find good or historically interesting for it:
Pac-Man AKA Jelly Monsters
In Japan this was an officially licensed Pac-Man developed at HAL Laboratory. In the West, however, Atari had obtained the home rights to Pac-Man and so when Commodore released it, they changed the name to Jelly Monsters. I read that Commodore discontinued it when they realized Atari was going to sue. Back in 1981, this was as close as you could hope a home port would be. Atari’s infamous flicker-fest 2600 version which came soon afterwards didn’t compare at all.
Galaxian AKA Star Battle
This was another quality Namco arcade port that underwent a name change for the West. The reason I mentioned Satoru Iwata before is because he made this version.
Atari later released their own Western VIC-20 versions of Pac-Man and Galaxian.
Radar Rat Race
This was possibly the first case of a Japanese-developed game being visually altered for the West. It was originally a port of Namco’s Rally-X but the cars were changed into rats.
Broderbund originally released this for Atari 400/800 and had a similar port on C64 but I definitely prefer Creative Software’s VIC-20 rendition. In it, you control a snake, and the object is to eat the other snakes in order to beat the level. You do this by swallowing segments of their tails. If you hit another snake head on, it will eat you. Sometimes your snake lays an egg; if it hatches before getting eaten, then you will get an extra life. This mix of offensive and defensive gameplay sets Serpentine apart from many maze chase games. I think it’s among the best in its genre.
Ultima: Escape from Mt. Drash
Okay, this game sucked ass but it’s significant for being a very rare game in a big franchise, and thus it’s very valuable. The game even has some Atari E.T.-esque rumours about it -
Originally Posted by wikipedia
For a long time, a lot of the details surrounding the game were very vague. For example it was believed the game was a cartridge, while in fact it was released on cassette tape. One of the rumors about the game was that Sierra sold a very minimal number of the games, barely enough to get even, then buried the remaining stock at a foot of a mountain somewhere. (This parallels the ultimate fate of Atari’s E.T. game - the remainder of unsold E.T. cartridges were buried in a landfill.) In fact, some retailer near Vancouver, B.C. had dumped unsold software over a cliff, and this is where one of the only known complete copies were eventually found.
Sword of Fargoal
Rogue-like from Epyx.
A Space Invaders rip-off by Commodore and one of the most popular Vic games.
Metagalactic Llamas: Battle at the Edge of Time
Llamas vs. spiders. What makes this shooter unique is that aside from controlling the llama at the bottom, you can move the ceiling up and down to make your shots deflect at different angles.
These and other Jeff Minter VIC-20 roms are available for free download here -http://www.llamasoft.co.uk/lc-8bit.php#5
It would easy to dismiss this port by Atarisoft based on its graphics and because it came out after the ColecoVision version but unlike the disappointing 2600 and InTV ports, it’s still one of the best DK games to this day. It’s not missing any of the arcade’s levels which is cool but what I love most about it is the speed. Mario’s really fast in this one and controls nicely.
Scott Adams Adventure Series
The VIC-20 wasn’t just for arcade style games. Commodore wanted some quality text adventures on the system so they published a series of Scott Adams ones, Adventureland being the first. They remain among the few text adventures released in cartridge format.
This was one of the best home versions prior to emulation. I just loved the look and feel, the laser animation is especially cool in this one. The only downside would be the less than perfect scrolling; unlike the 5200 and C64, the Vic couldn’t do scrolling in hardware.
This shooter by Tom Griner is one of my childhood favourites, and it has aged nicely. Like Defender, it’s a left/right scroller with a radar but it doesn’t have momentum-based movement or rescuing.
Opinions seem mixed on this port but I always enjoyed it.
Spiders of Mars
Shoot rival birds and steal their eggs.
I wouldn’t bother with this port today but for a home version at the time, it was pretty good.
Unlike Imagic’s Vic Demon Attack port which looks almost identical to the 2600 original, Dragonfire’s graphics are noticeably different. It’s not as detailed as the ColecoVision one but I think it plays the smoothest.
I remember being excited thinking I beat the Guinness world record for this but then I clued in that the arcade version’s scoring system must have been different.
A port of the Spectrum classic that put Rare on the map (when they were A.C.G.). It has less levels than the original but plays a bit faster.
The Vic version of Omega Race by Andy Finkel is my personal favourite shooter of all time, mostly because the gameplay is still as addictive today. Even though it’s not using true vector monitor graphics like the Midway arcade original, it’s still incredibly smooth, much moreso than the lesser ports on 2600 and ColecoVision. The C64 version looks virtually identical to the VIC-20 one but I don’t think it’s as good because it doesn’t allow you to all kinds of subtle gameplay tricks like mid air stops.
The VIC-20 was the first game system I owned and it was popular at my elementary school so I naturally have a lot of attachment to it but today I can view it more fairly against its competitors, particularly Atari. The 2600 has a larger library of games I like and is of greater historical significance but the Vic does have superior versions of some of the multi-format games and has some cool stuff not on console so it’s worth a look for classic game fans.
Your thoughts on the system? Any interesting trivia to add? Have you played it before?