The First PC to Sell Millions: Commodore VIC-20 Turns 40

Commodore VIC-20 on Blue
Evan Amos

In 1981, Commodore released the VIC-20, a low-cost mass-market home computer that served up great video games and taught a generation of kids how to program. It sold millions of units and inspired a generation of programmers. Here’s what made it special.

The Wonder Computer of the 1980s

As the price of computer components dropped rapidly in the late 1970s, it became inevitable that some company would introduce a popular, low-cost, user-friendly computer for the masses. That company turned out to be Commodore—and the computer was called the Commodore VIC-20.

The VIC-20 gained its name from its VIC-II graphics chip (“VIC” being short for “Video Interface Chip”) and the number “20,” because it sounded friendly. From its inception, the VIC-20 served a key strategic purpose: Commodore intended to preempt competition from Japanese computer manufacturers with a low-cost, mass-market machine.

Designed from the ground-up to fit those needs, the VIC-20 utilized the relatively inexpensive MOS 6502 CPU and only included 5 kilobytes of RAM (of which, only about 3.8 KB were made available in BASIC). It also included a mere 22-column text display that dramatically limited its appeal as a productivity machine. But its VIC-II graphics chip played color video games, with graphics that arguably surpassed the Atari 2600, which was the reigning video game console in the U.S. at the time.

A mom, dad, and son gathered around a Commodore VIC-20.
Commodore

Due to its heritage as a machine designed to compete with Japanese manufacturers, the VIC-20 made its original debut in Japan as the VIC-1001 in late 1980. That model included some extra features like katakana character support for the Japanese market, but it was otherwise almost identical to the VIC-20 that would launch in the U.S. the following year.

When it did launch in the U.S. in May or June of 1981 (reports conflict, and some units were in reviewers’ hands in early 1981), the VIC-20 made waves for its staggeringly low price of $299.95 (about $885 today). Competing entry-level machines like the Atari 400 and the TRS-80 Color Computer cost $399 and $499 respectively. (Around that same time, a 16K Apple II Plus sold for a whopping $1195, putting it in another league entirely.)

For the VIC-20’s American marketing campaign, Commodore hired Star Trek actor William Shatner to appear in print and TV commercials, asking “Why buy just a video game?” and touting the machine as the “wonder computer of the 1980s.”

And a wonder it was: The Commodore VIC-20 was the first computer to sell a million units, which it achieved in its first year on the market. By the end of its run in January 1985, it had sold 2.5 million units in total—phenomenal sales numbers at the time.

What Was Using a VIC-20 Like?

Most people with a VIC-20 attached the computer to a home television set for a display, and if they wrote any programs in the built-in BASIC programming language, they would save them to a cassette tape using the Commodore 1530 Datasette drive. Commercial software could be run off of plug-in ROM cartridges (as was often the case with games) or loaded from a cassette tape. Some more advanced owners also downloaded programs from BBSes thanks to the low-cost VICmodem available for the VIC-20.

Commodore earned high praise (such as in this BYTE Magazine review) for the quality of the documentation included with the VIC-20, which taught computer novices how to use the machine and how to write BASIC programs.

Commodore VIC-20 photos from the VIC-20 retail box.
Photos from the VIC-20’s American retail box. Commodore

While ostensibly capable of balancing your budget or serving as a word processor, the VIC-20 was also great for kids to play video games. The VIC-20 included a single Atari-compatible joystick port that unlocked a world of action titles such as Jelly Monsters (a great Pac-Man clone), Demon Attack and Gridrunner, deep RPGs like Sword of Fargoal, and even text adventure games by Scott Adams (which were reportedly some of the best-selling games for the platform).

Three VIC-20 games (from L-R): Jelly Monsters, Scott Adams’ Adventure Land, and Sword of Fargoal

In an amazing bit of trivia, the late Satoru Iwata, former CEO of Nintendo, programmed his first commercial game, Star Battle, for the VIC-1001 in April of 1981. Programming this Galaxian clone began Iwata’s long career in game development at HAL Laboratory, which later culminated in his great success as the head of Nintendo in the 2000s.

The VIC-20’s Legacy

Even though the VIC-20 became a commercial boon for Commodore and set a new standard for the low-end of the home computer market, the VIC-20’s greatest impact was arguably cultural. Due to its low cost, the VIC-20 became a popular beginner’s computer, and a generation of kids around the world grew up learning to program in BASIC on their VIC-20 computers.

Some of those kids grew up to architect the modern software world around us. One of them was former id Software programmer John Carmack, who revolutionized PC gaming in the early 1990s with titles such as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake.

“I had used TRS-80s at Radio Shack and Apple IIs at school, but the VIC was the first thing I could really apply myself to at home,” Carmack told How-To Geek.

Even at a young age, Carmack pushed the limits of the VIC-20 with innovative programming techniques. “Fitting things in 4K of RAM was a big challenge, and I made demos that progressively loaded multiple programs off of the tape drive to exceed the limits,” he says. “My spiral-bound technical reference manual was tattered to the point of disintegration.”

It’s likely that many other people who now work in tech also got their start on the VIC-20s in the early 1980s. So, in some ways, it’s the VIC-20’s world—we’re just living in it.

In industry terms, the VIC-20 had an impact in terms of setting a template for its successor, the wildly popular Commodore 64 (C64), which was released in August of 1982. That success would also prove to be the VIC-20’s undoing. The C64 included 64K of RAM, better graphics, and better sound than the VIC-20. Initially, the C64 sold for $595, but the home computer price wars of 1983 sunk the cost of all home computers down to the $50-$200 range in the U.S., providing one of the catalysts for the American video game crash. At that point, the even lower cost of the VIC-20 didn’t offer much over its dirt-cheap competitors, so Commodore pulled the plug on the VIC-20 in 1985.

Still, Commodore survived and went on to sell around 15 million units of the C64, and then introduced the Amiga before losing ground completely to IBM PC compatibles in the early 1990s. But we can’t blame the VIC-20 for that—it had a successful run and made quite a mark in just a few years on the market.

How to Try the VIC-20 Today

These days, if you’d like to get a taste of the VIC-20 experience on your modern computer, you can download an emulator like VICE, or even try using a VIC-20 in this handy JavaScript emulator that runs in your browser. Or, if you’re more adventurous, you can try to track down an original vintage machine yourself. We recommend looking for a reconditioned machine on eBay if possible.

Either way you manage it, using a VIC-20 again is a great way to celebrate this monumentally important machine on its 40th anniversary. Happy birthday, VIC-20!

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