The Commodore Vic-20 was the precursor to the massively popular Commodore 64, and indeed you can see the family resemblance as the two machines look outwardly identical, with just a change in colour from cream for the Vic to beige-brown for the 64. The Vic-20 arrived on the scene in 1980 and took it’s name from one of it’s components, the Video Interface Chip, and was my first real computer (actually, that’s not strictly true, I did have a Sinclair ZX81 for a week, but we had so many problems getting it to load we took it back and changed it for a Vic-20).
The Vic-20 was one of the first computers to have colour graphics, in this case having access to a range of 16 colours, 8 of which could only be used as the background or border colours. It also had a proper keyboard, unlike many computers of the day, which made it a joy to type on. It’s tiny 3.5K of RAM could be expanded by adding a RAM pack in a slot at the back. The one I had was pretty nifty in that it had a switch on the back that let you boost the RAM by either 3K or 16K. This was necessary because the Vic-20 remapped its memory differently depending on how much RAM was added. This meant that a program written for an unexpanded machine wouldn’t run properly on a machine with an extra 16K!
The Vic-20 had a version of the BASIC programming language built in, and whilst games and the like could be written in BASIC, the truly exceptional games were always written directly in 6502 assembly language. Indeed many games enjoyed having the slogan “100% machine code” emblazoned on the packaging as a potential sign of quality. Obviously, this was not always the case. The Vic-20 also had reasonably good sound support, with a total range of 5 octaves over three sound channels, each of which spread across a 3 octave range.
Below is a great advert for the Commodore Vic-20 featured none other than living legend William Shatner, beaming in to present the computer whilst a young boy fiddled around in the background with something that generated a bar graph, and waggled a joystick furiously whilst playing a fruit machine game.