Video Game Audio 107. Home Computers of the 1980s


As I wrote in my last article, the 1980s saw the rise of home computers – aka Personal Computers (PC) – simultaneously with the rise of the popular 8-bit home consoles like the Nintendo NES/Famicon.

The consoles were only meant for gaming and were never utilized for daily work routines.

If you wanted to do that besides gaming, you had to get a PC, which is still true today.

IBM vs. Apple

In 1977, Apple introduced the Apple II computer, which was marketed as a serious business tool and an entertainment system for the whole family.

The Apple II could display a few colors and make beep sounds, making video games possible.

One of those games was Breakout (1978), which is like a mix between Pong and Space Invaders:

IBM introduced the Personal Computer (PC) in April 1981.

PC was marketed as a business tool for serious business, and games were mostly developed to improve the user experience.

Here’s the commercial for the IBM Personal Computer staring none other the Charlie Chaplin:

Like the Apple II, the first PCs came with a small loudspeaker – a single membrane meant for making a beep sound whenever an error occurred.

In the mid-1980s, however, something began to change. A third player had entered the field, Commodore, who found massive success with the Commodore 64, which had superior sound and graphics.

Because of the success of the Commodore 64, Apple and IBM began to include better graphics and sound chips in their computers.

Video games such as Kings Quest (1984) – the first 3D adventure game – and Leisure Suit Larry (1987) became an important part of the marketing and helped boost sales of the Apple and IBM PCs.

The rise of Commodore computers in the 1980s

In 1980 Commodore Business Machines released the 8-bit Commodore VIC-20 computer, three years after their first computer, the PET (1977).

Even though the company name included “business machines,” VIC-20 and later the Commodore 64 (C64) were marketed as all-round family entertainment systems with a heavy focus on gaming.

Here’s a TV spot from 1982 starring a very casual William Shatner for the VIC-20.

As you can see from the commercial, ports from popular arcade games such as Space Invaders were also a major part of the marketing.

The VIC-20 saw limited success and was discontinued in 1985. The major reason was the massive success of the Commodore 64.

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Commodore 64: the breadbin that did it all at half the price

In 1982, Commodore International released the Commodore 64, an 8-bit machine with 64 KB of RAM (hence the name).

In terms of storage, you could either use a slow cassette deck, which could hold larger amounts of data, or a 5¼” floppy drive (the Commodore 1541), which was faster but could only hold 170 kb.

Oh, I’ve spent many hours waiting for a game to load on that cassette deck and loved it when I had saved up enough money for the floppy drive instead.

The cassette deck also had some weird quirks.

Fx, sometimes you had to sit and press down a little on the Eject button while the tape loaded the game while watching for the right color of stripes to flicker on the screen. If the wrong colors flickered, it meant the game would work.

I guess this raised the tape slightly so the head could read the data.

The initial design looked similar to the VIC-20 and is lovingly nicknamed the breadbin.

In 1986 Commodore released the C64c with a new 1541-II floppy disk drive. The two were the same in terms of functionality, but the computer and the floppy disk drive got updated chassis in a lighter, slim design similar to the C128 (1985).

One of the reasons for the C64’s success was that it was family-friendly. Fx, you didn’t have to get a specific monitor like the Commodore1084S fx.

You could hook it up to your television just like a home console, which helped bring down the already aggressive price point even further, and made it accessible to more families.

It came loaded with BASIC, an easy-to-program operating system/programming language.

BASIC was used for everything from designing games to loading software from a floppy disk or cassette deck to dialing up to servers via a modem.

It was also possible to program it via machine code. This was mostly used by serious programmers, game designers, and later the underground demo scene, who – to this day – still seek to squeeze the machine’s last drop of processing power.

C64 marketing and success

Like the VIC-20 before, the Commodore 64 was marketed as a serious home computer, a business computer, and a family entertainment system.

It was much cheaper than the serious IBM and Apple II computers but was as powerful in many ways – in terms of graphics and sound, even superior to the competition.

Commodore knew this and often played on this fact in many of their commercials.

Have a look at this commercial from 1984, where the C64 is put up against the competition:

Another part of the C64’s success was that it was available for purchase where the ordinary family went shopping, e.g., in toy stores and malls.

If you needed an Apple or IBM computer, you had to visit specialized computer- and electronic stores.

The C64 was available everywhere middle-class consumers went, which made the home computer accessible to ordinary people.

The C64 became a massive success, with around 12.5 million units sold in the US and Europe between 1982-1993.

Around 10.000 was released for the C64, including everything from business software to games.

C64 graphics: the VIC-II chip and sprites

The C64 came with the famous SID chip (which I’ll get back to in a minute) and the VIC-II graphics chip.

The VIC-II graphics chip could reproduce 16 colors and also render sprites.

A sprite is a 2D pixel image or animation which lies on a separate “layer” from the background.

This made it possible to create animated computer characters, which you could control with your joystick without updating and rendering the background for each movement.

This capability helped save processing power and memory and made things like background scrolling possible.

C64: Revenge of the SID

The Commodore 64’s amazing sound chip is another important aspect of the success of this machine.

SID is short for Sound Interface Device, an 8-bit sound chip with a distinct sound still sought after today.

The sound of the SID has found its way into several pop songs today.

You can even get software instruments for sequencers that emulate the SID sound, such as Logic, Cubase, Ableton Live, FL Studio, and ProTools.

The sounds and melodies the SID chip could produce were miles ahead of the simple beeps of the Apple and IBM computers at the time.

Robert Yannes designed the SID; the best-known revisions are the 6581 and the 8580, though many more exist, with minor changes to the design but not the overall sound capabilities – except the filters, which I’ll get back to in a minute.

SID capabilities

The SID chip is a strange mix of analog and digital technology. All the control ports are digital, but the output and filter are analog.

Each tone could be created by waveforms, like a sawtooth wave, triangle wave, pulse wave, or noise.

The noise channel also worked as a simple pulse width modulation sampler.

Each channel had an ADSR envelope generator, which made it much easier to shape the waveforms and emulate traditional instruments.

I explain more about waveforms and envelope generators in my last article about the NES/Famicon, which also included an 8-bit sound chip.

The SID could produce sounds in a frequency range of eight octaves ranging from 16Hz to 4kHz.

Effects and filters could also manipulate each tone, like ring modulation (non-harmonic overtones), which was useful for simulating bell sounds.

As hinted at before, the filters were the biggest issue since these sounded different on different iterations of the chip.

Some composers ignored the filters (except for creating effects like filter sweeps) to ensure their compositions sounded the same on all Commodore 64s.

This is once again an example of how the limits of technology shaped the sound of video games in the 1980s.

Because of the limited memory, the music and sound couldn’t take up more than 5-10 kB.

So composers had to get creative.

Creative approaches to music on the C64

In her book Game Sound (2008:32) (link to Amazon), video game researcher Karen Collins mentions how composers had to get creative and work within the limited memory space.

One approach was to use random number generators to choose between different sequences randomly and thus vary the tunes every time you played a game.

She mentions the soccer game Ballblazer (Lucas Film Games – later LucasArts) from 1984 as a good example.

Atari originally developed Ballblazer, but it was later ported to C64 and many of the home consoles.

In Ballblazer, composer and computer programmer Peter Langson designed a series of jazz sequences and a bass melody.

The game then used algorithms based on fractals to improvise the lead melody of the game’s main theme called “Song of the Grid”.

In the paper Eedie & Eddie on the Wire – An Experiment in Music Generation (1984), Langston calls this method “riffology.”

This is an early approach to the procedurally generated music we get in the 1980s, which has since been implemented in games like Spore (2008) and No Man’s Sky (2016).

Another composer who had a creative approach was Rob Hubbard.

Rob Hubbard and subroutines

Rob Hubbard is one of the most famous music composers for the C64.

You can hear his music in legendary games like Monty on the Run, International Karate, Delta, and Spellbound.

In Internation Karate, I love his version of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, by Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Hubbard overcame the limits of the C64 by creating subroutines or modules, which were like boxes of musical patterns, he could call for when needed in the game.

Each module would hold the title music, in-game music, and game-over music, each with the same tonal qualities.

Each song consisted of three tracks (one for each channel of the SID chip), and each track consisted of a list of patterns or sequences.

Hubbard would then call these sequences only when necessary depending on what the player – or the game was doing.

The use of these modules helped save a lot of space and memory.

My favorite Hubbard soundtrack is Commando

Rob Hubbard is one of my favorite composers of music for the breadbin – but the reason is not because of his compositions, but one of his cover songs, i.e., the music for the game Commando (1985).

Commando was originally released as an arcade game called Senjō no Ōkami (Wolf of the Battlefield) in 1985 by Capcom.

Commando is a run ‘n gun vertically scrolling shoot’em up game, which I’ve spent hours playing.

The original music is by Japanese composer Tamayo Kawamoto. Hubbard took Kawamoto’s music from the arcade machine and created a more funky version for the port for the C64.

Here’s the original arcade version:

Chris Butler developed Commando by the company Elite on the C64. Rory Green and Chris Harvey did the graphics.

The entire game was ported in a short period of two months.

Here’s what Rob says about the process:

[I] started working on it late at night, and worked on it through the night. I took one listen to the original arcade version and started working on the C64 version. […] By the time everyone arrived at 8.00 in the morning, I had loaded the main tune on every C64 in the building! I got my cheque and was on a train home by 10.00

Rob Hubbard – Source:

Rob Hubbard’s version of the music for Commando has received cult status among fans of the C64.

The use of cover songs

Like was the case with the arcade games and home consoles, video games on the Commodore 64 often also included classical music or American folk songs.

In my last article, I mentioned Elite as an example.

Another example is Chopin’s Funeral March (1939), and the traditional Pop Goes the Weasel in the adventure game Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (Lucasfilm Games, 1988).

You can listen to both here (songs 2 and 10).

The SID chip was amazing because it could reproduce instruments and make already-known melodies recognizable.

But covering these songs wasn’t necessarily a walk in the park. After all, the SID could only play three tones at once, so the composers had to work on simplifying and rearranging the pieces.

After all, reducing a score for a full symphonic orchestra to three instruments takes a bit of creativity.

Another example I vividly remember from my youth is the ragtime melody The Entertainer (1902) by Scott Joplin and The Stripper (1962) by David Rose, used in the Samantha Fox Strip Poker Game (1986) by Software Communications/Martech.

Who programmed that piece of music, you ask?

That was also Rob Hubbard under the pseudonym John York.

Hubbard wasn’t exactly proud of the title:

[it] was such a cheesy title and they wanted that cheesy lame music along with it – I didn’t want to admit that I did it just for the money.


As with arcade games and home consoles, developers and composers for the Commodore 64 didn’t think twice about copyright.

They just picked whatever music they liked or thought would benefit the game. Also, composers were rarely even credited in the games at the time, and the developer had the final say in what music should be included.

So even though the composer might have preferred to write a new piece of music for the game, the developer got the final say – and they might prefer a cover song due to either time constraints or marketing.

The music industry hadn’t discovered video games yet, either. So there were no lawsuits against the video game producers.

And it would take years before the music industry realized the potential for using video games as a marketing tool.

This, however, exploded when games were sold on CDs and DVDs, and the computers had gotten good enough to reproduce sound in mp3 or CD quality.

But that’s a tale for a later article.

In Closing

The Commodore 64 is the last of the great 8-bit computers of the 1980s, not accounting for the handheld Nintendo Gameboy.

The 1990s saw a similar race and development within the home console and personal computer market

In the next article, I’ll look at the 16-bit machines of the 1990s.

Until next time, happy gaming!

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Jan has played video games since the early 1980s. He loves getting immersed in video games as a way to take his mind off stuff when the outside world gets too scary. A lifelong gamer, the big interest led to a job as a lecturer on game sound at the University of Copenhagen and several written articles on video games for magazines.

Read more on the About Page.