Going Retro with my 11-year-old
Several nights ago, I pulled out the aging Commodore 64 and blew the dust off of it. I looked it over, trying to determine how I was going to connect it up to my current gear. I have lots of gear, ranging from shiny new 4k stuff to quite old composite stuff. Yet none of it was quite old enough to connect to the C64, at least with the cabling that I found in its box. So tonight I decided I’d grab my soldering iron and my son and go old-school.
I figured we’d drill a few holes, solder a few wires, and have new and useful connections right on the computer. We cracked the case and looked at what we had to work with. We were both a bit surprised at just how different it all looked when compared with today’s electronics. It was decidedly … simple. We pulled out the mainboard and looked at the underside in hopes of finding decent connections for our audio and video wiring. What we found was that an RF shield (I assume that’s what it was) covered the bottom of the board, hiding everything we wanted to see. The shield was wrapped around all four edges of the board - and soldered to ground in something like 15 different spots. It’d probably only take me a few minutes with the soldering iron to remove the shield, but then I’d want to put it back and “make it right” - and this was more than I really wanted to tackle tonight with my son.
After a bit of searching the google, I decided to try my hand at fabricating my own cable. I didn’t have the parts to create an s-video connection, so I went with a simpler composite type. That ended up being a fortunate choice, because what I ended up connecting it to had the latter and not the former. I tried the dusty old Commodore 1084 monitor, but couldn’t for the life of me get it to work. It seemed to power up, but I got no video. The only reasons I thought it might have powered up were because I heard the old familiar crackling sounds of a tube powering up, and because my son immediately covered his ears and hollered that the sound was deafening him. I couldn’t hear anything, so I wasn’t sure if he might have just been joking. But when I’d turn it off he’d stop complaining, and even when he wasn’t looking and I powered it back on he started hollering again. Apparently all those years under water between the main engines and turbine generators took away my ability to hear, well, whatever the frequency was that was so horrible to my son. But the bottom line was that this wasn’t going to work, so I set my sights squarely on the big screen TV in the family room.
Any way, the composite connection to the big screen was pretty simple - I had plenty of RCA cables laying around, and some female connectors I could solder wires to. Ten minutes of instruction and soldering later, and my son had done the job - and it looked good. Probably better than anything I turned out when I first tried my hand at soldering. He’s likely way beyond my ability in about every category, but I’m going to just lie to myself and pretend that he did such a fantastic job because I provided excellent instruction.
The computer end of the composite connection was a whole different story. The connector on the back of the computer was an 8-pin DIN that reminded me of nothing I’ve seen in the last 20 years or so. Maybe a midi connector but maybe my memory banks are just old and rotting away. And I of course didn’t have anything solder-friendly (or otherwise) that would connect to it, so I did what any C64-era geek would do. I shoved the bare wire ends of the half-made cable directly into the pin sockets of the computer’s connector.
And IT WORKED. Because, you know, of course it did. Old school stuff works like that because it’s so simple.
I’m not sure what was more astonishing to me - the fact that the Computer still worked after all these years, or the amount of excitement that this generated in my son. I mean, it’s a two-shade blue screen with giant fuzzy letters that does basically nothing. But we soldered and hooked up wires and did stuff that we just don’t really do any more. We got in there and did stuff with our hands, made something out of spare junk we found laying around, and something actually came of it. It wasn’t make believe, like so many of his creations were - it was something that worked. Okay, so I know it was just a really simple 2-conductor connection, but it seemed to have been much more to my son. It was awesome to see how he reacted to that simple thing.
Of course he asked me what came with the computer. I asked what he meant, and quickly realized that he was comparing it to the only thing he knew - his Linux-powered laptop. Which of course comes with a bazillion awesome games and utilities and creative tools. So I pointed to the top of the screen and we read: COMMODORE 64 BASIC V2 … Yep, it came with a BASIC interpreter. “How do you use that?” was answered with:
10 PRINT "COOL" RUN
It took a few seconds for that to sink in. “Wait, you have to type in all the games yourself?!” I explained how I most certainly typed in a lot of stuff back in the day, sometimes copying pages and pages of code from a magazine. I explained how loading software from tape worked, and how slow it was. We then hunted down my original Commodore 1541 floppy drive and a box of floppies, and I showed him how to hook it up - and how we had to type commands in order to make the computer talk to the disk drive. It was so very different for him - and he ate it up.
We pulled out a floppy containing one of my all-time favorite games, Lode Runner, and booted it up. After 15-30 seconds, the screen displayed the name of the game - and explained that we should expect to wait another 1-1⁄2 minutes for the game to load. He found it shocking that it took that long to read the disk - and that using the tape drive would have been even slower.
But then he got to play. After a few rounds of that, he excitely announced that he understood why I talked so highly of these old games - “This is even better than Starbound!” While I’m not convinced that’s an entirely fair comparison, it thrills me to see him excited about something which gave me so much joy more than three decades ago. And I think it’s hilarious that my eleven year-old son is enamored with a computer game invented 24 years before he was born. But then again, we’re talking about Lode Runner - what else could I possibly expect?