[Victoria, BC] Fond Times with the C64 Enthusiasts Club, an Interview with Kevin Casteels

9 Dec

By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)

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The Commodore 64 “reloaded” to sport more than just a translucent case.

Back in 2011, the Commodore 64 (C64) was to make a comeback with modern parts while sporting a retro look. While the 64x briefly sold, interest by other companies deciding to use the Commodore name was still wrought with problems.

The original operation died in 1994 and other businesses got the patents to continue the legacy with varying levels of success. Commodore USA was a rebranded Florida firm and they fell to hard times after its founder, Barry Altman, passed away in 2012 — the enterprise ultimately folded. A UK version of the brand is focussing on a smartphone. Fortunately, interest for the original machine remains alive in the form of clubs.

These societies have emerged since this device’s original inception in 1982 and a few are remaining strong — like the Toronto PET Users Group. While these types of groups do not number in the hundred like Macintosh or PC clubs, the love is very clear. Kevin Casteels leads the Commodore 64 Enthusiasts of Victoria, BC and he’s taken over most of the chores in a society that was headed by Steve Carpenter and Andrew Anderson since moving to this garden city.

This club is still relatively young. It’s existed as a Facebook entity for over two years, and open meetings started early in the year at venues like Lucky Bar for retro video gaming parties and at Cavity Curiosity Shop for other fun. Their first meeting was held May 13, 2015.

“Twelve people showed up,” said Casteels, “That was good, and I gave a presentation on how to get Commodores online. I also showed the hardware that’s being created now.”

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Meeting at Cavity Curiousity Shop.

The second meeting was even better.

“A lot of people showed up because they are curious or were into the retro. They had a great time. I don’t know if they’ll all come back for another meeting, but they certainly liked it. To be into it well enough to buy the new hardware, it’s a tough call. There’s not that many people who are hardcore,” thought Casteels.

To use a 30-year old machine today may sound surprising, and very few people will remember the software made for the C64 were the precursors to many other programs that’s in use today. Bulletin Board Systems predate online forums, and the early platform games grew from what was available at the arcades (in the form of Donkey Kong) to the C64 with games like Lode Runner (which originally appeared on the Apple IIe) to Nintendo‘s entry into the console market with games like Mario Bros.

“One of my favourite games is Raid on Bungling Bay and that turned into SimCity. After seeing where that comes from, you can understand why it spawned all that came afterwards,” said Casteels.

But there’s more to the C64 than meets the eye. Musicians love this machine for its sound generation ability.

“The SID chip, the central sound chip inside these machines, got a very unique sound to it,” revealed Casteels.

This astrophysicist by trade and hobby electronics enthusiast knows a lot of people really like the sound. He says it’s got a mix of analog and digital waveforms in what the chip generates and it can be heard emulated in a lot of different modern music.

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Kevin Casteels has fun with retro gaming!

When he was growing up in rural Ontario, it was the machine he had at home. Growing up in the rural part of this province, it was the machine to have. He used it to get his homework done and even tried to use it in a band he was in.

“We had a progressive rock band, and sadly the software didn’t exist to do what we wanted. Now we can, as a full on synth, but it was really clunky. Not many people realized the potential of what you can do with these machines,” said Casteels. “If the stuff that existed today existed back in the 80’s it would’ve been cooler than it was.

“There’s been a Renaissance on the scene in the sense that there’s a lot of new hardware coming out for the old systems. There’s a lot of new ways of fixing them. There’s a lot of people like myself — that grew up with it as kids — who were really inspired by it. We are now either game developers, engineers, science folks with the ability to make something for it now. People have turned it into their hobby — to make a program for the system they grew up with. There’s been a big increase in the number of software releases.”

The club had a few meetings at Casteels’ home for the diehards to get together. In order to grow the group, they will continue to have meetings at Cavity and the like. Sometimes, finding the right venue to host these meetings can be tough but this new leader of the group has plans. He has ideas to engage the community and to get them involved in projects that goes beyond playing retro video games and creating new hardware. The group was offered space to display their wares at venues like Fort Tectoria and Cherry Bomb’s Toy Museum, but there’s more to this machine than simply showing it to the world as one of the 80’s best-selling computers. Surprisingly, development continues for this machine!

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Meeting at Lucky Bar Retro Night.

There’s more advancement for the C64 and its successor machine, the C128, in Europe than in North America. Most of the products created to keep users engaged can be bought or simply downloaded for free. And, according to Casteels, there’s more items are emerging out of Germany. He also points out how the “demo” scene is a world in itself. These are electronic music videos made on the C64 and the European developers are constantly trying to push the machine to its limits.

“Back in the 80’s people did not know how to use the machine to its full potential. When you look at what you can do now, you can get it to make CD quality sound,” Casteels revealed, as an example.

In another, the 1541 Ultimate Cartridge gives the C64/128 capabilities that was not possible in the past. If users need more RAM on a machine that only had 64 or 128 kilobytes of memory (compared to today’s 16gb), putting the entire catalog of games onto a single card is no problem! “There’s an SD card slot on this cartridge and you can connect to the Internet,” said Casteels in a demonstration. “I can visit BBSes with it, I can telnet into a Linux server and I can browse the ‘net — but it’s not really pretty.”

When considering the C64 predated Windows 95 and OS 9 (now OS X), those were the days of text-based web surfing. This machine did have a graphic user interface operating system introduced during the twilight of its years, GEOS, but it did not quite grasp the imagination of many when the company’s next machine, the Amiga, was user-friendly. It had custom chips to make it a much-loved video rendering machine of the early 90’s before dedicated devices emerged. What made these machines unique is the proprietary technology that was contained within both systems.

Casteels believes that there’s been a push to get that back. He says hobby devices like the Raspberry Pi are totally 100% motivated (influenced) by the C64’s design. Both have a user port, an open interface, that people can program to control robots or use in telecommunications.

“I was going to use one to run my BBS. [After learning the computer language required to get the Pis to operate] they’re easy to program and you can make it do anything,” said Casteels.

“And just because it’s old does not mean the device sucks. I like the old games; they have a certain style that’s not always replicated. I think it’s neat to see the evolution of a form. There’s a simplicity in the earliest games to make them easy to pick up, and my goal is to resurrect all those machines — bring ’em back to life. What I really like to see is us [as a North American community] have some competition with the Europeans. They have amazing stuff going on (with these electronic demos) and these shows fill a stadium, easily!”

This enthusiasm can be understood when looking at a bigger picture. As interest grows for this group and the diehards develop an interest in programming, the future is bright. “Victoria has a really big video game development community, and there’s a lot of knowledge there that can be tapped,” grinned Casteels.

To learn about what events this group is doing next, you can visit their Facebook page here.

 

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