Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Mega-Cart for the VIC-20

This text was originally published in the c64 disk-magazine VN#52.

Although this is a C64 disk magazine it can sometimes be interesting to keep track of what is going on in the subcultures surrounding this one. Many contemporary artists and hackers move in-between platforms in a pace similar to how often we old whisky snotted geezers change underwear. With the rise of emulators and YouTube, demonstrations of various kinds are open to a wider audience. In this article we take a look at a recently produced cartridge for the older and less able brother of the C64, the VIC-20. The bulk of work in developing the Mega-Cart has been achieved by "NBLA000" and "6502Dude", with additional help from "Carlsson" and "Ral-Clan", all part of the "Denial VIC-20 Community". The progress from idea to product has taken place during the past years and it is since this spring being sold (and crafted) from out of a cellar in Toronto suburbia, Canada.

It should be said that I am pretty much a novice on the matters of the VIC-20, I am a C64 nerd after all. As a young kid in the late 80s I actually owned one very briefly which I had purchased second hand. However, as it did not last many hours until it broke down (for reasons still unclear), I never got into it. A few months later I bought a Commodore 64 with lots of Turbo 250-tapes, and the rest is history. Twenty plus years down the road we end up some months ago. My Data Dungeon (la version Odense) emerged from out of the dirt and moist and I decided it was the time to get my hands on a VIC again. I got it with a 1530 Datassette and a few original Commodore game-cartridges.

To brush up memories of what we are talking of the brief history of the Commodore VIC-20 is something along the line of a computer announced in 1980: It was the first of the home computers to sell one million units, it came with 5 kB of RAM and the name VIC derives from Video Interface Chip which is the integrated circuit chip responsible for generating graphics and sound (3 square wave + "white" noise + global volume setting). The screen is 22 columned (characters per line) as opposed to the 40 we are accustomed to on our C64 basic blue screen, the processors are similar though. Commodore discontinued the production of the VIC in 1985.

With the VIC set up in the data dungeon I started browsing the different online fora to hear what was being said about the Mega-Cart. Jeff Minter "Yak", Frank Gasking and others praised it, but what made me decide to order my own was the superb YouTube unboxing video by "marlinlee". Whom would not want to hang out with gods? After some minor problems with my PayPal account Brian "6502Dude" quickly manufactured my Mega-Cart (serial no #0167) and it reached my Danish address only three days after dispatch from North America. In short, order and delivery worked smoothly.

When starting the VIC-20 up with the cartridge plugged in the menu beneath the Mega-Cart logo hits you: Cartridge Games, Tape/Disk Games, Utilities, Normal Reset, Soft Reset and Last Selection. If certain peripherals are plugged into the computer additional options are available: Disk Utility and Easyload+Plus. The menu system is accompanied by a tune composed by the Swedish musician "Carlsson". The Mega-Cart contains all VIC (179!) games originally released in cartridge form, and 53 tape/disk-games (a few of which has gotten a recent brush-up by Denial VIC-20 forum members). For a scene-snob like myself I appreciate the Extra-Menu the most though, which appears if pressing F2 in the main menu. The extra menu comes with a few demos, tunes and graphics by the artists out there. Worthy a note is the tune "Slowride" by Daniel Kahlin and the demo which the Finnish group "Pers' Wastaiset Produktiot" released at Assembly 2003: "Robotic Liberation". The latter one connotates certain Fairlight and Triad demos from the early 2000s, and is part of a fabulous trilogy. Apparently there are also a few Easter eggs in the cart, of which one appears if hitting u in the F2 menu. There is also supposed to be individual surprises having to do with the serial number of the carts, but I still have not figured that one out.

Having grown accustomed to the wonders of the 1541 Ultimate I obviously miss such a feature in the Mega-Cart. An option to plug in a SD-card (or via USB transfer onto a built in memory function for that matter) in order to emulate disk- or tape-images and thus keep up with recent productions without having to rely on a disk- or tape drive, would have made it all even more beautiful. Another con is that despite of the save function in the cart - a "non-volatile RAM" (one can favourite items and chose last selection) - the hi-scores in the games does not save. The other day when I was down in my data dungeon enjoying a Bayersk 2,8 I scored more than decent on "Frogger'07", the game Kaze had beat me senseless in a few days earlier. It is an annoying shame that he cannot witness my hi-scores next time he is around. Though having said this, as a C64 geek the Mega-Cart has opened my eyes a bit to the older brother, and the Mega-Cart is great for a few rounds of classic (or should I say vintage) gaming. There are quite a few titles which come with great game play (as opposed to the 3D FPS-rantings the youth is spammed with today).

Obviously, the Mega-Cart is for the VIC-20 and the vast majority of releases I am ever going to enjoy are on a C64. But this is a gadget from 2009 which is a must-have for those with enough nerdy guts. Order your own at