My Commodore 64 Viata secreta

I grew up with a Commodore 64 as my best friend. The C64 offered a new world to escape to from the banality of 5th grade. This is a story I always tell and people respond with a blank stare eventually uttering, “What was the point?  That’s pretty stupid.” So you just shouldn’t bother reading this.

When I was ten I acquired a 300 baud modem. Services like Quantum Link (later to become AOL), which were primitive chatroom networks, soon lost appeal after I was repeatedly kicked off for excessive cursing. I started logging on to local BBSs (bulletin board systems) where a SysOp (one lonely guy) set up his computer to receive other users one at a time. The BBS’s featured message boards and download/upload areas. I was still involved in the real world of life, not totally ensconced in the world of computers, but I was looking for a way out, something new that would let me escape the constant ridicule of being fat and weird. Unfortunately these local BBSs were not the answer because they were usually run by old geezer hobbyists and most of the BBS members were from his close circle of friends.   On the message boards they usually talked about RUSH.

I was always scouring the cheapo software bins where budget companies like Mastertronic would sell their games for $10 a piece.  There was something enticing about these games in that they were obscure and were the effort of a couple people rather than a whole design team. Even if the game was absolute crap, it was a more personal and interesting experience than dropping $40 on a fancy multi-disc game from Electronic Arts. Like my record hoarding and MP3 collecting these days, it was like finding a treasure in a garbage dump.

Free cracked games were easy to come by with a modem. With a snail-slow 300 baud modem, it usually took about two hours to download 160 blocks…but the magical world that opened up by acquiring cracked games was more than worth it…and it wasn’t about the games.

Every cracker put intros on their warez.  An intro was a little graphic demo with a logo, some SID music, and a scrolling message greeting other cracking groups and generally boasting how their group is the best. These intros were very mysterious and very iconic. Most of these kids were anywhere from 13-18, but they really knew how to make a powerful bold statement utilizing the limits of a rudimentary computer.

In addition to the mystery of intros, most of the games were from Europe since the Commodore was much more popular over there. A European cracking group would put their intro on their crack, send it over to the states and the American group would NTSC fix the PAL version and slap their intro on it. So not only was I getting this kinda exotic game, this obscure little treasure from across the ocean, I was getting two original pieces of art. I soon took more delight in looking at the intros rather than playing the shitty little games (and in some cases, the intro coding, grafix and music was far superior than the game).

The local BBSs rarely supported cracked games and the ELITE BBSs (it was a very hierarchal social group), which had multiple disk drives of software to download, generally didn’t allow 300 baud users. I eventually saved up 50 dollars and soon upgraded to a used 1200 baud modem. I now had my foot in the door.

My phone bill was running up from calling BBSs.  My mother screamed at me every time the phone bill came in. I was mostly calling in-state long-distance but most of the ELITE BBSs were out of state.  In order to bypass a huge phone bill, I had to acquire codez.  These were calling cards and special phone company extensions like the ubiquitous 950-0488s. There were a fresh crop of codez on the BBSs every couple days as most became inactive pretty quickly.  I never hacked codez and didn’t have any elite hacker friends, so it was a bit hard to get a fresh source. I occasionally would use a code that had been working for weeks, knowing that it might be a potential trap.  I was willing to take the chance rather than having to deal with my mother.

The few friends I had slowly started to berate me for spending so much time on the computer.  They thus labeled me “Faggot” as well as “Butt-Jam”. Eventually I was exiled from the group and my only remaining friend was the computer. But my status in the Commodore 64 underground was rising! I had changed my handle to “Opus X” to “Death Merchant” and I was a member of some of the most elite BBSs in America. I was no longer a lamer.

I was soon accepted into a demo group named “Venom”. Demos were a movement that grew out of intros, where the programmer wanted to show off his skills in a bigger way. This was my grand achievement since there were maybe five demo groups in America at the time and Venom was one of the best. I was the grafix guy, which meant I would spend hours making silly little pixilated Venom logos and send them off to one of the ML programmers to incorporate into the production. In school I would sketch out ideas for Venom logos and I would lose hours of sleep lying in my bed concocting new concepts for logos and demos.

I became very good friends with the other Venom members strictly through the telephone. I lived in Jersey and most of them lived in California.  We would talk for hours about ideas for new demos, scene gossip and the imaginary girlfriend I had. I had no friends at school but I had a whole other world at home through the telephone, modem and computer. The California guys would sometimes have demo parties where they would hang out and program…I was always on the phone with them, wishing I could be there.

There was another Jersey guy in Venom who lived five miles away. We were close, but I never met him in person.  He was in and out of mental institutions, sometimes coming home to his grandmother’s house for the weekend only to shut himself in and furiously program a demo. Our friendship outlasted our computer days, but I did not see him until five years later. On my first visit he hid in the dark and constantly held his hand over his face. He was very self-conscious and didn’t let me get closer than ten feet of him.  He eventually started dating a friend of mine…I don’t think she ever saw his face either.

Through this subculture I learned a lot for a 13 year old. While other kids were sticking firecrackers in frogs’ mouths, I was on conference calls with 10 people from across the continent and across the world, I was making art that many people saw and I broke the law without anyone suspecting or finding out.

Around 1990, the phone companies grew more sophisticated in their tracking techniques and more busts were being made- thus the codez started to run low. I was down to using a group of 1-800 codez that had been active for months. Everyone knew it had to be a trap…but I had no other choice. If the codez dried up, my only life, which I worked hard to develop, was gone. I eventually befriended a hacker who gave me fresh codez but who also laid a bomb on me…

He had broken into the system of the company that owned the 1-800 numbers I was using as backup. He told me that the company has been tracking the users of these codez  and I am second on the list of highest grossers and that I was going to be busted very soon.  This came as little surprise to me as I was always pretty certain it was a trap.

Eventually the kid at the top of the list was busted- he was an 18 year old SysOp in Milwaukee. Word got around that the cops trashed his place looking for addresses and evidence. They even took a notebook of heavy metal inspired drawings for psychiatric evaluation…or so the tall tale went. I knew I was next in line and was just biding my time.

One day I was faking sick to stay home from school. The phone rang and I knew in my gut who it was…my number was finally up! I was right.  I immediately took a 2×4 and smashed the hell out of the computer screaming, “FUCK! FUCK! YOU WILL NOT TAKE MY FUCKING LIFE AWAY FROM ME!” I was a bit of a spazz back then, but my point was that I was ready for the real world again…being outside, lighting fires in the woods, going to the carnival, fucking girls, fucking shit up and smoking cigarettes.

They sent me a bill- I had accumulated $2500 in phone calls…I was shit scared but also a little disappointed that I didn’t have the mythical police raid I heard so much about. I denied everything. I’m not sure if my mother believed me but she backed my story. We pointed out that I’m only 13, how can a 13 year old do this? Impossible! We picked out dates and times where I couldn’t have possibly made a call because I was at school…which I knew was not true.  They eventually dropped their pursuit. I think I still have the 100+ page bill somewhere at my mother’s house.

I didn’t touch a computer for another five years. I occasionally would call the old computer pals (legally) but it didn’t last long. Whenever I’m at a bar or party and the conversation comes around to computers, I always ask the inevitable question, “Did you ever have a Commodore 64?” in a feeble attempt to connect with my past and perhaps find someone who I once knew or who can at least relate to it. I have not found anyone yet, and frankly, I’m not sure I want to.

All of my gear and disks were destroyed in a basement flood along with all of my hard work. I always found it odd how I spent so much time on an artform that just magically disappeared with the death of the C64 scene.  It gave me an appreciation of the ephemeral. It cultivated a love for the pointless, to make art for arts sake, for the concept…not for the end-result or some grand statement. Ironically, all of my work from when I was 13 still lives on the web to my great surprise…longer than any piece of shit drawing I ever made.

In retrospect though- I was always a lamer.  The grafix I made when I was 13 are quite pathetic and I wasn’t smart enough not to get caught. I only lasted 3 years in the cutthroat world of the C64 underground, but I always look back on it with fond nostalgia.

Commodore Demo Scene Related Links:

You can look at the nice pictures, but you might want a Commodore 64 emulator:

Power64 for Mac


The Demo Dungeon – Currently the scene lives on in demos. I’m astounded people still code on the machine and I’m amazed how far they push it.   The 15 year old programmers grew up and got an education in graphic design and engineering, so the typical logo, scroll, flying sprite tradition is replaced by crazy morphing filled vectors, interlaced plasma effects, and sid tunes that sound like the sid chip is about to melt…(and unfortunately a lot of drum & bass sounding crap).  There are annual contest parties held in Europe where they exhibit their work.

C64 Crack Intros – a database with examples of more than 2000 Commodore 64 crack intros.

Doc Snyder’s C64 Crack Intros Redone In Flash – If you don’t have the time to putz about with an emulator you can see what the hell I’m talking about with these Flash crack intro versions.  Unfortunately the immature silly boasting scroll text has been replaced.

CSDb – The Commodore 64 Scene Database – A scene database with a vast repository of cracks, demos and sceners dating back to early ‘80s. There is a message forum where 35 year old men quibble over 20 year old spats, people look for old friends and the very occasional current scene news is revealed.

High Voltage Sid Collection – A complete collection of all SID music ever composed. You will need a SID PLAYER emulator: SIDPLAY2 for PC  –or-  SIDPLAY OSX for Mac 

Here are some great MP3 examples of SID music. I tend to enjoy the very sour sounding compositions.

??? – The Captive – from a cheap Mastertronic game. Voted one of the worst SID tunes ever.

David M. Hanlon – Enlightenment: Druid II – The infamous Swedish cracking group Fairlight would always use this song on their early intros. A spooky classic.

Otto Jarvinen – Dumdum – A Sid tune from 2000.

There are also more SID tunes on Liz B’s C64 SID TUNE post HERE