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The Commodore 64 has a cartridge slot, but by the mid-eighties, cartridge games disappeared; everything was on tape or disk. Why?

One answer that suggests itself is that by that time, a larger percentage of owners had disk drives. However, that was less true in Europe, and in America, if you ask why Nintendo replaced Commodore, one of the reasons usually given is the speed and convenience of cartridges over the slow and clunky 1541 disk drive, so why was there not a preference for the speed and convenience of cartridges on the 64?

It's true that cartridges cost more per unit to produce, but they also eliminate piracy; would this not offset the increased cost, from the vendor's viewpoint?

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    I think not having a 1541 was more a UK phenomenon. I did not know a single C64 kid which did not own a 1541 – Germany, ~1984. – Janka Jun 4 '18 at 7:54
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    By far did they not eliminate piracy, especially in the 80s where enough people were tech savy enough to copy some roms. – PlasmaHH Jun 4 '18 at 8:54
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    Cartridges vs tape/disc are like locks on windows or other home security measures. They don't make it impossible to burgle a house, but they remove the easy win, which will lead to a decrease in piracy. Piracy wise, getting a tape/disk and copying software onto it is trivial for everyone. Messing about with blank roms isn't. – Max Williams Jun 4 '18 at 12:45
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    I had (made) a cart with a switch on it. Close the switch and it would connect the R/notW line to the "cart not present" line. Read from the cart area, you got the RAM behind it. Writes went to the ROM cart, i.e. writes to the RAM behind the cart failed. You could load a game image into that RAM, flip the switch and it emulated ROM. Simple as it was, it was a very closely guarded secret. – Harper Jun 4 '18 at 15:06
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    This question title is very, very misleading. I thought you were talking about specific unavailability of any old C64 cartridges from collectors or musty ol' basements. – can-ned_food Jun 4 '18 at 20:57
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Time to market was another factor. I worked in the games industry in the 1980s and we were getting the final game from the developer, mastering to cassette and disk just hours before they went in to production and (typically leading up to Christmas) they were in the shops just 48 hours later.

Often there would be a bug found and disks would be re-written with the new version and again in to the shops 48 hours later.

Cartridge production had lead times of 12-16 WEEKS. Once you had a cartridge it was a lot of money tied up in inventory that couldn't be reused or changed in the event of a bug being found.

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    ... or in event of the game turning out to be a flop (cf Atari 2600 ET) – Jules Jun 5 '18 at 8:12
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    @Jules: Atari's production volumes for E.T. were excessive. The game sold decently well and was enjoyed by people who took the time to read the instructions. – supercat Jun 5 '18 at 19:17
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    @supercat - sure, maybe "flop" is putting it too bluntly for that specific case -- but you can bet that whoever decided what volume to order had at least a reasonably good understanding of typical sales figures, which shows that predicting that kind of thing is hard. If a big name like Atari can make the mistake of ordering significantly more copies than they turn out to be able to sell, that's a problem that a lot of others will have too. So having to order extra cartridges that are not necessarily going to sell is an expense that a smaller publisher could do without. – Jules Jun 5 '18 at 23:32
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    @Jules: If memory serves, the number of E.T. cartridges manufactured exceeded the number of Atari 2600 units that had been sold to date. Although Atari expected to sell a significant number of Atari 2600 units that Christmas (and they did) there's no way they could have reasonably expected to sell all of the E.T. cartridges they produced. On the other hand, many companies deliberately over-produce high-mark-up products so it they'll appear to be bursting off store shelves, and perhaps the execs at Atari were thinking along such lines. – supercat Jun 6 '18 at 14:41
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A cartridge was limited to 16 kbytes ROM, and some were only 8k. There would be plenty of RAM to use, but the code and data must fit into the 16 kbytes. As programs became more sophisticated, the desire to make full use of the C64's sound, graphics, and sprites, ROM size would often be a limiting factor. OTOH, a program loaded from disk (or for the patient, tape) could use two to three times what a cartridge offered for code and data. Also, disks allowed for overlays and other memory to be overwritten dynamically. Imagine an RPG -- when you leave once city or cave and enter another, you can replace the artwork and music with that of the new place.

I never felt that cartridges "died". They were still fine for a lot of arcade style games, even using advanced SID techniques that were not known to early C64 developers. But as you alluded, disks and tapes were less costly to produce. Cartridges only had two advantages. Programs would load quickly, and cartridge programs were more awkward to pirate.

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    But couldn't cartridges use bank switching to get around the 16K limit? Some cartridges on the NES (which has essentially the same CPU as the 64) contained hundreds of kilobytes of code and data. – rwallace Jun 4 '18 at 5:49
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    @rwallace, Yes, cartridges could have been built with some sort of bank-switched ROM. It would not surprise me if such cartridges exist for the C64. But, unlike the NES and other consoles, the C64 had always been able to use disk and tape. So it offered cheaper ways of producing programs and games than consoles of the era did. – RichF Jun 4 '18 at 6:43
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    Later cartridges had a packer and unpacked the game into RAM rather than running it from the ROM directly. – Janka Jun 4 '18 at 7:51
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    What about the C64GS soft relaunch cartridges? Battle Command, Shadow of the Beast et al? Those are definitely not 16kb games. – Tommy Jun 4 '18 at 10:06
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    @RichF: Given that the C64 has 64K of RAM, there's really not much need for cartridges to use address space beyond the 8K needed to allow them to auto-start. Adding a single 74LS174 or equivalent (a 16-pin DIP) would allow the address space for a cartridge to be easily expanded 64-fold. Copying code from the cartridge to RAM before use really shouldn't be much of a handicap. – supercat Jun 4 '18 at 14:44
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In addition to RichF's answer, tapes were a lot cheaper than cartridges to manufacture. Tape duplication in the 80s was very low cost due to the high volumes involved, not least thanks to music distribution on the format.

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    Indeed, they used to give them away on the front of magazines. Those were the days. – Tommy Jun 4 '18 at 13:36
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    +1 - I remember tapes were around £5 (or maybe £12-13 for brand new ones) while cartridges were well over £20. When you think of the demographic that games tended to be aimed at, tapes were a lot easier on the pocket money... – colmde Jun 5 '18 at 8:23
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    On further thought, I think the price issue also affects outlets. Budget games, often sold for £2 or £3, were packaged up so that a retailer bought e.g. a hundred of them, and essentially got a lucky dip. The target for producers of budget titles was newsagents, corner shops, and other places that might be willing to take a punt but which were unambiguously not computer or software shops. In the UK, at least, that's probably the sole way that many of us in smaller towns had access to commercial titles. The same business model obviously doesn't work for cartridges. – Tommy Jun 5 '18 at 13:24
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    @colmde Actually, the demographic shift was after the video game crash - before (when cartridges were common), it was fun for everyone. Afterwards, Nintendo marketed video games as toys for boys to avoid the stigma. It's funny that Nintendo itself stuck to cartridges, while the competition largely switched over to cheaper alternatives (which fit the new demographic a lot better) - but it should also be noted that they probably assumed they will be bought by parents, not that kids would buy them from their pocket money (in Japan, Nintendo marketed for "the family"). – Luaan Jun 6 '18 at 5:40
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    @Luann - indeed, but if you had a Nintendo, you had no choice but to buy a cartridge and so they'd most likely be bought by parents. On the C64, you had the choice, and so kids could buy them with pocket money which was a lot easier for both them and the parents. I can imagine myself it would have taken a lot of pestering to get my parents to buy even one game on the Nintendo - it would be an occasional thing, (e.g. presents), But I had a C64 and I'd have been laughed for asking for £25 for a game when they were available for £5 - which I could have done myself almost on a whim. – colmde Jun 6 '18 at 7:59
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I know you specifically asked about cartridge "games". But another important factor in the market forces surrounding this was that the cartridge slot was ALSO the one "expansion" slot - A very limited resource on the C64.

As users and the market became more mature, there were many other uses for the cartridge/expansion slot, and these became competition for the limited resource. The most notable use-case being the Kernal firmware upgrades like the Epyx Fast Load cartridge, and all the copycats that followed. But there were also many I/O interfaces, memory expanders, "Freezers", and even high-speed disk interfaces competing for the same slot.

It is true that you could easily plug/unplug the various cartridges if you wanted to maintain access to some library of cartridge games too. And some people did this until it became widely known that the wear-and-tear on the slot was a common source of hardware failure. SO this practice fell out-of-favor fairly quickly.

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    As a C64 user, this was a primary reason for me to not even look at cartridge games anymore after a short time. – Tom Jun 5 '18 at 4:35
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    Definitely a large factor. Though, the wear-and-tear issue could be mitigated somewhat by cartridge switching devices similar to the one shown here. I didn't own one myself, but several of my friends with larger cartridge libraries did. The switch was left connected to the computer at all times and various cartridges would be swapped in and out on the switch with the most frequently used being removed least often. The Epyx FastLoad was always plugged in. – jmbpiano Jul 28 '18 at 20:21
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In my experience the cartridge port (AKA expansion slot) of a C64 was problematic by design. If you look at a schematic of the 64, there is no buffering of any kind between the port and everything else on the bus - particularly the notoriously static-sensitive MOS chips at the heart of the system (e.g. the 6510 CPU). Perhaps this (and the product costs associated with cartridges) had some influence on the drive to use floppies and tape versus masked ROMs.

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    Wasn't this also a problem on the NES? Of course, it's not like the NES had any alternatives, so it doesn't really matter :D – Luaan Jun 6 '18 at 5:42
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Had it in about 1983 I think and I saw just one cartridge: Jaw Breaker.

This was really beginning games for c64; after few time, me and my friends immediately went for tape; slower, bigger, but with better titles. First one I've got (after frying power charger and a month delay) was an adventure game whose name I don't remember who took some 30+ minutes to load from tape... Initially it was worth the while, what a magic when you could type some "go west" commands while listening to auld lang syne and some eerie blotchy graphics painted...

Anyway that doesn't in turn last for long as 1541 came in. In the beginning it was deadly slow it too but didn't care, I had been scrapping here and there just for buying it on the precise purpose of playing Impossible Mission, with all that luxury graphics and synthesized vocals and wonderful gameplay.

After a while, turbo loader for 1541 came in and everything went faster. No need to wait long times anymore. All this really happened in no more than 2 years I think, maybe less.

After that, the only other cartridge which I know of was a trap called Isepic, but that's a different one, you know... Anyway it plugged in the cartridge port where you could lock a couple pin and force system restart... In then end the same system cartridge games used to autostart...

  • "an adventure game whose name I don't remember who took some 30+ minutes to load from tape" ... I know it might have felt like it, but the data rate on the C64's built in tape routines is ~8KB/minute, so it really can't have been much over 8 minutes. :) – Jules Jun 5 '18 at 8:20
  • @Jules c64-wiki.com/wiki/Datassette says ~4K/minute? – rwallace Jun 5 '18 at 12:12
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    It could be that having to load the data twice to verify makes the difference? – sh1 Jun 5 '18 at 16:42
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    @rwallace - suspect sh1 is correct: I calculated the figure from a description of the low level format, but didn't account for error correction overhead, which wasn't described on the page I was looking at. – Jules Jun 5 '18 at 23:35
1

I used multiple Commodore 64s in the past, and I do not remember any of them ever having a cartridge slot. If any of them did, I never noticed them nor used them, and nobody I knew ever even mentioned anything about cartridges on their C64s. Though it's possible I (and others) somehow completely overlooked a cartridge slot, I don't think we had them.

All of our gaming on the C64 was done on floppy disks. We had piles of them laying around, and we could even easily make our own. In fact, making my own games for the C64 was what got me into software engineering.

So...

  1. Not everyone could use cartridge slots (even if only because they didn't know they had one). Even if they all did have the slot, the tech will die if people don't know they have it.

  2. Indy game development (a.k.a: "backyard", "garage", or "home brew" game development) was a huge thing for the C64, so many game developers needed to be able to easily write to their medium and to have people copy it around, meaning floppies were used and not cartridges.

  3. Also note that the trend seems to be the use of the cheapest media that is simple to mass produce. New releases these days are hopefully targeting millions of copies sold, so burning cheap optical discs for a penny or less each instead of paying a quarter or a dollar per cartridge (not sure how much it costs to mass produce them) can save a company millions of dollars. Though the dynamics were slightly different back then, the same principle likely applies.

I think my first point might be a lynch-pin though. If you ask people "Why aren't you using a sprocket?" and the response is "Sprocket? What sprocket?" then that does not bode well for you.

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    @Arron, you probably just didn't notice it. Every C64 I ever saw in the UK, Europe and US had them, as did the C128 that followed. – David Partington Jun 4 '18 at 16:49
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    cartridge slot == Expansion port, the one under the power LED – scruss Jun 4 '18 at 16:53
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    @DavidPartington I used the C128 too, but I also don't remember a cartridge slot on that one either. If I can dig out my old C64, I'll see if I can find this slot on it, though I don't remember where I left the thing. Still, OP's question left me with the feeling I described in my answer: "Cartridge slot? What cartridge slot? All those years playing games on my C64 and I never knew I could play cartridge based games on it?" – Aaron Jun 4 '18 at 19:41
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    The cartridge slot is the one labeled "Expansion". Cartridge games were really only a thing very early in the C64's lifetime though. Later on the most common use was for a FastLoad cartridge to speed up disk access, or maybe an REU if you used GEOS. And yes, the C128 maintains the same cartridge slot and C64 cartridge games will work in it. markus.brenner.de/cartridge/dump1.jpg – mnem Jun 5 '18 at 4:29
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    Not everyone could use cartridge slots (even if only because they didn't know they had one Sorry but that's a pretty dumb satement. If everyone's favourite games were on cartridges, people would surely look for the slot and find it. – Bregalad Jan 21 at 11:04

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