Commodore Cassettes

While visiting this weekend, my Dad mentioned that while cleaning he had run across some “old Commodore games.” He then handed me three old homemade cassette tapes full of games.

Out of the box the Commodore 64 only supported cartridge-based games, but most owners quickly upgraded by adding either a cassette-based Datasette drive or a floppy disk drive. Back in 1985 when I got my first C64, Datasettes cost around $40 while floppy drives were $200 — about the same price as the computer itself. By the time I got my Commodore, anyone who had previously owned a Datasette and had upgraded to a floppy disk drive would have gladly given you their old Datasette for free.

And while Commodore’s disk drives were notorious for being slow, the Datasette was unbelievably slower, transferring data at a whopping 50 bytes/second. To put that in perspective, a 5 megabyte mp3 file (5,242,880 bytes) would have taken 104,857 seconds (just over 29 hours) to load. So while Commodore’s floppy disk drives seemed (and were) slow, they sure seemed fast to previous Datasette owners. Of course, 5 megabyte files were unheard of to home computer users in the 1980s. As a matter of fact, Commodore cassette tapes could only store around 100 kilobytes of data, which means to store that one single mp3 you would have needed 420 cassette tapes to do so (technically only 240, if you used both sides).

I didn’t personally use a Datasette for more than a couple of weeks back then. I got my Commodore sometime during the summer of 1985, and got a disk drive for my birthday that August. In later years there were advances in tape-loading technology (speed loading techniques and the like), but in 1985 loading from and saving to cassettes was akin to digital masochism. While I have read that especially overseas there were Commodore users that primarily used the Datasette, in the US I didn’t know a single person who did.

Based on the program names handwritten on the sides of the cassette cases, it appears these tapes are filled with small, public domain games. Still, I think it might be fun to dig out my old Datasette and see if these tapes still work. I was under the impression that cassette programs could be transferred to mp3 format and loaded via emulation, but I can’t find any reference to that online. Assuming all the programs are written in BASIC I should be able to load them into memory and save them onto floppy disks. It’ll be fun trying.

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17 comments to Commodore Cassettes

  • Matt Bailey

    That is awesome, can’t wait to hear if they still work.

    I swear I have a Datasette somewhere around here….. oddly enough, it’s not in the same drawer as the C64.

  • Steve Davis

    The nanosecond after I got my 1541 all my cassettes went onward to greater glory by recording Dr. Demento shows. I never had anything worth keeping on them. Just stupid stuff from school computer science classes. Urk!

  • mike warma

    I had a datasette! eeeeeeeeeeeee-orrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-boooooooooooooon-eeeeeeeeeeeep I loved my 5 and a quarter drive. It is hard to believe that in 20 years they went from that to something about the size of a credit card that is light years more powerful and storable

  • Transfer them to .wav files first. THEN play “let’s make it run on old hardware”. Just pull them all in as one big .WAV.

  • Matt

    I remember them well.

  • Wow, 100K capacity, and 50 bytes per second data transfer rate? I remember people telling me Datasettes had high capacity, along the lines of 300-400K, but like you say, nobody ever had one. And 50 bytes per second wasn’t even double the speed of a 300 baud modem. Ouch.

  • If, by some miracle, you get those running, I will handle all the organization involved in getting a few of us to properly bet on the outcome of a few rounds of HORSE RACE.

    Horse Race, you have yet to see your finest hour!!

    (Additionally, I would also like to describe own abominable finances during the period of time right before Christmas as “FINANCIAL AIDS.”)

  • I remember getting my first C64 Christmas 1983 and I also got a datasette. I was 11 at the time and recall saying to my grand parents who gave me the wonderful gift of Commodore that the datasette was super slow. A few weeks later I had a 1541 disk drive which I helped pay for with my savings from doing yard work, etc. It would be cool to see if your tapes still worked. I recently pulled out my datasette and loaded Robbers Of The Lost Tomb… it took about 10 minutes before I could actually play the game. Yep, back into the closet it went after that :)

  • Rob

    Man, I love posts like this one that bring some of my best friends out of the digital closet. I love you guys!

    I can’t remember if I paid for my Datasette or if someone just gave one to me. Most people who originally owned Datasettes and upgraded to floppy drives had no use for the old cassette units, once they migrated all their cassette programs to floppy disks.

    It looks like most of your experiences (“I had one for a couple of months and then upgraded”) match mine. Again I am limiting this to my own experiences, but I never met anyone who used one after 1985 or so. To me, “Commodore Guy using a Datasette” back then is like “Computer User using WebTV Box” today.

    @ICJ: If I get it working, I will get a PayPal pool for a round of HORSE RACE and will video record the results.

  • @Rob: It’s awesome when you do posts like this one, especially related to Commodore goodness :)

    I still keep my datasette around for kicks, or to show kids of today how lucky they are with high speed internet.

    Speaking of slow, 300 baud modems were slow. Start a download, go to bed and hope it was done by morning or that the person running the BBS didn’t need to use the phone and disconnect the modem. hehe.

    Just think Rob, most of us from the Commodore computer generation (early 1980’s) are the last generation to remember when there wasn’t an internet. Crazy.

  • @Rob: Excellent. I’m in. I’m in!!

  • I started out with an Atari 800 that used a cassette data drive. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…

  • By the way, my first modem (also for that Atari computer) was 300 baud – but you could downshift to 150 if that was too fast!

  • Stephen B

    I received my C64 on Christmas 84. The computer worked for half a day. The day after Christmas, my dad fought the crowds and got it exchanged. I got the C64, datasette, a couple of joysticks and Pitstop on cartridge. I used the datasette for probably a year. Prior to getting a disk drive, the majority of my programs came from books and magazines where I had to type them in. While some aspects were a pain, sometimes we would encounter pure goodness after spending hours typing in a program. TurboTape which appeared as a type in program in early 85 made living with the Datasette much better.

  • An old friend of mine had an Atari 800 with a cassette drive. I remember loading up Zaxxon, typing cload, going downstairs to watch cartoons, and coming back up to play. Seemed like an eternity for that to load.

  • Steve Davis

    I remember programming ‘Horse Race’ On something similar to this back in the cave man days of computers. The horses were the four card symbols (heart, club, spade and diamond) they would flash one at a time across the screen from left to right and would announce: (symbol) WINNER!
    That was the coolest thing. Gawd, how easily entertained we all were back then…

  • Some tools here to make .TAP files from (or to) .WAVs:

    .TAP is a tape-format that encodes the digital data preserved in the audio signals. Using this you can “clean up” a tape by dumping it, making a TAP, then regenerating a WAV. Or you can share the .TAPs and others can use them. The filesize is of course ridiculously tiny.