The C65 was a prototype computer developed by Commodore from 1990 to 1991. It was the last 8-bit computer Commodore ever made, although they cancelled the project before selling a single machine at the retail level. The C65 was to be sold as a vastly improved and enhanced C64 with backwards compatibility. In many regards it would have utterly replaced the C128 for 8-bit fans that still wanted to access their vast C64 libraries but receive a much upgraded low-cost computer with impressive new features that resembled aspects of the Amiga.
The C65 had a more advanced version of BASIC (Basic 10) and a built-in 3.5-inch floppy disk drive compatible with the 1581. Since the 1581 format was not common for most C64 owners and was mostly used as a storage device, the C65 retained the serial IEC port for external Commodore disk drives. That made it possible to use a 1541, 1571 and 1581 disk drive.
It also had a CPU that ran at 3.5Mhz. For comparison, the C64 was 1Mhz, while a stock Amiga 1000 ran at 7Mhz. It also had a brand new VIC-III video chip that could provide an impressive 256 colors from a palette of 4,096 colors with several video resolutions to choose from as well.
But, the C65 was ultimately axed by then chairman Irving Gould. From that point on the computer was shrouded in a lockbox of mystery and intrigue as it faded into the realm of Commodore legend.
Every now and then one might surface on Ebay and fetch over a staggering $20,000. If the thing is actually complete and functional, the price can even soar to 2X that amount and beyond.
About a decade ago a group of talented engineers dreamed up a crazy idea to recreate the C65. They dubbed their project the MEGA65 (M65). “MEGA” is actually an acronym for the Museum of Electronic Games & Art, which is a non-profit organization consisting of volunteers.
The stats of this 8-bit computer are impressive. At a high level is it an FPGA-based computer with a large amount of attention paid towards the physical aesthetics. The fact that the Mega team, across all of these years, managed to actually ship a fully functional C= inspired computer with a real physical floppy drive and mechanical keyboard feels almost like a miracle - especially in 2022 with continuous global supply chain disruptions and shortages.
The Mega65 is currently being sold in two batches. The 1st-batch of 400 machines sold out in a matter of days. The 2nd-batch is still being sold at this time and the number of machines in that batch is 1,000. After that, well… who knows if there will be more? It would be nice to think so, but I only time will tell.
I was in Batch #1 and my machine is #323.
There are a few things you should know before you decide to buy a Mega65 just to set your expectations accordingly.
1. You need to retrain your brain for such a transaction. While it is a significant investment for a “tech toy,” don’t think of yourself as a typical “customer” buying a product on the store shelf. As M65 co-creator Paul Gardners said, you should think of yourself instead as a “participant” in a small but vibrant hobbyist community. And that doesn’t mean writing piles of code necessarily - just engaging at whatever level you can provides a lot of value. Making this mental adjustment should remove any preconceived notions of what you’re going to be receiving and doing the day it arrives.
2. The platform is not “set in stone,” and very likely won’t be. It’s an open source project where currently the roadmap is organic and evolving. This could solidify over time, but right now you’ll be diving into a world that is still being defined on the fly. But, you get to help steer the direction if you so desire. The C65 wasn’t finished in 1991, and neither is the MEGA65 in 2022. The software and platform are very much a Work In Progress.
3. In fact, when you receive the machine you’ll spend the first day learning how to simply get it up to date. You’re thinking, “Isn’t it new?” Yes, but the software that gets shipped will already be dated when you receive it. In the beginning you’ll want to format the secondary SD card, join file servers so you can download software updates (which occur if not daily then weekly), join the Discord and ultimately update the various firmware and OS files on your brand new Mega65 the day you pull it out of the box. I’ve attached a link to a short “QuickStart Guide” I wrote to the description of this video if you’re looking for a checklist of things to do on Day 1 to get caught up.
4. Finally, there are currently no “killer apps” or AAA games at this time . You need to remind yourself what it was like when you got your very first C64, and imagine it not having a tape or disk drive. All you have is that manual on the desk in front of you with some type-in programs in the back. Thankfully, you have a very vibrant community eager to help so you aren’t entirely deserted on a desert island.
The machine is not, and quite likely never will be, 100% compatible with the Commodore 64. If you were thinking of buying one of these machines in the hopes it would replace your C64, there are a ton of much cheaper and vastly more compatible solutions in the market today. If that’s your goal, you really should get an original C64, or an Ultimate64, or a MiSTer or some other much cheaper and more stable machine. The MEGA65 is a lot more focused on its own path: an enhanced and upgraded C65, not the C64. While it’s true some C64 software will work, a large portion of it simply won’t.
And here’s why:
- Use of illegal opcodes will crash programs, and many C64 games use illegal opcodes extensively.
- Games with copy protection schemes will not work
- Games with Fast Loaders will not work
- And any games that were hard-coded to look for a 1541 will not work
There are several Batch #1 M65’s that have faulty Real Time Clocks (RTCs). The rhyme or reason for the failure at this time is unknown but it isn’t software related. My RTC seems to be fine. However one of my good friends who has an M65 with a serial number just 4 digits away from mine with the exact same chipset has a faulty clock.
You can use my QuickStart Guide to easily determine if your RTC is one of the good ones or if you’ll be looking for a secondary solution at a later date.
With the Batch #1 cases the mould maker in Germany named Hintsteiner apparently removed all of the cases from the moulds before they were fully cooled. As a result, many cases have “stretch marks” on the top shell and even minor warping on the bottom shell. In general, the warp appears to be no more than 1mm. However, this can make the back area very unstable and even make a case audibly pop if pushed without much effort.
When I put in my RTC battery, I pried my lower shell outward 4-5 times in different locations near the center-back. The plastic is surprisingly bendable and not rigid. After reassembly, my warp appears to have been mostly fixed. Do this at your own risk, but I’m pleased with my results.
NOTE: This is not a recommendation you attempt to fix your case like I did mine. Do this at your own risk.
The fact we have this machine on our desks feels like a gift from the gods. The never-ending passion of the Mega65 team to get to this point is, frankly, inspirational and still hard to believe the dream came true.
For me, this was the first time in over 30 years where I actually felt like I was a kid again opening a box with a brand new computer that Commodore created. Is that really what happened? Of course not. But that’s what it felt like. In my heart I touched the sleeping face of Commodore for the first time in a really, really long time.
The issues with the case were a surprise. But is it a huge deal? No, not really. And it’s a mostly fixable problem.
The keyboard is the star of the show, full-stop. It feels like the Amiga 2000 cherry mx mechanical keyboard, and it’s probably a small step up from that, too. The keycaps are simply gorgeous and feel … well, perfect.
I do find the location of the PSU’s cord port awkwardly close to the cartridge bay. If you ever use cartridges, simply removing them without knocking the cord is a bit of focused surgery.
And whoever the wise guy at Commodore that decided the mouse and joystick ports should favor left-handed people is not my hero. But I do like the power switch and reset button over there. And I realize the Mega65 is designed this way for historical purposes.
All in all, I have to get the hardware an A- and I think that’s a very fair grade. Had the case been solid (and without stretch marks) and PSU put in a place where my hands never go I would have given it an A. Regardless of these minor issues the machine is a gorgeous labor of love. On the software side, I can’t really grade it since it is incomplete and still in a state of flux. But the potential of the machine makes the journey ahead feel exciting if a tad uncertain.
I did buy this computer realizing it would likely be a long time before I could really sit down and use it, though. Why do I say that? Because I’m not a programmer - I’m a user. If I were a programmer… my goodness. I’d be over the moon wanting to create for this fascinating platform. As it is, I’m really at the mercy of the small yet passionate community that supports it. And I know I’m not alone. Other than diving deep into how to update my machine, there’s honestly not a ton I can do with it today besides typing in simple programs in BASIC.
My dream for this machine is for it to be the ultimate C= 8-bit battle station. 100% rock solid C64, 100% C128, and that includes 100% compatibility with CMD peripherals and code. AND a vibrant M65 scene that takes things to the next level and makes some Amiga die-hards totally jealous.
I want an all-in-one Commodore Dream Machine. That sounds pretty “mega” to me. But at this point, I think if 1/3 of that dream ever came true I’d be over the moon, and I think expecting all 3 are probably far-fetched any time soon, if ever.
Realistically, I can see my M65 getting carefully stored in the near future. If I popped it out every 3 months to update the core files then put it back in storage, I don’t think I’d be missing out that much since I’m not a developer. Except I do love looking at it and using it, even if it’s purely for maintenance purposes at this early stage in its life. I can’t wait to do more than update system files some day, and I do know that day is coming. And while I wish the C64 compatibility wasn’t so Wild West, I totally understand why it is what it is, and might always be.
And I’m 100% fine with that.
Thanks, Mega65 Team.
If you’re looking for a more in-depth guide, I highly recommend my friend Dan Sanderson’s 2022 Welcome Guide. He takes things to the next level and provides a lot more detail for those that want to really roll their sleeves up and dig in.
- A.L. -