"8-Bitters" were connecting to them, having virtually "off the grid" discussions and playing games outside the watchful eye of Google and the rest of the internet. I wanted to connect to them, too.
Back in the day (BITD), people connected via modems over telephone lines. But these days most folks I know don’t even have land lines anymore. People have found creative ways to hook old vintage machines up via WiFi, as many of the old terminal protocols are entirely compatible.
The C64 specifically has an extension port called the User Port which, via an adapter, can communicate over RS-232 serial. It is through the C64’s User Port where the magic happens. These devices allow users to “call” BBSes, which amount to telnet sessions these days. But other than the odd “boinks-boink!” sounds, the rest is as real as it gets.
Part 1: Getting the Commodore 64 Online via Wi-Fi Modem
When it comes to Commodore Wi-Fi capable modems, there are two popular options right now that one can buy and start using immediately.
The least expensive options is called the WiModem. The advantage of this option is first and foremost it’s relatively low price of $55 plus shipping, depending on where in the world you live. It comes with its own little OLED that displays its connection status, and it plugs right into the user port on the back of the C64. Popping it in requires less depth than a typical cartridge, which is nice especially for those with limited desk space.
The second option is the Wi-Fi Modem (a.k.a. Schema modem), designed and built by Leif Bloomquist (@schemafactor) in Toronto, Canada.
The cost of the Schema Modem is $150, plus $20 for the USB programmer dongle and flat rate $10 shipping worldwide. It also comes with some little plastic legs (standoffs) that you can pop into holes in the card to give it more stability when plugged into the Userport when not used with a plastic case. More on cases later.
The Schema modem is the one I purchased, as it has a lot more potential. Regardless, both options are excellent for getting online. Once you’ve received your modem (e.g. the Schema) all you need to do is put the OLED screen onto the board by pressing it into the MicroView socket and pop in the standoffs.“The Commodore Wi-Fi Modem is built around two main components: The Arduino-compatible MicroView with built-in OLED screen, and the Roving Networks RN-XV or “Wifly” wireless module. These give you significant flexibility to use it as a straight-forward wireless solution for your Commodore, with optional expandability for standalone use or as a platform for interfacing to the outside world.“
Next, you need to do an initial configuration of the modem and get it onto your wireless network. The OLED is extremely helpful in this regard.
Turn off your machine, plug in the card, and turn your machine back on.
“You should see some diagnostic messages on the OLED screen, and flashing green and red LEDs. The flashing red LED indicates an error, but this is normal on first powerup as the SSID has not been set yet. “
Now, it goes without saying that you will need to have an original terminal program or a way to read a disk image of a terminal program (e.g the Ultimate ii card, etc.). Assuming you do you have or can download and use a terminal program, load it up and run it. For me, I use CCGMS V2.0 Elite (CCGMS is still being actively developed, amazingly). It is very simple and gets the job done. Others prefer NovaTerm, but I find it to be way too much software (i.e. full featured, and slow) for my needs.
By default, the modem is configured with the following parameters: 2400 Baud, No Parity, 1 Stop Bit and Flow Control: None
From the WIFi User Manual:
Note: In CCGMS, I found that I also needed to go into the main menu’s Dialer/Params (F7) and change the BAUD to match there, too (e.g. 2400). This seemed to reduce problems greatly.1. Once in Terminal mode, press ENTER or the Reset MicroView button on the Modem to bring up the Menu.
2. Select option 4. Configuration Menu.
3. Select option 2. Set SSID.
4. Follow the prompts. For WEP mode, you’ll need the 26-digit WEP Key set on your WLAN Access Point. For WPA or WPA2, you’ll need your WLAN’s passphrase.
5. The SSID is automatically saved into the RN-XV and will persist. To change the SSID, follow this procedure again.
6. The default configuration is to obtain an IP address automatically via DHCP. To change this, refer to the User’s Guide.
At this stage you should see your LED lights showing green. If you have a red light after the config process, something is amiss and you’ll need to check your settings.
A yellow LED represents the transfer of data.
And that’s it! That’s all you need to get your C64 rocking’ and boppin’ like the old days (minus the pirating, credits, and status crap).
It’s worth noting that there are BBSes out there that display in 40 column mode as well as 80 column. The C64 is a 40 column machine, and BBSes that display that natively make for a very nice experience.
centronian.servebeer.com:6400 (6400 is the port) is an Ivorymod BBS based out of B.C. Canada, and runs off a real C64. It’s a relatively small but active group.
Particles has been around since 1992 and is a very full-featured BBS. It has a lot of forum options, and even includes some fun multiplayer PETSCII games.
This board is in 80 column mode, so if you “call” you’ll want to have the proper video capability or it won’t be awesome.
All of these BBSes also provide browser-based access so you can log in if you're at work and away from your C= or other 8-bit machine. All the guys in these boards have been a part of the scene since the scene was fresh, and are all very cool and helpful - and simply fun to hang out with and talk old-school tech and games.
For me, as for many others, BBSing is just so different and refreshing from most of the forums and social media offerings out there today. There is immediate respect given and found, focused topics and discussions, and a “quietness” that has become one of my own forms of “zen” and mediation and I catch up on the boards. And oh man, I really had nearly forgotten what it was like to really TYPE on the C64 keyboard!
If you decide to join one of the BBSes mentioned above, look me up - I’m ‘intric8’. See you around!
Part 2 (Optional): 3D Printed Enclosures
Before my Wi-Fi card arrived from Canada, I knew I was going to want to get a plastic case for it. I want my snazzy device to look like a real bonafide product, personally, not a plucked robot chicken. Luckily, there is a fabulous online shop that will 3D print cases for your C= Wi-Fi modems. There are multiple color choices, too, although a visual preview of the actual product would have been nice.
Also, 3D printed plastic parts are covered in a rather distracting texture. It’s the nature of how they are printed, but they aren’t exactly “pretty”. They kind of share the visual similarity between a wafer cookie and some sort of insectile honeycomb. Since this is going to be a part of my beloved C64 “retro battle station” I couldn’t just leave it like this.
The first step involves a lot of sanding and filling with either a plastic epoxy or filler compound. Warning: this stuff is nasty. Most have horrible fumes and should be handled with plenty of ventilation. The compound has to be pressed into the gaps all over the housing. I first sanded the housing for a few hours. I wasn’t going to put the thing in a show, so I cut a few corners (I should have never gotten the Wi-Fi symbol printed, as it just made this process worse). Next I went on the hunt for a cheap spray paint for plastics.
At first I thought I had hit an out-of-the-park home run with Krylon Colormaster “Cover Max” paint. The cap seemed to match perfectly. It didn’t.
Note: There are 3 main types of paint finishes to choose from: Glossy, Satin and Matte (or Flat). Satin is the closest type to match the original bread bin plastic, which was my personal goal. I’m not obsessive enough to have a custom paint mixed for me, but I am OCD enough to try 3-4 paints. I even researched modeling paint options, but the truth is that none of them got exactly the right hue either, and those paints cost quite a bit more than what you can find at the hardware store in the U.S.
After a few test sprays, I wound up going for an ultra-flat camouflage paint, with the plan to do separate clear satin spray finish when I felt I was done. That combo would get the color and texture as close to what I wanted for under $12.
The two paints were: Krylon Camouflage, Ultra-Flat, and [branding and name nightmare] Krylon / ColorMaster / CoverMax / Clear (Satin). I chose the Camouflage color since, well, Commodore is a military name, after all. I felt this got it closer to its roots even if the hue was slightly off. I could still see a lot of imperfections in the case after my initial paint sprays, so I continued to sand and add filler. I missed a few spots… Getting into the tight spots is really a bitch, as the plastic is a very hard material and not easy to sand. Ultimately, I feel my final result is still a bit too much on the “beach sand” color side of things - it probably lacks a bit of blue pigment - but it looks pretty decent and I’m happy with it. It looks far better than what I got in the mail and blends in well with the C64.