Commodore MAX Machine

When I think about my Japanese vintage computer collection, I tend to think of the FM-77 (which I no longer have) as my first system, and the Sony HB-F1XD as the one I’ve had longest. But neither of those are true. My first computer in this collection is the MAX Machine. It doesn’t come to mind first because I tend to group Commodore separately. And admittedly it doesn’t get used much, because it does nothing that my Commodore 128 can’t do. But it’s still an interesting piece of computing history!

It shares some important technology with the Commodore 64. The CPU is the same 6510 that pushes the C64. It also has a VIC-II chip that is essentially the same as (but actually not compatible with) the one in the C64. And every MAX Machine packs a 6581 SID chip.

How is it different? Well, let’s start with appearance. Before the familiar brownish-grayish C64s were released, the MAX Machine came with this, in my opinion, beautiful-looking silver and black machine with red accents. Where it starts to fall apart is the keyboard. It’s a full keyboard, but it’s a membrane keyboard. For a little back-and-forth between menus and such, it’s not that bad, but I don’t think you’d want to do much serious programming on it.

Not that you could, because the machine only had 2KB of memory instead of the 64KB of the C64. The only two programming languages I’m aware of for the MAX Machine are Mini BASIC and MAX BASIC. Mini BASIC only had about 512 bytes (bytes!) of BASIC memory. MAX BASIC, on the other hand, has an additional 2KB of memory on the cartridge itself, so it can load BASIC into the machine’s memory and have a whopping 2047 bytes of BASIC memory for itself.

If you notice above, the program output is not as expected. I think this is probably not a bug in the programming language, but perhaps indicates bad RAM, either on the cartridge or in the machine. Other games don’t seem to have any problems, though.

Many of the ports are the same as a C64. It can support a datassette, the joystick ports are the same (and actually have a better arrangement, one on each side) and the PSU is the same. The AV port does not exist, so the MAX Machine could originally only display over RF. One big difference is the existence of a dedicated audio port, which happened to be stereo. This is tremendously useful for a hack to get composite video coming out of the MAX Machine.

What about software? Well, it’s pretty limited. There were only a handful of cartridges available, and I believe all were made by HAL Laboratories specifically for Commodore. Many of these games had previously been released for the VIC-1001/VIC-20, and many were also made available on the C64, either exact replicas or improved versions. Many of you will probably recognize this one by picture alone.

But if not, it’s Avenger. The next one, though, looks quite a bit different from its C64 version, and the music is different, too.

Well, *that* one is sure off-center. But you probably recognized it as Kickman, anyway. In addition to BASIC programming, there were two music creation programs and Visible Solar System available, so productivity (of sorts) and education were also possible on these machines.

And there were a handful of games that I don’t believe were released on the C64. For example, Bowling and Slalom.

Although these games weren’t released for the C64, they *are* compatible. MAX Machine cartridges plug right into a C64 or C128 and load fine.

Another influence the MAX had on the C64 is that the C64 implemented what is called MAX mode. The intention was for compatibility with these games, but your favorite fastloader/freezer/replay etc tool for the C64 probably plants itself firmly in MAX mode to operate without impacting the C64’s memory, and to be able to operate independently from the other program you are running.

The box was also totally different from the C64’s many boxes. It follows the machine’s black and silver theme with a heavy helping of blue.

By the way, all of my software in this post was launched from a MultiMAX cartridge, designed by Rob Blake and Michal Pleban and this particular one was made by Sven here in Tokyo. The MultiMAX has all known software for the MAX Machine, including alternate versions, and if it actually still runs on a MAX Machine, the updated C64 versions. Pretty slick and convenient!

I do have some of the original cartridges, but they’re hard to find!

Commodore 64

Wait, what? What is this doing here? The Commodore 64 is as American as apple pie, right? This is a Japanese Vintage Computer Collection blog, no? Commodore has a lesser-known side to it – Commodore Japan.

Actually, this is by far the rarest piece in my collection. I struggle to find exact numbers, but I have only seen this item appear on Yahoo Auctions four times since I started paying attention about three years ago. By contrast, I’ve seen probably 100 MAX Machines in that time, which themselves are considered quite rare.

From a distance, it looks like a standard Commodore 64. In fact, the product name is just that: Commodore 64. But this is the Japanese edition. What’s the difference? Well, in some ways they are very similar, but in other ways, they are night-and-day different.

If you crack open (not literally!) the machine, you’d think you’re looking at a regular Commodore 64. Don’t think there’s any component in here that you couldn’t find on a standard Commodore 64. CPU is the same, SID (6581) is the same, PLA is the same, VIC-II is the same, and I gather the smaller ICs are also the same. The contents of the character ROM and kernal ROM are different. We’ll look at how that pans out later.

Put the cover back on, and with a more careful look, some differences are apparent. Probably the most eye-catching thing initially is that the shift-lock key has been replaced with what we’ll call “C=-lock” (and verbalize as “commodore-lock”). Off in the opposite corner, the £ key has been replaced with the ¥ key. But take a look at those characters on the fronts of the key caps. On almost every key is a Japanese katakana character.

Before we start, we have to turn on the computer. And that’s when we see another set of differences: at the BASIC screen, the default color scheme is different, the font is different, and the amount of free memory is different (more on this later).

So let’s get to typing that katakana! When you type, though, the alphabet appears. How do you access the katakana? First, you must enter the second character mode, by pressing C= + shift (lowercase mode on a standard Commodore 64). After that, katakana is accessed the same way you access the petscii characters in the corresponding locations on a standard Commodore 64: by pressing C= and typing the characters. That’s why that C=-lock key is so useful!

The ¥ key produces the yen symbol without the need for the C= key. And although they are not visible on any key cap, there are also three kanji that the system can produce. They are directly accessible by pressing shift and typing the +, -, and ¥ keys. The characters are 年 (year), 月 (month), and 日 (day) All of the katakana and kanji characters are handled by a one-to-one replacement in the character ROM.

Katakana is usually used for writing or typing loan words from western countries, but it contains every sound of the Japanese language, meaning you could type an entire document or book with it. It would be a nightmare to try to read a large body of text that way, but it would be possible.

Compatibility with western software is varied. First, it’s NTSC only, so PAL games that don’t work on a North American Commodore 64 won’t work on this machine, either (although I feel PAL and NTSC incompatibility, while certainly extant, is overblown). Additionally, due to the character ROM difference, games that rely heavily on text may load but could be unplayable unless a custom character set is employed by the software. And most cracked software won’t work as-is because of the memory offset, although this can usually be easily worked around.

For the most part, though, I find original games load just fine. Here it is playing Alternate Reality: The Dungeon, my favorite game of the time.

The first picture is a title screen and shows the kinds of problems that may occur due to the character ROM difference. Fortunately, that’s all sorted out before the actual game starts. The second picture is from the game’s introduction. This image made a big impression on me since the first time I loaded it, and it will stick with me forever – it shows just how beautiful and vibrant this 16-color computer is really capable of being. The third is an in-game shot.

There is another option for loading games. Fastload or replay cartridges such as Epyx Fastload or Action Replay can be plugged into the system. This forces the memory to be reconfigured to the expected amount available to BASIC. In the case of Epyx Fastload, this works as long as Epyx Fastload is capable of loading your desired software. In the case of Action Replay, you can disable the fastloader, the memory will still reconfigure, and then you should have the same compatibility as a North American Commodore 64 (possibly exempting character display problems).

The box is also apparently unique. I’ve heard a couple of people who collect C64 boxes say they’d never seen this one before. It’s in a bit rough shape, but I think you can get the idea.