MAX Machine is alive!

It’s of course always great to know someone in your vicinity who is a Commodore fan, but in Japan, that’s quite a tall order! Fortunately, I live just outside of Tokyo, so there are a lot of people nearby, so at least one of them was bound to like Commodores, too. By chance, I learned that someone else from the Commodore 64/128 Facebook group lives in central Tokyo. We met over beers the first night, talked a bit about this and that, including Commodores, and we have been in regular touch ever since.

This friend knows how to solder, and I have no valuable skill to offer in return, so that’s great. We met on Monday this week and did assorted troubleshooting, and while we were at it, we performed the previously mentioned “one-wire mod.” And by we, I mean he, of course. Pretty sure I learned a bit about technique by watching him, though.

The idea is pretty simple: the VIC-II outputs to the RF adapter, so we steal that signal and re-route it to the audio jack. Since the audio jack port has two output channels available, but is only using one (sort of*) it can handle the video, no problem.

and there you have it!

*Mine required a bit more work, as I had a “revision B” motherboard, which actually uses the second audio channel, but not for anything the MAX Machine can actually take advantage of. We had to remove a capacitor to retake control of the second audio channel. It was for audio input, so perhaps they planned for the possibility of using that in future software, but the machine’s history was cut short.

I have Avenger (Space Invaders clone) and Music Composer as native MAX Machine cartridges, and was pleased to learn that some of my other cartridges from my Commodore 64 also worked: Jupiter Lander, Visible Solar System, Radar Rat Race, Kickman, and Sea Wolf. After reading up on things, I’m not sure why my Omega Race cartridge doesn’t work on my MAX Machine, but it doesn’t.







There may still be room for improvement in video quality. The attached photos look pretty good, but there is a ghosting effect that the photos aren’t showing. There may be some adjustment I can make within the RF adapter, or if I feel ambitious with the soldering iron, I can even alter the “single-mod wire” to a two-wire mod and create an S-video connection. But for the time being, I’m totally thrilled to have this piece of Commodore history up and running!




MAX Machine

My first foray back into Commodore collecting was this semi-rare machine by Commodore Japan. Pretty sure it was my first Yahoo Auctions purchase (Japan is the sole country where eBay lost the online-auction war so Yahoo Auctions still prevails here). The price fluctuates wildly; I’ve seen untested units without box or power supply go for as little as ¥15,000, and I’ve seen unused units or good condition units with multiple boxed games go for as high as about ¥70,000 ($150-700 or so). Games average about ¥5000 in their boxes. I see about three or four of these machines a month, although sometimes there is a dry spell where only one or two overpriced units are available and don’t sell.

Mine was midrange in price, at about ¥32,000, including two cartridges: Music Composer (boxed, okay condition) and Avenger (loose). It includes a box, but the box is not in good condition at all, so I kind of want to get rid of it. With such limited space, I only want to keep boxes if they’re in really good shape. But I can’t bring myself to throw it out.

box front

box back
(actually I have no idea which is front and back)

MAX Machine is a tremendously stripped down version of a Commodore 64, although the two machines are definitely related. Some key similarities: they both have a SID chip, both have a VIC-II chip (although they’re not compatible VIC-II chips), and a handful of their cartridges are compatible with one another. If you remember the Commodore-branded C64 cartridges like Radar Rat Race, Jupiter Lander, and Kickman, usually very simple games, they were often originally released on the Commodore MAX Machine, developed by Japanese software developer HAL Laboratory.

Cosmetically, it has nearly nothing in common with the Commodore 64, although the keyboard layout is the same. Let’s have a look:

main system

For starters, there was a clear color palette difference. The first run of Commodore 64s had a grayish case (later tan) with brown keyboard and white lettering, the MAX has a kind of futuristic-looking black and silver design with red accents. And the keyboard itself is a membrane type, compared to the C64’s full-travel keyboard.

Around the perimeter also holds some differences. One thing I consider a big plus is that the MAX Machine had one joystick port on each side. ON. EACH. SIDE. Behold!

Oops! You can’t see anything because they’re pretty deeply recessed. But trust me, there’s a port on each side and it’s great because then the joystick cords don’t get tangled and you don’t have to worry about sitting so close to the computer if you’re sitting on the opposite side of the joystick ports, as you do with the Commodore 64. As if I have anyone to play with, and if I did, as if we’d choose to play Radar Rat Race, right?

The back has some familiar (inter)faces.

system rear

If the power connector looks a little too much like the C64 power connector for comfort, that’s because they’re the same. No MAX Machine power supply but got a C64 one? You’re in such luck; you can MAX Machine. Power switch is up/down, also like the C64. The audio port is unique; despite only having an RF port for video as opposed to a dedicated video port as the C64 had, they nonetheless decided to provide an audio port. For reasons explained later, this is actually tremendously (albeit accidentally) useful. Cartridge port. Although only a handful of games are compatible, the port itself is the same as the C64’s. Standard RF channel selector and jack. Only difference is that instead of channel 2 or 3 in the US, it’s channel 1 or 2 in Japan (sorry, NHK). And the cassette port is also the same as a C64’s. So if you have a C64 setup, a MAX Machine can take advantage of a few things you may have lying around.

But the MAX Machine provided a bit of a challenge when trying to function in today’s more sophisticated world. Can’t just take it and plug it into a modern television (mine has only a digital tuner, while the signal is analog) and since there’s no video port, you can’t even connect it to an RCA jack. At first, I could only confirm that the machine worked by plugging in headphones to the audio port, plugging Avenger into the machine, and guessing that F1 would start the game. I heard noises (putt. putt. putt. putt. POOOSH!), so I felt somewhat relieved that it was at least partially functional. Don’t be disappointed, this is not the aforementioned “tremendously useful” feature of the audio port. Although, don’t get me wrong, producing audio is awfully useful!

No, definitely, the first thing you should do with a MAX Machine is perform this so-called “single-wire” mod. You route the video signal from the VIC-II to the unused pin of the monophonic MAX Machine’s stereo jack, and voila, single-channel audio and video are now available on the audio port. Grab a stereo Y-cable and connect to an RCA AV jack and you’re up and running! This is the tremendously useful feature of the audio port, so please be excited now.

However, I don’t know how to solder (yet?), so I have to wait a bit. For now, this remains a visual curiosity in my collection.