(The documentary 8-Bit Generation: The Commodore Wars – reviewed here by Chris Reed– made a bold move by premiering on video game streaming service Steam back in December. The film is now available on DVD via the fine folks at Kino Lorber.)
Way back in the early 80s, I had a TI-99/4a computer on which I taught myself to program in BASIC and wrote some really simple “choose your own adventure” games. I never progressed much beyond such endeavors, although a friend who had the same computer was able to program circles around me – he later earned a PhD in Computer Science and now considers himself retired early, thanks to an early 1990s job at a start-up founded by Reed Hastings of Netflix fame.
Me? I parlayed my childhood interest in technology and videogames into various jobs in the tech industry, but I never hit a big payday with a start-up, so here I am writing a review of 8-Bit Generation: The Commodore Wars, which offers a 104-minute overview of those wild-and-wooly early years.
I had expected it to be more of a look at the history of Commodore, but this documentary is actually more of an overview of the late 70’s and early 80’s, with an emphasis on Commodore. The company founded by Holocaust survivor Jack Tramiel was a disruptive force in the home computer industry in those days, thanks to his ruthless nature, so this film uses that story as a centerpiece, but it also diverges for chunks of time into the goings-on with Apple, Atari, UK firm Sinclair, and others.
It’s also a film that requires a basic foundation of knowledge about those early days, since it dives into discussions of things like the MOS Technology 6502 processor with the assumption that you understand why such a thing was important. It can be a bit technical at times, but if you have more of a layman’s view of technology, like me, you can make your way through those parts.
Tramiel was interviewed for this documentary before he passed away in 2012, as was his son Leonard, who shows up for the only bonus feature on this DVD, which is a 14-minute TEDx Talk interview with him. That one is definitely even more of an “inside baseball” experience than the main documentary.
Many others from that era show up too, including various Commodore executives, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, Atari engineer Al Alcorn, Richard Garriot (also known by his game programmer pseudonym, Lord British), and MOS Tech 6502 processor engineer Chuck Peddle. Commodore engineer Bil Herd provided narration and also shows up as an interviewee.
According to the web page for 8-Bit Generation: The Commodore Wars, there are digital versions of the movie that include the full Jack Tramiel interview, as well as other materials, but those bonus items don’t appear on this disc, unfortunately.
– Brad Cook (@BradCWriter)