Ye Olde Nintendo 64

I fixed up a Nintendo 64 this past weekend. People of a certain age affectionately refer to it just as “the 64,” though to me, “the 64” refers to a computer with 64K of memory introduced in 1982. I have an inherent bias against almost anything that reminds me of 1997, but in spite of my biases, I found a number of things to like about the system after spending a few hours with it.

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Using s-video gear with Commodore monitors

Commodore and Atari used an early implementation of s-video on their home computers in order to show off their computers’ advanced-for-their-time graphics. Many monitors sold for those computers featured compatibility with this feature, which was called “separated” or “y/c” composite or at the time. JVC called the feature “s-video” when they started using it on their SVHS camcorders starting in 1987, and JVC’s name stuck. Other companies followed suit, and s-video and the mini DIN plug became an industry standard.

Commodore and Atari used a different connector than JVC did, but all it takes to use s-video gear with those old monitors is a cable, which you can make with about $10 worth of parts from Radio Shack. Read more

How to connect a Commodore 64 to a television

It is less than obvious how to connect a Commodore 64 to a television, especially a modern television, and it’s even more difficult if your C-64 didn’t come with the cables or the manual.

There are, as it turns out, several ways to do it. The C-64 and 128 have an RCA jack on the back that matches the RCA jacks on most televisions, whether LCD or CRT. Confusingly, this isn’t the key.

Old-school switchbox
An Atari-compatible switchbox like this one will work with a Commodore too, but it probably doesn’t have the right connector for most newer TVs

That RCA port sends out a modulated RF signal, not a standard video signal. Originally that port was intended to connect to a switchbox that connected to a two-wire type of TV antenna connector that was common in the 1980s. Commodore used the same switchbox as Atari, so you may have one laying around or be able to find one in a box of ancient computer and videogame cables.

RCA/F connector adapter
This cheap part will happily connect a Commodore to most televisions today

If your TV has a round antenna connector rather than a two-wire connector–a fairly safe bet–you’re in luck. You need an RCA video cable along with a converter, which you can get from Radio ShackAmazon or Ebay. Ebay is likely to be the cheapest option, but be careful on Ebay to get something that looks like the picture to the left–it’s easy to accidentally buy the opposite. Incidentally, that same part also works with Atari consoles (Atari 2600, anyone?) and 8-bit computers like the Atari 400 and 800.

Using either the switchbox or the adapter, the Commodore video signal appears on channel 3 or 4 on your TV. There is a sliding switch on the back of the machine to choose which channel.

But that’s not your only option, and today, it’s not even the best option. Near that plug, you’ll find a round DIN-type plug. On most C-64s and the C-128, it has 8 pins. On the very early versions of the C64, it has 5 pins.

Commodore video cables have the proper DIN plug on one end and RCA plugs on the other. If your cable has two plugs, it’ll plug right into the composite video and audio plugs on most recent-ish TVs. The color codes should even match. If the video cable has three plugs, what you have is actually separated composite, an early implementation of S-Video. No problem; get a Y-adapter with a male connector on one end and two female jacks on the other end, plug the red and yellow RCA plugs from the Commodore cable into that, and then plug the adapter into the video plug on your TV. Or, if your TV has an S-video connector, I cover that in more detail here.

What if you can’t find a Commodore video cable? If you’re handy with a soldering iron, you can make your own cable with parts from Radio Shack. You’ll need a 5-pin DIN plug, two male RCA plugs, and two lengths of speaker wire. Shielded cable like RGU-58 would be better, but isn’t totally necessary.

Here’s the pinout on the Commodore video port.

    no connection -----8           7-----no connection
                             6---------chroma out
       audio out -----3             1----- luminance (B & W signal)

          audio in -----5         4----- composite video out
                             2----- ground

Solder one wire from each of your lengths of speaker cable to pin 2 on the DIN plug. Next, solder the other end of each wire to the outside post of each RCA connector. Next, solder the other wire of one cable to pin 4 and to the RCA plug, and label that wire pair “video.” Finally, solder the remaining wire to pin 3 and to the other RCA plug, and label that wire pair “audio.”

If you have a S-Video plug on your TV and you want a higher-quality display, I have instructions for connecting via S-video.

Way back when, a Commodore monitor gave a much nicer picture than a television. This was because the switchbox degraded the signal significantly. A modern-ish TV with standard RCA video connectors gives at least the same quality display that a Commodore monitor did, if not better. Picture tubes improved in quality during the 1990s. Display quality on LCDs varies, because LCD TVs tend to be a bit picky about composite signals and most consumers are more concerned about digital inputs than about the old analog inputs these days. As a general rule, the older the LCD TV, the better it’s likely to work as a Commodore display.

Now that you’ve succeeded in your quest to connect a Commodore 64 to a television, if you need help hooking up disk drives or loading games, I can cover you there too. And if you have a VIC-20, connecting a VIC to a TV is similar, but not quite identical.