Commodore 64 vs Nintendo 64

Last Updated on October 5, 2018 by Dave Farquhar

The Commodore 64 and Nintendo 64 have similar names, but they aren’t related. The number “64” was significant enough that both companies wanted to brag about it. But in the case of the Commodore 64 vs Nintendo 64, the number meant two completely different things. Here’s why that number keeps coming up.

Commodore 64 vs Nintendo 64: Two different eras

The Commodore 64 was a beige box introduced in 1982. It recycled its design from the earlier VIC-20 to keep costs down.

Commodore released the Commodore 64 in 1982 at a price of $595 US. Nintendo released the Nintendo 64 almost a generation later, in 1996, at a price of $199. That’s almost a generation in human terms. In the 1980s and 1990s, technology was moving fast, so 14 years in those days was several generations.

The Nintendo 64, in spite of being purely a game machine, had far more computing power than the similarly-named Commodore 64 from nearly a decade and a half earlier.

As you can tell from the pictures, the two devices don’t look much alike. They both reflected their eras very well. The Commodore 64 was a great example of an early beige-box computer. By the mid 1990s, beige boxes were very much out of fashion. Nintendo went out of its way to make the N64 sleek and curvy, without a hint of beige.

Commodore 64 vs Nintendo 64: Kilobytes vs bits

commodore 64 vs nintendo 64 - the N64
The Nintendo 64 featured a contemporary late 1990s design that went out of its way not to be beige or boxy.

In the case of the Commodore 64 vs Nintendo 64, the number 64 referred to two similar sounding but very different things.

The Commodore 64

The Commodore 64 had 64 kilobytes of memory in it, which was a lot of memory in 1982. It was the first computer with that much memory to sell for under 600 U.S. dollars. This was revolutionary at the time. Commodore’s competitors couldn’t figure out how they sold a computer with that much memory for that little money.

The Nintendo 64

The Nintendo 64 had a 64-bit CPU and digital signal processor in it. In this case, the number 64 refers to the size of numbers a chip can handle at a time without having to break the number up. This allows for greater speed, more complex graphics and sound, and larger amounts of RAM. The Commodore 64 had an 8-bit CPU in it, for comparison, and the personal computers of 1996 had 32-bit CPUs in them. For that matter, the most significant thing about Windows 95, released a year earlier, was that it took full advantage of 32-bit CPUs.

So in the 1990s, 32 bits was a big deal. Then Nintendo came along in 1996 with a 64-bit game console and it sounded revolutionary. Granted, it wasn’t a true 64-bit CPU in a modern sense.  It operated internally at 64 bits. But when it talked with the rest of the system, it talked 32 bits at a time. Modern 64-bit CPUs like the one in the computer you’re probably using right now talk 64 bits internally and externally. True 64-bit CPUs were cost prohibitive in 1996 at the price point Nintendo wanted to hit.

Nintendo also went out of its way to mention its partnership with SGI, the company whose computers powered the Pixar movie Toy Story. Some of the technology behind the first computer-rendered full feature film suddenly was available in your living room.

Commodore 64 vs Nintendo 64: Sales figures

In both cases, the Commodore 64 and Nintendo 64 were marketing coups for their manufacturers. The Commodore 64 became, and remains, the best-selling computer model of all time. It sold more than 20 million units between 1982 and 1994.

The Nintendo 64 enjoyed a slightly shorter production run, from 1996 to 2003, but sold 32 million units. Selling 32 million units between 1996 and 2003 isn’t the achievement that selling 20 million units between 1982 and 1994 was, but it was a success Nintendo had trouble duplicating. The Gamecube, which replaced the Nintendo 64 on the market, was a disappointment in comparison.

Commodore never came close to replicating the Commodore 64’s success.

Commodore 64 vs Nintendo 64: Computer vs game machine

Although most people remember the Commodore 64 for its games, Commodore was careful not to market it as a game machine. Commodore intended for it to be a serious computer. Its slow disk drive prevented it from getting much use as a business computer, but it did have word processing and spreadsheet applications, and eventually it even gained a Mac-like graphical operating system. One of the selling points was that since it could use a disk drive, it was capable of playing more complex games than a dedicated game console could.

The Nintendo 64, by comparison, was strictly a game console. Although it was possible to hack some newer game systems into a general purpose computer running Linux, that wasn’t the case with the Nintendo 64. But thanks to its advanced CPU and graphics, the Nintendo 64 could play games that a computer of its time would struggle with. The one-upmanship between computer and console gaming went on for generations.

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