The Epyx Fast Load cartridge, released in 1984, was the first commercially successful Commodore 64 fast load product. Commodore’s 1541 disk drive was much slower than competing disk drives, so fast load cartridges became popular. While the Epyx product was first, and was very popular, it didn’t have the market to itself for very long. Its developer, Scott Nelson, went on to produce other fast loader products as well.
Epyx Fast Load was a plug-in cartridge that replaced the Commodore 64’s stock ROM disk loading routine with a more efficient routine that was about five times as fast. The result was that software that normally took three minutes to load often took closer to 30 seconds with the cartridge.
Why fast loaders were necessary
A typical Commodore game took about three minutes to load on a stock Commodore 64 and 1541 disk drive. Third-party drives weren’t significantly faster. Fast load cartridges sped these load times to a more bearable 30-45 seconds.
When Commodore produced the VIC-20 and the 64, disk drives were almost an afterthought. Commodore found a cheap way to connect a VIC-20 to a disk drive, not giving speed much priority. All that mattered was the disk drive being faster than a tape drive. Commodore originally did want the disk drive to be faster on the 64, but a bug introduced late in the development process slowed the drive down. Commodore didn’t correct it, betting that getting to market sooner was more important.
How fast loaders worked
Commodore DOS was a bit strange. Part of it resided in the computer, but most of it resided in the disk drive itself, which had its own CPU, RAM, and ROM. On a fundamental level, fast loaders worked by replacing Commodore’s load routines with something faster and more aggressive.
There were two common tricks for speeding up load times. One was using a data line that normally sat unused to transfer twice as much data as usual. Another was to do less error checking. There was some risk involved in doing less error checking but in practice it rarely caused problems.
Later cartridges could go faster still, if you were willing to play with disk interleave and other things. But they wouldn’t load off-the-shelf commercial disks much faster than Epyx Fast Load did.
All fast load cartridges plug into the 64’s cartridge port. It’s at the back of the machine, on the side closest to the on/off switch. Cartridges go in label side up.
Never plug in or unplug a cartridge with the power on. It can damage the cartridge and the computer.
When you plug the cartridge in and turn the computer on, you’ll see a nonstandard power up screen. This is your indicator the cartridge is active and working.
Popular fast load cartridges
Epyx’s 1984 offering, simply called Fast Load, defined the genre. It was perhaps the most popular one, and “fast load” became a generic term for all cartridges that performed that function. Fast Load loaded software at approximately 2,667 bytes per second, compared to the normal 430 bytes per second. It originally retailed for $34.95. It’s the easiest one to find today, which speaks to its popularity.
Access Software followed soon after with a similar cartridge called Mach 5 in 1985. It worked in much the same way as Epyx’s offering and gave a similar speed of 2,667 bytes per second. It also retailed for $34.95.
Cinemaware released a cartridge called Warp Speed that was slightly faster, at 4,445 bytes per second. That sounds good, but by the time it came out in 1988, there were faster cartridges on the market. It was a second-generation product that came out when the third generation was under way. It retailed for $49.95.
The Final Cartridge, from RISKA B.V. Home & Personal Computers, first came out in 1985 and boosted speeds to 5,334 bytes per second. The Final Cartridge retailed for $54.99.
Super Snapshot, from LMS Technologies, was also first released in 1985 and loaded programs at 5,334 bytes per second. It retailed for $59.
Datel’s Action Replay cartridge, released in 1986, included more utilities than earlier cartridges. Later versions had much faster load times too, at 8,890 bytes per second. It retailed for $59.99.
As time wore on, newer cartridges worked faster than older ones, and newer ones also frequently supported drives that the older ones didn’t, most notably the 1581 3.5-inch drive. The Final Cartridge, Super Snapshot, and Action Replay all underwent numerous revisions, adding improvements along the way. Everyone I knew personally was a Super Snapshot fan, but based on what I know now, Action Replay was probably the best.
An interesting trend
Two distinct types of software developers produced fast load cartridges. Epyx, Access, and Cinemaware were all game publishers. The later generation of costlier, multifunction cartridges that included fast load capability came from utilities companies. Most of these mutlifunction cartridges included a freeze capability, which dumped the entire contents of memory to disk. This allowed you to save and resume games that didn’t have that function built in, but it also allowed you to defeat copy protection.
To get the highest possible speed, you frequently had to defeat the copy protection and save the file to disk using a nonstandard interleave, at the very least.
Needless to say, game publishers didn’t try to compete in the multifunction cartridge space. And generally these multifunction cartridges were only available via mail order. Retail stores that sold commercial software typically only stocked the fast loaders from the game publishers.
Alternatives to fast load cartridges
Several companies offered replacement ROM chips to plug into the 64 and the 1541 to speed things up even more than a plug-in cartridge could. Examples of this included Jiffy DOS and Dolphin DOS. These could be faster, worked better with third-party drives, and could in fact improve the compatibility of third-party drives in some cases.
Additionally, some software publishers started incorporating their own fast load routines into their software. By using a custom disk format in addition to some of the tricks the cartridges used, they could outperform a cartridge. These tricks also made the programs harder to copy. Scott Nelson’s second fast load product for Epyx, Vorpal, was one of the better and faster examples.
When a software publisher incorporated a fast loader into their own software, it usually didn’t benefit from the cartridge because they both overrode the same built-in software routines. Combining fast loaders only provides a benefit in very limited and unusual circumstances.
Emulating Fast Load in VICE
You can emulate the Epyx Fast Load cartridge or any other fast load-type cartridge in VICE. The images for the cartridges are in the same place you find images of everything else. Simply attach the Fast Load image along with the disk image you want, and then your emulated disk drive will work about five times as fast as before.
Why Commodore didn’t solve the problem
Commodore probably could have addressed the issue themselves, but risk of breaking backward compatibility stopped them from doing so. Instead, Commodore left it to third parties, who would build in a mechanism to disable their speedups if a particular piece of software didn’t work. And sometimes you had to. They typically claimed about 95% to 99% compatibility. That’s good enough for something that’s optional, but not good enough for something mandatory.
There are rumors that Commodore considered bundling a fast load cartridge of some sort with the 1541. They never did, but some of its dealers did.