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Mimic Systems Spartan: Apple II emulator for the C-64

The Mimic Systems Spartan was an elusive bit of C-64 hardware that made it Apple II+ compatible. It’s one of the more interesting Apple II clones of the 1980s. People thought of it as an Apple II+ emulator for the Commodore 64, though it wasn’t emulation in a modern sense.

Mimic Systems took out full-page ads in all of the Commodore magazines, starting in late 1984, promoting the product heavily.

The problem with it was that you couldn’t buy one, at least not in 1984 or 85. The Spartan finally appeared in 1986, and at that point, not many people wanted one anymore. So Spartans are exceedingly rare today.

But it actually seemed like a decent idea. In 1984, that is.

Why someone might want an Apple II+ emulator for the Commodore 64

mimic systems spartan

This is a Mimic Systems Spartan ad from late 1985 showing prototype hardware.

The C-64, you see, was a bit of a late bloomer. It sold well out of the gate, because it was a 64K computer that cost half as much as any other 64K computer. But there wasn’t a lot of software for it during its first couple of years on the market. And even once the software did start rolling in, most of it was game software, because the machine happened to be really good for that.

Meanwhile, the Apple II+ had thousands of software titles available for it, including the spreadsheet Visicalc. Coleco successfully marketed an add-on to allow its Colecovision game console to play Atari 2600 games, and I’m sure that idea inspired the creators of the Spartan to try a similar product to make the C-64 compatible with the Apple II+. After all, it neatly solved the lack of software to run on the 64.

Why not just buy an Apple II+ or a clone? Well, in the early 1980s, not many households wanted two computers. Space was an issue–they took up a lot more space then than they do now–and then there was the expense of duplicating all those peripherals. Not only would you have to buy two computers, but two monitors and two printers as well. So if you could buy a module to give yourself both a C-64 and an Apple II+ and let the monitor and printer do double-duty, you stood to save 600 bucks. In inflation-adjusted dollars, that was $1305. Plus, a Franklin Apple II clone cost around $1,000 in 1984, so a $599 Spartan plus a $299 C-64 was cost competitive.

The problem was, you couldn’t buy one in 1984.

How it worked

Essentially, the Spartan was a complete Apple II+ clone that plugged into the back of the C64. It even had its own dedicated 6502 processor. The 64 provided the keyboard and not much else. The Spartan included a board to make the Commodore 1541 able to act like a dual Commodore/Apple compatible drive. But essentially, you ended up with two computers, acting somewhat independently, sharing the same display, keyboard, and disk drive.

Why the Mimic Systems Spartan failed

Arguably, in 1984 the Spartan solved a problem. But the product didn’t appear on the market until 1986. The technology world moved much more slowly then than it does now. But even in the 1980s, two years was far too long.

By the time the Spartan finally appeared in 1986, the C-64 had a huge software library of its own, more than any single individual would ever buy. Meanwhile, the Apple II+ was old hat, replaced by the IIe and IIc, and all of the newest, best Apple software required one of the newer machines. There were several Commodore spreadsheets available by then, so it didn’t make a lot of sense to buy an expensive add-on to run Visicalc. Worst of all, by 1986 V-Tech was selling its Laser 128, an Apple IIc clone, for around $400. You could buy one at Sears, in the same department as a C-64 or 128.

At $599, the Spartan wouldn’t sell. They cut the price to $299. That was better. There wasn’t a huge market for an Apple II+ emulator for the Commodore 64 by 1986, but if it worked well, maybe it stood a chance.

Assuming Apple didn’t sue. That was always a risk. But in this case they didn’t need to.

Critical reception

I only saw one review of the Spartan, in Run magazine, probably sometime in 1986. It worked fairly well, but the reviewer destroyed her Commodore disk drive trying to install the board that made it work with the Spartan. So she ended up buying a Commodore drive to replace the one she destroyed, plus an Apple-compatible drive to dedicate to the Spartan. That worked, but it turned the $299 project into a $700 project. And for $700, well, you could buy a Laser 128 at Sears, get a monitor to go with it, and run all the Apple IIc and IIe software that wouldn’t run on the Spartan. There was still that issue of finding enough room in the house for a second computer. But if you really wanted to run both Apple and Commodore software, a Laser 128 was a better option. And the Laser 128’s distributors advertised it in Commodore magazines, so Commodore owners certainly were aware of it.

The Laser 128 sold fairly well. The Spartan didn’t. It wasn’t long after that review that the ads for the device ceased, the president of the company ran away to South America, and pretty much everyone forgot about the whole thing.

The Mimic Systems Spartan is a prized collectible now. Even in the 2013 timeframe, when vintage computers were still fairly inexpensive, Spartans would sell for $500 to $1,600. Today when they show up on the auction sites, they can sell for double that, depending on completeness.

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