Champions of Commodore

Computer club’s founder finds classic systems have lots of fans, new and old

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

 

Sean Robinson still remembers the argument he used to convince his grandparents to buy him a Commodore 64 computer in 1983.

Events

Commodore Computer Club meeting, 6 p.m. to midnight Sept. 2, Pied Piper Pizza, 12300 N.E. Fourth Plain Road. Meets monthly. Free. http://www.CommodoreComputerClub.com.

Portland Retro Gaming Expo, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sept. 24, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 25, Portland Doubletree Hotel, 1000 N.E. Multnomah St., Portland. Tickets range from $10 to $45, http://www.RetroGamingExpo.com.

Computers are great for homework, he told them, and adults can use programs to manage their finances.

Everybody wins, right?

“That’s what all us kids told our parents (and grandparents) back then,” Robinson said with a mischievous grin. “We’d tell them it was good for school, but what we really wanted them for was games.”

The 39-year-old founder of Vancouver’s Commodore Computer Club still has that machine, which he scored as a Christmas present when he was 11.

It looks a little different today, though.

Robinson souped up his old machine — with a special switch for easy restarting and a pimped-out cartridge that holds every game ever made for the system.

And those are just a couple ways he’s merged new technology with old computers to get what he wants, he said.

“I like to hack and tweak on stuff, make it do what it was never intended to do,” he said.

That handiness is common among members of the retro computing club. They tinker and rebuild electronic gadgets of all sorts after finding them at yard sales, Goodwill or even in the garbage.

And they put them together in ways that their original makers probably never imagined.

Hook an Atari 2600 to a giant flat-screen TV by building your own cable? Robinson’s done that.

Rebuild microchips and repair connections to bring a computer back to life after it’s lain dormant for 20 years? Check.

Hollow out an original Nintendo controller to turn it into a slick retro iPod case? You bet.

“Most of the time when we find stuff it doesn’t work, so we work together and get it fixed up,” Robinson said. “If people bring old computer stuff to our meetings, we can help them get it working, too.”

And if you like old games, members have a plethora to choose from. They usually set up several machines at their meetings and share their toys.

Rick Weis, who’s been coming to the Commodore Computer Club’s meetings since the beginning, said he has the second-largest collection of games in the world for the Atari 2600, a system that was released in 1977.

“I got it two months after it came out,” Weis said. “My parents got it for me for Christmas. That kept me out of the arcades — and they didn’t like me in the arcades.”

Like Robinson, Weis also still has his first system.

Sometimes they nerd squabble about which gaming platform or computer is best, Weis added, but it’s all in good fun.

“We had a Commodore versus Atari 2600 contest at our first meeting, and unfortunately the Commodore won,” Weis said. “But I still like the Atari better.”

The Commodore Computer Club has only been around for about two years, but it’s been growing fast — perhaps because of the Generation X nostalgia for classic computers.

It unofficially started in early 2009 as a weekly get-together of a handful of computer-savvy friends at Robinson’s house, but after strangers started showing up at his door to join in, Robinson decided the club needed to become more public — and stop meeting in his living room.

“Originally it was going to be just for Commodore 64s,” Robinson said. “It was just a bunch of us guys hanging out, drinking beer, playing around with games and Basic programming. But now we have all sorts of computers and a lot of new people, including several women.”

The friends formed the official club in April 2010, after nudging the energetic Robinson to find a more fitting venue.

Since then, they meet on the first Friday of every month from 6 p.m. to midnight at Pied Piper Pizza on 12300 N.E. Fourth Plain Road in Orchards. And the crowds continue to grow, Robinson said.

“Last September we were getting about 35 people per meeting, and now we have more than 50 people at some of our meetings,” Robinson said. “They come from all over. We have some guys that drive up from Tigard and Beaverton (in Oregon) and a few that even drive down from Seattle. Obviously we’re doing something right for people to want to drive three hours to get here.”

Visitors to the free meetings range in age from their early 20s to mid-50s. Sometimes they also bring their kids, and Robinson said he finds it fascinating to see how much more these young players end up liking older games.

“The older computer games, it’s not like killing or stealing like ‘Grand Theft Auto’ or other games today,” Robinson said. “In the old games, you’re not really killing anything, you’re digging holes or saving a princess or eating fruit with Pac-Man.”

Kids also have seem to have an easier time with the old-style joysticks that have only one button, he said.

“Modern controllers, they have too many buttons, it can be confusing for them,” Robinson said.

The club has donated old computers to some groups that work with disadvantaged kids in Clark County, and they hope to do more work with those groups in the future, he added.

“Kids in abusive families, in bad circumstances, it’s great to see them forget about all of that for a little while and just play games,” Robinson said.

The group is happy to accept donations of old computers to fix up for that purpose. The club is also a sponsor of the Portland Retro Gaming Expo Sept. 24-25, and they plan to sell some of their old equipment and machines to raise money for supplies.

They’d love to see more people come by and visit with them, Robinson said.

“Come to learn, come to share, but leave your attitude at the door,” he added.