RESTORE/CTRL – I have a Commodore 64. Who cares? (Part I)

Right, so if you’re a Commodore enthusiast/fan/nut/hobbyist/etc, you’re probably well aware of the surge in awesome bits and gizmos and upgrades that folks have been coming out with for the venerable C64 and its cohorts. We’ve seen updated and modernized replacements for the SID, the RAM, the CPU, even the motherboard itself (also here)! You can get a new case for your C64-C, and build your own Competition Pro joysticks! There’s even a whole microcosm of NEW hardware and software still being developed for this thing, from wifi modems to modern high-def video output. Unfortunately, the most tangible part of the C64 -the keyboard- has been the most critical and most difficult upgrade project yet.

The reason for this is twofold:

  1. From the start, designing a keyboard from-scratch is tough enough without mechanical engineering experience. Re-designing a keyboard that was conceived with a completely different set of sensibilities and assumptions in the first place is nearly a nightmare. This is NOT a generic USB peripheral that follows a low-cost, prevalent and universal design scheme; but rather a purpose-built component of another more complex device.
  2. Changes and adaptations of this magnitude are not often or easily developed without a substantial backing of some kind. There are many aspects of the Commodore’s primary input mechanism that were unique when they were designed, and are now all but left behind except for us aficionados keeping the memory alive. From the odd standalone key selections (“£” guys, really?) to the better-than-the-ZX81-but-still-cheap-as-hell key actuation design, to the “that’ll do” keypress detection process, developing and building a modern replacement for the C64 is a long, twisted and frequently un-paved road that takes time, patience and money to traverse.

Somebody looked at all of this, considered the factors involved, and declared “Challenge Accepted” and the MechBoard64 was revealed to the world shortly afterward, in 2018.

2 years later, MtnBuffalo released everything into the wild. All of the design files and specs, now placed out on a silver platter with an open invitation to take it and make the world a better place with it.

What he’d achieved was epic. This was the final piece preventing us from building (or re-building) a C64 from scratch, with modern parts!

Well, almost.

You see, the key mechanisms were definitely part of the problem where the typing experience was concerned, but what about the most visible and tactile part of it all: the keycap? Those keycaps were designed at a time when school secretaries still worked with ancient, chonky-as-frig mechanical typewriters. The more affluent offices sprung for a new hotness IBM Selectric or clone, but one thing they all shared in common was the same blech keycap design. There simply wasn’t any motivation to research alternate profiles, layouts or general designs, mainly because touch typing wasn’t yet really a thing. You had to know where you were about to put that finger tip, and once you put it down, you were committing to push that sucker with determination and grit to make sure you got the best impression of that letter on the underlying paper that anybody had EVER seen! Yeah!

What I’m saying is it’s not just the key movement that is sub-par by comparison, but the keycaps themselves, as well. After you’ve gotten a taste of even the cheapest, crappiest membrane keyboard out there, you’ll still go back to the Commie and wonder how you ever thought this was ever good enough. I mean, of course it was good enough when that was all you had or knew, but now? Yeah, we can do better.

So I’m wanting to take MtnBuffalo’s efforts, and honoring his desire to see his baby move forward and inspire new things, I want to push it higher and farther. The MechBoard64 gave us the means to use modern Cherry MX-style key switches and modernized the underlying PCB as well. What it did NOT address was the sub-par keycaps and their positioning. In fact, you had to use authentic C64 keycaps with adaptors to make this project work and look best!

A “1U” keycap
A “F-U” keycap

The problem with that is that Mitsumi, in their infinite wisdom, used some kind of wacky Lego-esque design for the keycap mounts. This meant that any key longer than a “1U” didn’t necessarily maintain a post hole in the center, but rather added on holes to span the width, like the sockets underneath a long Lego piece. So double-width caps like the Shift, Control and Restore keys actually had the post mounted under only one end of the cap, resulting in the key feeling grainy and eventually more difficult to press as time and dust accumulated.

And of course, there’s also the fact that the Mitsumi post head is not similar enough to Cherry MX to work without using adapters of some kind, too, so now the keycaps are on stilts.

Okay, so that’s the state of things now. We’re almost to a fully-modernized keyboard, but those dang keycaps are causing headaches. We need to replace those, but the original molds for them are long gone now. There was a project to re-create the original design and start churning out replacements in a variety of colors, but supplies are pretty much gone now, not to mention terribly expensive for the privilege of changing your Commie’s keycap colors. Otherwise they don’t do anything to address the design’s issues with post placement, nor of course the cheap-and-crappy, plastic-on-plastic sliding mechanism underneath.

We need keycaps that:

  1. Work natively with the popular, broadly-available Cherry MX switch form factor (no adapters, just literal plug-n-play)
  2. Do not wear out quickly under regular use
  3. Adhere to the now-universal keyboard layout standards, while honoring the original design and placement as much as possible.

Got it? Keycaps are the sticking point, but we’ll get to that. For now, let’s start gathering up what we’ve got to work with, and adapt as needed from there.

We can shortcut a lot of the hard work thanks to MtnBuffalo’s generosity, but some things will need to be adjusted to make the concept more accessible and cost-effective

Read more: RESTORE/CTRL – I have a Commodore 64. Who cares? (Part I)

You may also like...

Leave a Reply