If you’ve been watching my ramblings about the forthcoming Elite:Dangerous title, you may have also read that I’m planning on building a special machine for this to run on.
I used to have a C-64 many years ago. 1984 or thereabouts I think. And it was on this cutting-edge 8-bit micro that I first discovered Elite. How they crammed so much into so little space back then confused me no end but this was the game to which I lost a considerable chunk of my youth.
My plan, which started to take shape as soon as I discovered that Elite:Dangerous was going ahead, was to get hold of an old C-64 and rebuild it. I wanted to retain as much of its original form factor as possible, only with slightly more advanced and capable internals as E:D was likely to be a bit of a beast. The E:D Kickstarter campaign ended successfully on January the 5th 2013 and since that date I’ve been searching for potential hardware for this project.
After what has seemed like endless months of weighing up the pros and cons of Intel and AMD, identifying various motherboards, CPUs, RAM and video cards, then comparing their physical characteristics for layout, height, width and depth and power requirements and assessing the resulting physical volume with the internal space of the C-64 box I decided that, as the time for the E:D Premium Beta was approaching, I’d better just get on and order the best stuff I could find. And afford.
And so here we are. The time has come to hack this piece of gaming memorabilia into something fitting on which to enjoy the latest instalment from the Elite stable.
If you want to know more about the hardware used in this project, I’ll add a complete list of resources at the end when I’ve finished building it.
So where to begin? With the case of course! My old 64 went who-knows-where almost thirty years ago so in one (surprisingly short) trawl of ebay I found one in a typically aged condition, for about £22 including postage.
Opening it up brought back many memories, but also revealed just how little space was available internally given that the keyboard was secured to posts that hung down from the upper half of the box.
I had intended to keep the keyboard and run it through a tiny Arduino-type interpreter to remap the keys and present the whole thing as a USB HID.
But, having spent some time dry-typing on this keyboard I realised that, nostalgic reasoning aside, there was not much going for it when you compare it with a modern PC keyboard and where gaming is concerned it’d quickly become frustrating so I decided to remove it completely for now and maybe re-fit it for aesthetic purposes later.
After the case the motherboard is probably (IMHO) the single most limiting factor in a build this small. There are options for low-profile CPU coolers, PCI-E risers or extension ribbons, externalised PSUs and low-profile memory modules but the one absolute dimension that I can’t to anything about is the footprint of the motherboard. And so I grabbed an Intel-based MSI Z87I (that’s an upper-case i on the end) “Gaming” mainboard. This little Mini-ITX beauty is 17cm square and sits very nicely in the C-64’s bottom half.
In the original C-64 most of the heat was generated on the right-hand side of the computer, and so Commodore put ventilation slits in the underside of the case on that side, so it seemed like a good idea to site the new board over those vents.
The fact that the left side of the motherboard sported the PCI-E slot, and the right side the main power headers, siting it to the right fell nicely in to place as this would mean that a discrete graphics card could be located to its left if need be, and the cabling to an as yet uncertain power supply could run in through the now-vacant expansion port cut out in the case.
Keeping the PSU outside would help to minimise heat build up inside the case but none of the PSUs that I’ve seen that are particularly tidy where cabling is concerned so that component will need some more thought yet.
So now the motherboard location is more or less decided, there is quite a large space in the left hand half of the case, big enough to carry a full-size 5.25″ DVD. I’d have preferred to drop in a laptop-style slot-loader but I didn’t have one, so I’m using a full-size drive for now.
With these two components located, it’s time to mark up for a new hole to be made in the case for the motherboard’s back panel.
And another for the DVD drive’s front face
I found that the top of the RAM modules were touching the keyboard surround when the top was offered up so that had to come out too. I think I’ll build a mesh cover or something to go over the opening and a clip on facade that contains the original keyboard to recover as much C-64ness as possible.
I used a Dremel rotary tool with a cutting disc to cut / melt my way through the plastic casing, and while less than ideal the final result is reasonably tidy. There are still a few rough edges where some finishing work is required.
The only screws that hold the C-64 case together are located in the front, and the back is kept in place by clips that work a bit like a hinge when you open and close it, but they’re quite fragile. Unfortunately, in order to sit the motherboard where I wanted it, I had to remove one of those clips which will stress the remaining one in that spot.
So, with the new holes in place we’re ready to close it up. The top right front corner of the DVD drive is very close to the upper shell’s surface, and while that’s ok at the moment, it could cause problems later.
Note the 2.5″ laptop HDD riding on the back of the DVD! This isn’t a good spot for it really, so I have to find a better way of locating it but for now it’s up and running and ready for trialling with E:D.
One of the other reasons I selected the Z87I motherboard was because it looked like it had reasonably capable on-board graphics when used with a suitably powerful CPU, and the Core i7 4770K I dropped into this machine is quite beefy. What I wasn’t expecting was for Elite:Dangerous to run quite so smoothly in full HD without a discrete graphics card!
So while there are still a few things to sort out, this is coming along nicely. And today, for the first time in three decades, I’m playing a ground-breaking version of Elite on a “C-64” again.