Hardware

Penultimate Cartridge for VIC-20

Once upon a time there was a thingy called the Mega-Cart. Some say it may be the best cartridge that was ever released for the VIC-20. Some consider it as vaporware these days, while others think the inventor of the Mega-Cart was overwhelmed by its success, unable to cope with the demand.  As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between. For me, the Mega-Cart is just a big disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, it’s probably a great piece of hardware, the thing is though: I cannot confirm because there is literally no chance for me getting one. Last units are reported as being delivered years ago, with a latency of even more than a year. The website hasn’t changed and you’re still invited to order your Mega-Cart, promising to get one within 10-12 weeks. That is notably a lie. Nothing will happen when you order your Mega-Cart. No confirmation, no message, no queue, nothing. Believe me, I tried it a few times. The guy behind the project is either dead or considers it as finished. I don’t know. Be that as it may, you don’t tread people like that. If you’re overcharged by something, be honest about it. Would it be a problem to update the website and just write some words about the status? Would it be a problem to respond to any messages concerning your product? Maybe, maybe not, who knows? At this point, even taking the site down would be a more honest statement.

The Penultimate Cartridge perfectly matches the VIC-20 design.

Fortunately Dave from Tynemouth Software and Nic from The Future was 8-bit teamed up and come to the rescue. The VIC-20 is pretty close to the Commodore 64, and without the VIC, the C64 would have never happened. On the other hand, the VIC-20 is not just a predecessor. It’s an important chapter of our computer history, unique, nice, a must-have with so many great games to discover. Some people however flinch from getting into this wonderful machine and that is mostly because of VIC-20 memory map. With the growing popularity of the VIC-20 back then, memory expansions were released to extend its capabilities. In 1982, the VIC-20 was the best-selling computer of the year, with more than 800.000 units being sold. The ViC-20 is also the first computer that sold more than a million units in total. Different memory expansions were the reasons for more advanced games to see the light of day. A byeffect is that some games require a 8k expansion, some need 3k and so on. So if you want to come a little nearer to the VIC, you either need a bunch of different memory cartridges, or at least a switchable memory cartridge, which is available as legit kit back from the days. Nevertheless there were many masterpieces written for the unexpanded VIC. If you’re a programmer like me, you will know the unbelievable craftsmanship that led to these titles. I don’t want to go too much into detail at this point, trust me when I say you’re missing a lot if you don’t have a VIC yourself.

May you rest in peace, switchable VIC-20 memory expansion back from the good old days.
The Penultimate Cartridge fits absolutely perfect in the cartridge slot of your beloved VIC-20.

The Penultimate Cartridge is an all-in-one solution for the VIC-20. It aims to be your perfect companion for this machine. But what does that mean in detail? First of all, the Penultimate Cartridge is an advanced memory expansion that supports all necessary modes (3k, 8k, up to 35k of RAM), comes bundled with many ROM images of popular VIC cartridge games, is highly configurable via a great interface, has an integrated reset switch, is designed to seamlessly work with the SD2IEC, includes famous utility ROMs like VICKIT 4, VICKIT 5, Basic 4, Super Expander. Wow, that’s a lot of features, isn’t it?

The menu is brilliant, period. It’s easy to use, clear and understandable. That’s the way to do it.
The left (illuminated) button will open the menu, the button on the right is the reset switch.

I really should mention that the Penultimate Cartridge fits perfectly in your VIC’s cartridge slot and that’s no exaggeration. You will know what I mean as soon as you put it in your own VIC-20. I read about some concerns regarding the buttons being on top of the cartridge rather than being on the side. I can’t agree with that. The Penultimate Cartridge is so tightly fitted in your cartridge slot, nothing can harm your beloved machine. It’s also hard to deny how brilliant this little fellow looks like, I really dig the illuminated button. It’s really the details that make up the difference with products from The Future was 8-bit.

Here is the VIC-20 Basic screen with 35k RAM enabled. Note that the VIC does not recognize RAM in Block 5, so it will show “28159 bytes free”.
This is the VIC-20 Basic prompt with the 8k RAM expansion option enabled. There are quite some games around which necessarily need 8k to work.

The menu is intuitively operated by keyboard or joystick and everything is accessible immediately. I really love the way it has been designed. Somebody obviously did his homework in terms of user experience. Somebody might be Dave. Ok, I know it’s him as I helped him with a cross-compilation problem back when the menu was designed. Please also keep in mind that the screen of the VIC-20 is 176 X 184, with 22 characters per line and a total of 23 lines being displayed. Getting a menu like this in such a limited environment is unbelievable. There is even an advanced menu with further options, count me impressed. When it comes to expanding the VIC’s memory, the Penultimate Cartridge perfectly does its job. I’ve tried various RAM configurations and everything worked out of the box so there is not much to add here. What I really love is the reset function. Let’s assume you selected 8k RAM expansion, decided to exit to the VIC-20 Basic prompt and fired up a 8k game. Hitting the reset button will get you back to the Basic prompt with the 8k expansion being selected. That, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the way to do it.

The advanced menu, which you easily access by hitting “A”, even allows configuration of the VIC-20 memory map.
The SD2IEC is the perfect companion to the Penultimate Cartridge, pictured is the limited VIC-20 version.

This notably extends to the documentation, two easily understandable pages, not even small-printed and that’s all you need to know to handle every single aspect of this wonderful cart. It’s no wonder the Penultimate Cart is designed to seamlessly work with the SD2IEC, the one device that made Future was 8-bit famous. No, Nic is not the inventor of the SD2 but he provides the most polished variant. While there are quite some different storage solutions available for the Commodore 64, with the SD2IEC being probably the most popular, you don’t have many choices regarding the VIC. The SD2IEC you see on the picture is the limited edition from TFW8B, completely made from recycled VIC-20 plastic. I don’t think this review is the right place to cover the SD2IEC, just keep in mind that cooperatively with the Penultimate Cartridge, you have a complete solution, leaving nothing to be desired.

Hitting F7 will exit to Basic with 35k expanded memory and load the SD2IEC file browser.
One of the bundled ROMs: “Attack of the Mutant Camels” by Jeff Minter (Llamasoft).

The bundled cartridge games all work out of the box, with many classics being included. I’m delighted to see how much value you get here for your money. It’s obvious both Dave and Nic love the VIC-20. A fine product like the Penultimate Cart wouldn’t be possible without said love. With the purpose of quickly doing a review, I caught myself playing hours with this cartridge, launching many of the bundled games and loading even more games from my SD2IEC. The Penultimate Cartidge didn’t let me down, not even once. You don’t need to be a genius to realize the hardware has been thoroughly tested to the bone.

Commodore paid tons of money to Scott Adams for making him port his adventures to the VIC-20, and he did.
Another classic that comes with the Penultimate Cartridge is “Amazing Maze”.

I’d also like to focus on the included utility ROMs, as they seem to be wise selected. We have the VICKIT 4, which adds highspeed cassette operations capabilities as well as a machine language monitor, the VICKIT 5, which is a 6502 Assembler (ASM) and probably relevant to advanced users and programmers only. In addition there is Commodore Basic V4 for the VIC-20, which extends the VICs very own Basic with commands known from the Commodore PET range of microcomputers. The last in the bunch is the Super Expander ROM, also known as Commodore VIC-1211 Super Expander, which Commodore released to add simple graphics and sound commands to the included Basic V2. I’m not sure about your opinion, comments welcome, I can however sure you that I totally fell in love with the Penultimate Cartridge. I will give it the full score, which is notably the first time I did this here on 8-bit.info and I’m confident it won’t happen again anytime soon.

Conclusion

The Penultimate Cartridge is the all-in-one solution for the VIC-20. It is perfectly designed by people who know what they do and it is thoroughly tested. The user experience couldn’t be better and together with an SD2IEC it is a strong force that will instantly revive your long forgotten love for the VIC in every conceivable aspect.

10 / 10 points  

Order the Penultimate Cartridge for VIC-20

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4 Comments

  • Avatar
    André

    14th February 2017 8:35 pm

    Lieber Stefan,

    großartig, dass Du uns das Penultimate Cart näher bringst!

    Der VC 20 war vermutlich der erste Heimcomputer von Commodore, auf dem ich jemals ein paar Zeilen BASIC geschrieben habe. Und obwohl der C64 und andere Geräte seiner Epoche ihm überlegen waren, so hat er doch immer eine gewisse Magie für mich behalten. Ich glaube nicht, dass das nur am “Erstkontakt” lag. Irgendwie verkörpert der VC 20 mit seinen blockartigen Tasten das “Heimcomputern” auf besonders authentische Weise. Sein Softwareangebot war damals knapp, die Listings für den kleinen Commodore aber allgegenwärtig. Und so haben wir uns einfach unsere Traumwelt zusammengetippt 😉

    Das es heute – im Jahre 2017 – so ein tolles Cart für den “Volkscomputer” gibt, wirkt, als käme es direkt aus der Zukunft, um dem VC 20 in den Stand zu heben den er verdient. Ein wunderschönes Gerät mit Charakter und einer (neuen) Zukunft.

    Vielen Dank für Deinen Text! Deine Artikel strotzen immer vor Qualität und Details und zeigen deutlich, was die Geräte oder Erweiterungen unter der Haube haben. Die Fotos sind ebenfalls immer super.

    Wunderbar!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Thomas Stratford

    13th February 2017 2:28 pm

    Excellent review. The penultimate cartridge is simply amazing, it’s the best thing I’ve ever bought for my recently re-discovered VIC20.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    EverthingC64

    12th February 2017 7:05 pm

    Excellent review – Thank you very much!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    JerryD7556

    12th February 2017 5:56 pm

    Excellent review of an amazing piece of kit! Many happy memories of the Commodore VIC20 with great games such as Amok and Gridrunner! The Penultimate Cart might inspire me to dig out my trusty VIC20 and relive those happy days!!

    Reply

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