When I first got my Commodore 64, it came with the Super Games cartridge. This little plastic box contained three games that all loaded instantly (International Soccer, Colossus Chess and Silicon Cyborgs). To play them, all I needed to do was power off the C64, insert the cartridge and power back on. At the time, it was like magic to me: how could such a small box contain games that loaded all at once?

Later, I started reading C64 magazines and learned about 'utility' cartridges. These were even more intruiging - instead of allowing you to play a game, these fundamentally changed the C64. Allowing you to load from disk or tape at much faster rates or giving you extra BASIC commands. Some even made your games easier to play by err, allowing you to cheat. Needless to say, I had to get one. But which one? My friends and an uncle of mine all had a KCS Power Cartridge. The Dutch magazines I read suggested the Expert Cartridge was the way to go, while the English ones were all adamant that I'd really should get an Action Replay. And I had seem a bunch of adverts and a rather glowing review for the Final Cartridge III.

Each one seemed to be suitable, but there were differences. Not all of them offered a tape turbo for instance and I didn't have a disk drive at the time. Some seemed much easier to use than others. Some were much more expensive to get. And crucially, some were almost impossible to get from a Dutch store where others could be gotten fairly cheaply.

In the end I got a Final Cartridge III and I loved it. Sure, it didn't offer the same game cheating abilities that the Action Replay did, but it did have a nice GUI, a ton of BASIC additions plus a machine code monitor and it had a built-in tape turbo - which was really nice.

Nowadays, I still have a couple of Final Cartridge III's, but also picked up a Retro Replay cartridge (a modern remake/clone of the Action Replay) and later, a KCS Power Cartridge. I also have two utility cartridges that I would put in a separate category: the super utility cartridge. Mostly because these are much, much more powerful - the 1541 Ultimate II and the Turbo Chameleon. Both of those feature an FPGA and many, many advanced features.

For this article though, I wanted to take a look at these cartridges and what they could do. I decided to feature only cartridges I own and that are (or directly resemble) the utility cartridges of the 80's and 90's: The Final Cartridge III, the KCS Power Cartridge and the Retro Replay Cartridge.
Retro Replay
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Above: the Retro Replay cartridge.
The Retro Replay was sold as an unofficial Action Replay clone, but it is in fact much more than that. It can accept a variety of ROM files to run and had a header that allows for a SilverSurfer (which adds a fast serial port) or RR-NET (which adds an ethernet port) to be attached. When used as an Action Replay, it pretty much acts exactly like the original.

This means it has a wide feature set, though it isn't quite as user friendly as say The Final Cartridge III. One area it shines in is the 'freezer' option. Though all cartridges I'm looking at here have a freezer, the Action Replay has a large amount of on-board RAM. This allows the cartridge to keep the contents of memory fully intact, even when you enter the freezer. As such, you can use the cartridge to freely look at or change memory addresses even when a game or application uses all memory available to the C64. This feature was primarily used to either create 'backups' of software on disk or tape and to cheat at games by (for example) changing the number of remaining lives or disabling collision detection.

The cartridge is very clearly aimed at people who want to play games and well, err, cheat. It comes with a built-in 'poke finder' that helps you find just what memory locations to change to make sure you have infinite lives going forward. Couple this with the powerfull backup features and you can create bespoke versions of a game where you have infinite lives and get to start at the last level.

However, though the cartridge has powerful game altering abilities, it is not just aimed at games.

Apart from the game oriented features (which also include sprite collision disabling), the Action Replay cartridge also offers several ways to speed up loading from both disk and tape and a number of additional commands and features for Commodore Basic. Most of these extra commands are designed to make accessing disk drives easier, though there are a few general commands as well, such as AUTO for automated line numbering and OLD for restoring a BASIC program that has been accidentally erased by using the NEW command. Overall though, the additions to BASIC are rather limited compared to the other cartridges in this article.

The Action Replay also offers a machine code monitor with all the standard features, plus a rather unique one: you can set up to five breakpoints in machine language programs, which call the freezer when they are reached. This is a very, very nice feature for programmers and people wanting to look at how programs work. Note that these breakpoints are only supported if the monitor was called through the freeze menu. Overall, the Action Replay is the 'dream cartridge' for gamers and programmers (or crackers). What it may lack in terms of user friendliness and features for non-gamers/programmers it makes up for in sheer abilities in these areas.

Personally, I've never used the Action Replay much because I grew up with the Final Cartridge III and have since started using the 1541 Ultimate series as my primary cartridge for my C64. However, I've always felt this is one of the very best cartridges ever released for the C64 and wanted one badly as a kid (for all the POKEs!). By now, I feel it's a bit of a shame I never got into using it properly.

I may actually give it a second chance to see how that goes. Try out some of those magazine POKEs or backup some software for safekeeping.
KCS Power Cartridge
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Above: the KCS Power Cartridge.
The KCS Power Cartridge comes as a neat red cartridge with a single, white button. It offers a fairly wide set of features and does have a small ammount of built-in RAM to aid the freezer.

Compared to the other two cartridges, it occupies a sort of middle ground: not quite as user friendly as the Final Cartridge III, not quite as game/programmer oriented as the Action Replay. However, it's quite functional (some might say powerful ;)) in what it does offer.

Apart from a disk and tape turbo option and a backup option (which is not quite as stable as the Action Replay backup), the cartridge offers plenty of new BASIC commands, a feature complete monitor and a freezer. The freezer of the Power Cartridge lacks the advanced features of the Action Replay but is still quite useful - it lets you use the monitor, make a backup, continue back into whatever program is running or reset the computer. Notably, it misses the 'game oriented' features of the Action Replay - sprite collisions cannot be switched, nor does it have a 'POKE finder'. It also fails to continue frozen programs more often than the Action Replay does, which is primarily caused by the lower amount of on-board RAM and the need to compress/decompress any program frozen.

The primary draw of the Power Cartridge is its bigger feature set in terms of new BASIC commands, which contains some very usefull stuff and the no-nonsense approach of it all: the cartridge only has one button and presents itself using a nice and easy to use menu that gets you to all the basic features. I especially like the INFO command you get in BASIC which lists all the commands the cartridge has added. The rest of the BASIC toolkit is also really usefull. For instance, it includes a TRACE command that lets you run a BASIC program and check what it does line by line. This kind of stuff might seem useless today, but back then a lot of people programmed in BASIC and such features were really neat to have.

The built in monitor is likewise powerfull and has all the usual features, though it does have an annoying beep whenever you make an error. As far as I've been able to find, you can't deactivate this beep either.

A number of my friends owned a Power Cartridge back in the day, so I've seen it in use plenty of times. In fact, seeing the Power Cartridge in use was one of the reasons I decided I needed a utility cartridge myself, though I didn't end up getting a Power Cartridge in the end. I didn't actually get one myself until many years later and have, sadly, not used it much (if at all). Mostly because it came in my possesion so late in the game, that I was already using the 1541 Ultimate II as my standard cartridge by then.

However, having taken a renewed look at it, I can see that it would've been a very usefull device to have owned back in the day.
Final Cartridge III
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Above: the Final Cartridge III.
This was the cartridge I owned all the way back in 1989. Like many, I was drawn in by the built-in GUI and promisses of many powerfull features, such as a monitor, freezer, game related options and disk and tape turbo. Of all the cartridges I'm looking at here, this one then has had the biggest personal impact. And after years of use, I'm all too aware of its pros and cons.

Starting with the hardware itself, it has by far the biggest ROM of the three cartridges I'm looking at (twice the size of the Action Replay, four times the size of the Power Cartridge). However, it lacks any form of onboard RAM, which means the freezer it has is the least likely of the three to actually restart or backup a program successfully. It still manages a reasonable rate of recovery, though, because it compresses the entire C64 RAM when the freezer is entered. But be aware, it is nowhere near as capable in this regard as the Action Replay. The Power Cartridge likewise has a greater success ratio, even though it does not have a lot of RAM.

Like the Power Cartridge, it lacks some of the Action Replay's more advanced game altering option: there is no way to enter POKEs here apart from using the monitor, nor is there an easy restart once the monitor is entered.

That all sounds rather negative, but I figured I get the bad parts out of the way first. If you're not looking to cheat/backup games, the Final Cartridge is (IMHO) actually the most usefull of the three. Admitedly, the GUI is more of a nice-to-have than a serious alternative operating system, but leaving out the GUI there still is a lot to love.

It has a great tape turbo and a more than acceptable disk turbo built-in, with clear and easy to use commands for both. It has more additions to BASIC than either of the other cartridges (and I'd say the additions are more usefull overall), and while the freezer is less capable than the Action Replay, it has far more options than the Power Cartridge one. Some of the standout extra BASIC commands are ARRAY, which shows the contents of all arrays you've been using in your BASIC program, MREAD/MWRITE, which offer a way for BASIC programs to use the memory normally hidden by KERNAL ROM/BASIC ROM and the IO area and TRACE, which functions similarly to the Power Cartridge command of the same name.

The machine code monitor provided is also very good, it offers similar functionality to the Action Replay (though it obviously doesn't have the breakpoint functionality) one but adds the ability to view and edit both characters and sprites directly from the monitor. This function is much more usefull than it may at first appear, as this simple change allows you to look through memory for sprites or characters very easily.

However, the 'killer feature' of the Final Cartridge III may have nothing to do with its GUI or even the BASIC or machine code monitor per se. The designers of the Final Cartridge III have updated the screen editor built into the Commodore 64 with a couple of really usefull features. One of these is some extra key combinations to get to the start or end of a line quickly. However, the biggest of these extra features is the ability to use the cursor keys to scroll through BASIC listings or the machine code monitor output. Vertically and horizontally.

This is such a usefull feature: you can list part of a program and then leisurely scroll to the section you wish to look at, or scroll through a machine language program or memory dump to likewise find what you need. If pressed, I'd actually say this is probably the best thing the entire cartridge offers. It's such a simple change, but it really is super usefull to have!

A final word on the GUI might be useful here. Reading the manual and seeing how it actually all works, it's pretty clear the designers of the Final Cartridge III had hoped to see programs to appear for the GUI itself. The cartridge actually allows you to link in additional features from disk or tape. Sadly, it appears this was not actually used (though a homebrew version of Solitaire is apparently available on the internet). Note that this lack of use was not really that strange as there was no documentation provided with the cartridge that showed you how you actually could create the additions. As is, the GUI is nice - especially for those of us who are less computer savvy - but not complete.

That said, I did use the GUI pretty extensively because it was, well, a fun distraction to muck about with something that made your C64 screen vaguely look like you had an Amiga or Atari ST. Of course, had I been serious about my C64 and a GUI based system, I probably ought to have gotten GEOS instead.

Looking at the cartridge as a whole, I'd say that the Final Cartridge III is the most user friendly of the three, with arguably the most features over all. However, the lack of on-board RAM means the freezer becomes it's achilles heel. Today I'm still using the Final Cartridge III from time to time, though now usually as a ROM image for the 1541 Ultimate II.

But if I feel nostalgic, I do occasionally plug in the original. Sometimes there simply is no substitute.
Conclusion
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Above: a collection of utility cartridges for the Commodore 64.
These days, the idea of buying utility software in a little cart that contains the software and that needs to be plugged into the computer for it to actually work might sound very, very odd. But back in the day almost all C64 users will have owned one or more of these cartridges. Apart from GEOS, they were the only real way users had to expand the built-in 'OS' with new features. And though the features these carts offer might sometimes seem very basic (copying disks, printing out screens and tricks surrounding games), at the time they were both very usefull and almost neccesary to get the most out of the computer.

The Commodore 64, like almost all 8 bit machines, lacked a great many quality of life features and these cartridges supplied it with all sorts of neat additional abilities. In this article, I've only taken a look at general purpose utility cartridges, but many more existed. Including but not limited to cartridges that added a speech synthesizer, cartridges that replaced the built-in BASIC with a completely new and much more useful version, cartridges that sped up the system, expanded the memory or allowed the C64 to control robots, cartridges to add MIDI connectors or to let the computer serve as a 'weather station', etc. The list was virtually endless and it never ceased to amaze me what new stuff was thought up.

In a way, these cartridges for the C64 and other 8 bit systems were the precursors to the modern PCI-Express cards, though they tended to come with the driver software built-in. And that notion still makes sense today, with ever more powerfull cartridges still being developed. You can get ethernet or wi-fi, super powered FPGA processors, VGA output, 'perfect' freezer cartridges with floppy and tape emulators, MP3 players and even IDE connections. All plugged straight into the C64.

In a short: long live the utility cartridge!