In March 2018, British company Retro Games Ltd launched THEC64 Mini, a dinky version of the classic Commodore 64 hardware from 1982 repurposed for the modern era.
Although it was undoubtedly great to see the ‘mini’ treatment being dished out to a home computer that was big in the UK back in the day, it’s fair to say THEC64 Mini had some fairly major issues (and not just the awkward way it was spelled).
Now Retro Games is back with a distinctly less mini version of THEC64 – which I’m now going to refer to as The C64 for my own sanity – and what it loses in charm it gains in functionality. This is exactly what I was hoping for the first time around.
Note: for the purposes of this review when I say ‘The C64’ I’m referring to this new model. I’ll make it clear when I’m instead referring to the original Commodore 64 from 1982.
While the C64 Mini was an attempt to make a miniaturised version of the original Commodore 64, The C64 is instead an attempt to make a full-sized, authentic replica.
Having never owned a Commodore 64 back in the day – I was a ZX Spectrum boy – I can’t speak for the feel of the keyboard or anything like that. All I can say is that the keys are pleasantly spongey.
However, there’s no denying that it certainly looks the part: this is an impressively accurate recreation, right down to the odd F1-F8 buttons (there are two assigned to each key and you have to hold Shift to type the even-numbered ones).
It all looks authentic enough on the outside, then, but inside is a different matter. This isn’t some sort of FPGA recreation of the original Commodore 64’s internal workings like you’d get from a company like Analogue: instead, it’s essentially running an emulator, much like the Capcom Home Arcade and all the other mini consoles you’ll find on the market.
This isn’t really an issue in terms of performance, mind you: because the Commodore 64 is now 38-year-old hardware, it can be emulated pretty flawlessly with very little effort. You’ll never see a dropped frame or any of that nonsense here, and the sound quality – which is extremely important with this system in particular – is fantastic.
One other thing that’s worth pointing out is the joystick that’s included with The C64. The one that came with the C64 Mini was – and I’m being as polite as possible here – a stinking, overflowing bucket of old arse.
It was such a clunky, unresponsive mess that it playing games with any degree of competence nearly impossible, and felt a bit like trying to wrestle a big spoon out of a frozen tub of ice cream.
The joystick that comes with the full-sized version looks identical, but feels infinitely better because it’s now a micro-switch stick, meaning you get that delightful clicky noise and can clearly feel the eight directions. It can still take a little getting used to – for a while I tended to hit diagonals when I was trying to go straight – but the difference is enormous regardless.
The C64 comes with 64 games built in (rather appropriately), giving you plenty to play out of the box.
Given the age of these games, it’s fair to say there are plenty of hits and misses here and it’s not unrealistic to suggest that you should probably have some sort of nostalgic bond to this era in order to get the most out of it.
For example, I was still able to enjoy a lot of these games because – despite my ZX Spectrum leanings – they were similar enough to still conjure me back to my childhood where I played games like Match Day and Bear Bovver endlessly.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Bear Bovver is actually on here, which was fantastic news to me and probably very few other people. Fun fact: I once played Bear Bovver on the Spectrum for so long that smoke started coming out of the power supply and we had to get it repaired.
I dare say these are the sort of memories that The C64 thrives on, which is why I reckon some previous experience with the original hardware is preferred if you want to truly enjoy it to its fullest.
The list of games is different to that of The C64 Mini: 14 games have been dropped from the Mini’s line-up and these have been replaced with 12 new ones. These include the aforementioned Bear Bovver as well as the fantastic Attack of the Mutant Camels, though on a personal note the removal of Skool Daze stings a little.
Here’s a full list of the games:
Available on both systems
Cybernoid II: The Revenge
Everyone’s a Wally
Gribbly’s Day Out
Impossible Mission II
Monty on the Run
Nodes of Yesod
Robin of the Wood
Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe
Street Sports Baseball
Summer Games II
Temple of Asphai Trilogy
The Arc of Yesod
Thing on a Spring
Thing Bounces Back
Who Dares Wins II
Only on The C64 Mini
Armalyte: Competition Edition
Cybernoid: The Fighting Machine
Farming Simulator: C64 Edition
Nobby the Aardvark
Only on The C64 (full size)
Attack of the Mutant Camels
Gateway to Apshai
Planet of Death
Street Sports Basketball
Sword of Fargoal
If the above list of games left you staring with a blank expression on your face because you haven’t heard of any of them, The C64 may not be for you.
If you thought some of the games on the NES Mini had aged poorly over the past three and a half decades, some of these ones are practically prehistoric by comparison.
As I’ve stated above, it’s really preferable if you’re old enough to remember this era of gaming, because otherwise it may be difficult to appreciate these games in a modern context.
That’s these specific games, though. The ace up The C64’s sleeve is its USB support. Pop some Commodore 64 ROMs onto a USB stick (it supports games with the file types .d64, .d81, .prg, .crt and .tap) and slap it into The C64 and it should play them like a charm.
To test it I tried a bunch of different commercial games (which is legally dubious) and homebrew games and they all worked perfectly.
This is the saving grace that should ensure The C64 can still be enjoyed by modern gamers. There’s still a thriving homebrew scene for the original Commodore 64 and a lot of these games were made in recent years, meaning they were designed with modern standards in mind.
The presence of the fully functioning keyboard also means that any games with keyboard support – and there are a hell of a lot of them – will work so much better here.
The C64 Mini technically had keyboard support too, but you either had to plug in a modern USB keyboard (which didn’t have the right key mapping) or use the horrendous built-in on-screen keyboard which could be called up with a button and then input using the joystick: which, as previously mentioned, was about as fun to grip as a lion’s knob.
That’s no longer an issue here, and now you can easily play keyboard-based games without any hassle, whether they’re full text adventures or simply action games that require you to press various keys to set your options and start the game.
I really enjoy playing The C64 and can see myself using it regularly going forwards, but I’m also fully conscious that not every modern gamer will.
Some of the games in here are even older than me – and that’s saying something – and if you don’t have much experience with early ’80s gaming and may therefore struggle to appreciate these offerings in context, you’re just going to be left with a bunch of truly archaic games that you may find difficult to get into.
This isn’t like the NES Classic, the SNES Classic or even the Capcom Home Arcade, which can all claim that most of their built-in games are still considered ‘playable’ to at least some reasonable degree by today’s standards.
Those systems are helped by the fact that there are countless indie games created in the 8-bit NES and 16-bit SNES art styles, which help keep the games on these mini consoles approachable for gamers born in this millennium. The same can’t be said for the C64, which – the odd gem like VVVVVV aside – is sorely underrepresented when it comes to indie tributes.
The ability to stick C64 games onto a USB stick makes it a far more attractive proposition, though: the 64 games on here may vary in terms of quality and accessibility but opening it up to a library of around 20,000 official and homebrew games makes things a lot more exciting.
Ultimately – and I appreciate this is a bit of a cop-out – how much you’ll love The C64 will probably depend on how much you love the original Commodore 64 (or ZX Spectrum or Amstrad CPC). If you’re open-minded to the limitations of the early days of gaming there’s still a lot to like here, but there’s no denying that this is a barrier that may prove too much for some.
Just, whatever you do, don’t buy the C64 Mini instead because you’ve discovered that some places are selling it for £40-odd now. It’s shite, whereas this isn’t.
The C64 is out now, exclusively in Europe. You can get it on Amazon UK for £109.99.
In order that I could write this review, I received a review sample from Koch Media. The content of my review and the opinions therein were in no way positively influenced by this.
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