Console Review: TheC64 Mini

If, like me, you’ve been following the story behind this new mini recreation of the world’s best selling home computer, you’ll know that it’s had something of a drawn out and controversial history from its initial announcement to its final release on 29th March 2018.

Originally planned as a recreation of the Commodore 64 and funded via Indiegogo, out of necessity the project evolved bringing in external support from gaming giant Koch Media expanding the range from the planned computer and handheld to add this mini incarnation to the lineup. Controversially, this has made it into production first (for commercial, financial and brand awareness reasons) but the company, Retro Games Ltd, has been plagued with legal battles with their ZX Spectrum counterpart at Retro Computers Ltd which has threatened to overshadow both systems.

That aside, my pre-order TheC64 Mini arrived and quickly found its new home under the TV alongside the NES Mini and SNES Mini but is it any good and is it worth the £69.99 asking price?

Inside The Box

Starting off, the box itself is styled after the original packaging used for the first model of the Commodore 64, immediately winning brownie points from loyal C64 owners, myself included. Opening this outer box reveals an incredibly stylish blue inner box featuring an embossed colour TheC64 logo on in. Inside that is the console itself inside a clear plastic housing (with the logo printed  on this as well), the joystick, a HDMI lead, USB power cable (no plug but most of you will have one of these anyway from a mobile phone or you can use a spare USB socket on your television) and the Quickstart Guide. The Guide, while short, is styled in the same format as the original C64 printed manual so it all looks incredibly polished.

Onto the unit itself and it’s a reasonably accurate recreation of the original “breadbin” model of the Commodore 64, just reduced to 50% of the original size. At the right hand side are two USB ports for the enclosed joystick, a second joystick or other add-ons and the power switch, At the rear is the HDMI and USB power connectors. On this particular model, the keyboard is non-functional as was the case for the cartridge ports on the NES and SNES Minis.

Yes, you read that correctly… the console has a non-functional keyboard. This has caused something of a stir online with those eager to criticise the system singling out this one aspect of the machine above anything else, making direct comparisons to the original C64. The console does have an on-screen keyboard that can be accessed when needed and a USB keyboard can be connected via one of the two ports but there’s a key thing most of its critics are failing to acknowledge when it comes to the keyboard. With regards to the TheC64 Mini, it has been designed as a games console first and foremost to appeal to those with a nostalgic love of the Commodore 64. It’s design fits in perfectly with other micro recreations of retro consoles and the bundled games make it an ideal entry point for someone wanting to dip their toes in the world of C64 gaming once more. Having access to C64 BASIC is an added bonus but the reality is that the majority of people who this is targeted at simply won’t touch that part of the console.

The Games

The main emphasis of the system for most consumers will be the 64 included games and you’re certainly spoiled for choice with no fewer that 64 included from 10 different publishers/license holders. The first thing that many of you will notice is that a large number of these are games that appeared on the C64DTV and this is no coincidence as part of the development team behind both systems is the same. As such, many of the games from Epyx and Hewson Consultants that featured on the C64DTV are present here, with many more besides. I certainly won’t list all of the games here but there’s an ample selection from numerous publishers and developers besides the two I’ve just mentioned including Thamalus, Gremlin, The Bitmap Brothers and Odin.

The obvious questions many may ask will be “Where is game X?” or “Why wasn’t Y included?” and the reality is that Retro Games Ltd weren’t able to locate the rights holders to many of the games that they wanted to include and as such had to leave out some games that they wanted to include. In the case of others, the fees may simply have been to high to have made them commercially viable. Others that people have wanted to see included may not have been possible for licensing reasons such as film/TV tie-ins or arcade conversions that would have required secondary license fees being payable. Regardless, out of the box the console still has more games than both the NES Mini and the SNES Mini combined. But are those games any good?

The answer is a resounding… maybe. The truth is that the C64 Mini has a wide selection of games including some genuine classics that have stood the test of time remarkably well. All of the Games series from Epyx have retained their charm and appeal and having no less than four of these is a fantastic addition to the lineup, as is the legendary platformer Impossible Mission, joined by its sequel, Super Cycle and many other greats.

Closer to home, there is a great selection of games developed in Europe including three of Andrew Braybrook’s finest – Uridium, Paradroid and Gribbly’s Day Out, and Thalamus is well represented by Armalyte, Hunters Moon and Hawkeye. Budget publisher Alternative Software (who are still trading today) have supplied an interesting selection as well spanning a range of games from other publishers who they now own the rights to including Star Paws and Spindizzy. Wrapping up the highlights is a selection from Gremlin including both Thing On A Spring games, Monty On The Run, Bounder (which is currently being revived for mobiles) and several others. Certainly plenty of variety for everyone.

Some games, as I said really haven’t aged well at all though and I found that they were either too frustrating to offer any long-term playability or had very limited appeal beyond nostalgia value. In fact there are games here that I used to love as a kid and now looking at them through modern eyes they just seem to reveal all their flaws once they have been stripped of the “new game” factor that they had when they were first released. Certainly, classics like Uridium impressed back in 1986 because of its visuals, but today it still holds up because of its solid gameplay. Others haven’t fared quite as well. Overall though. there’s a solid selection with more than enough to keep everyone happy with pretty much every genre covered from platformers to shoot-em-ups, racing games to sports games and even RPGs. Whether you’re a die-hard C64 enthusiast or new to the Commodore 64, there’s bound to be enough here to keep you entertained for hours on end.

Options And The Rest

Games aside, the C64 Mini has several display mode options on offer providing gamers with the choice to emulate pixel perfect displays, 4:3 ratio in PAL or NTSC or CRT emulation for that authentic 80s feel. Titles on the system that need to make use of a keyboard can either use a USB keyboard plugged into the spare port or call up an on-screen keyboard controlled using the joystick. Like Nintendo’s consoles, the system also offers four save state slots for each game allowing you to save your progress on each title and return at a later date. There’s also an additional menu option allowing the system to launch into Commodore BASIC allowing the machine to function as a normal Commodore 64 ready for programming, accessing external files via USB. While using additional games is cumbersome right now (allowing just a single disk image file to be used at a time via USB), this is being addressed in a future firmware update. As with the games, Even BASIC allows for save states ensuring that your work here won’t be lost and any programs you create can be saved/loaded to and from disk images. Maybe we could be seeing a new generation of C64 programmers emerge?

The joystick that comes with the unit will look instantly familiar to C64 owners across the world and to those of you who previously purchased the C64DTV. Based on the classic Competition Pro design, it looks remarkably similar to the C64DTV with the four function buttons at the rear, with two additional buttons at the top of the joystick as well. These buttons control all of the functions of the C64 Mini both in the menus and in games and where software needed the use of keys in-game, these have been remapped to different buttons on the joystick. It’s not quite as comfortable as the Competition Pro and doesn’t quite feel as robust. Sadly it doesn’t use microswitches so sadly I feel that it won’t be as durable as the classic that it draws inspiration from and many are looking for USB alternatives. The 5ft cable is adequate for most people and is comparable to that of the SNES Mini although truth be told if this is being used on a large HDTV then it does need to be longer as most people will need to sit much further away from the screen than that.

More Games Please

The one thing that everyone asked in the run-up to the release of the C64 Mini was whether or not it was possible to add your own games to it. While it’s possible with the NES and SNES Mini, that can only be done by hacking the consoles and not directly out of the box. In the case of the C64 Mini this can be done via USB although this is initially a troublesome task. Disk images need to be transferred to the root directory of a USB stick, renamed and only ONE can be present at any one time. These are then accessed through BASIC on the C64 Mini used as a virtual disk drive. It’s a frustrating system and made worse with the necessity of having to format the USB stick to FAT32 and the fact that not all USB sticks seem to be compatible. As a plus, once games have been loaded, up to four can be saved directly to the console in one of the save state slots available to BASIC without the need to reload them again. Not ideal and something that is being addressed in an upcoming update.

C64 Mini vs C64DTV

Comparisons are bound to be made between the C64 Mini and its predecessor, the C64DTV. While it’s not quite the same team behind both systems (the C64DTV was designed by Jeri Ellsworth and was a hardware based recreation of the C64 rather than an emulated one) the connections are clear, especially from the licensing side of things and a large part of the games line-up. The sound emulation on the C64 Mini does seem to be better than the DTV (although it still struggles occasionally, more notably when used on Martin Galway tracks) and it’s obviously clearer on the visual front. In contrast however, the joystick feels more responsive and durable for the C64DTV and some games have been modified to simplify their controls and access to them. A couple that spring to mind immediately are Cybernoid and Cybernoid II. On the C64DTV it’s simply a case of pressing fire to play, and the second fire button cycles through the available weapons. On the C64 Mini the game start, keyboard/joystick and music on/off options have been left in, but it means that several buttons are used on the joystick. Personally I prefer simplicity and being able to just grab the joystick and start playing.

I already mentioned picture quality and it’s going to be significantly better with the C64 Mini through its use of HDMI, but the AV lead on the C64DTV is considerably longer making gameplay better depending on the location of your TV/sofa. It is easy to get a USB extension lead but the out of the box solution does make things uncomfortable for the C64 Mini, just as it is for the NES and SNES Mini.

The Good, The Bad and The…

I’ve had a real blast using the C64 Mini and revisiting some of my personal favourite games on the C64. Even though I have my old Commodore 64 permanently set up in the man cave, it’s great to be able to have a second machine permanently set up downstairs under the family television and the appeal of being able to switch it on and be up and running playing some of these old classics in a matter of seconds can’t be praised enough. While I already own physical copies of a lot of the games the convenience factor means that I’m actually more likely to play these classics a lot more than I have for years.

As with any micro console like this it’s not without its failings. The first quirk I noticed, and this is something that others have commented on, is that the console has a tendency to turn itself on as soon as a power supply is connected to it despite having a power switch on the right hand side. While this is bearable when using a mobile phone plug, it can prove frustrating when powering the unit from a spare USB port on your television as the Mini will automatically switch on every time you turn on the TV.

Talking of power, when running from a 5V 1.0A plug as recommended in the manual the console runs perfectly although it has been known to struggle if USB keyboards have been attached simultaneously or USB sticks have struggled to be recognised. Wherever possible it’s recommended to use a plug with a higher output 2.0 – 2.5A or if using a keyboard/second joystick use a powered USB hub.

A more serious issue identified by a large number of gamers was that of latency issues during play and the joystick not feeling as responsive as it should be for many if not all of the games. While a small part of this is down to the construction of the system and will happen with any emulation based device, the root cause of the issue is a lot problematic for most but does have a relatively simple fix. The key problem is that the console uses HDMI to output to televisions and as many gamers know, modern televisions – for all their advances – simply are not as responsive as CRT televisions that us older gamers are used to! I mentioned comparisons with the C64DTV earlier and when running the same game (Uridium) on both, there was no latency at all on my 40″ Sony LED TV on the C64DTV. However, that was connected to the TV using AV composite connectors and the console was a hardware recreated C64.

In the case of the C64 Mini things are different. Running an emulator slows things down slightly and will always cause some latency no matter what is running or what the host machine is. However, the real killer is the HDMI connection. Modern TVs add a wide range of processing effects to incoming signals through the HDMI ports in an attempt to “improve” picture quality. While this is fine for live television or DVDs/blu ray, it causes problems with anything interactive where the on-screen images have to be synchronised with the users input as all of this processing takes time. It may only be a few nano seconds, but that matters. Modern televisions have a Game Mode to try to reduce processing and compensate for this and in most cases – including the C64 Mini – this removes most of the latency. Not ideal but sadly it’s the downside of modern technology.

Updates

One final thing that has impressed me (and this also applied to the ZX Spectrum Vega) is the promise of regular firmware updates, fixing bugs and adding new features. The first (public) update is due this week making some changes to controller settings for some of the games and fixing a couple of minor bugs but the next update is already planned including a major change to external file loading making things much easier.

So what do I actually think of the system? Despite the issues that I do have with it, I’ve been really enjoying using the console and it’s been hard dragging myself away from the TV. Granted, some of the games should have been left in the past allowing us to keep our fond memories of them intact but it’s great to see the C64 back on the high street, even in this miniaturised form. We’ve got great games, people are quite rightly excited about the C64 again not just amongst the hardcore fan base but the wider public and this is who the C64 Mini is aimed at. The C64 is BACK and in style and we’re about to witness the return of  a new legion of potential C64 gamers and hopefully programmers who will write the next wave of games that we’ll all be playing on the C64 for years to come…

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