In the mid-80s, while the American video game market was oversaturated and dying, folks in Australia and Europe were enjoying a golden age of microcomputers, led by the awesome Commodore 64.
An 8-bit machine with bold colourful graphics and synthesiser sound, there’s a reason the C64 is the best-selling model of home computer ever. With a built-in keyboard and support for BASIC programming language, you could run any number of professional software packages, or even write and save programs yourself, but the main reason it’s remembered is for the games. With a joystick attached, as well as a magnetic tape deck or disk drive, the system offered an astonishing range of games that, at the time, were among the most sophisticated in the world.
Now, no doubt encouraged by the success of Nintendo’s miniature NES and SNES consoles, British company Retro Games has put together a cute Commodore-shaped machine packed with dozens of old games — 64 for them to be precise — that you can play on modern TVs in HD.
And though THEC64 Mini doesn’t wholly capture the spirit of the original — it is, ultimately, similar to emulating the games on a PC but in a plug-and-play format — the machine represents a fine effort with a few good modern conveniences.
But first, let’s talk about the games. Since Retro Games had to go out and license these titles, it comes as no surprise that some of the biggest games of the era are missing here. There is no Maniac Mansion or any other Lucasfilm game. There is no Pirates! or Ultima or Turrican or Prince of Persia, no Bubble Bobble, Elite or, essentially, any game that went on to remain popular beyond its life on the C64. But that’s not to say there are no good games.
The Mini does contain many games that are essential C64 experiences, including Paradroid, Impossible Mission, Boulder Dash, Creatures and basically all the Epyx sports games you could hope for. It would have been nicer to have 20 rock solid games rather than the mixed bag of 64 included here, but for $150 it’s fine. You can see the full list at the bottom of the article.
To be totally honest I don’t think I was old enough to be able to read or write back when I spent hours a day playing around with our home’s Commodore 64, so my memories of the whole experience could be pretty skewed, but I feel like there’s something important missing in this modern reimagining.
For example the big blue screen where you input BASIC commands invokes a very weird kind of nostalgia for me. Having to ask the system to list file names and then copy them out to run the games — which was what you had to do for every game back in the day but is now only necessary for running extra games off a USB drive — is certainly easier post primary school, but the sharpness of the text in HD and the lack of a whirring, clicking disk drive makes the experience quite a bit colder and less magical than I remember.
Similarly, many of the games seemed a lot better in the 25-year-old memories that were formed by a person with a lot more imagination and patience than is left in my head today. I remember Everyone’s a Wally being utterly enchanting, for example, but playing it now I have no hope of knowing what’s happening. You can of course go and immerse yourself in the game’s manuals at THEC64’s website, and you can turn on a rudimentary filter to blur things up a bit, but there’s certainly a bigger gap between original and new here than there is for, say, the Super Nintendo. There was a DIY mentality to the older system, and the games demanded so much more of the player in terms of learning and imagination than most modern games do.
Of course some of the conveniences added for the Mini are very much appreciated. A handy button on the included joystick pauses the game and lets you save and load states, which is great for avoiding game overs or if you only want to play a little bit at a time without losing progress. This is also where you can access the virtual keyboard, which works well as a way to input text (like your player’s name or your chosen level) given the Mini’s lack of a functional keyboard. For a more authentic experience you can also add a USB keyboard, which works just as expected.
The biggest barrier to fun times is actually the joystick, which is functional and looks the part, but is far too stiff. Like, to the point that it’s actually physical exhausting to use. There are some beautiful games included here that I’d never played before, but the idea of learning them while throwing my entire body weight back and forth to operate the joystick turned me off a bit. Retro Games claims other USB gamepads work, but that wasn’t the case with any of the several I tried to connect. This is actually the first emulator box I’ve seen that refused to use a ubiquitous wired Xbox 360 controller, which isn’t a great sign.
As mentioned, the Mini does include a version of BASIC, which originally let you program your own games, and if you really hate fun you can still use it for that. It’s main function though is loading additional games and programs from a USB stick. Of course it’s not legal in Australia to convert your old games into a format that you could put on a USB stick, and it’s legally murky too to download such files, even if you own the original game, but hypothetically you could do either of those things and it would work fine here, but the process isn’t ideal.
First of all you can only put one program on the USB stick at a time, which is an annoying limitation. Retro Games says an update is coming that will expand this. Second of all, the Mini only has two USB ports, and you really need a controller, keyboard and USB stick connected at once to manage without it getting too frustrating. I tried it with a powered USB hub and it worked fine, but taken together this is a lot of hoops to jump through to (hypothetically) play Where in the World in Carmen Sandiego.
Overall this is an impressive effort, which could get even better over time if software updates expand the controller options and refine the process for loading your own games. I’m not convinced the C64 is as good a fit for a modern revival as some of the systems that came after, since the experience was so tied to tactile, analogue technology, but among the games on offer here there are some brilliant history lessons and nostalgia trips to be had.
FULL GAMES LIST
- Armalyte: Competition Edition
- Battle Valley
- Boulder Dash
- California Games
- Chip’s Challenge
- Cosmic Causeway: Trailblazer II
- Cyberdyne Warrior
- Cybernoid II: The Revenge
- Cybernoid: The Fighting Machine
- Everyone’s A Wally
- Gribbly’s Day Out
- Highway Encounter
- Hunter’s Moon
- Impossible Mission
- Impossible Mission II
- Mission A.D
- Monty Mole
- Monty on the Run
- Nobby the Aardvark
- Nodes Of Yesod
- Pitstop II
- Robin Of The Wood
- Skate Crazy
- Skool Daze
- Speedball II: Brutal Deluxe
- Star Paws
- Street Sports Baseball
- Summer Games II
- Super Cycle
- Temple of Apshai Trilogy
- The Arc Of Yesod
- Thing Bounces Back
- Thing on a Spring
- Uchi Mata
- Who Dares Wins II
- Winter Games
- World Games
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