The more we age, the more we miss those events, items and people who were part of our earlier lives.
It takes just a small trigger to begin a nostalgic journey. A forgotten song, a photograph or even a smell can transport us back to a time where everything was right with the world.
As retrogamers, nostalgia is a big part of what we are…how can it not be? Those halcyon days spent playing games on home computers are burned into our very being, but quite often what should be an epic nostalgia trip turns into the holiday from hell. Games are not as fun as we remember, computers are not as easy to use and how the hell did we put up with the sheer hassle of setting everything up?
If only there was a way to enjoy games like we used to but without the hassle and fuss…
Retro Games Ltd. may have the answer to these problems with the brand new “TheC64 Mini” system, a fully licensed modern-day interpretation of the classic Commodore 64 very much in the vein of the Nintendo mini consoles. The big question is, can it ever live up to the nostalgic view of the bestselling home computer ever?
Born out of a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, TheC64 Mini is the first of a range of systems that Retro Games Ltd (RGL) are planning to deliver, the others being a full-size recreation and a handheld version of the system. The Mini is now in our hands so let’s take a look and see what’s what.
Increasingly, any product that is trying to give the customer a feeling of quality must engage with them from the minute they pick it up, so the packaging must reflect the contents inside. RGL have created a very pleasing unboxing experience indeed. A bright colourful box tempts us with what is inside, proudly boasting 64 built-in games on the front and many screenshots on the back. Inside the outer box is another pleasingly coloured matt blue box with a “TheC64 Mini” logo glossily printed on it. Opening that box reveals the well laid out contents, the system itself along with the recreated Competition Pro joystick which sits on top of the systems cables and a small manual. No power supply is included which is a little disappointing but this is no different than the precedent already set my Nintendo, which I would imagine is to keep the cost down.
Plugging the system into a TV is the work of mere seconds, thanks to the onboard HDMI. Add power via a micro USB cable and attach the joystick. Setup is far quicker than the old C64 ever was. TheC64 Mini will power up as soon as the USB power is connected and after selecting which languages to use (5 are supported) it’s mere moments until the familiar sounds of C64 chip music are heard.
In another nod to the Nintendo Mini systems, the game selection menu looks very familiar if you already own one of those systems. Games can be scrolled left and right with a selection made by the fire button on the joystick. Once a choice is made it takes mere seconds to be launched into a game, which given how small the game files must be is not surprising but still it is somewhat pleasing to be able to play almost instantly.
My first impression is of just how impressive the systems looks running on an HD tv, it’s genuinely jaw-dropping. Memories of fuzzy looking images via a cheap RF cable just melt away. Even though the system only (!) outputs in 720p, even on a 4K tv the pictures look crisp with rich colours.
The sound is equally clear, with no detectable hissings or noise. I use a Yamaha sound bar in my game room, so your own experience may vary but for the purposes of this review I also used sound directly from my JVC TV and it still sounded excellent.
Picking up the joystick feels instantly familiar, I guess it should as my old C64 had a Competition Pro attached to it for many years. If you are not familiar with this joystick then it may feel a little odd but you will soon learn that despite its angular shape it is surprisingly ergonomic although a little lightweight for my taste.
As for the games that are included there is a fair selection drawn from across the lifetime of the original C64. Being a British manufacturer, there is an understandable bias towards games from that country so American owners may not have heard of quite a few of the titles. Fear not, they are all good quality and most are going to tickle the nostalgia bones.
Should the built-in games not be enough for you then by adding a USB memory stick and some D64 game files it is possible to have the C64Mini run almost any C64 game ever made. At the time of writing, there are issues with how this feature functions, only one rom at a time can be used and no multi-load games are supported. RGL has publicly acknowledged there are issues and have committed to fixing them in a firmware update that will shortly be released.
The fact that the system can be upgraded with new firmware does present some intriguing possibilities for the future. Hopefully, we may see additional support for more USB controllers other than the bundled joystick along with improved functionality and extra features added.
As many people have already pointed out, the “keyboard” is non-functioning, which for a device like this is not really an issue as it primarily is aimed at people playing games. A “virtual” keyboard can be used with a press of a button on the joystick but if that is not enough, any USB keyboard can be plugged in and will work as expected. Combining a real keyboard and the built-in “Basic” mode will give a perfectly usable C64 that can be programmed just like the real thing.
So far it seems that we are onto a winner with the TheC64 Mini…good presentation, quality packaging, easy to use, (almost) ready to use out the box and some great games. Can this be too good to be true? Well, not quite. There are some issues that are evident.
My biggest issue with the system is lag. This is to be expected to some degree and it is noticeable on some titles more than others. Friends who have the system reported the game Bounder to be almost unplayable and Monty on the Run to be impossible. In my own tests, I founder Bounder to be fine and Monty on the Run to have lag but wasn’t an issue until I found a jump that needed perfect timing. I just could not get Monty to jump when I wanted.
In the spirit of performing an exhaustive test I ran TheC64 Mini on three screens – A JVC 4K tv, A Sony HD TV and my Acer PC monitor. Pleasingly I found that the lag was very much dependent on the TV being used, the Acer monitor handled the system almost perfectly with no noticeable lag. Both TV’s had lag but playing around with the picture processing settings eliminated almost all the lag symptoms I had seen.
The second issue I had was with the joystick itself. Whilst it looks and feels like a Competition Pro it does not respond like one. It uses a membrane system for the contacts and not microswitches like the original. This results in a slightly dead feel which can make it hard to be precise with movement. Playing Hunters Moon I found it hard to get diagonal movements more than once. In Skooldaze it was very hard to turn Eric around when he needed to sit at a desk which resulted in far too many lines being given to him.
I also found the bundled joystick to be a little lightweight compared to what I am used to. Taking a look inside I noticed that metal weights had been attached to the underside of the case; my feeling is more should be added. This is, of course, my personal preference so I’m not going to say it’s a failing of the system.
Overall I would absolutely recommend TheC64 Mini to anyone who has a passing interest in re-experiencing what the C64 used to be. For £64.99 it’s fairly priced for what you get and has been well engineered to feel and operate like a quality device. Should you be a die-hard C64 fanboy maybe this is not the system for you, for everyone else go and grab one today – you won’t regret it.