C64 Mini review: A nostalgia-drenched return for an 8-bit classic
One of the abiding memories I have of the Commodore 64, the very first game-playing machine I ever had, is tapping away at the blue ready screen, painstakingly recreating lines of BASIC, the erstwhile programming language, in order to make a simple pixelated hot air balloon bounce around the screen. It is an incredibly simple thing to think back on but, at the time, the frisson of excitement for a six-year-old conjuring such a thing from a few lines of code was pure magic. So it’s a nice touch on this miniature homage that you can fire up BASIC, blue screen and all, to recreate some of those memories. There are a million better ways to learn coding these days, of course, but I couldn’t resist making that 8-bit balloon fly again to get the nostalgia glands tingling. And that is what the makers of the C64 Mini are betting on. Made by Retro Games Ltd after a successful Kickstarter, the C64 Mini is looking to follow in the memory-jogging footsteps of Nintendo’s NES and SNES Minis. As such, you get a miniature facsimile of the machine and a selection of retro games to play on it. The mini is based on the original beige "breadbin" model of the Commodore 64 (rather than the updated grey 64C I had) and is a lovely little thing. The keyboard is just for show, and is missing the markings on the underside of the keys, but it's sturdy and convincing with the red power light in the right place and two modern USB slots standing in for the side-mounted serial ports. If you are in the market for this wave of retro consoles for the physical model, the C64 Mini can mix it with the best. Which is, unfortunately, perhaps more than can be said for the rest of the package. The C64 Mini comes with a recreation of a C64 joystick and, while that has the same nostalgia tingle in look, it is clunky and unresponsive. There is a chance that this is by design rather than fault, Retro Games Ltd. looking to recreate the awkward joystick wrestling that came with games past. However, even if this is the case, it somewhat misses the point of these updates. A good nostalgia product knows where to chamfer the edges to reinforce rose-tinted memories, refining frustrations you used to put up with but chose to forget. The C64 Mini is only partly successful at this, with the joystick perhaps being the most obvious foible. Loading the 64 games that come loaded onto the machine, however, is a far easier experience. The menu screen is a simple carousel that lets you flip through each title, with a small blurb on each and information on its designer. Often you find yourself reminded that in this earliest time of video game development, the vast majority of games were crafted by just a handful of people. As ever with the selection of games, your own mileage will vary. To be brutally honest, unlike much of Nintendo’s oeuvre on their Mini consoles, there are very few C64 games that truly stand up today in terms of playability. But for retro nerds, there is a reasonable amount to get your teeth into, from shoot ‘em ups to adventure games to sports. C64 Mini | Pre-installed games If the games don’t necessarily play brilliantly these days (and good luck convincing any younger members of the household otherwise), there is still a nice historical curiousity to many of the titles. I got a kick out of revisiting the halls of Skool Daze, for instance, navigating the school day in one of the earliest examples of the freeform ‘sandbox’ game. Platformer Impossible Mission, which has you leaping around a super-criminal’s underground base, has a labyrinthine 2D map that has since inspired recent games such as Spelunky and Flinthook. I also have a soft spot for the boisterous futuristic Speedball and Epyx’s collection of more familiar sporting events; from the Summer and Winter Olympics, to the quirkier World and California Games that includes caber throwing and playing hackysack respectively. These are all incredibly simplistic in control terms, of course, but in some ways its fascinating to see how much mileage the developers of the time wrung out of the machine and its control input limitations. The joystick is a little over clunky Credit: Retro Computers Although in part due to this, many of the games on show here are rock-hard to master. You can forget tutorials on how to perform a triple-axel in the figure skating or just how to make Monty go On the Run. Back then, games would come with detailed manuals on how to play and would expect you to swot up before you played. The C64 Mini doesn’t make any concessions to this either. There are no manuals with the software, meaning you will need to go hunting for PDFs online to have any chance with a lot of the titles. In many ways, calling up instructions on your phone or nearby laptop is easy than scrolling through on screen, but it does seem a shame that a system sold as a retro remembrance doesn’t have a little more documentation in the package itself. The game selection is certainly missing some more seminal C64 work too. This is completely understandable giving the licensing minefield that must exist in running games from the now defunct LucasArts and the like. But if you were hoping to dive into a Zac McKraken adventure or fight in International Karate + (one of my personal favourites), you will have to find another way. But the C64 Mini provides exactly that, even if it is more complicated than we would like right now. You can load C64 programmes onto the Mini by downloading them from external sources (with the copyright caveats that entails) onto a USB stick and firing them up by typing simple access codes into BASIC. The basic instructed way, found on the C64 Mini’s website, can be a little laborious however. An apparent oversight means that you must have the joystick plugged in at all times, otherwise the Mini will kick you out of BASIC and back to the carousel. What that means is that, with the basic kit, you wont beable to plug in the USB stick and replace the joystick with a keyboard. Instead you will need to use the virtual keyboard, inputting characters one by one using the joystick. And this way also only allows one game to be loaded at a time. Technology intelligence - newsletter promo - EOA However, there are some workarounds. Plenty of intrepid souls have figured out how to load multiple games at once with a few tweaks. And you can use a USB splitter to connect keyboard, joystick and memory stick all at the same time. There are definite drawbacks for the casual player to some of the quirks to the C64 Mini and Retro Games has said they are working on a more streamlined way to load C64 files. For an enthusiast, figuring out homebrew methods will be part of the fun and is a large reason something like BASIC is included at all. This perhaps sums up the C64 Mini’s appeal. Perhaps unlike Nintendo’s more accessible Minis, the C64 is unlike to convert any new fans or gamers with more modern sensibilities to its church. For the retro-inclined, however, it could be just what they are looking for.