On freeing The C64 Mini from its box, I think: “This looks the part”. A broadly faithful, palm-sized take on the famous 1980s ‘breadbin’ home computer, it’s probably not what retro-gamers had in mind when dreaming of a C64 handheld – but it has almost everything you need.
At the back, there’s an HDMI port, and a micro-USB power slot. (A cable’s supplied, but you’ll need a charger – a mobile phone one will do.) At the side, a power switch and two USB ports.
The unit’s own keyboard, sadly, is just for show – although you’d need to file your fingers to points to type on it. Apparently, if The C64 Mini sells well, a full-size version may appear. For now, you can plug in a USB keyboard, and start typing...
10 PRINT "CRAIG SMELLS LIKE A ZX SPECTRUM! ";
20 GOTO 10
...before quickly realising that’s the extent of your C64 programming knowledge. Still, for most people, Commodore’s classic machine was all about the games...
A special thanks to Firebox for supplying a C64 Mini for this review.
Fire up The C64 Mini and it immediately belts out a SID tune. Younglings will be all “chip tunes – whatev”, but old gits may pause for a moment to recall the days when Rob Hubbard noisily blared forth from their speakers, to everyone else’s bemusement. A grin duly plastered across your face, it’s then time to pick from a carousel of games.
Fittingly, 64 licensed titles are included, presumably making The C64 Mini’s creators relieved that the original machine wasn’t dubbed the Commodore 9000. The selection is strong, too. I’m sure people will grumble their personal favourites are absent, but you’d have to be a miserable retro-gamer to not be interested in the likes of Impossible Mission and Paradroid.
The tiny snag, though, is what happens when you actually try to play the games. You quickly realise how brutal C64 titles were. Shooter IO will rob you of your lives within seconds. Platformer Gribbly’s Day Out was seemingly designed by a sadist. And I challenge any Stuff reader to make it through Cybernoid with their sanity intact.
It's a stick-up
Much exasperation comes from the take-no-prisoners nature of these old games. Created in an era when playtesting barely entered the equation, they throw you in at the deep end. Many titles will prove impenetrable without committing the instructions to memory. Worse, the bundled joystick really doesn’t help. It resembles the classic Competition Pro, but feels like a cheap, shoddy knock off.
Compared to modern gamepads, even the Competition Pro was hardly an ergonomic delight – but it was clicky and responsive. By contrast, this pretender lacks microswitches and precision. You need to manhandle the thing, yanking the stick about rather than using subtler movements. Even then, you may miss diagonals at critical moments, rendering the likes of the already tough Trailblazer and Bounder unplayable.
This is a crying shame, because everything else about The C64 Mini is a success. The interface is sleek, simple and smart. You can load your own games from a USB stick – a process that’s a bit of a faff, but still significantly easier than expanding the Nintendo Classic Mini: SNES. You also get four save states per game, fully working BASIC, and six display modes if your eyes abhor pixel-perfect upscaling and prefer a flatscreen to resemble a giant CRT.
Six of the best: The C64 Mini games
A combination of time and sheer bloody mindedness got me over that initial hump of disappointment. Lag was eradicated by turning on my TV’s Game Mode. And on resigning myself to the likelihood of hand cramp, I found there was plenty of fun to be had.
Sure, some of the bundled games don’t hold up at all. Retro racers like Super Cycle and Pitstop II, with their dull 3D road effects and ‘dying fly’ engine noises, fail to captivate for more than a few minutes. But some have a timeless quality, at least once you get past the crude visuals, and the fact C64 gaming was more Wild West than Nintendo-style polish.
The following six were standouts for me, and worked well with The C64 Mini’s mediocre controller.
Reworked dozens of times, Boulder Dash still impresses most in its original incarnation. Guide Rockford through dirt-filled caverns, grab diamonds, and avoid getting squashed by rocks. It’s fast-paced, compelling fun – at least when the joystick doesn’t let you down and leave you crushed. Still: save states.
This thoughtful shooter, which recently got the remastering treatment via a Kickstarter, finds you snatching star cells lurking deep within hives. You must nip in and grab the bling, avoiding worker drones that endlessly patrol, repair damaged walls, and spew ship-destroying spores.
I personally prefer the sequel (also included), but have listed the original, to avoid being bludgeoned to death by C64 fanatics armed with a chunky Zzap!64 Christmas Special. Anyway, the game: leap about platforms, gathering parts of a code, avoid getting killed, and defeat a despot.
A sort-of proto-FPS from above, Paradroid finds you beamed aboard a ship of unruly robots. Your ‘influence device’ has weedy weaponry, but you can – through a sub-game – clamp yourself to other robots, temporarily take them over, and blast everything else to bits. Don’t let the basic visuals put you off – this one’s great.
Handball slammed into a violent 2000 AD sports comic strip, Speedball 2 finds you managing a team of no-hopers with dreams of winning the league. Cue: loads of hurling a metal ball about, and unsportingly punching opponents in the face. Surprisingly, given the rough visuals, it plays better than the Amiga original.
Epyx cornered the market in sports sims during the mid-1980s, eschewing sweaty joystick waggling for a more refined take that married precision timing and rhythm action. Summer Games 2 and Winter Games are included, but World Games is better, offering sumo, barrel jumping and cliff diving, rather than typical Olympics fare.
The C64 Mini verdict
For some people, the C64 Mini will be nothing more than a shrunken facsimile of a relic, and nothing will make them engage with ancient games, beyond the briefest bout of curiosity. And yet because so many modern mobile titles visually echo their C64 ancestors, some of the bundled efforts here feel oddly contemporary, while others at least give you insight into gaming’s history. This means – if you’re willing to dig in and persevere – a decent chunk of the 64 included titles will be fun to old-hands and newcomers alike.
But beyond the games, The C64 Mini is hit-and-miss. The UI and emulation are great, and the ability to load other games is welcome – and should become simpler after some upcoming firmware updates. On the flip side, there’s that iffy joystick, which won’t be improved – although firmware changes could at least bring compatibility with modern USB controllers, and even adaptors for actual C64 joysticks.
Until then, I can’t give The C64 Mini anything more than a guarded recommendation. This could and should have been a wonderful tribute to a classic gaming system – but like many of the games made for the C64, it needed that extra bit of playtesting and refinement.