With the recent rise in popularity of higher-quality, more official “plug and play” retro game systems, I have to imagine that there are two main groups of people fueling the trend: older gamers who were around for the original systems that want to relive their youth, and younger players looking to experience an era of gaming that existed before they did. Of course, that doesn’t cover the entirety of the people who are snatching up these all-in-one devices, and a third, smaller group is where I fit in with something like The C64 Mini: those who were around during the life of the platform but who missed out on it the first time around.
From the moment our family bought an Atari 2600, I was a console gamer. I later played a handful of games on the Apple //e we had on loan from my elementary school (my mom was a volunteer computer teacher there), but consoles were far more popular with my friends, easier for me to find games for, and just seemed like the overall better experience. With the exception of a friend in high school whose main computer was a VIC-20 hooked up to his television, Commodore’s various offerings didn’t matter to me for a good chunk of my life. I knew they existed, but I simply didn’t care.
Which is why, here in the far-flung future of 2018, I was genuinely curious to try out The C64 Mini. Away from any schoolyard side-taking or the futility of asking my parents for yet another gaming platform, it’s great to be able to fill in some of the gaps in my lifetime of gaming experiences.
My first impressions of The C64 Mini were pretty good. At this point, we all know what to expect—miniaturized replica of the original hardware combined with properly-sized controllers—but there’s something wonderful about having that trademark chunky brown Commodore keyboard unit shrunk down to this size. Sure, the keys don’t actually work, and you kinda wish they did even though they’d be a pain to use that small, but it’s still such a visually satisfying object. I was far less enthusiastic about the joystick, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
The C64 Mini comes loaded with 64 different games, and I did actually recognize some of them right off the bat. Even if I wasn’t a big computer player in my younger days, I was still familiar with developer Epyx from both the random times it’d release console ports of its games, and its key role in filling out the Atari Lynx’s library. There’s a nice list of classic Epyx titles included here, from the Street Sports series, to the cult classic Impossible Mission games, to its various releases modeled after Olympic (and other competitive) sporting events—my favorite of which remains California Games to this day. Beyond Epyx’s contributions, most of The C64 Mini’s roster of games was new to me, except for a few like Speedball or Monty on the Run that I knew by name but not from experience. I found a handful of those other random titles that I definitely clicked with, with Deflektor, Confuzion, Nodes of Yesod, and Uridium being the best examples. I also give the team behind The C64 Mini extra credit for not only including Basic as a bonus application, but also offering an official method for adding additional C64 games to the unit. Both of those decisions show an appreciated commitment to making The C64 Mini a legitimate option for reliving the days of the original system, versus just being a limited-use novelty release.
Unfortunately, the thrill of digging through The C64 Mini’s library grew old pretty fast. The sad reality of the evolution of video games is that, go any earlier than the era of the Nintendo Entertainment System or Sega Master System, and games get really, really rough. As much as I loved my Atari 2600 as a kid, I simply can’t go back to Combat, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Berzerk the same way I can Metroid, Clash at Demonhead, or River City Ransom. Many of the games here are ugly, they’re awkward, they’re difficult, and good lord are they incomprehensible. Especially on the computer side of things, developers of that era seemed to have a love for making projects that were both incredibly complex and utterly lacking in tutorials or basic gameplay explanations. Here on The C64 Mini, the only real explanation you get for each game is a brief one-paragraph summary on the selection screen—beyond that, good luck. (The official website for The C64 Mini does provide varying amounts of instructions for each game, but there really should have been something built into the unit, even if just a page or two of basic details.) Even as someone who lived through that era, I don’t have the patience to try to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing or why in a number of these games.
And that’s in part because fighting with The C64 Mini’s controller also took something out of me. It’s not unusable, even if some people are saying that it is, but it’s certainly a pain in the ass. Controllers of that era were weird abominations of ergonomics, and as admirable a goal it is to make The C64 Mini feel authentic, this controller was a mistake. I’m also not certain how accurate it is, because the joystick itself is annoyingly stiff. So, either the original C64 had a terrible stick on it—which I can believe, having used my share of input devices from those years—and that factor really shouldn’t have been replicated, or The C64 Mini team dropped the ball on its reproduction of the original. Also, some games required you to make use of the C64’s keyboard for starting the game, setting options, or other needs, and that can get a little awkward here as you navigate through a pop-up virtual keyboard. (You can also plug in a USB keyboard, but that starts to negate the whole “plug and play” factor of the device.)
I know it may sound like I hate The C64 Mini, but I honestly don’t. Other than the controller, and a lack of documentation for each of the included titles, I respect the work that’s gone into the system. I think it could have been very easy to just half-ass a project like this, but that’s not the impression The C64 Mini left me with, even from my first moments opening its package. The problem is that time hasn’t been kind to the era of gaming, so I think it’s going to be tough for most people to find any real amount of fun or appreciation here—especially with nothing done to teach them how to play each game in the first place. Unlike the NES and SNES Classics, or the upcoming PlayStation Classic and Genesis Mini, The C64 Mini only feels appropriate for those who grew up with and loved the original Commodore hardware and games. This is a neat new addition to the growing line of all-in-one retro reproductions—but one that feels way, way more narrow in who it’s meant for.