The retro games console market is raging at the moment, not least thanks to Nintendo's decision to release remakes of the NES and SNES in miniature form. That's prompted others to follow suit, including Sega with a Mega Drive Mini planned for late 2018 and this, a crowd-funded, tiddly replica of one of the greatest home computers of all time.
The C64 Mini really takes us back - not least because I, personally, was editor of Your Commodore (YC) and Commodore Power magazines in the late 80s/early 90s. It is an aesthetically accurate reproduction of the original machine, only much smaller and reimagined as a games console rather than PC.
It comes with 64 games pre-installed (an obvious number to choose) and a USB joystick that harks back to the much-loved Kempston Competition Pro joysticks of old. And there is a HDMI output with games upscaled to 720p for modern TVs.
You can also load your own, legally sourced C64 games onto the machine, something not possible with either of Nintendo's retro reissues. Indeed, manufacturer Retro Games Limited seems to have thought of everything. Our only worry is whether the C64 is too niche in itself and the games too unfamiliar to attract those without rose tinted spectacles hanging off their schnozzes.
C64 Mini design
The machine itself is handsomely made. It looks exactly like the original computer save for the fact that the keyboard is purely there for show.
Indeed, we were surprised when we unboxed the Mini and discovered the keys were part of a single moulded lump of plastic. You can add your own USB keyboard to the set up, thanks to two USB 2.0 ports on the side, but the one supplied is simply eye candy.
The plastic used is spot on though. The console feels exactly as we remember the Commodore 64 to feel.
Its size is perfect to hide away in a cabinet, measuring 365 x 14 x 102mm, although we'd rather keep it out. It's a shame to squirrel away the device considering its styling is part of the appeal. Also, the power button is on the side so you have to reach around anyway.
On the rear you can find a microUSB port provided for power only plus the HDMI output. That's it. You will need to provide your own USB power plug, but you do get a microUSB cable and HDMI cable in the box.
C64 Mini classic joystick
As previously mentioned, the joystick provided with The C64 Mini is designed to look and feel like the Kempston Competition Pro controllers we remember from our youth. The only issue we have is that, whether this is identical to the original or not, it feels a little flimsy and plasticky in comparison with more modern equivalents. We haven't had any issues yet, but not sure how well it'll hold up to more vigorous gaming sessions.
It is USB and, like with the controllers that come with the NES and SNES Classic Mini consoles, the 1.5-metre lead is too short in our opinion. You have to sit closer to the console than is generally comfortable and if you are playing on a 55- or 65-inch flatscreen, say, you don't get the best view.
However, it is cheap and simple to get a USB extension cable so you can add one to your setup to sit further back. And, as the joystick houses all buttons save for the power switch, you don't have to get up to change games or perform any other functions (unlike Nintendo's machines).
An second joystick can be used in the other USB port for two-player games, but you'll have to source one separately.
C64 Mini user experience
When fired up, the console launches into a custom menu screen that looks not unlike the SNES Classic Mini's. A scroll bar at the bottom shows the - sometimes amusing - original cover art for each of the 64 games, while the top of the screen displays a couple of rolling screen grabs and some information. Click on the game itself and it starts.
You also get an option to launch C64 Basic - which opens the original C64 screen and can be used just the computer of old. It is here you can load your own games, rather than just those that come pre-installed. A virtual keyboard pops up on the right-hand side of the screen at the tap of a button on the joystick, but we really do advise adding a USB keyboard if you plan to enter anything more than a simple command.
The main UI also gives you access to a couple of settings, including screen ratio and style - from pixel upscaling for widescreen TVs to different 4:3 formats. Even the scan lines to replicate the original CRT televisions can be added for effect.
When in a game you can save your progress at any time as a snapshot and restart it from the tap of a button. Up to four save states can be stored per title.
The only thing we don't like about the homescreen is the ever-looping music. It is authentically C64, with grunts and beeps, but also irritating. Mercifully, you can turn it off.
C64 Mini games
For all its nostalgic charm, the C64 Mini will either appeal to you or not based on its games. And, we have to admit, there aren't enough big name titles that are truly essential.
Of the 64 included, only 10 or so are what we would describe as classic and memorable. Impossible Mission and its sequel are the stand-out stars, with Uridium, Paradroid and the Speedball pairing also well worth adding to anybody's collection. The Epyx Games collection - Winter Games, Summer Games, etc, were particular faves back in the day too.
There are plenty of what we would describe as fillers though, games you might only play once or twice. That's the problem with licensing games from so long ago - many of the copyright holders might not even be contactable anymore. So this isn't really a definitive collection of C64 nuggets, more those that Retro Games was able to get the rights to use.
That could be why the manufacturer decided to add the ability to load your own disk files. It's not an easy process at present, requiring renaming a game d64 file as something the Mini can read, transferring it to a USB drive and then typing specific commands into C64 Basic, but we have yet to find a game that hasn't loaded that way. And with a mighty collection of games available for download in the correct format at c64.com you can find the classics you might be yearning for (if you already own them legally, of course).
Retro Games promises to make the loading process more simple with a future firmware update, which will definitely help - especially with games split over two disks or more. When it does so, the C64 Mini becomes an altogether different prospect for sure.
C64 Mini performance
The games that are available do play well and look great, even when scaled to maximum on a 65-inch 4K OLED. They are pixelated, sure, but don't display any of the pixel ghosting normally associated with retro games machines that don't support digital video output.
The 720p output works well and colour fidelity is maintained far more accurately than our age old CRTs were originally capable.
Audio comes through the HDMI connection but is mono, just like the original computer. It's clear, concise and accurate however, including the gravelly "Another visitor! Stay a while, stay forever!" speech in Impossible Mission. Still makes us tingle every time we hear it.
All pre-installed games load very quickly but you might have to wait for your own downloaded files to start. They are faster than on the original computer but still take a while to start up.
Whether you'll find The C64 Mini to be right up your strasse or not entirely depends on how fondly you remember the original and how much you're willing to spend on a handful of essential classic games and many you might not be as familiar with.
There's no doubt that what the retro console does it does well, with excellent emulation of both the Commodore 64 and its software. But we would have liked to see a better selection of titles available from the off.
Thankfully, that's where external loading can make up the shortfall and it's great to see Retro Games giving us the option to play our own files. It's a process that needs to be made more simple and intuitive, but hopefully that'll arrive in a firmware update really soon.
When it does, what is already a decent homage to a glorious period for gaming will become something even more essential to old fart ex-C64 magazine editors and fans like us.
You can buy The C64 Mini from Firebox.com.