The C64 Mini review: A fun and slightly flawed time machine

The year was 1986. I had gone over to spend the night at a friend's house and was amazed to see the Nintendo Entertainment System for the first time. It only took a few minutes to fall deeply in love with that little grey box. From that day forward I do not doubt that I drove my parents mad as I explained how it was imperative that I own a Nintendo for myself. Months later, on Christmas morning, I ran out to the living room with Mario Brothers on my mind. That's when I saw a large box. It absolutely had to be my Nintendo. I tore into the wrapping and my heart sank in an instant. There was no Nintendo within. My Christmas present was a Commodore 64.

I may not have known it at that moment under the Christmas tree, but I would later grow to be incredibly grateful that my Dad chose to get me the Commodore 64. The Commodore may not have had Mario but it had so much more. In the span of its life, there were thousands of games released on the Commodore. Some of those game were amazing, some were terrible, and some downright bizarre.

Through the years I have met quite a few folks who had a childhood experience like mine with the Commodore and nearly every single one of those people hold their memories of the system with a fondness and warmth that seems unrivaled by other home gaming systems.

Due to my deep abiding love for the Commodore 64, I was ecstatic to find that Retro Games Ltd. would be releasing The C64 Mini to the public in 2018. I recently got to spend some time with this tiny retro console and found it to be well worth it's $80 price tag.

The Good

  • Gorgeous recreation of the original Commodore
  • ROMs are optimized to load fast and run reliably
  • Supports loading your own ROMs

The Bad

  • Pretty terrible joystick

What is it?

The C64 Mini is a retro console not unlike so many of the other retro consoles that have been unleashed to gamers in recent years. It runs off of Linux with an ARM processor and a custom front-end. As its name suggests, it focuses entirely on the Commodore 64. For the price of admission, you will receive a lovingly recreated miniature version of the Commodore 64 computer which was essentially a thick beige keyboard with dark brown keys.

In addition to the itty bitty console, you will also receive a joystick which looks a bit like any one of the myriads of joysticks that were available for the Commodore. The only difference is that this one is designed with The C64 Mini in mind. Rather than one or two buttons, there are eight which allow you to access menus and various other functions. When you plug the system in you will have access to 64 different classic games to fuel your gaming nostalgia.

The look

The attention to detail on this miniaturized version is truly impressive. Whenever I was walking around my house and saw it sitting there, it just made me happy to see it. It looks exactly like the one I grew up with as a kid only much smaller.

It's so perfect that it is a little odd and disorienting to look at.

It's so perfect that it is a little odd and disorienting to look at. It's like my brain is having trouble reconciling its size against my memories. Anyone who is or was a fan of the Commodore 64 will appreciate the way it looks. I am not exactly wowed by the visual design of the joystick, but I don't hate it either. It's a decent recreation of one of the many Commodore joysticks, just not my favorite one.

The feel

There is not much to say about the way the console itself feels as none of the keys on the keyboard are functional. I was a bit disappointed by this even though having them be functional would be pretty silly.

The keys are so small that you would either have to hire a baby to do your typing or employ some sort of typing wand. If you ever need a keyboard you can always plug one in through the USB ports on the side. As far as the construction goes, it feels solid and well built. I am not concerned in the slightest about it falling apart any time soon.

The joystick offers buttons with a response that I would categorize as decent but the stick itself feels terrible. There is not a ton of play in it and it feels pretty squishy and unsatisfying. Unfortunately, my biggest gripe about the joystick is there is no real comfortable way to use it. Despite the no-slip pads on the bottom, playing with the joystick on a table is pretty much a non-starter. The height of the stick versus the width of the base is not enough to keep it from tipping when using it on a table and doesn't feel super great in my hand either.

I have relatively large hands but it still feels big and unwieldy to me and I started to feel some cramping in my hands after longer play sessions. I know that they were trying to recreate a classic controller to keep with the theme but there were actual controllers that offered more thought to ergonomics than this one. Fortunately, you can use other USB controllers with the C64 mini.

The interface

Retro Games Ltd. created their own front end for the C64 Mini. All in all, it looks great. It captures the feel of the original system with its light blue pallet and looks pretty cool on my big TV. All the games are presented in a row across the bottom where you can select titles and start them with a push of a button.

Unfortunately, I wish there were a few more options with the menu. Scrolling through 64 different games can sometimes feel like a bit of a slog. It would be nice if users were given the option to see games laid out differently. Seeing all the titles presented as a grid, for instance, would make it much faster to find the game you are looking for. Secondarily, a search option or filter would make the experience a little more user-friendly.

The games

All the games on the C64 load and run excellently. Anyone who is familiar with Commodore emulation has largely come to terms with slow loading times and unreliable ROMs. That is not present at all with the Mini. When you select a game it loads in seconds and runs smoothly through the duration of your play. The developers did a stellar job optimizing the software in a way that gives you a retro experience with none of that vintage waiting.

The games that are here are lovingly and perfectly recreated. But there were so many awesome games left out, too.

The selection of games is a little bit harder to weigh in on. Because there were so many titles available on the Commodore 64, it's hard to find any two people who have a matching list of favorite titles. I have met so many people whose favorite game is one I haven't even heard of. In addition, lots of games mean lots of publishers. I am sure, that in many cases just finding out who owns the rights to any given game is a herculean task in and of itself. Clearly, Retro Game Ltd found their way to a good relationship with Epyx as all of their most popular titles are represented here.

I also had a blast digging into titles like Boulder Dash, Jumpman, and Impossible Mission. I am assuming that more than a few of the games on the C64 Mini are titles that were far more popular in Europe than they were here in the states.

While there were a whole host of games that I would have loved to see on the system, the selection that they have on offer is pretty respectable and is more than enough to keep me busy in the days to come. The best part is that if you feel the way I do, the C64 Mini actually supports loading your own ROMs so you can play just about any Commodore game your heart desires.

Final Verdict

In spite of a few shortcomings, I have completely loved spending time with this tiny love letter to the world of Commodore 64 gaming. Just looking at the console itself brings me joy and when I am lying on my stomach in front of the TV playing some awesome classic games I love it even more.

4 out of 5

The C64 Mini is designed for a very specific market. I have to imagine that fans of the original Commodore and retro gaming enthusiasts will totally have a blast with this little system, as I did.

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Jaz Brown