A Look at the Commodore 64 Mini

If the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, the greatest trick marketing executives ever pulled was convincing consumers to purchase the same things over and over. For example, in my lifetime I’ve purchased five copies of AC/DC’s Back in Black — once on vinyl, once on cassette, once on CD, once on iTunes, and, most recently, again on vinyl. Ten years from now if they figure out a way to beam music directly into our brains, I’m sure I’ll buy a sixth copy. Hells Bells, baby.

I’m not sure there’s a form of entertainment that milks their customer base harder than the video game industry. Year after year and decade after decade, gaming heavyweights like Nintendo, Sega, and Sony continue to sell us virtual versions of the exact same games we purchased (in some cases) more than three decades ago. None of us who owned a Nintendo back in the 1980s could have predicted that the hottest holiday gift thirty years later would be the Nintendo Classic — a miniature version of the NES that plays the exact same games we grew up with.

But before I owned my first NES (and long after I sold it) I owned a Commodore 64, a machine I have fond memories of to this day. It was the computer I discovered BBSes on, wrote programs on, and of course, played a never ending stream of games on. By the time 16-bit computers and consoles hit the market many Commodore 64 games felt and looked dated, but nostalgia is a powerful drug. Even though I still own the Commodore 64 I grew up with (and an SX-64, and a Commodore 128, and a couple of spares, and a bevy of devices that can accurately emulate the Commodore 64’s innards including a MiST FPGA, a Raspberry Pi, tablets, and laptops), when I saw the C64 Mini, I ordered one anyway.

Like all of the “mini” consoles that have been released to date, including the Atari Flashback, Nintendo’s NES and SNES miniature consoles, and Sony’s PlayStation Classic, the C64 Mini is, if nothing else, cute. The machine is approximately half as deep and half as wide as the original; even as the largest of the current wave of mini consoles, it’s still adorable. The case’s unique dual brown tones, even if they aren’t 100% accurate, clearly identify the machine as a descendant of the original 64. A closer inspection of the case reveals a few of the system’s upgrades: RCA video has been replaced with HDMI, the two 9-pin joystick ports have been replaced with USB ports, and power, once supplied by an inefficient black brick, is now provided through a micro-USB port. For anyone unsure, the system’s keyboard is a single non-functional piece of plastic.

Also the same, but not quite the same, is the included USB joystick which, from a distance, resembles a vintage Competition Pro Joystick (the same stick the C64DTV was modeled on). Closer inspection reveals additional buttons — eight, in all. There are two fire buttons, two triangular buttons, and four across the base that map to the system’s function keys. It’s way more buttons than most Commodore users are used to, but the added functionality makes it possible to navigate the system’s menus and built-in games without hooking up a USB keyboard.

The C64 Mini comes with 64 built-in games (the list of included games varies slightly between NTSC and PAL units). Retrogames (the company behind the unit) managed to obtain the rights and include several A+ titles. Almost every kid who grew up with a Commodore will remember titles like Boulder Dash, California Games, Impossible Mission, Jumpman, Paradroid, Pitstop II, the Temple of Apshai trilogy, Uridium, Winter Games, and World Games, all of which come baked into the unit. In between those titles are games like Confuzion, Deflektor, Hysteria, and The Arc of Yesod, games that even fanatics of the system may not have heard of. The Comoodore 64 had more than 20,000 titles in its library. Not all of them were great.

Fortunately, Retrogames has included the ability to play additional games from a USB stick without requiring users to perform any shady and potentially warranty-voiding hacks. The option to browse USB devices and attach D64 files (the defacto format for emulated Commodore 64 disk images) to the unit. You’ll need to spring for an additional USB hub since this requires connecting three USB devices (a USB stick, a USB joystick, and a USB keyboard) to a unit that only shipped with two USB ports. Once you’ve done that, the C64 Mini transforms into a fairly functional Commodore 64.

Under the hood the unit runs Vice (one of the most popular and compatible Commodore 64 emulators), and those who claim that the unit doesn’t do anything that couldn’t be done on a Raspberry Pi are correct. The C64 Mini’s selling point is that it takes those features and packages them into a living room-friendly device. to play the built in titles in your living room, all that is required is the bundled joystick. Additionally, the C64 Mini recognizes “file flags.” By simply changing the file names of games stored on external media, users can set specific variables. Adding J1 tells the system to switch the USB joystick to Joystick Port 1. TN and TP can force the system into NTSC and PAL modes. It’s an ingenious, simple, and well-documented system that opens the system up to thousands more titles. And again, with the addition of a USB keyboard, the unit is essentially converted into a “real” Commodore 64 — down to a working BASIC prompt begging for your “GOTO 10” screen loop.

The C64 Mini is currently at $40-$50 on Amazon, and occasionally goes on sale for less than that. Prices dropped when the company announced the confusingly titled “TheC64”, a full-sized version of the C64 Mini that ships with a working keyboard. Again, functionally speaking, TheC64 doesn’t offer anything that can’t be performed by modern emulators, but if you want the look and feel of an original Commodore 64 in your man cave with upgrades like USB storage and 720p HDMI output, it’s a lot of nostalgia crammed into a familiar beige package. (Note: The full-sized unit has been only been released in PAL regions; the US/NTSC release has been delayed by Covid-19, although the company continues to promise that “an announcement is coming soon.”)

Like all mini consoles, you likely already know if you’re the target audience for this machine or not. Cranky pipe-smoking critics who study pixel accuracy with a magnifying glass and enjoy discussing raster timing inaccuracies over Thanksgiving dinner need not apply. If you grew up playing games like Jumpman and Impossible Mission and revisiting them without buying vintage hardware or fiddling with emulation sounds enticing, there’s a world of 8-bit fun to be had with the C64 Mini.

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