Before the Super Nintendo, and even before the original NES arrived in North America, I cut my gaming teeth on the Commodore 64. It was sold as one of the first personal computers, but to many kids of the ‘80s, it was instead their first gaming console. I have many fond memories of the C64, but thanks to the C64 Mini, I’m also reminded that pre-NES gaming was kind of terrible.

Aging gamers have been emulating their favorite titles for years, but Nintendo’s NES Classic Edition made retro gaming accessible for those who didn’t want to dance around the legalities of downloading ROMs. It also opened the flood gates for miniaturized, game-packed clones of other retro hardware, including the Commodore 64 that the UK’s Retro Games Ltd. has turned into the C64 Mini.

Like the NES Classic Edition, the SNES Classic Edition the tiny C64 Mini is easy to squeeze into your entertainment center—which is good because it’s starting to really get crowded in there. Roughly the size of a VHS cassette tape (go look it up), the C64 Mini includes a joystick controller, an HDMI cable, and a USB power cable—but no power adapter. Presumably you’re supposed to plug the console into one of your TV’s powered USB ports, but mine doesn’t have one of those, which required me to repurpose an old phone charger. Is a tiny USB wall wart really that expensive to include?

The C64 Mini is about the size of a VHS Cassette tape, or couple of SNES carts if you’re too young to know what VHS was.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

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I was disappointed to discover that the C64 Mini’s keyboard is completely fake, because I desperately wanted to mash those adorably tiny keys when I first took it out of the box. The keyboard’s also missing all of those weird symbols that represented the Commodore 64's alternate character sets, but otherwise the C64 Mini is a lovely recreation of the first real gadget I ever used, and even if I never play it again, the tiny console is a welcome addition to my entertainment center for looks alone.

I’m heartbroken that you can’t even press the keys on C64 Mini’s adorably tiny keyboard—they’re all fake.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

It also features some modern upgrades. Gone is the original Commodore 64's cartridge slot on the back, it’s been replaced with a microUSB port for power, and a standard-sized HDMI port. Long-extinct peripheral ports on the side have also been replaced with a pair of standard USB ports on the C64 Mini. They can be used to attach flash drives, USB keyboards, and the C64 Mini’s included joystick.

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Speaking of which, if there’s one feature that’s really a let down, it’s the included joystick. To the best of my memory, it functions almost exactly like the early controllers I used with my original Commodore 64, which is to say it’s not great. The stick itself has a lot of wobble and feels loosely connected to the base, but still requires you to push hard to register movements—and occasionally it will simply refuse to recognize those movements at all.

This joystick proves that an ‘authentic recreation’ isn’t always the best approach.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

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The controller’s (many) buttons definitely work better than the joystick does, but they don’t feel great, and they’re laid out in an uncomfortable configuration. The C64 Mini’s menu makes it clear which ones you need to push to quickly navigate the UI, but once you load a game, it’s up to you to figure out which button does what. I know I’ve been spoiled by 36 years of video game controller refinement, but Commodore 64 games are already notoriously difficult, and including a better controller option with the C64 Mini, instead of striving for authenticity, would have yielded a more satisfying experience.

Lots and lots of buttons, but no gameplay instructions, means lots and lots of trial-and-error.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

I do the C64 Mini’s menu system. It’s a pleasantly retro experience where you navigate through the pre-loaded games using a carousel of boxart on the bottom, with descriptions and screenshots accompanying your current selection. It is also nice to see memorable titles like Impossible Mission and California Games included, but a good three-quarters of the bundled games I have never even heard of. The selection definitely isn’t as impressive as what you get with Nintendo’s tiny consoles.

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What isn’t included are instruction manuals for each game. Back in the day I remember giving a friend a box of blank disks, which he returned filled with random Commodore 64 games, but no instructions. Half my time playing was spent figuring out how each game worked, and Retro Games Ltd. has managed to perfectly recreate that frustration. The experience is slightly improved here, however, as the C64 Mini offers up to four save states for each game, so you don’t need to start from scratch every time you hit the wrong button and die.

One notable software inclusion is the original Commodore 64 version of Basic. It’s fully functional, but you’ll want to attach a USB keyboard to the C64 Mini to do any serious coding, thanks to the bizarre layout of the on-screen keyboard, and the frustrating joystick that makes it a nightmare to navigate. The Basic app is also crucial to one of the C64 Mini’s best features: the ability to load your own ROMs.

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The soothing blue on blue color scheme of Commodore 64 Basic V2.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

Sadly, the current process involves copying the ROM onto a FAT32-formatted flash drive (no larger than 64GB), renaming the file ‘THEC64-drive8.d64', connecting the drive to one of the C64 Mini’s USB ports, and then using proper Basic syntax to load the game. It’s the same process I used to load games from the Commodore 64's floppy drive 30+ years ago, and it’s still a pain, particularly when juggling peripherals on only two USB ports. Retro Games Ltd. promises to improve the process in a future firmware upgrade, but for now it’s almost not worth the effort.

Thanks to the C64 Mini, in addition to all the fond memories I have of my old Commodore 64, I’ve managed to dig up all the not-so-fond ones as well. Frustrating controllers, complicated user interfaces, and games that left me feeling more stressed than relaxed were also all part of my C64 experience growing up. I’ve come to realize that I don’t actually want the authentic Commodore 64 experience; I still want to revisit the games of my youth, but with all the conveniences and polish of modern gaming. The C64 Mini’s authentic experience might appeal to some, but ‘authentic’ translates to frustration for me, and I’ve already got enough of that now that I’m a grownup.

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README

  • $100 is a tough sell for a selection of classic games you might have never even heard of, but there are a few C64 standouts included.
  • The ‘authentic’ included joystick is loose, unresponsive, and adds an extra layer of frustration to revisiting classic C64 games.
  • The console comes with 64 games, but not a single manual, so half your time playing will be spent figuring out what to do.
  • The C64 Mini itself is a lovely hardware homage to the original Commodore 64, but that tiny keyboard is sadly, completely fake.
  • The on-screen keyboard is almost unusable, you’ll need to plug in a real keyboard if you want to do some Basic coding.
  • You’re able to load your own game ROMs without having to hack the hardware, but it’s a little complicated, and you’ll probably want to wait for a future firmware upgrade that streamlines the process.

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Thanks to Firebox.com for providing a C64 Mini sample unit for review.