I had mixed feelings towards the C64. Clearly, it was a more powerful machine than its rival - capable of displaying as many as 64 shades of brown simultaneously (hence the name) - and with a proper keyboard (also brown) to boot. Indeed, it's a little known fact that The Bristol Stool Chart was originally called The Commodore Stool Chart.
However, somehow I never wanted a C64 instead of my Speccy. I'm not entirely sure why. It might be the colours. I joke about all The Browns, but there was something vibrant and magical about the Spectrum's garish colour palette. The C64, by comparison, seemed dull and muted. Everything was sort of washed-out, like you were watching some sort of avant garden performance piece featuring cardboard puppets, entitled Monsieur Marron Se Rend à la Ville de Marron.
But get this: now I do own a Commodore 64. Sort of. It's this: The C64 Mini, clearly inspired by the success of Nintendo's miniature NES and Super NES, hosting a collection of original Commodore 64 games stuffed into a cute little C64 replica.
Stupid retrogaming purists tend to baulk at this trend to shrink stuff down and make old games easy to play. Really, though, The C64 Mini isn't aimed at them. It's for people who can't be doing with the faff of playing on the original hardware, or emulation, or a Raspberry Pi, and just want a quick, easy, cheap and cheerful way of getting a nostalgia fix.
From the moment it arrives The C64 Mini is going straight for the nostalgia bone; the packaging and the manual are both modelled on their original equivalents. It has a HDMI cable (good), though the power lead is just a USB (less good).
Disappointingly, the keyboard doesn't work; it's just moulded plastic, like my late uncle's prosthetic leg. Doubly disappointingly, when a keyboard is required - such as with included version of BASIC - you have to resort to using a virtual keyboard. There is the option of plugging in an external one via USB, but that sort of defeats the purpose.
Admittedly, though, I probably wouldn't even be whingeing about this had they not included BASIC at all, and just gone with the games.
But let us talk of these games; there are 64 of them, and they're a mixed "bag of browns". However, there is the option, apparently, to load more games onto the hardware. I've not tried it, but reportedly it's a bit of a faff... and most people who purchase this unit are going to be sticking with what's there.
Indeed, once they realise how bad everything plays there isn't going to be much incentive to ever play another Commodore 64 game for as long as they live.
The front-end of the C64 Mini is very similar to how Nintendo has presented its mini classics; a menu at the bottom, a bit of a blurb above, the option to play using an assortment of screen modes and resolutions, plus a selection of save file slots for each game.
The games are a weird mix. There are a number of titles that are very, very similar to one another; multiple identikit shoot 'em ups, and a lot of doubling up by including sequels. Sometimes this works - California Games, Winter Games and Summer Games 2 are all much of a muchness, but at least offer different events. However, you didn't really need both Speedball and Speedball 2, or no fewer than three games featuring a bouncing ball.
You do get a few classics in there - Skool Daze and Everyone's A Wally (both more commonly associated with the ZX Spectrum), Impossible Mission 1 & 2, Creatures, Boulder Dash - but also a lot of padding.
Whereas Nintendo obviously had the rights to the best games on the SNES and NES, that isn't the case here, which is why the C64 Mini lacks system-defining titles like Maniac Mansion, IK+, Mercenary, and The Last Ninja.
To be honest though, it's hard to grumble when there are 64 games on offer - if you ignore how similar many of them are. Although, admittedly, that's a bit like saying "it's hard to grumble about being mugged if you ignore how awful an experience it is".
What did surprise me, is how good many of them looked. The C64 really was a surprisingly machine for its time. Yes, the colours are very muted, yes... there are 50 Shades of Brown on display, but the animation on a lot of these really does shine.
Regrettably, while they're nice to look at... well...
The bundled control method for The C64 Mini is a joystick modelled on the iconic Competition Pro. It makes allowances for the lack of keyboard input via a bunch of additional buttons (though working out the function of which is usually trial-and-error).
The bottom line is this: it's a horrible, horrible controller. The joystick is stiff and unresponsive - much as I remember it being... only worse - and you end up having to learn to make allowances for that. Although learning to do so is a lesson that only the most single-minded and masochistic user is going to tolerate.
It's completely counterintuitive, and - when you couple it to how punishing games of that era were (and the fact that the manuals for the games here are only available on the manufacturer's website) - it makes the experience of playing on The C64 Mini utterly soul-destroying.
It doesn't help that the joystick is clearly designed to be sat on a desktop while using it. Given that the nature of the system is as a more casual novelty thing, designed to sit beneath the TV (and, while we're at it, with that in mind... would it have killed them to make the cables a little bit longer?), holding it in your hand, just doesn't work as there's nothing to brace against.
Supposedly, you could plug in a different controller, which would make the whole thing slightly more user-friendly, but you can't re-map the controls, and can't do much about how obtuse and difficult a lot of these games are to play, regardless of the control method. Actually, it goes beyond difficult, on occasion, to utterly unplayable.
Of course, that's not really the fault of a system which goes all-out to offer an authentic re-imagining of a long-gone era. In some respects, The C64 Mini is all the more authentic for refusing to make compromises to progress, and the fact that games have evolved and improved.
Still, given that this is a product aimed at a more casual, nostalgia-hungry audience, it seems like a mistake not to leverage every concession to make it a more user-friendly experience.
SCORE: 31 out of 64