The C64 Is the Best Commodore 64 Emulator Out There

And I’ve tried them all

Images courtesy of the author

Anyone who truly loves technology can likely trace their passion back to one key piece of hardware, one defining gadget that sparked their curiosity, excitement, and the motivation to learn more. Hands down, for me, that inspirational machine was the Commodore 64 personal computer. As a lucky fifth grader, I spent as much of my spare time as my parents allowed programming in basic, hand coding Machine Language programs from Compute! Magazine, downloading and playing games from Bulletin Board Systems, and ultimately getting into a considerable amount of hot water (for a seventh grader) complete with a visit from the FBI. That’s a story for another time.

I’ve dabbled in emulating the Commodore 64 on the PC, the Mac, and the Raspberry Pi throughout the years. Ultimately, however, I found the experience to be underwhelming for one key reason: The unique keyboard is nearly as important to the grand Commodore 64 experience as the games played on it. It is for that reason that I am overjoyed that Retro Games created the C64, a $129.99 emulation device inside of a fully functional replica of the original Commodore 64 design. This baby takes me back.

Right out of the box, the C64 brought a nerdy smile to my face, like I was reuniting with an old friend who I hadn’t seen since junior high. Upon pulling the machine out of the box, I noticed that it was lighter than I remembered, perhaps a bit hollow as well. Was I really judging this machine for weighing less than the original? This is modern technology, and let’s be real: The computer inside is a fraction of the size of the original’s motherboard and components. You are forgiven, old friend. You turn the computer on with a simple power button and not the power switch found on the original. It’s a bit less satisfying and one of the few indications that some of these components are of lesser quality. However, none of this is to say that the C64 feels “cheap,” just that there are some concessions made on the C64, and thankfully they aren’t deal-breakers.

One massive upgrade from the original is the C64’s ability to easily connect to any high-definition monitor or television by way of a single HDMI port on the back. Plugging it into my HD monitor and powering it on for the first time gave me some serious flashbacks to the wonder I felt as a kid as I waited for that READY prompt. Only this time, I didn’t get the READY prompt. I was taken directly to the Carousel, a graphical front end that integrates cover art for each of the included 64 games and a text description and small selection of screenshots for each title. The Carousel is a whole lot easier than mounting a disk image, typing a LOAD command, and then running it. I simply use the included joystick plugged into one of the three side-facing USB ports to select the game I wish to play and push the big red button to jump right in.

The Joystick, as it’s called, is a specialized stick that is designed exclusively for the C64 and its small sibling, the C64 Mini. The single joystick has a large ball on top for easy gripping action, and a large red button adorns the top corners of each side, which makes this usable for lefties and righties. Along the bottom of the controller is a small row of four buttons that are useful in navigating core functions of the C64 that don’t reach into the games themselves. For example, one button pulls up a menu that pauses any game and allows the player to save or load a state in the game, another pulls up a virtual on-screen keyboard, and yet another jumps back out to the Carousel view. My biggest gripe about the Joystick is simply how loud it is. I get it, some people love classic clicky hardware, but I’d much rather my kids stay asleep while I’m whiling away the hours at night playing California Games, thank you very much.

The importance of having the original keyboard cannot be understated. In my attempts to emulate the system on my own, I continually experienced times where a game would call for a particular key that didn’t exist on my USB keyboard. Mapping those keys is the solution, of course, but it actually took me out from the game experience to have to remember where I had mapped the Run/Stop key on a PC keyboard. The C64 keyboard is faithfully modeled after the original in nearly every way. Typing on the keys is nubby and joyful. Slapping the space bar like I’m playing an electric bass guitar is as satisfying as it was as a kid. It takes the nostalgia of the game itself and increases it tenfold to have that game tied to the same machine I remember playing it on when I was younger. For me, it’s the holy grail.

The games on the C64 are properly licensed, unlike the majority of games I (ahem) acquired in my youth. As a result, these titles load directly into the game without the pregame cracking scene demos (with awesome SID-based music) and trainer prompts that I was so accustomed to interacting with as a kid. That’s either a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. On one hand, I appreciate the ability to get right in there with Uridium. On the other hand, Uridium is a really freaking hard game that could use some trainer assistance!

A retro console is often only as good as the titles it ships with. When it comes to the included games on the C64, I would say that the collection is… underwhelming. On the positive side, there is a heavily stocked Epyx catalog including some true classics like The Games series, Jumpman and Jumpman Jr., Impossible Mission, the Street Sports series, and Temple of Apshai. Beyond that, I was delighted to find the aforementioned Uridium, Paradroid, Boulder Dash, and Monty on the Run. And I was happy I checked out a 2017 game called Galencia with its deep understanding of Galaga game mechanics. That last title acts as a reminder of how passionate Commodore 64 fans are that there are still quality games being developed for the nearly 40-year-old computer.

On the flip side, I think the big challenge for Retro Games is that they had to choose from a catalog that, according to Wikipedia, clocks in at around 10,000 titles. It’s nearly impossible to pick 64 titles that will appeal to every Commodore 64 enthusiast when the pool is that large. For a machine that is entirely about nostalgia, I’m less interested in discovering titles I’ve never played before and more interested in playing the ones that I remember fondly. That is an impossible bar to reach no doubt, but I do wish the collection contained more of the true classics of the platform.

To that end, Retro Games included a USB port on the rear of the computer that makes the included software library endlessly expandable. Any D64 disk image file can be placed onto a properly formatted drive (FAT 32) and loaded directly from the Carousel interface. It’s important to note that the integrated file manager only shows 256 files from any one folder, so if you have a large collection, you’ll need to create a number of folders to house them all. But after that minor housekeeping, all games are, well, fair game on the C64.

If you enjoy the Carousel experience for selecting your games, you should definitely seek out a community-driven, nondestructive firmware hack called Project Carousel USB. I placed the files on my thumb drive, plugged it into the C64, and temporarily flashed the Project Carousel firmware which launched me into a new version of the Carousel interface that includes hundreds more games complete with screenshots, information, and cover art. It’s an impressive expansion for the platform and if you are so inclined, you can even use the included tools to import practically any of your disk images into the Carousel interface. It’s a no brainer if you own the C64, though do be aware of your local laws as it may violate copyright rules in your area.

Finally, if you wish to bypass the Carousel and live la vida BASIC, you can set it to boot into that classic blue screen where you can LOAD your disks manually, PEEK and POKE to your heart’s content, and create your own BASIC programs by hand. Even though I lived my childhood in this mode, I have to admit that it’s rather nice using the point and click interface in the Carousel to launch titles immediately.

On the evening that I wrote this review, I stepped away from the keyboard for dinner. When I returned to the darkened room, the only visible light was the reflection of the C64’s BASIC screen on the back wall. A broad blue hue blanketed that corner of the room in the darkness and I was instantly reminded of just how many times my childhood room was blessed with that same aura, late at night as I explored every facet of my Commodore 64. Nostalgia comes in sudden waves and the C64 continues to unlock memories that have long been tucked away. I’m not certain how long it will be connected to the monitor in my workspace, but unlike the machine that my parents got rid of when I moved away from home many years ago, this clever machine isn’t going far.

You can watch my full review of the C64 here:

Podcast producer and Host for TWiT.tv, including Tech News Weekly, and All About Android

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