Friday, 27 December 2019

TheC64 review

The C64 before unboxing on Christmas day.
I got a C64 for Christmas. Not a real one, but one of those full-size "TheC64" emulators that are designed to look and play just like the real thing... almost.

The first thing that struck me was how close to the original box design the new one is. They've obviously tried very hard to keep the retro aesthetic going and tap into the nostalgia for the original machine. And I must say that in my case the nostalgia really worked.
Original box for comparison
Upon getting the thing out of it's box, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the machine has some weight. This is a bit of a cheat, however, as the internal workings of it are very sparse (you can find images of this if you do a search) and the weight is being supplied by a heavy metal plate that is attached to the bottom of the keyboard.

Speaking of the keyboard: It actually feels okay. I don't think it's quite as good as a proper C64 keyboard, but this could just be my old brain playing tricks on me. However, it works nicely and I could see myself sitting down to do some coding with it. I've had a couple of instances where the keys didn't respond instantly when I played a game, most notably when navigating the menu in Nodes of Yesod (more on this game and an issue I found later), but overall it has a nice feel and functions well. It does sound a little hollow compared to an original C64 keyboard, but this is probably due to differences in construction more than anything else.

It really does look nice when it's set up
It was very easy to set up and get running. The machine presents you with some options upon first power up that allow you to set the language, display type between 50hz or 60hz (again, more on this later), and whether or not to want to start in carousel or classic mode. Carousel (pictured below) is the game selection screen where you can choose which of the 64 pre-installed games you want to play, and classic mode loads up the Commodore BASIC screen that you would have got with an original C64. The carousel mode is really easy to use, and starting a game is as simple as navigating to it with the joystick and pressing fire. I had a little mess around with BASIC in classic mode, but I didn't do anything too fancy with it. However, I didn't really have any problems with it and saving my work was nice and easy as the machine creates a blank floppy drive image when you insert a USB stick and you can save all of your stuff to there. Which might be pretty nifty if I fancy swapping between the C64 and WinVICE if I decide to have a go at coding something for it.

Carousel mode
So, the machine is nice. It's a fine recreation of the Commodore 64, it's really easy to get up and running, playing games is a cinch, and adding new games to it is as simple as transferring them from your PC via a USB stick. That being said, there are a couple of small issues...

The first and biggest one for me is the joystick. I was never a fan of the Competition Pro joysticks, and I always thought that they were very overrated pieces of crap, so I wasn't too sure whether I'd like the one on the C64 or not, as it's modelled on one. It's functional, I guess, but I don't really care for it that much. It feels clunky and it's too stiff. There's also been some build issues with it that I've heard about on Twitter and the C64 Facebook group. These haven't happened to me, but I don't have much faith that the thing will stand up to any serious punishment, so no Decathlon for me then.

The second issue I have is with some of the functionality of the machine. Some original C64 games require you to have the joystick in port 1 for them to work, but the TheC64 has all of it's USB ports set to port 2 as standard. You can fix this by taking the game file back to your PC and adding a tag to the name to tell the machine what to do (GAMENAME_J1.D64). J1 tells the machine the game runs on port 1, J2 tells it the game runs in port 2. There's a whole list of different tags that you can add to games to get the machine running in different ways, and you can find out more about them here. I can't help but feel, though, that for swapping ports they could have added a switch to the machine, a keyboard shortcut or an option in the setup menu so you don't have to take it back to your PC to rename the file. Even an option to rename files from TheC64 would be nice. In my house, the C64 and PC are at opposite sides of the room, so changing ports is a bit tiring on the old legs. Also I'm a little worried that plugging in and unplugging USB sticks so often will wear the ports out. Maybe a USB hub is something I need to get.

The third issue is something that I've noticed today, and that's some games are running faster than they should do. I've noticed this most with Nodes of Yesod. NTSC C64's run at 60hz and PAL C64's run at 50Hz, this translates to games running 20% faster at 60hz. Nodes of Yesod seems to be running faster than it should and this is making the game damn near unplayable. I've checked all of the settings for TheC64, I've even factory reset it and gone through the set up process again, and it's telling me I'm running at 50hz with a European 4:3 screen size, but the game still runs too quickly. I tried adding a TP tag to the game file to tell it to run in PAL mode, and it did make it a little slower, but it's still a lot quicker than it should be from what I can tell by watching gameplay videos recorded from real hardware. It's not a deal breaker, as it doesn't affect all games and I may get used to it over time, but it is currently annoying. I managed to complete Raid Over Moscow without losing a single life, so I don't think this speed glitch is a big problem. It would be nice if they fixed it, though.

Raid Over Moscow
The final issue is the lack of any ports or interfaces other than the 4 USB ports, HDMI and power input. This means that you can't connect any hardware to it, unless the people behind it release some sort of USB interface device, and you can't play cartridges. This may put some more serious users off, but if you're just looking for a C64-like machine that you can play games on, that's not going to be a problem for you.

Speaking of games: Overall the games are a mixed bag for me. There are a few classics, like Attack of The Mutant Camels, Impossible Mission 1&2 and Pitstop 2, but there's also a fair few games that left me feeling a bit cold. I'm not overly keen on Battle Valley or AlleyKat for example, and there are a couple of others that aren't really my cup of tea. This isn't a huge issue, though, as adding new games to your collection is very easy and there are still new games being released for the C64, some of which are very good indeed. One of my favourites of the newer bunch is a sequel/remake of the classic Bruce Lee game, which has just the right balance of difficulty and enjoyment to keep me coming back to it. I always liked the original, so it's refreshing to see something new done in the same style. It also has really stunning pixel art on the loading screen!

Bruce Lee!
There are some nice new C64 games on
So, what do I think overall? Well, TheC64 is a well constructed recreation of a real Commodore 64. It has a couple of minor niggles that need to be addressed, but these aren't enough to ruin the experience. It's a fine addition to the retro gaming scene and should be a good place to go to for older gamers like me who had an original C64, or younger gamers who want a quick and easy way to get into older games without the cost and hassle of keeping an older model in good repair. It's also cheaper than buying everything you need to put an Ultimate64 together.

Overall I'm really happy with it. The only shock to the system was caused by the fact that I'd forgotten just how hard some of these old games were to play. Modern gaming seems to have made me soft. But now I've got my C64 back, it shouldn't take me long to dust off my skills.

Addition: Going back to the Nodes of Yesod issue that I mentioned above, it seems that TheC64 is running the game at the correct speed, but the version of the game that comes installed is a faster version that came on the flip side of the tape or disk when the game was released. So it's not actually an issue with TheC64 itself.

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