Attack of the Flickering Skeletons by Stuart Ashen [Book Review]

Attack of the Flickering Skeletons - cover

Not too long ago, I reviewed Stuart Ashen’s book Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of – a book which probably should carry a government health warning for its embarrassing tendency to make you uncontrollably laugh out loud in public. Now he’s back with more of the same in the intruiguingly (if long-winded) titled Attack of the Flickering Skeletons: More Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.

Quite sensibly working on the premise of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, the book mostly provides more of the same. Pretty much the same rules are applied when it comes to game selection (none of the usual suspects like ET or C64 Chase HQ, computers only; no consoles) but (perhaps depressingly) this still leaves a very broad selection of games from which to choose.

The format, too, is on the same lines. Ashen reviews a number of games in his own inimitable style, pointing out why they were so bad and generally giving them the mockery they deserve. This is backed up with full colour pages containing lots of images, making the book visually appealing, as well as funny. To give Ashen a break (and presumably allow him to go off and play something half decent), there are also occasional contributions from other gaming people (such as fellow YouTubers or former game developers). And just in case you think Ashen is unfairly picking on certain games, he also includes some review scores, showing his views were also shared by professional reviewers at the time the games were released.

On the whole, this format works well. The book looks good, there’s a varied selection of games across multiple systems (8 and 16 bit) and the short, pithy entries are very readable. Ashen has a way with words and manages to write about some fairly mundane things in a funny and engaging way…

…And yet, despite all these positives, I didn’t enjoy Flickering Skeletons anywhere near as much as the first book, and I’m not really sure why. Possibly it’s because I read both books fairly close together so maybe I’d just had enough by that point and should have left a longer gap before reading the sequel. Possibly it’s because I was more familiar with Ashen’s style so wasn’t caught quite so unawares by his sometimes wacky, sometimes wry observations, meaning they elicited fewer belly laughs. Possibly it’s because you could argue that this book is essentially “The Second Most Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of” and the titles that really deserved ridicule had already received their comeuppance in the first book (although given how much dross was released, this is probably not the strongest argument!)

Don’t get me wrong: Flickering Skeletons is not a bad book by any means; in fact it’s a great one. It’s just that the bar was set so high by the first book that it was always going to be a tough ask to follow it up. It’s not that I didn’t find it funny – I smiled and sniggered my way through it; I read out occasional short snippets to Mrs RetroReactiv8 and even she (as a non-gamer) smiled at some of the absurdities. But there’s the thing: I only smiled and sniggered; with the first book I frequently laughed out loud. I only read occasional snippets to Mrs RR8; with the previous book I read whole chunks or even complete entries. Somehow, it just felt a little bit less than the first one in every department.

Do I regret buying it? Not for a second. Would I recommend it for purchase? Absolutely. Just be aware that (for whatever reason) you might not find it quite as hilarious as the first entry. If you bear that in mind, you’ll be fine. And just to emphasise the point that this is not even close to being a bad book: if a third title in the series were to be announced, I would pre-order it like a shot.

Attack of the Flickering Skeletons is available from Amazon for around £8 (hardback) or £6 (Kindle).

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Galencia (PC/Steam) review

Galencia title screen

If you’re plugged into the world of the C64, you’ve probably been hearing quite a bit of buzz recently around Galencia, a Galaxians-inspired game from Jason Aldred. The game received a physical release for the original hardware, but for those of us who no longer have a C64, it’s now available for PC via Steam – the first C64 game to be released on the platform!

It’s hard to imagine that anyone reading this blog won’t be familiar with Galaxians, but just in case, I’ll go through the basics. Based on the early 80s arcade game, it’s best described as What Space Invaders Did Next. The screen fills with alien invaders who fly on from the side. However, instead of moving their way from side to side down the screen, some of these aliens peel off and fly around whilst taking potshots at you. This instantly makes them more dangerous: their flight paths can be unpredictable and hitting a moving target is inevitably harder than hitting a static/slow-moving one. This, then, is the basis for Galencia.

There are two important things to say about Galencia from the outset. Firstly (and most critically), it’s a great game, highly polished and very addictive. Secondly, it is essentially a new C64 version of Galaxians. All the gameplay elements you’d expect (swooping aliens, tractor beam aliens who can capture your ship, double ship bonus if you free a trapped ship) are present and correct. Beyond a bit of spit and polish here and there, it’s an update, not a reboot. If you come to it expecting a solid version of Galaxians complete with retro graphics and sound, you’ll not be disappointed; if you’re looking for a major overhaul (along the lines of Space Invaders Infinite), then it might not be the game for you.

Right, that’s the managing expectation stuff done, so let’s get on with the review.

The bottom line is Galencia is good; very good. The graphics are generally a decent size and full of character, capturing the look and feel of the original, whilst bringing in plenty of new design elements. There’s nice variety between different types and more are introduced as the game progresses (my favourites so far are the ones that look like flying skulls). They are well-animated although there have been times when I’ve felt they were perhaps on the small side, making them trickier to hit. The chatty “mission control” head that talks to your pilot via speech bubbles is a nice extra graphical touch that adds to the game’s character.

Sound is equally 8 bit, but that’s not a criticism from me. A great chip tune accompanies the action, with sound effects fairly minimal, but effective. In these days of overblown full, orchestral scores and sound effects loud enough to damage your walls, it’s good to get back to basics with a catchy chip tune and limited effects.

So far, it’s all been good news, but I’ve saved the best until last: the gameplay is spot-on. It’s surprising how much the simple act of adding swooping aliens and a tractor beam adds to the Space Invaders formula and it’s been perfectly implemented here. The game is certainly challenging, but it never feels unfair. When you die, it’s your fault: you didn’t move fast enough, you crashed into an alien or a bullet; it’s not because the game has “cheated”. As such (unlike many modern games where you get an achievement just for starting the game), it feels like a real success when you get onto the high score table or beat your own best score. It also feels incredibly tense as aliens are unpredictable and so no two games are ever the same. It’s not unusual for me to come away from Galencia with sweaty palms – more so than when I’ve played a “proper” horror game like Resident Evil. When you’re down to your last life, desperately hanging on to get to the next level/beat your high score/secure an extra life, it’s surprising how tense the game can be.

Because the gameplay has been so well implemented, it’s also lost none of the addictive qualities Galaxians introduced all those years ago. Games (at least when I play it!) tend to be fairly short. This makes it perfect for gaming when you don’t have a lot of time. Except it’s not, because there’s no such things as “a few quick games” as far as Galencia is concerned. As soon as you lose your last life, you check your score, find it wanting and instantly hitting Fire to have another go. As with all the best games, it’s not unusual to sit down to play for “just 10 minutes” before looking at the clock to realise over an hour has passed.

If there are criticisms, they are small ones. As far as I can see, the game can’t be run full screen, but runs in a small(ish) window. Presumably this is because it’s running on Steam via a modified version of the Vice 64 emulator. Secondly, controller support is very limited. It doesn’t work with my Xbox 360 controller (which is supported by most Steam games) and the only option is to use the keyboard. That said, whilst controller support might be nice, using the keyboard is more authentic, so will appeal to purists.

[Quick update: You can safely ignore these minor quibbles. A couple of hours after posting this review, the game’s programmer, Jason Aldred got in touch to say that pressing Alt & Enter will toggle full-screen mode on and off, whilst pressing J or K will select Joystick or Keyboard control, so it now works fine with my Xbox 360 controller (although actually, this has just proved that I prefer the keyboard input anyway!)]

Best of all, Galencia is stupidly cheap – less than £3 for a superb version of Galaxians – it’s a game that will offer hours and hours of fun and has endless replay value, thanks to the score-chasing objective of the game. My only real concern for Galencia (on Steam) is that modern gamers will dismiss it based on the screenshots or ignore it as “old-fashioned and boring”. If you’re a retro gamer on the lookout for a new version of classic game, thought, it’s definitely one to consider.

It’s probably my favourite C64 version of Galaxians apart from Galaxi-i-Birds. High praise indeed!

The Good, The Bad and the Mediocre

When it comes to reviewing old games on retrogaming blogs, things tend to fall into two camps, focussing on the really good games or the really bad ones. RetroReactiv8 is no exception to this. Although I mostly try and focus on the positive side of retrogaming, I do occasionally venture into stinker territory and highlight really bad or particularly disappointing games.

And therein lies a bit of a problem. If you knew nothing about retrogaming and read many of these blogs, you’d assume that every game in the 80s was either utterly brilliant or completely crap. The truth, of course, is that the vast majority were just mediocre – the only reason that we don’t remember them or talk about them is because so many were instantly forgettable.

This was brought home to me recently when I was looking at some of the compilations available for the C64 Mini from the excellent Freeze 64 website. Some of these are collections from particular publishers (Ocean, Interceptor Software, Super Soft etc.). As I was looking through these collections, there were so many titles that either I couldn’t remember at all or which only vaguely rang a bell – even those by big name publishers like US Gold. Some were games that I’d never actually owned or played, so that could be forgiven; others were titles that I did know about back in the day, but which were so “meh” I’d dismissed all memory of them.

So being the keen, investigative blog that RetroReactiv8 is, I decided to do a bit of research. I took three well-known 80s publishers (US Gold, Melbourne House and Ocean), looked at the games that were on the Freeze64 compilations and cross-referenced these with their original Zzap!64 scores (look, I was bored and don’t particularly like football, OK?)

Here’s what I found.

Of the 34 US Gold games available from Freeze 64 that Zzap! reviewed, the average score was 54%. Only 2 games got above 90% and only 6 were ranked at 80%+. Equally, though, only 6 titles featured in what I would call the truly awful range (0-30%). So, only 12/34 were either really good or really bad. However, 17 (50%) secured a spot in the mediocrity range (41-70%). (The remaining titles scored either 30-40% or 70-80% in case you think my maths is a bit out!)

Melbourne House proved even better at being mediocre. Of the 21 titles on their compilation that Zzap! reviewed, only 4 were real stinkers (although Inspector Gadget gets the distinction of being the worst game – just 9%, lower even than US Gold’s infamous World Cup Carnival). Just two titles were ranked at 80% or above, whilst 12 (57%) fell into that “mediocre” bracket.

See what I’m saying?

Only Ocean – arguably the biggest publisher by the end of the 8 bit era – bucked this trend. It had a marginally higher rating of excellent games (39%) to mediocre ones (32%) and managed to secure 6 games in the top 91-100% bracket. Even so, to have over a third of your output rated as “mediocre” still supports the idea that, like modern systems, the C64 suffered from a ton of shovel ware.

Of course, this is a hugely unscientific post: it’s based on only a small percentage of the overall output of each of these publishers, so a more thorough study of all of their games (which I really can’t be bothered doing!) might reveal this blog post to be a lie. Even so, it shows what selective memory we have when it comes to retrogaming. The really great stuff and the really bad stuff sticks in our mind; but these games were actually in the minority when stacked against most releases, which were just instantly forgettable. Not good enough to be remembered; not bad enough to be infamous.

So there we go: Mediocre games never die. They were just lying, waiting to be reborn on the C64 Mini!

Book Preview: 8 Bit on a Budget by Kieren Hawken

On RetroReactiv8, I tend to focus on reviews (either of old games or new retro-related products.), rather than highlighting upcoming products. Occasionally, though, I like to get behind projects I think look interesting – the excellent Hyper Sentinel was one; the (hopefully) forthcoming book Virtual Cities another.

8 Bit on a Budget, written by regular Retro Gamer contributor Kieren Hawken is the latest to catch my eye. It’s a book that celebrates the best of budget label releases – that phenomenon of the mid-late 80s where games were suddenly available at pocket money prices. Of course, many budget games were awful (Bionic Granny – I’m looking at you), but a significant number – whether original releases (Dizzy, Thrust) or re-releases of previously full priced (Bubble Bobble, Cybernoid) titles were excellent – better than some full-priced games

The book is being published by Unbound, which operates on a crowd-funding model. In order to guarantee a minimum number of pre-orders, people interested in the title can pledge their support. Once the funding target is reached, the book will be published.

You can find out more on the Unbound website. The campaign seems to be struggling a little at the moment – it’s been stuck on about 5% for a while now – so if you think this sounds like a book for you, why not pledge your support and promote it a bit on your own blogs or social media channels?

Bounder [Game Review]

Bounder title

Bounder was not a game I played much in its original C64 incarnation. I think I did eventually own it, but by that time I had so many games that I only ever really played a handful of my favourites. As such, I came to this new mobile version of Bounder with a fresh eye.

For those of you who don’t know, you must guide a tennis ball through a maze of tiles, gaps and other hazards to the goal at the end of the level. As the ball bounces, you have to time connecting with solid surfaces to enable you to clear any gaps between tiles, and this is nowhere near as easy as it sounds. There are bonus tiles scattered around (often in awkward places), which reward you with things like points or extra lives when you jump on them and this provides an added risk-reward mechanism.

The first thing to note is that this is a complete recreation of the original game for modern platforms, rather than an emulated version. On the whole, this is a good thing. It means that the game avoids any of the lag or glitches of emulation, and it runs smoothly on my Android device with no issues. There are times when it is perhaps a little too faithful, and incorporating a more modern approach might have been beneficial – more on this later.

Bounder certainly doesn’t skimp when it comes to the presentation. There are three versions supplied, all available from the start: the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and Spectrum games. If you could say nothing else nice about Bounder, the developer should be applauded for avoiding use of in-app purchase or forcing the player to unlock the different versions by completing particular challenges or milestones.

To get a sense of how faithful the game is, I loaded up the old C64 version and compared the opening levels with this new version. I was impressed. As far as my (untrained) eye can tell, the graphics and level design are spot-on. I assume it’s the same with the others, although to be honest, I mainly stick to the C64 game because (all bias aside), it’s the best. The colour scheme of the Amstrad version is a little too garish for my taste, whilst the monochrome Spectrum version looks good but can make it tricky to spot the surfaces which can be bounced on safely.

Bounder C64

The graphics on the whole are functional and serviceable, rather than impressive (as was the case with the original). It can initially be a little tricky to distinguish solid platforms from steep (and deadly) drops and early games involve a certain level of trial and error. You’ll soon learn, however, that patience is a definite virtue when it comes to playing Bounder.

Sound is excellent and will particularly be appreciated by those of us brought up in the 8 bit era of chip tunes. The bouncy, fun tune that accompanies the game is perfectly suited to the action and will soon get into your head and you’ll find yourself humming it at all sorts of odd times.

As previously mentioned, the game is a very faithful recreation and that this is something of a double-edged sword. Like the original, the gameplay is rock hard. There’s a lot of trial and error involved; you will die frequently and quickly (there’s a reason you get more than the usual 3 lives and can pick up extra ones) and Bounder makes no concessions to modern gaming sensibilities by easing up. Bounder is one tough game and there are times when the balance between challenge and frustration tips too far in the direction of the latter. Practice and patience do pay off though: every time you play, you get just that little bit further and, because it is so challenging, you feel a much greater sense of achievement when you finally complete a level. However, the very high difficulty level has the potential to put people off before they’ve really got to grips with it. This is one of the areas where the game is just a little too faithful – toning down the difficulty (or at least offering different levels of difficulty) might have made the game more accessible for casual/non-retro gamers.

The other area where the game is a little too faithful is in the use of level password codes, allowing you to skip levels already completed. I am King of the Wrongly Written Level Password. If there is a letter I can miss out or transpose, then trust me, I will. Whilst it would have been a diversion from the original, allowing you to choose your starting point from a level map would have been a more user-friendly approach.

Finally, we have to address the bane of mobile gaming: the controls. Here it’s a case of The Good(ish), The Bad(ish), and the Ugly. Taking them in reverse order, the Ugly is the virtual joystick (the default option). For a game that requires such precise control, it’s just not responsive enough and, despite being transparent, can make it difficult to see some hazards. Swipe controls are better, but I still didn’t find them responsive enough and found myself frequently dying because of that, rather than through my own ineptitude (although I did die plenty of times because of that too!)

The big surprise is the Tilt controls. With a bit of practice, these give you that fine level of control that you need. It’s still not perfect and it’s too easy to die because you tilted your phone just a bit too far, but I found it’s the one that works best. Even so, it would be nice to see the developer add support for a Bluetooth controller in a later version. For this reason it’s likely that the planned Switch or PS Vita versions will be even better, thanks to the physical controller.

Bounder is available in two versions: a free, ad-supported version and a paid-for (£2.49) version that gets rid of the ads and has more levels. At that price, it’s a great buy that offers a massive amount of challenge. It’s not a game you’re likely to play in long spells (at least not without throwing your phone out of the window in frustration), but its addictive nature makes sure you’ll keep coming back. On the strength of this, I can only hope that the developer tackles some more of Gremlin’s back catalogue.

This recommendation does come with a small caveat as the unforgiving gameplay will not be to everyone’s tastes. I’d suggest downloading the free version and giving it a fair go (that means you will need to practice and be patient!). If you like that, the small price to upgrade to the full version is more than justified. If you don’t, at least you’ve had a brief history lesson and learned how tough games used to be before infinite lives and regular save points!

Note: a free, full, unlocked copy of the Android version was provided by the developer for review purposes. As per RetroReactiv8’s Review Policy, this has in no way influenced the content of the review

 

 

Hyper Sentinel (PC) Review

Hyper Sentinel

I have a small confession to make: despite being a dyed-in-the-wool C64 owner back in the 80s, I’ve never really played Uridium, generally recognized as one of the finest shooters the machine can offer. It’s not that I don’t like the game, it’s just that I never owned a copy and didn’t really know anyone who did.

Happily, I can now rectify that mistake with the excellent Hyper Sentinel, a Uridium-inspired game from veteran publisher Hewson Consultants/Huey Games, originally funded via KickStarter and available to buy for (via Steam), PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. Android and iOS versions are coming soon.

As with Uridium, you fly a lone spacecraft over a series of huge motherships, taking out the ground installations and avoiding or shooting smaller enemy ships as they attack you. Each ship has its own boss (or Guardian) which has to be defeated before the level is complete. Temporary power-ups can be collected to boost either your ship’s arsenal or your score.

It’s fair to say that Hyper Sentinel doesn’t really offer anything new. The basic gameplay has been heavily influenced by Uridium, with additional elements borrowed from other shoot-em ups. However, when a game is this good, the lack of originality is not the stumbling block it might be in a weaker title.

The game has a pleasingly retro look. Graphics are simple and blocky, aping the pixel art of the 80s but everything has been given a lick of neon paint to give the visuals a more modern twist. They are never going to win any art competitions, but if you appreciate pixel art, the game’s look will instantly appeal. The sound also blends modern with retro. A pulsating tune accompanies each level, supplemented by some excellent 8 bit style sound effects. This is definitely a game Spinal Tap would turn up to 11.

Hyper Sentinel level

It’s the gameplay that matters, though, and it’s here that Hyper Sentinel really shines. There’s always been something pure about old-style shoot ‘em ups and the kill or be killed gameplay makes Hyper Sentinel instantly accessible – the simple controls and basic gameplay make for a great pick up and play title. And once you start playing, you won’t want to stop. The fast-paced action, the determination to beat your high score (or those on the online leaderboards) or reach the next level keeps you coming back for more. I guarantee that every time you die, you will find it hard to resist pressing “Retry”. Hyper Sentinel is the definition of a “just one more go” title.

It also has hidden depths which add to its longevity. It uses the same “flip” technique as Uridium to temporarily render you invulnerable (it’s critical to learn how to use this properly to make real progress) and introduces power-ups. The end of level bosses and different game modes (Arcade, Survival, Boss) add an extra dimension and challenge, whilst the game also features an excellent risk-reward element. Rather than a single hit destroying your ship, you have an energy bar and only die once that is empty. If you keep out of danger, the energy bar will slowly replenish, but this comes at a cost. If you want to get those really high scores, you need to keep your score multiplier high, but the only way to do this is to constantly shoot stuff; if you don’t it plummets faster than a UK entry at Eurovision. And, of course, to shoot stuff, you have to fly into the thick of the action, meaning the risk of taking further damage (and dying) is increased. This mechanism is brilliantly implemented and makes for some finely balanced gameplay.

Hyper Sentinel offers a real challenge. As the levels progress, enemies get more numerous and more aggressive, and flying over the giant spaceships gets harder as impassible walls mean you have to choose your flightpath carefully. Crucially, though, the game never feels unfair. When you die, it’s usually either because you’ve done something stupid, or got so caught up in the blasting action, you’ve failed to keep an eye on your energy levels.

If I had to be hyper critical of Hyper Sentinel (see what I did there?!), some of the sprites can be a little hard to see and too easy to accidentally crash into. The biggest bugbear, though, is the way the level freezes to announce an end-of-level boss is also a touch frustrating. Time it wrong, and you have to sit and watch a load of Points pick-ups or weapon power-ups floating up the screen, whilst you are rooted to the spot, unable to collect them.

Hyper Sentinel is an excellent game. It’s fundamentally a retro game that’s been given enough modern twists to make it feel worthwhile, but not so many that they overwhelm the old school action. It’s fast, it’s frantic and, boy, it’s addictive.

I don’t normally score games on RetroReactiv8, but in keeping with the C64 inspired title, for once I’m going to score it in the style of a Zzap!64 review.

Presentation:    78%
Nothing flashy, but all the options you’d expect – online leaderboards and multiple game modes.

Graphics: 68%
It won’t win any art prizes, but graphics are pleasingly retro.

Sound: 83%
A thumping soundtrack and pleasingly retro spot effects

Hookability: 94%
Once you hit that fire button, say goodbye to your evening.

Lastability: 92%
The game offers a real challenge, whilst the different game modes and online leaderboards will keep you coming back

Value for Money: 83%
At around £12 for the Steam version and adjusted for inflation this is cheaper than a C64 game cost back in the 80s.

Overall: 93%
An excellent updating of a Commodore classic.

C64 Mini Review

Sometimes the Gaming Gods both smile on you and curse you at the same time. When I saw that the C64 Mini was due to be released on 29 March, it was great timing as far as I was concerned. I took the rebirth of my beloved C64 on the day after my birthday as an omen and dropped many *ahem* subtle hints to the lovely Mrs. RetroReactiv8, who did indeed pre-order one as a slightly delayed birthday gift.

Of course, those same Gaming Gods couldn’t bear me to be entirely happy, so whilst my C64 Mini was indeed delivered on 29 March, I wasn’t in when it arrived. Sadly, it was taken back the post office depot, where it spent a long, lonely Easter Bank Holiday weekend before I could rescue it. Four days knowing my Mini was less than a mile away, yet unobtainable, was like some sort of torture.

Happily, though, it was definitely worth the wait because one or two niggles aside, it’s easily one of my best retro gaming purchases.

C64 Mini - box

It’s clear that this product is aimed firmly at capturing that nostalgia element and boy does it succeed. The whole thing came in a great looking box with the contents well packed. It really did take me back to that Christmas in about 1983 when I first unwrapped my original C64. I felt that same tingle of excitement as I carefully unpacked all the bits and this continued when I saw the actual device. I hesitate to use the word “cute” about a piece of hardware, but there is something undeniably attractive about it. The phrase “small but perfectly formed” could have been invented for the C64 Mini. It’s a great looking device that looks perfectly at home alongside some of my larger consoles.

C64 mini - top down

From a setup point of view, it’s well designed too. Plug in the HDMI cable (supplied) and attach the USB power cable and away you go. It’s slightly odd that the device comes with a power cable but not a plug to put it in (presumably to cut costs), but most people are likely to have a plug lying around that can be used. Cables are sufficiently long so that you can attach it to your TV and sit a decent length back it (essential for my ageing gamer’s eyes!). The design has been really well thought out and it truly is plug and play – mine was up and running less than a minute after removing it from the box.

The selection screen for the games is also great, presenting them in a rotating carousel that includes the original box artwork and a brief explanation of the game’s plot/aims. It would have been nice to see the instructions for each game included on this screen rather than just on the website (particularly for the Games series, where each event has different controls) and I don’t really understand why this approach was taken, but it’s not that big a deal. You can also access BASIC from the carousel, giving you the chance to relearn your advanced programming skills by typing things like:

10 Print “Spectrum owners smell”

20 Goto 10

However nice it all looks, though, the bottom line rests on how good the included games are. Previous devices like this have had two key weaknesses: the selection of games has ranged from excellent to makeweight titles whilst the locked down systems have prevented the addition of any further titles. Not so the Mini C64.

Firstly, the included titles are very strong. You get 64 (what else?!) pre-packed games and it’s hard to spot a weak one amongst them. Sure, there are some that I like more than others and some that I’ve no doubt I’ll rarely play, but this is down to personal preference rather than quality (all the included games scored highly in various magazines in their original incarnations). There are plenty of titles fully deserving the description “classic”: Pitstop II, California/World Games/Summer Games II, Uridium, Armalyte, Monty Mole, Boulder Dash… I could go on. Indeed, I spent the first 10 minutes just scrolling and getting more and more excited at the range of games. You can argue till the cows come home that this game or that game should have been included, but at the end of the day, within the complex restrictions of licensing and rights, the developers have assembled an excellent collection.

Anyway, this is where the Mini C64’s other advantage kicks in. Unlike similar retro systems (Recreated ZX Spectrum, Mini NES/SNES), you can actually add your own games via a USB stick. Admittedly, the process for doing so is currently a little cumbersome. You can only use .d64 (disk image) files and you can only store one game on a single memory stick and need to rename it to a specific filename before the system will recognise it,. However Retro Games Ltd have promised to make this easier via a future firmware update, so hopefully this is a short term irritation, rather than a long-term problem. In any case, certain clever people have already provided information online as to how to get round this whilst you’re waiting for the fix. Essentially, though, the ability to load up games of your own opens up the system, allowing you to play pretty much any C64 game.

In my brief experience to date, emulation works well. I’ve not yet played the full range of games, so can’t say that it’s flawless, but certainly I’ve been impressed so far. I’ve seen a few complaints online that certain games run too fast or suffer from a bit of lag, but either I’ve not experienced this or am not familiar enough with the original games to spot it.

The big disappointment is the joystick included with the package. It’s modelled on the Competition Pro (nothing wrong with that) but is sadly nowhere near the same quality. It’s pretty obvious that this is where corners have been cut to reduce production costs. It’s perhaps not as bad as some people are making out online, but it’s a long (long) way from being great. For a “modern” joystick, it’s surprisingly uncomfortable to hold – after just 10 minutes my hand was aching like it used to when I played on my friend’s old Atari 2600. It’s also not as responsive as you’d hope or expect. It’s OK for some titles, but any game that requires finesse or twitch responses will be a struggle. I lost count of the number of times I lost a life on some games because it just doesn’t allow the pixel perfect positioning needed by so many old games. It’s a shame because the rest of the package is excellent, but the joystick lets it down badly.

It’s true that other USB controllers and joysticks can be attached via the in-built USB ports, but it seems to be very hit and miss as to which ones will work. I’d strongly advise you to look on the forums on the Mini C64 website for advice on compatible devices before you buy.

Joystick issues aside, though, Retro Computers Ltd have assembled a very impressive package. Most of the issues I have are minor ones that could be easily addressed through future updates. Like all these devices, you could argue that £65-£75 is a lot when you could set up an emulator on your laptop for free, but there’s definitely a greater sense of nostalgia playing the games on a replica machine. And at the end of the day, for your £65 you get 64 ready to play games, plus the option to add in others. Personally, I consider that money well spent.

Retro Games Ltd should be applauded. They have delivered a product that has appeal for both the existing C64 community and more casual gamers who want a blast from the past. As a dyed-in-the-wool C64 fan (and former owner) you could say I’m biased, but I am waaaaaaay more impressed by this device than any other similar consoles that I own. Retro Games Ltd., I salute you.