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.

 

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Hyper Sentinel: Kickstarter now live

hypersentinal

OK. Yesterday, I told you that the launch of the new Kickstarter campaign for Hewson Consultant’s Hyper Sentinel game was imminent.

Well, it went live this morning at 7am and is already around 10% funded. There are some great pledges to cover wallets of all shapes and sizes, as well as a playable demo to download.

The game is available for PC, Mac, iOS, Android, PS4 and XBox One, so whichever system you’ve got, you can get hold of the game.

So what are you waiting for? Get over there and back it! After all, you wouldn’t want the Score Lord coming to pay you a visit, would you?

Hyper Sentinel – new Kickstarter campaign

hypersentinal

A while back, I exhorted you all to get behind the Kickstarter campaign for Hewson Consultants comeback game, Hyper Sentinel: a Uridium inspired retro shoot em up.

Like the fools you were, you failed to heed the advice of the Mighty Beings at RetroReactiv8 (© every issue of Amiga Power, ever) and so the campaign failed to reach its target.

Happily, Hewson Consultants are not giving up that easily. The game’s author has been busy beavering away behind the scenes continuing to work on the game, whilst Hewson have been looking into what they need to do to get the funding needed to finish it.

As a result, a revised Kickstarter campaign is being launched at 7am (GMT) tomorrow, offering a free playable demo, as well as other mouth-watering early bird and backer incentives. I’ll post more details and the link as I get them, but in the meantime, unless you want both the Score Lord and the Four Cyclists of the Apocalypse to visit your house, get ready to back this new campaign because I really want to play this game J

Hypersentinal Hewson Kickstarter update

I know I might be sounding a bit like a broken record on this one, but I really, really, really, really, REALLY want to play this game.

Short of suddenly finding a huge bag of cash so that I can fund it myself (I can dream!), I’m relying on my fellow retrogamers to chip in and help it reach the £35k target. There are loads of interesting perks (the £10 one is especially good value), but now if you just want the game on its own, it will cost you just £4.

Just £4 for a new shmup from Hewson Consultants? Why would you not back it? It’s like being back in the 1980s with all the high quality (and not so high quality!) budget games from Mastertronic and Firebird.

If, like me, the prospect of this fills you with excitement, you can back the project here and help make the game a reality.

Hypersentinal Kickstarter Campaign Hewson Consultants

The rejuvenated Hewson Consultants has been pretty busy of late. Last year, they released an excellent audio CD featuring some great tunes from some of the their greatest games and followed that up this year with Andrew Hewson’s interesting autobiography.

Now they’ve given us a reason to be even more excited – they are back in the games business proper, having just announced their first new game in nearly 30 years and launched a Kickstarter campaign.

Hypersentinal is a love letter to the old 8 bit shoot em ups and it looks very promising indeed.

Given Hewson’s reputation for turning out high quality products and the fact that they were behind some of the best shoot em ups on the 8 bit machines (Uridium, Cybernoid, Exolon), this is one Kickstarter project that has got me very excited indeed.

The game will initially be available in for iOS devices and PC, with console versions planned if the appropriate Stretch Goals are reached.

If you’re as excited about this game as I am (and you should be!) get on over to Kickstarter and back it now.

Hints & Tips for Videogame Pioneers by Andrew Hewson [Book Review]

Hints & Tips for Videogame pioneers

A while back, Hewson Consultants kindly sent me a review copy of their rather excellent audio CD, showcasing some of the superb tunes that accompanied their 80s 8 bit games. Whilst on their website doing a bit of background research for the review, I came across a reference to Andrew Hewson’s forthcoming book, Hints and Tips for Video Game Pioneers, recalling his early days in the nascent videogames industry. I paid my money and eagerly awaited the book’s publication…

… And waited

… And waited.

For perfectly understandable reasons (which Hewson explains in the book’s introduction), it took rather longer to publish the book than expected. Happily, I’m able to report it’s been worth the wait.

There have been a number of recent books looking at the development of the early software houses (Chris Wilkins and Roger Kean’s books on US Gold and Ocean spring to mind). However, the Hewson title has a distinct advantage: we are getting the information straight from the horse’s mouth (with apologies to Andrew Hewson who, I am sure, has no equine characteristics!) Whereas other books are composite histories based on interviews with many different people this is the recollections of one man – the founder of Hewson Consultants.

This makes for a fascinating read, as you really get the sense of what it was like to be involved in those early, heady days of the industry, and how things changed (and became more difficult) as the decade progressed. The sense of fun gradually giving way to a more professional, business-like approach, which stifled creativity (Discuss). Hewson doesn’t just focus on the games that his companies produced, but looks at the development of the whole company, its ethos, expansion, relationship with the computer press, Hewson’s rise to prominence and gradual decline. Of course, there is plenty of information on their most famous titles, together with quotes and insights from some of the developers behind them, but the majority of the book is Hewson’s reflections on his time in the industry.

Hewson is very honest in his account and sometimes fairly forthright in his views (his views on software piracy are, understandably, pretty strong). He is open about the highs and lows of running Hewson Consultants, outlining where he made good decisions and where he made mistakes, as well as acknowledging the role that luck (as well as a lot of hard work) played in Hewson’s success.

Hewson himself has a scientific background and this comes across in the book and helps set it apart from other, similar titles. The focus is not just on the aesthetics of the games or the PR side of the industry (although both feature). He also understands and considers the problems that faced coders (beyond the obvious “early machines were limited in what they could do”) and the more technical aspects of the industry. In my (all too rare) idle moments, I’ve often wondered how a professional tape duplication plant worked. Now, thanks to this book, I know (at least in a general sense).

The text is well written with an engaging and easy-to-read style. Where there are occasional forays into more technical areas, they remain readable for the layman. The book is mostly arranged chronologically, giving it a clear structure, whilst individual chapters are broken down into various shorter sub-sections. This makes it easy to pick up and read when you have a few spare moments or it can be read from cover to cover in a few hours.

Turning to the downsides, there are a couple that stand out.

First up, images: or rather, the lack of them. For a book that is about a highly visual medium, it’s a real disappointment that the book is more or less image free, with no screenshots of any of Hewson’s games. In fairness, Hewson addresses this point in the introduction, arguing that the company produced so many games that selecting just some would have been an impossible task. Images (particularly full colour ones) also drive up production costs, making the final book more expensive. Even so, a couple of images per chapter would have brightened up the book a little and demonstrated how Hewson’s games evolved over time.

The second issue is that the book rather fizzles out towards the end. The section on the Hewson Consultant days feels very thorough, giving a rich, detailed account of the company’s highs and lows. By contrast, the section on 21st Century Entertainment (Hewson’s successor) feels a little superficial and lightweight. It feels like an add-on – something the author had to include because it was part of his experience in the industry, but that his heart was not really in it. Again, in fairness, Hewson acknowledges this in the introduction, noting that he found this part the hardest to write – partly because of personal circumstances during the writing process, but also because he could never (even at the time it was operating) muster the same enthusiasm for 21st Century Entertainment as for Hewson. This clearly comes through in the text, but it does leave the final few chapters with a slight sense of anti-climax.

So, bearing in mind those issues, would I recommend you buy it? Absolutely! Whilst images would have been nice, they are not a deal breaker (we can always look them up on the internet). Similarly, if I’m honest, I was more interested in the Hewson Consultant side of the story anyway, so the greater focus on that was fine by me. Hints and Tips for Videogame Pioneers is a fascinating read and I would definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in retro gaming or the early years of the industry.

The book is available from the Hewson Consultants website for around £15 + delivery(paperback) or as a special hardback edition for £24.99 + deliv. A Kindle edition is also available for around £7.

Hints & Tips for Videogame Pioneers [Music CD Review]

A few days ago I wrote a brief blog post about a new venture by Hewson Consultants. The old 8 and 16 bit publisher has been revived recently by its original founder and one of its early offerings is a new music album containing remakes of 11 classic tracks from 10 games the Hewson back catalogue.

Having had the chance to listen to a preview copy of the album, I’m happy to be able to report that it is every bit as good in reality as it sounds in theory. In short, if you are a fan of the music of old games, then you should be placing an order for this as we speak.

Hints and Tips for Videogame Pioneers: The Album – features tracks from classic Hewson games such as Firelord, Exolon, Avalon and Cybernoid 2 written and performed by names that will instantly be familiar to retro gamers – Ben Daglish, Jeroen Tel and Matt Gray. Those names alone should tell you that you can expect something of quality.

Hints & Tips

The album has a good mix of styles which makes it a surprisingly varied listen. When I first pressed play on the CD player, I expected all the tunes to be the kind of strident, adrenalin-pumping tunes you most often associate with 8 bit games. And to be fair, there are a fair amount of these (and very good they are too).

At the same time, there are a number of slower, more reflective tracks, which provide a bit of variety and break up the sometimes frantic pacing of the rest of the album. In fact, arguably my favourite piece on the album – Steve Turner’s music for Avalon – falls into this latter category and brings a little bit of peace and restraint to proceedings. At the other end of the scale the more exuberant theme to Battle Valley evokes strong nostalgia of my first visit to London when I bought the game in the Virgin Megastore.

Indeed, that is one of the album’s real bonuses. It’s strong enough musically to stand on its own, but will prompt strong memories in gamers of a certain age. 

Of course, there are some tracks that you will enjoy more than others, but that’s true of any album. There are tracks that make me hit the Repeat button as soon as they have finished and a couple that I might be tempted to skip if I don’t have time to listen to the entire album. That’s not a quality issue, though; more one of personal taste. I suspect if I listed my favourite/least favourite tracks, there would be plenty of people who thought exactly the opposite!

Rather than lazily just recording the original soundtracks from a computer, the music has been remade (including some live, acoustic tracks) so that (in most cases) they sound even better. Using “proper” instruments, some of the tracks sound quite different to their computer originals, whilst others retain that feel with instruments imitating the style and sound of 80s computers. I have to confess that, as a bit of a purist, I rather like the ones that still sound like chip tunes and was a little less keen on the reinterpretations – somehow I felt that a little bit of the magic was lost and the tunes started to sound a little more generic. But that could just be me getting old and viewing things through rose-tinted glasses!

What’s not in dispute is the talent of the musicians or the quality of their compositions. How did this bunch of people manage to come up with such great tunes on such limited technology? Answer: because they were very talented and knew how to squeeze every last note out of the machines they were writing for. The fact that their compositions still bear up today shows just how good they were.

The only things I’m not convinced by are the album title and artwork. The cover I thought was a little bland (although in fairness, I’ve only seen an electronic image of it, so it might look better when in physical format), whilst the title – Hints and Tips for Videogame Pioneers – doesn’t really say what the album is and may actually put some off from ordering it. I realise this has been done to tie in with Hewson’s forthcoming book of the same name, but I’m not convinced it’s going to be effective in terms of brand recognition.

Overall, though, this is a great CD, recommended to anyone who retains a love of music from the Golden Age of computing.

The album will be released on 8 May and can be pre-ordered for £7 from the Hewson Bandcamp page.

[Note: Hewson Consultants provided a free copy of this album for review. In line with RetroReactiv8’s Review Policy, this has no way influenced the outcome of this review, which represents the author’s genuine and unbiased opinion.]