Retrogaming: Is THE 64 a good idea?

The 64
THE 64 promises to “bring back” the Commodore 64, and while the design is neat, I’m not entirely sure exactly who it’s meant to be for.
That’s an odd position to find myself in, if only because I’m normally fairly much a booster of any particular retro gaming idea, if only because it widens the course of games that have been long forgotten by many. As such, on the face of it, THE 64 (they don’t have the naming rights) should be a home run. Look, here’s the sizzle reel.

THE 64: Who “owns” Commodore now anyway?

It’s somewhat odd it doesn’t have naming rights, if only because the whole Commodore naming rights thing seems to be such an unholy mess anyway. Maybe they’re better off out of it. I’ve somewhat lost track of the number of possibly official Commodore clones at this stage. Anyone remember the Amiga phone? Did that actually happen, or did I dream it?
No, it happened, or at least was announced, because I wrote about it here. I wonder if anyone ever actually purchased one?
THE 64 (yeah, the caps lock key got stuck at some point) is much closer in look and feel to a “proper” C64 than just about anything I’ve seen on the retro scene. At a guess, having the company that you’re cloning go out of business and then have a shaky path of actual business name and design ownership might help, but maybe they’ve got all the Ps and Qs sorted.

THE 64: Crowd fund, or crowd fool?

Anyway, I’m a little torn on THE 64. Partially because I was never a Commodore 64 kid to speak of — as a family we eventually had an Amstrad CPC6128, although friends had C64s — and partially because I sort of like the idea of having choice, and the existence of another machine is in itself no bad thing.
I’m well aware that raining on the parade when it’s only just kicking off a crowdfunding effort on Indiegogo might have an adverse effect on the project as a whole. I will even admit to being ever so mildly tempted by the handheld version. As I write this, the Indiegogo campaign reports a $30,736 total of $150,000 flexible goal with a month to go. That’s still got a long way to go, although the nature of this particular type of campaign means that the makers will get that cash even if they don’t hit their stated goals.

That jingle! MAKE. IT. STOP.
Ultimately though, I’m not entirely sure who THE 64 is for, or where it precisely makes sense. The use of a not-quite-but-bloody-close case design is undeniably meant to be a nostalgic throwback for folks my age (more or less). There would clearly be plenty of those folks who no longer had Commodore 64s to hand, although the more keen types could well prove me wrong on that score.

THE 64 vs Commodore 64

Want an actual Commodore 64? They’re not exactly hard to find, what with (as THE 64’s hype video itself proclaims) the original devices being so particularly high sellers. A quick trawl of eBay finds loads of the things at just about every price point. Yes, you can pay quite a bit more for one in the original mint packaging, but if all you want is a Commodore 64 to use, you shouldn’t be paying more than $100 for one, and quite probably a bit less than that.
This is so ’80s it actively hurts

Mind you, it’s not as if Amstrad advertising of the era was any better. If I understand this correctly, it’s the platform of choice for the French… and rubber crocodiles.
Now, admittedly, that’s a Commodore 64 with no HDMI port, which THE 64 has, making it easier to hook up to your telly. If you’re in the market for The 64, the chances are pretty high you don’t have to argue with mum or dad to use the telly, either. Still, there are problems.

THE 64: Welcome to the emulation family

Here’s one problem: THE 64 may well be a neat bit of silicon. It could also be a steaming disaster, but let’s play in the optimistic end of the tide pool for a bit.
Ultimately, it’s only emulating a Commodore 64, not being an actual C64. That has advantages, faster loading being the most obvious, but those after the “full” nostalgia experience might find that a little lacking.
Let’s say you get past that — and I’ll be honest,I don’t think I would have the patience to wait while a tape loaded any more either — and you hit two additional problems.
Firstly, it’s not as though Commodore 64 emulators are thin on the ground. Name an operating system, and I’ll bet there’s a C64 emulator for it… despite until I just wrote that not actually checking. Again, other systems were my jam at the time.
Still, I reckon that’s got to be true.
Don’t believe me? I’m going to give myself exactly a minute to find a C64 emulator for as many platforms as I can think of, starting…. NOW!
Linux: VICE (again!)
iOS… well, there was one. I know that, because I’ve got it, but it looks like Apple, in all its “no compilers in our walled garden” wisdom has pulled it. Again.
Android: Frodo64
Windows phone: WP C64
I tipped the stopwatch at just over 60 seconds while finding a PalmOS C64 emulator — Frodo again, if you’re still rocking a PalmPilot for some inexplicable reason — but I think you get the point.
If the prospect of a virtual Commodore 64 appeals to you, it’s not hard to get into that scene from just about any platform you’d care to name. Except iOS, and that’s very much Apple’s call, because it’s clearly terrified by the prospect of what playing B.C.Bill on your iPhone might do to your brain.

THE 64: The emulation paradox

Then there’s the issue that any emulated platform has, and that’s the agony of choice. If I drop US$150-US$170 (roughly $195-$220 AUD) on a “new” THE 64, the odds of me only placing just a few games on there is relatively slim. Common sense says that you’d stuff as many tape and disc images on there as you could manage, because who wants all that fiddly stuffing around copying single files over when an individual C64 game measures in at maybe 50K?
The problem there, even once you get past the shaky legal issues — emulation of platforms in Australia is legally grey, but backing up games, even ones you own is rather strictly prohibited — is that once you’ve got thousands of games to play, you’re rarely going to be satisfied with the game you’re currently playing.
What if something else is better, or the game gets hard or frustrating? So much easier to switch to the next game without ever really experiencing the full flavour of a given title. Whereas if you’re using physical media you have to load and take care of in limited numbers, the odds are higher you’ll play a little longer and enjoy to a deeper level.
That’s not a unique problem for THE 64 — as noted, anyone messing around with emulators faces it — but then any other emulator isn’t going to run you just south of $200.
I do like the hardware design, because it is nicely evocative of the original. I’m even slightly tempted by the handheld, even though I wasn’t a C64 kid. Still, on the balance of it all, I think I’ll pass.

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