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Commodore 64 Direct-To-TV

We take a look at the best thing to happen to retro gaming in ages.

It's an argument you're never going to win on an emotional level, but technically speaking the Commodore 64 was probably the best games machine of its generation. Not necessarily because it was the most powerful (we're quite sure the PC Engine probably claims that particular accolade), but more because of what it represented and what game developers did with it. Sure, we loved our Speccies to death in the early days and for a few years held dearly onto the belief that our rubber-keyed wonder had the better games.

Certainly in the early days Sir Clive's box did, thanks to the Stampers and Matthew Smiths of this world, but once programmers started sussing out how to extract the best from the beige block that was the Commodore 64, it soared to incredible heights that are still being celebrated twenty years on.

So, when a bunch of enthusiasts decided to pack the not inconsiderable innards of this celebrated home computer into the system's unofficial joystick of choice - the Competition Pro 5000 - and include in a bunch of great games into the bargain it hardly took a great leap of faith to predict how utterly irresistible this Commodore 64 'Direct To TV' (DTV) plug-and-play package would be for gamers brought up on this stuff. And so it proved. 40,000 units flew off US shelves on the first day of its US release last year, and the device even attracted the attention of national newspapers over here. Some of us here on Eurogamer don't give a flying SID chip about such matters, but forgive them for they are young and know not what they do. Others on the team are sufficiently old and crusty to have that pang of nostalgic excitement when you're re-introduced to your now-ancient childhood memories that - up until now - haven't been given a proper commercial and critical re-evaluation.

All retroed out?

But before we address whether this C64 DTV thing is actually any good (kind of a moot point in a review, dontcha think?), there's a crucial thing to address; most retro gaming is diabolical. There, we said it. We're not about to don rose-tinted spectacles and go on about how they don't-make-them-like-they-used-to and all that rubbish. We've played loads of retro stuff over the years via the emulation scene, especially when MAME was big news, not to mention the Classic NES Series and the various Namco, Midway and Atari compilations churned out over the years for commercial release. We're all retroed out to be honest, as with a few notable exceptions they're almost always massively disappointing illusion-shattering exercises. Some things are better off left in your mind's eye.

Yet even with all that prior retro training encouraging us to concentrate on the present, there was still that pang of inexplicable excitement about the C64 DTV device, partly because - in truth - it's one of the only old systems we still own and still dust off from time to time, and - yes - still get a lot of enjoyment from. There was a magic about it, simple as. Great games, fantastic controls, catchy tunes, and even some of the best visuals of the era. We were really keen to see how well the DTV performed.

Unwrapping it from its secure pyramid packaging, it was clear the attention to detail was exceptional, with a build quality and feel that is basically exactly how you'd want it to be, unlike virtually every other TV Games device we'd had the misfortune to come across (namely the awful Namco arcade ones which achieve the stunning accolade of having the worst joysticks ever). Curiously, the manufacturers of the device have gone for the leaf switch version of the Competition Pro, as opposed to the superior and more durable clicky Microswitched versions, which was a minor disappointment.

The blue screen of happiness

Installation involved nothing more than removing a battery plate from the bottom of the unit and inserting four AAs into it. After that, it's a case of plugging it into a spare composite video input, one phono audio input (this is mono we're dealing with, after all), and clicking the power on switch on the back of the unit. From there the unit boots as if it were a real life C64 with a disk drive, complete with blue screen and LOAD "*",8,1 appearing automatically. Anyone familiar with the introduction to Vice City will know what to expect, and up pops the 30-game menu complete with typically pumping SID music.

Except, hang on, are there really 30 games? Well, that's taking liberties, as four of the supposed 'games' are actually individual events culled from Epyx's World Games and California Games, yet Summer Games and Winter Games appear in full, while Archer Maclean's World Championship Karate (aka International Karate over here) appears in two flavours. Odd. We're not sure exactly what the selection criteria was, but don't for one second fool yourself into thinking this is some sort of 'best of' compilation. It's all been (presumably) fully licensed from the copyright holders, which would explain the heavy presence of Epyx titles (a very wise decision as it happens) and Britsoft's very own Hewson. Between them this pair make up the bulk of the games on show here, but that's no bad thing at all given how well some of these games have aged.

Top of our list of Hewson-published gems are undoubtedly the likes of Paradroid, Uridium (both moments of Andrew Braybrook genius - someone drag that man out of hiding for the love of god), Tower Toppler/Nebulus, and Cybernoid. But Hewson, we have a problem. These games were all designed (we believe) to adhere to the 50Hz PAL standard of the era, so porting them to the 60Hz NTSC system (which this US import adheres to) means an unavoidable 17 per cent speed increase that renders all of these games somewhat less playable than they were.

Speed demons

In fact, we dug out the C64 from under its subterranean hideout and set it up along with the gigantic disk drive (bigger than the new PS2, hilariously) to prove the point. A game like Cybernoid and Uridium takes a lot out of the player, with some quite brutal timing required, so suddenly playing them on fast-forward is something we weren't prepared for or expecting. If you missed out on them first time around you might not know what the fuss is about, but to be fair they were hard enough in the first place!

The same deal occurred with most of the games, actually. Winter Games, probably our all-time favourite 8-bit sports game, is radically quicker than we were used to, although in a good way. The deal seems to be that if they were US games in the first place, they actually work better in their native 60Hz mode, feeling slicker and more responsive, but if they were designed for the PAL audience you'll have to put up with adjusting to the timing issues that probably weren't considered when they were designed. Bummer.

As for the remainder of the games line-up, there are a few questionable inclusions which - to us at least - are filler material that have no place on a classic collection. The worst examples are some of embarrassingly dated early Epyx titles, notably Sword of Fargoal from 1983 which has graphics that would embarrass an Atari 2600 and pitifully antiquated gameplay. Pitstop and its sequel were great fun at the time but really show their age now; Cyberdyne Warrior is an uninspired-at-best 2D platform shooter; Championship Wrestling was largely derided at the time; Speedball is a brave port of an Amiga classic (and so realistically doesn't belong here as it wasn't designed for the platform); Super Cycle - like most racing games of the era - now looks pretty awful; all of which leaves us with a clutch of middling titles like Zynaps, Exolon, Firelord, World Championship Karate, Silicon Warrior, Jumpman Jr and Gateway to Asphai (the latter two of which even we'd never heard of - with a collection of over 400 of their friends). It pains us to say that even Impossible Mission 1 and 2 are out of their depth these days, but that's the reality. The C64 isn't short of classic games, but you wouldn't know it if this was your first taste of 8-bit delights.

Even better than the real thing?

Aside from the games for a moment, there are some notable improvements from a 'real' C64 within this unit. For a start load times are instant, and disk-based games such as Winter Games and Summer Games load their respective multiple events instantaneously (as opposed to the thirty seconds you used to have to wait even if you were lucky enough to have a decent disk drive). On the down side, games such as these that saved your scores automatically to disk cannot do so on this unit, which kind of spoils a lot of the incentives for playing such games.

Visually the picture is a dramatic improvement on the real C64 RF output, which tended to make the C64's graphics look a lot less impressive than they really were. We are a little baffled why S-video wasn't considered as an option as well, though, or even SCART. As good as the picture is, the use of the bottom-of-the-range composite output means our old friend dot crawl makes a comeback, although it�s hardly what you'd call a deal breaker.

In terms of the audio, the SID chip emulation is possibly the only thing that�s evidently not been fully emulated as well as it could have been. For those of you familiar with your C64 games, you'll notice a few sound effects issues which can be a little jarring although again nothing bad. It's just the little details which you notice and wish could have been addressed, but we'll let them pass.

All by myself

One thing that is slightly annoying, though, is the way the unit goes through the whole load-up sequence every single times you reset a game - and the issue of lack of simultaneous two-player support (with some sort of ability to plug in an extra C64 DTV unit into the other) is something that should be implemented for any future versions they might be planning; it would certainly open up a range of possibilities on the kind of games any future unit could support.

Also, after the initial buzz of playing some of these old classics (and the disappointment of the inclusion of some really terrible games too) you'll wish there was some means of being able to upload your own games. Whether it's economically feasible is unlikely, but the ability to maybe connect an original C64 disk drive would work for us - or some sort of USB drive solution. The real issue is that it's one of those things that's immense fun for a while, and for the price you really can't knock it, but inevitably once you re-awaken the interest in something like this you want to play the really good games and not some prescribed version of what was 'classic'.

Bear in mind the unit we've tested is the US version (available on import from www.gadgets.co.uk), so the games line-up is almost certainly going to be tweaked (hopefully for the better) when the PAL version comes out in April priced £24.99. Hopefully we'll get a few new features thrown into the bargain too, but for those of you that can't possibly wait for some 64-era nostalgia, it's a small price to pay for a happy trip down memory lane. Sure, we're not exactly bowled over by the games selection and feel that more work should have gone into this side of the project, but for a first try it's not bad at all. Certainly, for the money you're getting a brilliantly designed device with a handful of true classics. The opportunity to play Paradroid, Uridium, Nebulus, Winter Games and to a lesser extent Impossible Mission shouldn't be overlooked - just try not to let the rest of the filler material put you off what is a must for any C64 aficionado.

8 / 10

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Kristan Reed avatar

Kristan Reed

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Kristan is a former editor of Eurogamer, dad, Stone Roses bore and Norwich City supporter who sometimes mutters optimistically about Team Silent getting back together.

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