Exclusive: Hands on with C64 iPhone emulator

A computer for the masses, not the classes

Exclusive: Hands on with C64 iPhone emulator
| C64

//update: we've just heard that the initial submission to the App Store has been rejected. More details to follow...

Statisticians talk about the age of the average gamer increasing all the time, but it doesn’t take an expansive, complicated survey to tell us that. The fact is, it’s the same generation of gamers they keep surveying - those of us who first picked up a Pong paddle (try saying that when you’re drunk), who poured 10p pieces into arcade machines, and who latched on to the home computing craze.

So all you averagely-aged gamers out there will have been very excited when Pocket Gamer exclusively revealed that iPhone developer Manomio has built on the success of its Flashback conversion with a fully-fledged Commodore 64 emulator for the iPhone.

It’s kind of amusing to think that when the C64 was brand new it was providing some serious competition to the Apple II, and now it’s a retro novelty on the hottest Apple device of all time. But a very welcome novelty, and considering yesteryear’s wealth of superb Commodore64 titles that are available it could provide a gateway to a massive collection of iPhone retro classics.

But the bolt-on game packs aren’t what we’re particularly looking at today. It’s the performance of the actual C64 emulator that’s going under the microscope, as that’s what will determine the essential quality of the games to come.

In terms of presentation, C64 is quite beautiful. Emulators are notorious for their gleaming code, but rough hewn presentation - often requiring the skills of a programmer just to get the thing running and load up a game. But C64 is every bit as accessible as any iPhone application, with a gorgeous user interface that makes its operation as easy as using the original machine.

It’s up in the air as to whether or not Apple is going to allow C64 to enjoy its current level of functionality, but the preview code we’ve been given harbours the potential to cross into application territory and appeal greatly to homebrew hackers, too.

The full Commodore BASIC is included, meaning that retro programmers could, if they wished, sit down at the terminal and type out their own C64 software right there on the iPhone.

It’s a simple matter to move between the iconic beige keyboard, the extra keyboard functions (added to a second screen, to save on clutter) and a beautifully nostalgic ball-top joystick and button.

But its real purpose is in gaming, and this is often the sticking point for emulators - not so much in accurately representing the original games, but in loading them and assigning the controls. Again, all the work has been done for you in C64, with the games presented on an attractive wood-effect shelf for you to choose from with a quick touch.

Neither is there any need to type out run commands on the emulated terminal. Touching the box art of the game loads it up, beginning in a portrait orientation on the screen (nay, telly) above the virtual keyboard and joystick. In-game menus are also given a coat of iPhone paint, allowing you to select the options through a touchscreen interface, rather than switching screens to use the joystick or cursor keys.

Tilting the handset over into landscape mode automatically expands the C64 screen to full width, replacing the joystick with transparent touchscreen controls. The left hand side of the screen acts as the fire button, while the right hand side places a joystick under your thumb wherever you make contact with the screen. Because the controls aren’t fixed in any one place, they’re much harder to lose (a big problem with most virtual controls) and far easier to use.

There’s yet another screen mode, which removes the ‘TV’ bezel and gives you a full-screen (though perhaps slightly less authentic?), pixel perfect rendition of the game. This method uses the same floating virtual controls, and can be cancelled simply by turning the handset back to portrait.

C64 comes with a built in game pack (the bundled games are subject to change, depending on the approval difficulties with Apple), and new games and packs will be made available through the App Store at a later date. These are downloaded as separate apps that install the games into C64 automatically when run, though there’s also the intention to allow in-app purchases using the new 3.0 features.

Developer Manomio is working hard to iron out the kinks with Apple’s approval system, and there’s a chance yet that concessions will have to be made to bring C64 to the App Store (such as the removal of BASIC). But this is set to be a real treat for retro gamers, and we can only hope that everything goes according to plan and Jack Tramiel’s beige beauty get a new lease of portable life through C64.

Spanner Spencer
Spanner Spencer
Yes. Spanner's his real name, and he's already heard that joke you just thought of. Although Spanner's not very good, he's quite fast, and that seems to be enough to keep him in a regular supply of free games and away from the depressing world of real work.