C64.emu: The Ultimate Games Machine Gets the Ultimate Emulator

Historically Speaking

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All this .. on your phone

From 1982 to 1985, the Commodore was the ruling class when it came to home computers. Commodore commercials ran non-stop on TV; the classic Bach music symbolizing the world’s most affordable and powerful desktop computer. For only $595, the Commodore 64 (C64 from now on) wasn’t just the ultimate gaming machine but also the ultimate programmable musical synthesizer.

At its peak, it was estimated that one in every four homes had a Commodore 64 computer – and even as late as 1994, Commodore managed to sell 60,000+ units that year. That’s no mean feat for a 12 year old personal computer.

While there were attempts to “legitimize” the C64 as a business and finance machine (they tried really hard; take a look at GEOS) – this venerable computer took two big markets; gaming and telecommunications.

There was no internet in 1983, but Commodore saw the writing on the wall and started bundling (or offering cheaply) a modem for use with BBSes and online services such as QuantumLink (the C64 successor to AOL). This made Commodore a leader in telecommunications.

In the end, where C64 really shined was in digital fun; both in educational software and in the realm of pure gaming. The C64’s architecture made it a fantastic “arcade” machine (with its own cartridge port) while it’s disk-based storage and larger memory capacity made it very comfortable for adventure and RPG games.

In relation to console game machines at the time, the C64 blew them all away; even the insanely popular ColecoVision (they shared a lot of hardware similarities, though). It took the Nintendo’s console-saving NES to hit our shores to knock down the C64 from the popular gaming machine of the day and even with NES’s power and popularity, it still wasn’t a great machine for “serious” types of adventure games and educational software.

Hardware vs Emulation

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The hardware C64.emu emulates

It is pretty standard emulation fare; the more complex the original hardware, the slower and less compatible an emulator can be. It is also standard fare that the more restrictive the hardware, the more “undocumented” tricks and hardware exploits the original game developers used to squeeze as much power as they could out of it. These exploits often show up in emulators as glitches and compatibility issues – because emulation just is never 100% perfect.

All things considered, the C64 was a fairly simple machine; a single, industry standard 6502 CPU, a graphics chip (The VIC-II) and the infamous SID audio processing chip (really a full synthesizer on a chip). Everything else is pretty straight forward.

Also true of emulation; the more CPUs you have to emulate – the slower the emulator will end up being. This means the “host” machine running the emulator will need to be exponentially more powerful than the original in order to make for good emulation.

The ~1mhz (not gigahertz) CPU and bus of the C64 makes it pretty fast to emulate; even on modest host machines. The real effort comes in emulating the VIC-II hardware and the SID chip.

There are several PC-based C64 emulators out there; Frodo and Vice being the big two. Both have had Android ports made; but honestly, they all feel like “weekend hobby” projects and suffered from a variety of issues from compatibility to usability.

Vice is a more active open-source project and this is what was chosen to use on C64.emu which is great, as I feel it features better overall emulation than Frodo. The great C64 Forever package from Cloanto (highly recommended if you have a PC) is also based on the workings of Vice.

Making a Great Emulator

This next section is shamelessly lifted from another of my own articles.

With so many emulators to choose from, you have to understand what makes one emulator better than another and why you should actually PAY for emulation.

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Your journey starts here …

You can sum up great emulation with three words; speed, compatibility and features.

As mentioned earlier, even older than dirt game systems can and do require a good amount of modern hardware to run them properly. With some emulators, the authors expect you to throw lots of hardware at the emulator to make it fast. After all, even poor code runs FASTER on better hardware. Some emulation authors port over Windows or Linux emulators – making just enough changes so that it runs on Android, but the rest is up to you. Not fast enough? Game drops frames? Sound is choppy? Sorry, buy a better tablet. For other emulation authors, their goal is to hand optimize their own emulation to ensure maximum speed with the lowest amount of hardware. Two emulators running on the same hardware can run DRASTICALLY different with regards to speed.

As mentioned, the more complex the original hardware is under the hood, the more likely you are to run into issues of compatibility. Simply put, some games that harness “tricks of the hardware” or maybe used something special in the cartridge may not work right with an emulator. They may have graphic defects, sound issues – they may not even play at all. Good emulation is hand tuned and optimized to ensure greater compatibility – or offer settings or switches to try to “trade off” something like speed for compatibility. These are the emulators you’re looking for.

Finally, features. Sloppy ports of emulation from Windows or Linux may not support a touch screen, or properly play sound – maybe not even support a real controller. Maybe you want to use a USB Gamepad with your C64 emulator. Perhaps you want to be able to save the state of the game while you’re playing and come back later. Emulators can be feature-rich – while others can simply be “this is what you get”.

Enter C64.emu

When I first got into Android (and especially when I got my first tablet) the concept of emulation appealed greatly to me. Robert Broglia had emulators for just about every major console out there; from Atari 2600 to Turbo Graphix 16. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a console-kid growing up; I was a Commodore kid. So I searched out C64 and Amiga emulators; and frankly neither platform had any real winners. They existed; but they were obviously rushed ports. I tried to use them (that’s what got me started on Green Robot Gamer to begin with) but they ended up being more trouble to me than they were worth.

I approached Robert about bringing C64 to his excellent line of emulators; assuring him that no one had done it right yet and that there was a HUGE audience waiting for someone to do just that.

Robert is a busy guy; he makes emulators not just for Android by iOS as well – and they are all based off the same UI codebase meaning when he updates ONE – they all get updated. Pretty smart; but I imagine can be pretty time consuming.

He agreed to look things over and decided to do it. Then began the waiting game. 🙂

Over the months leading to the emulators release, Robert and I corresponded via email. He would send builds, I would test them on the toughest games (emulation-wise) the C64 had. Games that had timing issues, strange loaders … that sort of thing. I figured out the nuances, he would fix them.

As I started to use it more and more, features would come to me and I’d suggest them; Robert was great at getting them put in there – either directly as I requested or better implemented to suit his custom UI interface.

It was a fantastic experience. C64.emu was released on 4/1/2013.

What Makes It Great

As I mentioned in my other article about Robert’s .emu apps, C64.emu covers all the bases for good emulation; speed, compatibility and features.

Possibly the greatest part about C64.emu is the fact that it is built with his brilliant UI core surrounding the award-winning Vice emulator. If you’ve used his other emulators, you’re right at home. Things are where you would expect them to be. Simple, easy to use and concise.

I’ll also take a bow as being instrumental to the emulator’s greatness; not just as a beta tester – but as a dedicated user and aficionado. The “little things” that contribute to the greatness might have come through me. Things like the Apply Quick Settings off the main menu. How the soft keyboard worked. Minor things that really add to the experience when someone who really knows C64 uses it. There are many things we discussed (that shall remain nameless) that will likely make it into future releases (provided it makes good financial sense for Robert, I assume – so buy buy buy!). You can always tell when someone passionate about the source material is involved with a project and I’m hoping I come through loud and clear on this one.

Of course, I’m also working hard to help support the emulator (unofficially of course) with videos and a help page that features settings, tips and more for the new and experienced user alike. (Visit our C64.emu help site)

Naturally, the fact that the C64 had hundreds (even thousands) of titles meant there was something for everyone. C64 had some great arcade ports but it was its brilliant original IPs and masterpieces created by budding companies like Electronic Arts, Activision and Access that really set it apart from “another games machine”.

Finally, the greatness of C64.emu comes by nature and nostalgia of the original system. Many of us dreamed about a portable C64 (the SX-64 not withstanding). We dreamed about things like save states (which we kinda got with freezer cartridges) and having hundreds of titles available at our fingertips (storing hundreds of 5.25″ floppies kinda sucks). The C64 READY screen is iconic; and seeing it on your cell phone or tablet really brings back the memories.

In Conclusion

We’ve been waiting a long time for proper C64 emulation on ANY portable platform; and while it has seen some measure of success on isolated niche platforms – we finally have it for the mainstream.

Once I was asked if I had to be stranded on a deserted island for the rest of my life, what computer or game machine (and full compliment of software) would I want to be stranded with. It’s simple math…

The Commodore 64.

 

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