The 64K question
Written by Alex Kidman Thu Sep 10 2009, 12:38am
Realistically, you're going to be of a certain age — thirty or above, mostly — to be interested in Manomio's Commodore 64 emulator at all. I would throw up an iTunes store link for your enjoyment if that describes you, but I can't, as Apple's withdrawn it from sale almost as soon as it went up. I was lucky enough to snag it in the few short hours it actually existed as an officially-approved App.
Given the lack of decent interfaces to the 1541 disk drive or 1530 Datasette built into the iPhone — a jarring error that Apple no doubt regrets to this very day — the main interest in the iPhone C64 emulator wasn't going to be in reviving the C64 demo scene. It was always going to be the games. If I may wax nostalgic for the moment, the C64 had some cracking games back in the day, from the sublime Head Over Heels to Wizball to The Last Ninja... I could go on. And if nobody stops me, I will.
[Stop! — MJCP]
In any case, the initial pack of games offered with the C64 emulator — Arctic Shipwreck, Dragon's Den, Jack Attack, Jupiter Lander and Lemans — aren't exactly stellar examples of what the C64 could do. A couple of them barely count as games in any kind of recognisable sense. It only took me a couple of minutes to work this out, but the potential was always there depending on what Manomio could license. I'd certainly pay for multi-game C64 packs delivered through the App Store, at the right price, and I'm quite sure I'm not alone.
The big holdup for the emulator was getting Apple's approval and, specifically it seems, its approval to sell an App that allows running arbitrary (that is, not signed or approved by Apple) code. That's a big no-no from Apple's point of view, for a couple of reasons I'll get to in a second. Approval for its release only came with the ability to run such code removed, which is why when you boot up C64, the first thing you see is a message telling you that BASIC is disabled.
Now, I can't tell if the developer left a backdoor into BASIC as an "Easter Egg" for the enterprising retro fans, or in the rush to block BASIC a loophole was left open. If you're at all familiar with the C64, though, it's a pretty obvious gap. Load any game, head to the keyboard and hit the big red RESET key, and the Commodore 64 App — which is, after all, running a fully emulated C64 — responds as it should do, dropping you back to the main BASIC screen.
Now, it's tempting to say that this is very small beer indeed, and Apple's just being picky denying users access to a near thirty-year-old operating environment.
It's a relatively far-fetched scenario to suggest that there's going to be a surge in C64 BASIC written malware — and you'd need some serious social engineering to get a user to type in the 50,000 or so lines of code you'd need for it to execute on the not-great touchscreen emulator keyboard. More likely would be another gap in the emulator code itself that allowed some kind of malicious activity to take place. And that's leaving aside the issue of other developers arguing with Apple over the right to include code interpreters in their own Apps. Well, a one-sided argument, anyway — history suggest that developers don’t so much argue with App Store reviewers as plead.
Yeah, I know, if you want to jailbreak your iPhone you're more than free to do so, and that opens up the floodgates for any kind of code — arbitrary, malicious or otherwise. Honestly, I'm not that s ure that Apple cares one way or the other if you jailbreak your phone from a liability point of view. If anything goes wrong on a jailbroken iPhone, you're solidly on your own.
The moment an App Store-delivered app becomes a security risk, though, Apple's all kinds of interested.
Then there's the slight wrinkle that Commodore BASIC is a 6502-compatible BASIC, the core code for which is owned by a certain Redmond-based company that Bill Gates founded. While Bill's not involved in the day to day running of Microsoft any more, he and his company don't exactly look fondly on unauthorised use of any code in which they may have a legal interest.
So what's the good middle ground? Manomio's official blog notes that it has resubmitted the App with the offending ability removed. Presumably a pair of pliers descends onscreen and plucks the RESET key off while you're playing — but I'm just guessing. As with all things App Store, it's anyone's guess when and or if it will reappear even in its neutered state. Hopefully it will, and it will allow a fresh set of much better retro games to be delivered without delay.
As a final parting thought, am I the only one who thinks of this every time the word "Manomio" is said? And why does the guy in that video resemble a certain magazine editor anyway?
Manomio's official blog about this app.
If you had a C64 in your pocket, would you be happy to see it? Discuss this in MacTheForum
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