Sunday, April 23, 2006


Atari Flashback 2

Our household was never big on the Atari systems. We had a hand-me-down Atari computer (complete with BASIC!) and exactly two games for it: Missile Command and the good version of Pac-Man. The only joysticks we ever had were crappy third-party affairs that snapped after a good month of use. Frankly, video games were simply a luxury that we couldn't afford until the late 80s and early 90s, when Atari had long since been left in the dust by Nintendo and Sega. When we got an NES and Super Mario Brothers 3, that thing hit the closet, then the basement, and ultimately the Goodwill.

So why am I so enchanted with the Atari 2600? It was never really a part of my childhood. The graphics are laughable, and when it comes right down to it, most of the games really weren't all that great.

Yet there it is, sitting on the shelf of my entertainment system, a small plastic box that feels like it's mostly hollow, looking cheap and pathetic nestled between formidable chunks of heftier, sexier home electronics: the Atari Flashback 2.

The First Flashback

The first Atari Flashback system hit the market at the height of the "TV Games" craze, when you could walk into the video game section at Toys R Us and find an entire wall covered with "all in one" video game controllers fitted with dozens of games, both retro and original. The Flashback promised to be the king of them all -- an actual console modelled after the Atari 7800 with detachable controllers and 20 built-in games from the Atari 2600 and 7800, including Saboteur, which had never been released before. Checking the back of the box reveals at least two Money Games are included -- Adventure and Breakout.

I seethed with desire for this thing for months. Sure, I already had the Jak's Pacific 10-in-1 TV games controller, and I even managed to find the two-player version of the Paddle Games unit. But I was strung right into their promise about a retro console. I was torn between my desire for its novelty value and the fact that I'd be damned if I was going to pay the full forty bucks for the thing. Luckily for me, I wasn't alone. The local Target just couldn't move the damned things. One day a clearance came along, and I walked home with a Flashback for thirteen bucks.

One thing I've realized about retro gaming is that it's not entirely about the games. If it was, everyone would just download the ROMs and be done with it. No, retro nuts love the physical aspects just as much, if not more. That's the reason I've never been interested in the Intellivision TV Games units -- they do nothing to bring me the experience of the original console that I can't get by booting up Intellivision Lives! on my Gamecube. But Atari was promising us an actual retro console. Who cares if it wasn't, technically, much different from plugging a battery-operated controller directly into my TV? It would make the experience look, smell, and taste just that much more authentic.

At least, that was the promise.

See, that console looks nice and big and cool on the box. But open it up, and you get this tiny, scared-looking plastic shell that feels like there's nothing in it. Well, okay, technology is advancing. We can put more horsepower into a smaller space than ever before. Still, this thing is about the size of a Gamecube controller. I'm afraid I could lose it in the couch cushions. The controllers are miniscule. The worst part is, there's been no obvious effort to implement the console switches -- left and right difficulty, select, reset, and color/b&w -- into the console hardware. Whether this is because they fashioned the hardware after the Atari 7800 or they just didn't think it was important, I don't know. I just miss it.

This could all be forgiven if what's inside is any good.

I later found out that all of the games in the hardware are actually recreations, ported from the ground up to a new set of hardware. This is fair enough -- after all, most TV games work on this premise. The only problem is, most TV games also have good recreations.

I hooked the system up and fired up a game of Adventure. Adventure, you see, is my favorite Atari 2600 game ever, and near the top of my list of essential games for all systems. In my mind, an Atari collection is only as good as its treatment of Adventure. Generally speaking, I won't give an Atari collection a second glance if it doesn't have Adventure on it. I'm still waiting for someone to make a portable rendition of Adventure. If it were released as a stand-alone, vanilla-flavored, authentically-ported game on DS or Game Boy Advance, I'd pay full price for it.

So Adventure on the Atari Flashback. It was annoyingly different from what I'd experienced on the Jak's 10-in-1 system -- little things like graphics and sound -- but I was doing okay until it was time to get the black key from the white castle. I stuck the bridge across the wall so I could get into the secret passage that led to the key, walked into the wall...

... And stopped dead.

I tried again. I moved the bridge around slightly. I couldn't get through the secret passage. They'd left a game-killing bug in my favorite Atari game.

I turned the thing off, packed it back up, and sat it back on my shelf. That was the only time I bothered to play the thing.

Fool me twice?

In the end, I can forgive the designers. As I later learned, the thing was rushed out in a matter of weeks to fill a demand for the Christmas season. Still, as one of the half million people who payed good money for a hunk of video gaming crap, I wasn't feeling nearly as generous when the Atari Flashback 2 came out. The TV Games fad has been flopping around like a dead fish for a while now. Who in their right mind would get one of these things after that first train wreck?

Well, I couldn't help it. My curiosity was piqued. This time, however, I did some reading up on the subject before I took the plunge. The promise of better emulation, more games, and a cute retro ad campaign were enough of an apology to get me to the store.

The differences between the new system and the old system are stunning. I was two kinds of impressed with this machine.

First of all, the focus this time around was entirely on the Atari 2600, and the developers had a lot more time to work on it. They managed to shrink the entire Atari 2600 achitecture into a single hardware chip. It is, in essence, a tiny Atari 2600. How authentic is it? It's so authentic that you can wire up a cartridge slot to it, and it'll play original Atari 2600 cartridges. It's so authentic that the controllers are interchangable with original Atari 2600 controllers. The game will even recognize the old paddle controllers if you're playing Pong, and there are two secret games -- Breakout and Warlords -- that you can access if you have paddle controllers connected. It's so authentic that it has all of the original system switches -- even the color/b&w switch.

And the thing just looks damned cool. Still smaller than the original system, but big enough to command some respect. These days, as even Nintendo is trying to make their game consoles look like a cross between a DVD player and a computer, it's kind of nice to have a game console that looks like a game console.

Secondly, and more importantly, is the game selection. There's an excellent mix of games with a healthy variety of pedigrees. Some games are original Atari classics, some are previously unreleased prototypes, two games -- Pitfall! and River Raid -- are on loan from Activision, and some games come from the Atari homebrew community, commercially available in an Atari product for the first time. That last bit's probably my favorite part. I just love the idea that it's still possible for people to live the dream -- to hack out a game all by themselves and see it in a commercial release.

I think that one of the biggest problems with reviewing a game collection is that reviewers never give any particular game the attention it deserves. Rather than try and summarize the games available, I'll make mention of them in future posts as they catch my interest. But I will say this -- the selection is very nicely balanced. There's a decent mix between fast-paced and slow-paced games, shooters and platformers, arcade and adventure. It's a very well-rounded library; no matter what sort of game you might be in the mood for, chances are you'll find something close enough to what you want in this system.

Another Adventure

Okay, I will comment on Adventure. It's flawless, as one would expect, right down to the infamous Easter Egg, making this the best version of Adventure since the very original. This would already make the Flashback 2 my favorite Atari collection ever, but they bundled a brand new game in with the system: Adventure II.

Adventure II is one of the homebrew (or, more accurately, ROM hack) games available in the collection, and I'm giddy with joy over it. The gameplay is exactly the same, but the landscape is infinitely more interesting. Warren Robbinet, bless his heart, filled his game world with a lot of blank, featureless rooms. The new game has a feeling of geography to it which makes it feel more like a coherent world. The Fire Kingdom has winding (but linear) paths done in black and red that could resemble mountain paths. The Ice Kingdom is a twisty maze of chilly blue and white.

Whether Adventure II is actually larger than the first or not is immaterial -- the important thing is that it feels larger. There's four castles instead of three, and although it doesn't have a randomly-generated layout option (most likely because your quest is much more linear this time around), there are two possible locations where you can find the Chalice this time around. There's a lot more mazes, and they're generally a lot tougher. There's even a new Easter Egg that acknowledges the new authors and their thanks to "WR". (Works exactly the same as in the original game, but it's even more infuriating to set up.)

More of a good thing

The system's successes just make me wonder what else would have been possible with this system. What if they had just stuck in the cartridge slot and bundled in a set of paddle controllers and upped the price a bit and called it the second coming of the Atari 2600? Forty games built in and compatible with all the old cartridges! Heck, why not some new cartridges while they're at it?

Yeah, now I'm dreaming. We'll never see a cheap, fun, simplistic alternative to today's heavy-hitting systems. Guess I'll just have to scrape together $500 for an XBox 360 and accessories if I want to play new games.

Other than that, the only disappointment with the system is its enemic instruction manual, but the online version more than makes up for it. Now all I need are some paddle controllers...


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