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My favorite woodgrained system is back!
on May 24, 2005
Imagine yourself at a flea market or garage sale. There's a big shoebox with 40 different Atari cartridges in it for 75 cents each. Interested in that dusty old junk? Maybe, maybe not ... but what if it were all neatly self-contained in one tidy, legally licensed package? Cool!
What an improvement this machine is over the original "Flashback" console! The Atari Flashback 2.0 uses updated Atari 2600 VCS hardware, joysticks with the original "classic" feel, and 40 games built in. The joysticks aren't as nicely rubberized as the originals, but they feel similar, and if you had one of these systems in the 1980's, they'll immediately feel familiar to you.
The hardware is well built and is quite faithful to the original controls. A nice touch: the included joysticks are compatible with vintage computers and consoles from the era, too. Hardwired AV cables provide cleaner video than the original system did, and allows you to attach this toy to any modern TV set, and an AC adapter lets you play without running out of battery power like similar toys. Modern users might be annoyed with the crude graphics and sound, plus the fact that you need to get up and turn the thing off and then on again to change games. There's no pause button should you need a bathroom break. That's the way things were in the 1980's, and that's the price we pay for fidelity to the source material.
The console's built in 40 games are separated into "Adventure," "Arcade," "Space," and "Action/Skill" categories. There's enough variety here for everyone. Many of these games are "homebrews" and unreleased prototypes, meaning that unless you are a die-hard collector of Atari trivia, you haven't played these games elsewhere. Not even on an emulator running ill-gotten ROMs.
The full list of games: 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, Adventure, Adventure II, Aquaventure, Arcade Asteroids, Arcade Pong, Asteroids Deluxe, Atari Climber, Battlezone, Caverns Of Mars, Centipede, Combat, Combat 2, Dodge'm, Fatal Run, Frog Pond, Hangman, Haunted House, Human Cannonball, Lunar Lander, Maze Craze, Millipede, Missile Command, Off the Wall, Outlaw, Pitfall, Quadrun, Radar Lock, Return To Haunted House, River Raid, Saboteur, Save Mary, Secret Quest, Space Duel, Space War, Video Checkers, Video Chess, Wizard, Yars' Return, and Yars' Revenge. Supposedly, there are some secret hidden "easter eggs," but I haven't found them yet...
How did the games turn out? Well-known games came out just like the source material. That's good! They deliver a solid, nostalgic game experience. "Battlezone" (a last minute replacement for a homebrew that didn't make it-- and is MUCH better than the poor Flashback 1 version), "Missile Command," "Centipede," "Millipede," "Adventure," "Haunted House," "Combat," and "Yars' Revenge" -- many of these were included on other plug & play units as well as "Atari Anthology" and they work just fine here. If you're into Atari, you may well already have copies of these as they're pretty common. If not, you're in for a treat! Also included are the Activision mainstays "Pitfall!" and "River Raid," a nice touch.
Some other old, familiar games don't hold up so well. They come off as primitive, but it's nice to see them here in the spirit of "family fun": Outlaw, 3D tic-tac-toe, Hangman, Video Checkers, Video Chess, Dodge'Em, Space War, Human Cannonball, Maze Craze are all here and playable. You might like them for some quick plays, but I would wager that many adults, let alone modern kids, would find them ugly and boring.
Some rarities are included for those of us who don't like to spend hundreds of dollars on Atari games. Most of these were released late in the lifespan of the original system, so they show a little more technical flair than the early games. "Secret Quest" (designed by the founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell) and "Off the Wall" are weird little games that are fun in their own way. "Radar Lock" appears to use the beautiful Solaris engine for an Afterburner-like game which is worth playing. "Fatal Run," only released in Europe, appears to use the Pole Position engine and adds some violent crash-em action to the racing. "Quadrun," an obscure title that fetches big bucks on auction, isn't much fun to play, and the game's main gimmick, a synthesized voice, didn't work on my unit. The manufacturer stated there was a problem with some of the chips in the early run which would be fixed later; since this was the only flaw I could find, I think I'll live with it.
How are the homebrew and unreleased prototypes? A mixed bag. "Saboteur" appeared on Flashback 1 and is redone more faithfully here, but the game is unlikely to become a favorite. "Lunar Lander," while interesting and never seen before, is slow and flickery and looks nothing like the nice vector lines on the box. "Arcade Asteroids," "Asteroids Deluxe," and "Space Duel" are all tweaks on the old Asteroids game, offering a few different play modes but nothing radically new. "Yars' Return" and "Return to Haunted House" are modestly tweaked version of the originals -- in my opinion, these are sequels no one asked for.
Don't despair, though, because there are better homebrews and prototypes on this thing: "Arcade Pong" uses the old Atari paddles if you plug them in when you choose the game, which give you much more control over this simple classic. "Save Mary" has excellent gameplay and graphics. "Atari Climber," also available on the GameBoy Activision Anthology set as Climber 5, is a fun little game that originally appeared on 8-bit computers. Another remake, "Caverns of Mars," is a flickery, upside-down River Raid-esque shooter that gets very manic very quickly, like a classic game should. "Frog Pond" features the best digital insects I've ever seen, and "Aquaventure"'s smooth scrolling and multiple screens suggest an early NES game. "Wizard" is a maze-bound shooter that doesn't seem finished but is still compelling to play, and if you liked "Combat" and "Adventure," the unimaginatively titled "Combat 2" and "Adventure 2" are here for your amusement and are worth trying.
For the hacker, there are instructions on the internet to solder a ribbon cable to the motherboard and add an Atari cartridge slot. This would allow you to play just about any released Atari VCS cartridge, but will void your warranty should you mess something up. I wish there were a simple way to get some of my favorites into the system, like "Solaris" (iffy version on the Flashback 1), or any of the non-Atari games that didn't make it for licensing reasons.
This is a great value for people who like classic games!