The first console I’ll be looking at for this series is the Atari 2600. The original Atari is seen as the first mainstream home video game console, and (as far as I know), it’s the oldest one to have its own retro edition. The new console in question is the “Atari Flashback,” and it includes a familiar looking set-top-box, two primitive controllers, and a wealth of built-in games.
The first thing you should know about the Flashback system is that it’s not just one console—it’s actually a series of consoles. It began way back in 2004, and there’s been a new version released every couple of years (I’ve got version 6). The newest edition is version 8, but even then, there are some options (we’ll get to those later). The next thing you should know is that the console (whichever version you’re getting) is not a first-party release, which means that it isn’t designed or manufactured by Atari themselves. Instead, it’s built by AtGames, a company that specializes in these sort of plug-and-play consoles.
Basically, the line can be drawn at the “8 Gold” edition. Everything prior is technically inferior to it and its predecessors. From the “8 Gold” on, the system includes 2.4GHz wireless controllers, HDMI 720p output, and emulation features such as pausing, saving, and rewinding games (all upgrades). For the sake of this review, I’m going to assume that you’ll be buying nothing older than the Flashback 6.
Speaking of control, the console includes two wireless controllers that look just like the original 2600 joysticks. Their similarity to the originals ends with aesthetic, which is both good and bad. On the plus side, the joystick itself and the fire button are much less stiff. However, the controllers are made of the same cheap plastic as the console, so they’re pretty flimsy. They are wireless, albeit via infrared signals. But while IR has seen poor days on consoles such as the Retron 3, the medium works delightfully well on the Flashback: as long as you’re not pointing the controller off into space, it’ll work. And, of course, if you’re on the “8 Gold” or later, you’ll have the even more reliable 2.4 GHz signal. The only downside to the wireless functionality is that the controllers require two AAA batteries. In a world of rechargeable batteries, these disposables have become rather scarce, and they also introduce problems such as corrosion (which I’ve experienced). Plus, you have to remember to switch the controllers off whenever you’re done. But another upside to the controllers is some additional buttons that have been added: the controllers include reset, start, and select buttons. I especially like this feature because it allows the controllers to meet the best of both worlds in nostalgia and functionality (unlike the controllers for the NES or SNES Classic Edition, whose lack of a home or reset button subtracts from the functionality). Overall, I find these controllers to be near-perfect: they look great and they work great. ‘Nuff said.
*All “Deluxe” versions of the console include wired paddle controllers.
**I assume there are more third-party controllers that will work, but I don’t own any to test.
But while the Flashbacks deliver in controller functionality, their first major setback is in their display. Unless you’ve got the “8 Gold” or newer, you’ll be playing in analog standard def. That’s right—the Flashbacks use RCA cables straight out of the 80’s. Thus, the system’s image output is horribly blurry and desaturated. However, while this would be a major disappointment on the NES or PlayStation retro editions, it isn’t as much of a hitch on the Flashback: since Atari graphics are already so low-res and blocky, they are hardly affected by the subpar video output. And technically, they are an improvement from the original, since its only output was RF via coax. The only element truly affected by the inadequate output is the systems’ menus.
(For this next portion of my review, I’ll only be considering the Flashback 6, as it’s the version of the console I own.) Like all retro edition consoles, the Flashback boots up to a menu interface where the player selects which game they want to play. Compared to what’s on other retro editions, the menu on the Flashback is notably lackluster. Players are greeted by a hideously low-res Atari logo, and are then met with a just-as-disappointing game selection screen. Each screen displays ten game options, listed in two columns. Each title is displayed text-only, but a screenshot of the game and its box art appear onscreen when the game is highlighted. If looking at these menus isn’t difficult enough, there’s the added toil of navigating them. You can only navigate through the titles vertically—pushing left/right on the joystick switches to the previous/next screen of game options—making it rather tedious to select the game you want. But while this menu is overall unsatisfactory, it is nice to be able to reach it easily with the controller’s reset button.
Dark Cavern (Night Stalker)
Demons to Diamonds
Frogs and Flies
Fun with Numbers
Pong (Video Olympics)
Return to Haunted House
Super Challenge Baseball
Super Challenge Football (NFL Football)
River Raid II
Space Shuttle - A Journey into Space
And finally, let’s talk about the price tag. Since there are different versions of the system, there is a range of prices as well. As far as I know, Version 6 is no longer sold at retail, but can be bought used for as low as $8.50. The 7 sells anywhere from $25 to $40. And finally, the Version 8 family sells from $40 to $80. So is it worth it? One way to decide is to consider the quality of the console itself and its contents, but with retro editions, you can also compare it to the cost of the individual components of the original you’d be buying instead. Atari, considering its age, is not that expensive to collect: a bundle including the console, controllers, hookups, and a significant number of games can sell for about $100-$175 on Ebay, depending on the games included. Therefore, all the Flashback systems are cheaper than originals. But of course, considering the system’s age once again, original editions are questionable in terms of functionality.
So, here’s my conclusion on the Atari Flashback system. The original Atari 2600 is certainly a legendary system. However, it is a difficult console to collect due to its age and increasing rarity. The Atari Flashback is a great supplement for those wanting to play Atari without breaking their backs to collect for it. It includes big name games that define the system and boasts flawless controller functionality. For the non-collectors and the even more casual players (those for whom retro editions are intended), the system may not be worth it, as it feels notably more primitive than others.
That concludes my Atari Flashback review. Be sure to stay tuned for the rest of the retro edition system reviews as well as more exciting articles about gaming, film, and more here at “Thoughts!”