Atari Flashback Portable Game Player: Review


I’ve been waiting for a device like the  AtGames Atari Flashback Portable Game Player for many many years.    I’ve always dreamed of holding a mini-Atari 2600 in my hands, and playing all my favorite VCS games from the early 1980’s  While I’ve had emulated game collections for the the Nintendo DS and GBA that featured Atari 2600 classics (as well as collections for the PC,/Steam/windows and nearly every game console since the PSX), the holy grail was a hand-held  device that could play “all”the games  (500+) , or at the very least, most of them. The major thing that previous official retro collections lacked were an extensive set of licensed games.  While Atari’s own coin-op conversion like Asteroids and Missile Command are great games, you can’t get the full picture of the history of the VCS without playing games like Superman, FroggerPac-Man, E.T. and Space Invaders.  However, to do that  would mean the manufacturer would need to figure out licensing agreements for all those old titles, or have a product that delved into the murky, grey-market world of emulation and ROMs, and all that would imply.   Interestingly enough, the Flashback Potable does a bit of the former, and also takes us well into the latter.

But first, the basics.

The Atari Flashback Portable is a sturdy, light-weight unit that includes a 3.2 inch display, speakers, a  power-switch, rechargeable battery (with an included cable), headphone jack, AV-out (via mini-plug), volume control, power-indicator LED, and an SD-Card slot (more on this later).  There is a D-pad, 6-control buttons (one of the cutely colored RED to indicate it’s “THE” fire button), plus a “Start/Reset” and “Menu” buttons.  The buttons function as follows:

 

 

  • The red (A) button is the fire button
  • The (S) button acts as “Select”.
  • The (P) button is for “Pause” (which can only be un-paused using the red (A) fire button.
  • The (L) sets the difficulty of the player 1
  • The (R) buttons sets the difficulty of player 2
  • The (T) Button is to toggle “TV” mode.  (More on that later)
  • [Start/Reset] does what it says
  • [Menu] takes you back to the on-board game select menu.

Games are started from a minimalist menu system.  It’s a little odd at first, because there are two columns of games listed on each page, but they can only be navigated with the up/down arrows on the d-pad.  Pressing  right and left changes the page of games, but doesn’t switch columns.  It’s not terrible though, just not intuitive when you first start trying to navigate.    The last menu page has only one tantalizing option: “SD Card Browser”.   We will get to this a bit later as well.

The device comes with 60 games built-in.  While, there is no possible way the collection of included games could satisfy the lion’s share of die-hard Atari fans, the selection is a  fine little cross-section of  titles that will operate well on the device while introducing neophytes to the golden-age of console games.  Adventure, Asteroids, Breakout, Bowling, Human Cannonball, Circus Atari, Centipede,  Crystal Castles, Desert Falcon,  Dodge ‘Em, Earthworld, Fireworld, Haunted House, Millipede, Missile Command, Night Driver, Pong Sports (Video Olympics),  Secret Quest, Solaris, Super Breakout, Video Pinball, Waterworld,  and Yar’s Revenge give a decent, if limited view into what made the Atari VCS the most popular machine of the era.   The rest of the games vary in quality and notoriety.  Some are arcade conversions that pushed the VCS a bit too far, while others are excellent home-brew games, prototypes,  late era oddities, or, honestly, uninspiring original releases.  All are welcome  here as they help form a fuller picture of the age of the Atari VCS. The rest of the games are as follows:  Adventure 2, Air Raiders, Aquaventure, Astroblast , Atari Climber, Dark Cavern Demons To Diamonds, Double Dunk, Fatal Run, Frogger (a new version), Frog Pond, Frogs & Flies, Fun With Numbers, Golf, Gravitar, Hangman, Haunted House 2, Miniature Golf, Miss It!, Radar Lock, Realsports Basketball, Saboteur, Save Mary,  Shield Shifter, Slot Machine, Space Attack, Star Ship, Star Strike, Stellar Track, Sub commander, Tempest, Video Checkers, Video Chess, Wizard and Yar’s Return.

Playing games on the unit is surprisingly satisfying.  The screen is small, but once your eyes are focused on the pleasingly retro Atari graphics, only purists will know the difference.  Sound is well emulated as well, and even through the tiny included speakers, it still sounds pretty good.     I spent the most time with Asteroids, Adventure and Missile Command and I was not disappointed.   Like most AtGames consoles, the controls are a combination of mushy and sticky.  However, I found the controls on this unit a cut-above the plug and play wired and and infrared controllers I’ve experienced in past products.

 

TV Display

The supplied 3.5 mm TV out port of this device is a neat feature, as it gives you an additional option for the retro audio visual experience of the Atari VCS.  In theory anyway.  First you must find and buy an additional a 3.5 mm A/V to RCA cable.  I used the Black Point BA-158.  Mine was only 3 feet, but I’d suggest at least 6 feet or more so it will be couch distance.


The results were a bit less than expected.  On my 1080p Vizio 40″ display, the images were fuzzy and washed-out.   They reminded me of my experience with the previous Flashback systems.  They certainly will not pass-muster for anyone who wants to feel the retro nuanced scan-line look and feel of old Atari VCS games.   This feature  should only be used for playing on a big screen when there are no other options. Compared to the HDMI out of a system like the RetroPie, this is pretty much unacceptable.  It’s unfortunate that this is the only output option, but since it’s only a “nice to have”, it’s not really a huge draw-back considering the focus on this unit is portability.

One more thing, I pressed the (T) (TV display) button when hooked-up to TV, but it did not do anything that I could see.  Maybe this button performs some back magic to make the display less fuzzy, but so far I could not discover how to make it operational.

 

SD Card

One of the biggest draws of this console it its’ ability to play games from ROM files.  To do this you will need to find ROMs and a compatible SD card. You will also need to take some special care when copying files to the SD card.   This thread on AtariAge.com will help you get started.   However, I will try to summarize the process for you.

  • First, you must find or purchase a standard SD card that is 8 GB or less.   It needs to be standard SD. No mini-SD,  SDIO or SDXC. I used a Monster 8GB Legacy SDHC Card that my brother found (no joke) at Rite-Aid.  That was the only brick and mortar store we could find that sold them.
  • You will need to create a folder named “game” and place all of your ROMS inside this folder
  • All the ROMS will need to be renamed.  The first letter must be a capital, followed by lower-case (i.e. “Boxing.bin”)

Also note, that not EVERY Atari 2600 game will work.  There is a compatibility list on the thread linked above.   Roughly 200 of the 700 listed have some sort of issue.    This is not as bad as it first sounds.  For instance, games that require 2-players, like Combat!  and 90% of the variations in a game like  Outlaw don’t work by definition, since this is a one-player device.     This extends to games like Star Raiders and sadly, Raiders Of The Lost Ark because they require special controllers or controller configurations that the device cannot emulate .    70 or so games have minor graphical or game play flaws, but still appear  playable. As far as the “big” developers go, about a dozen of the 50+ games made by Activision have some of graphical or minor game play flaws. However, one game, Pitfall 2 will not work at all because it requires an additional sound chip that is not emulated on the device.   For the Atari releases,  about 40 or so are flawed or unplayable.  Again, some require special controllers, some require 2-players, while a few others imply crash.  Of these, the biggest games with fatal bugs appear to be Galaxian and Berzerk. Nearly all of the Imagic games work with the exception of Wing War, Sky Patrol and parts of Atlantis.  At the same time, all the 20th Century Fox games work perfectly, so if you are up for a game of Fantasic Voyage (one of my all-time favorites) you in for a good time.  Same goes for Coleco (i.e Donkey Kong) and CBS (i.e Gorf).  A few of the more rare Parker Brothers games don’t work, but the amazing Empire Strikes Back is fine, so there is really nothing to complain about IMHO.   With 500 or so fully playable games, even with emulation flaws, there is still a lot of entertainment to be had here.

There are few oddities other  with the SD card that I must mention.  Some files, even when named using the above naming convention, still don’t show-up in the menu.  For instance, I really wanted to try E.T., but no matter what I named it (“E_t.bin”, “Et.bin”,”Eeetee.bin”) it never showed up. (Update: I found it! At the end of the list on the last page.). Also after I renamed some a few of the files, they did not show-up any longer alphabetically.    There may be a case where you need to format and re-copy all the files at once the SD card to get everything to show-up correctly.  I’m still looking into it.

Conclusion

At $59.99 list-price (as low as $29.99 at some locations) this system is very much worth the money.  To me, this is best and most successful AtGames retro console yet released.  Sure, you could build-your-own portable system that played even more games and systems with something like  the Adafruit Pi Girl Zero, but that is more costly and takes more time to build and test.  True die-hard Atari fans who want to play with scan-lines on a tube TV with a CX-40 in-hand should not consider this unit as a replacement for their collection.  Instead, this is a way to have some extensive Atari fun while on the the go. This unit is cheap, easy to use, and offers quick and easy features to satisfy your retro Atari hunger.  No it’s not perfect, but it’s a great start!  Now I’m looking forward to the Atari Flashback Portable 2.0 (Atari 8-bit, 5200, and 7800 support please!)

-Steve Fulton

 

 

 

 

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