Atari Flashback 4
The Video Game Critic Review
As a purist, I prefer to play my Atari 2600 games in their original unadulterated form, but there's no question that these Flashback systems are the most practical way to enjoy classics from the late 70's and early 80's. This fourth iteration of Flashback may resemble last year's model, but dig deeper and you'll find that Flashback 4 is a major improvement and a far better value.
Like its predecessor, Flashback 4 has the same "flat" orange buttons across the front that serve as the select, reset, and difficulty switches. These button shapes are far from optimal (you can't tell their position from a glance) but it's not a showstopper.
What truly shocked me about Flashback 4 is the new IR sensor on the front of the system. That's right - the joystick controllers are wireless! I can't emphasize enough what a nice feature that is. Previously you really needed to hunch over the console to play, but now you can kick back with a beer. Better yet, controller one has three additional buttons along the front: reset (return to menu), select (select), and start (reset game). Pretty sweet! The controllers work great and feel comfortable.
One drawback with wireless controllers is that you'll need to be facing the general direction of the console for them to register. This will affect where you place the system while playing. You'll also need two AAA batteries for each one. The compartment on the bottom of the controllers has a tiny screw and you'll need a tiny Philips screwdriver to remove it. After you insert the batteries there's no point in putting the screw back because the compartment snaps firmly in place. The controller has a small power switch on the front, and it's easy to accidentally leave the controllers on, so be careful.
Despite the wireless function the console still has two controller ports. Unlike Flashback 3, the plugs really will accommodate all of your old controllers! Yes, you can now use your old Wico joystick or paddle controllers. That's a really nice bonus for classic gamers. Be advised however that paddles do not provide true analog control when used with this system. Their movements are translated into digital instead which is functional but less precise.
Upon firing up the console you're greeted with a handsome menu screen with 75 games to select from - 15 more than Flashback 3. The new additions are:
Return to Haunted House
There are a few heavy hitters on this list. Jungle Hunt is pure arcade fun, and Football is a blast when played head-to-head. Warlords is the quintessential four-player party game (paddles required). Tempest appears to be the same unfinished, barely-playable prototype I've played in the past. Space Invaders is a strange case. This is not the original version released by Atari. No, it's an arcade-perfect edition which clearly could never run on actual Atari 2600 hardware. It's an odd inclusion, but not one to complain about.
The remaining games carried over from Flashback 3 are: 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, Adventure, Adventure II, Air-Sea Battle, Aquaventure, Asteroids, Backgammon, Basketball, Battlezone, Black Jack, Bowling, Canyon Bomber, Centipede, Championship Soccer, Circus Atari, Combat, Combat 2, Demons to Diamonds, Desert Falcon, Dodge Em, Double Dunk, Fatal Run, Flag Capture, Frog Pond, Fun with Numbers, Gorf, Gravitar, Hangman, Haunted House, Homerun, Human Cannonball, Maze Craze, Miniature Golf, Missile Command, Night Driver, Off the Wall, Outlaw, Polaris, Realsports Baseball, Realsports Basketball, Realsports Soccer, Realsports Volleyball, Saboteur, Save Mary, Sky Diver, Space War, Sprintmaster, Star Ship, Steeplechase, Submarine Commander, Super Baseball, Super Breakout, Super Football, Surround, Swordquest Earthworld, Swordquest Fireworld, Video Checkers, Video Chess, Video Pinball, Wizard, Yars' Revenge.
It's important to note that ten of these titles were originally designed for use with paddle controllers. You can still play these with a joystick, but it's not nearly as fun. If you own a pair of paddle controllers, you can just plug them in and enjoy the games the way they were meant to be played. If you don't own paddles controllers, you may want to consider purchasing the Atari Flashback 4 Deluxe Edition instead, which does include these controllers. Or you can purchase paddles separately.
The emulation is close but not perfect. The responsiveness isn't quite as "tight" as the real thing, but nothing objectionable. I noticed that some of the broken sounds I complained about in Flashback 3 have been addressed including the roars in Adventure and thunder in Haunted House. Still, there are some annoying "skips" in the audio (like the cadence of Asteroids) and minor glitches in the video (the "shaky" boulders of Jungle Hunt). Casual gamers probably won't even notice but die-hard may find these irritating.
Since these games were designed for play on a convention 4:3 TV, how does Flashback perform on a high definition television? In a word, good. In my experience the controls are slightly less responsive, and there's some faint interference (lines) in the background. I have a Pioneer plasma, so your mileage will vary by TV. I would be nice if Flashback 5 had full support for HD.
Flashback 4 is designed for casual gamers, but even collectors may be interested in some of the more obscure/unreleased titles such as Adventure II, Aquaventure, Return to Haunted House, Fatal Run, Frog Pond, Save Mary, Wizard, and Tempest.
One issue I have always had with the Flashback series is the lack of instruction manuals. These are necessary for sifting through the variations most games provide - some numbering in the hundreds! Flackback 4 still doesn't come with manuals, but it did contain a card with a web address purporting to contain Atari 2600 manuals for download. This didn't work at the time of this review, but to be fair it's really not hard to hunt down these manuals on-line (see atariage.com).
Overall Flashback 4 represents a logical evolution of the system. The hardware has dramatically improved and the game selection is stronger. There's a lot of fun to be had, making this system a hard one to pass up.