Atari Flashback (2004)

The Video Game Critic's Review

Manufacturer: Atari
Controller ports: 2
Number of Games Built-in: 20
Video Output: Composite
Audio Output: Mono
Initial Price: $19.99

As a video game fanatic whose first console was the Atari 2600, I was totally psyched when I heard the good times were back in the form of this new "classic game console". Unlike the bare-bones "games built-into a joystick" products on the market, Flashback gives you a miniature console with detachable joysticks! Only 20 games are built-in, but these include several rare and previously unreleased titles. The games are a mix of Atari 2600 favorites and more sophisticated Atari 7800 hits.

It's important to note that while the Flashback is produced by "Atari", this is not the original Atari many of us grew up with. No, that company is long gone. The new Atari is a software company who purchased the rights to the old Atari's properties and has since assumed the Atari name. It's a critical point, because clearly this company has little grasp of the nature and history of these classic games. While the basic concept of Atari Flashback is terrific, the execution reeks.

The best aspect of Atari Flashback is its slick packaging, beginning with its colorful, inviting box. The back of the box shows a series of screenshots from the more popular games included. The instruction booklet isn't bad either. Although the pages are black and white and printed on cheap paper, there's a fair synopsis of each game along with an adequate breakdown of the controls and variations.

One curious aspect of Atari Flashback is the design of the console itself. While it looks sizeable on the box, it's actually less than 6 inches wide by 4 inches deep. Worse yet, its shape is not inspired by the beloved Atari 2600 console (circa 1977), but instead resembles the ill-fated Atari 7800 model (circa 1987)! What kind of "flashbacks" is Atari trying to evoke? Nightmares? This is definitely not the design most people remember! In fact, the Atari 7800 was such a complete failure that most people have never even heard of it.

The system has a power and reset button on top, and two controller ports on the front. But where are the difficulty switches? Most of the featured games are Atari 2600 titles, which were customizable using two difficulty switches. With these nowhere to be found, the playability of the games is severely limited. The television cable has yellow and white RCA plugs, which in theory should provide a composite image much sharper than the original system. As you will see, that's not necessarily the case.

The only thing worse that bringing back the 7800 console is bringing back its infamous controllers. Yes, Flashback features miniature versions of some of the worst joysticks ever made. Like the originals, these are specially designed to generate painful hand cramps during extended play. Still, I have to admit that the joystick mechanism feels quite sturdy and responsive, and it's nice to have pause and select buttons on the controller itself (the original 2600 didn't even have a pause button). I was anxious to try these out with my vintage systems, but although their plugs look identical, they are incompatible.

The games are accessible through an attractive menu screen. First I fired up Adventure, one of my old favorites, but once I started playing I realized something was not quite right. The screen layouts were the same, but the objects looked odd, and the side edges of everything was fuzzy. Finally it dawned on me that either these games had either been reprogrammed, or they were running on a really bad emulator! The bottom line is, these games don't look or play as they should. They're not nearly as fun as the originals - not even in the same ballpark! Almost every game is plagued with obvious glitches, fuzzy graphics, awful collision detection, and absolutely butchered sound effects.

If any old Atari game deserved first class treatment, it was Adventure. The control is not bad, but the lack of difficulty switch options is conspicuous, and the collision detection is heinous. This is definitely NOT the game I grew up with.

It's not easy to screw up a simple target-shooter like Air Sea Battle, but Flashback managed to do it. The control scheme is flakey, and the background graphics are so fuzzy and distorted that you'll want to avert your eyes to avoid permanent retinal damage.

Asteroids is a second-rate version of the 7800 game, which originally featured nifty rotation effects and several challenging variations (including two-player co-op). This pitiful version not only lacks the numerous variations of the original, but the thrust control is a joke. There's no sense of momentum at all, so your ship stops on a dime. Weak!

Battlezone vaguely resembles the excellent 2600 version, but graphical glitches abound and the control isn't nearly as tight.

Breakout doesn't look so bad, but the game was designed to be played with analog "paddle" controllers, and the joystick control just doesn't cut it.

Canyon Bomber doesn't lose much in terms of gameplay (its only control is a single button), but the edges of the planes and canyon "blocks" look awfully rough.

Centipede is the 7800 version, which like Asteroids, was a pretty cool game in its time. The objects in this version look sharp enough, but the touchy joystick control is problematic. Worse yet, poor collision detection causes your shots to pass right through oncoming fleas.

Crystal Castles looks comparable to the original 2600 version, but its control is the worst. You're constantly getting hung up on the edges of the playfield, requiring you to wrestle with the joystick like crazy. The real Crystal Castles is not a bad game, but playing this putrid version is a miserable experience.

Desert Falcon for the Atari 7800 was never any good to begin with, and this version looks so cluttered and flickers so badly that you can't even tell what's going on half the time.

Food Fight was one of the best games for the 7800, but this one is confusing and slow. After playing it, I was tempted to induce vomiting, and that's never a good thing.

Gravitar is a tough shooter that requires pinpoint control as you navigate narrow caverns while dealing with gravitational fields. This version runs way too fast, and incredibly, there's no gravity at all! An insurmountable difficulty level and inexplicable pauses in the action render this one worthless.

Haunted House is yet another disappointment. The numbers at the bottom of the screen vibrate nervously, and the scary sound effects of the original game have been replaced with generic beeps. The "redrawn" spiders only have six legs, which is idiotic.

Millipede may be the single bright spot of the entire package. Oddly enough, Atari went with the 2600 version, despite using the 7800 version of Centipede. No matter, this game features blocky visuals but rock-solid gameplay. The action is fast and exciting, and even the joystick control is adequate.

Planet Smashers for the 7800 is a rare space shooter that was never produced in large quantities. Once you play this dud you'll understand why.

Sabateur is touted as the "previously unreleased" title of this collection, but its gameplay is confusing and the graphics look downright ugly.

Sky Diver resembles the original, but for some reason it takes forever for each round to begin, which ruins the whole game.

Solaris was an innovative space shooter for its time, but this spastic version runs entirely too fast, and the touchy controls make it impossible to navigate the map screens properly.

Sprint Master is a marginal racing game with poor collision detection and extremely touchy controls.

Warlords is a horrific translation of a classic four-player game. Not only is this version remarkably slow, but the range of your "shield" is extremely limited. This is an insult to the original game.

Yars' Revenge is not as good as the original (big surprise there), but it's close, which is more than I can say for most of these games. The only perceivable differences are slightly-altered sound effects and different "explosion" visuals.

Overall, I'd give Atari Flashback a big, fat F. These are not the games we remember and love from back in the day. As a classic game collector, I actually own the original versions of all of these games, and I can attest that most are actually quite enjoyable, despite what Flashback would have you believe. These translations are lacking in every regard, tarnishing the legacy of a great system. It's shameful how a company with the rights to some of the best games ever written can treat them with such disrespect.

Fortunately, the new Atari didn't wait long before replacing this debacle with Flashback 2. Would they get it right this time? Read my Flashback 2 review to find out.

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