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Sean Pettibone

Atari Flashback 2


By Michael Palisano

While shelves are crowded with 'plug and play' consoles, Atari's Flashback 2 stands out from the pack. This self-contained unit isn't another cheap knock-off with poorly emulated games, but instead is a fully formed mini-Atari 2600 console, complete with full sized controllers and accurately emulated titles. The unit's game selection includes famous titles such as Yars' Revenge and Haunted House, plus lesser-known games such like Fatal Run and Quadrun. However, what makes the unit exciting for classic gamers is the inclusion of never released prototypes, homebrew titles, and sequels released exclusively for the system. This makes Atari Flashback 2 an excellent purchase that should please hardcore classic gamers everywhere.

Released at the end of last year, the original Atari Flashback console was an interesting experiment at creating a stand-alone, self-contained console. However, the unit fell short in a few key areas. While the 7800-inspired design of the console and its controllers was a great idea, the games included on the console were poorly emulated, with glitchy graphics, inaccurate sounds that made the overall experience less than authentic. This was due in large part, to the fact that the first Flashback tried to shoehorn these old programs onto a NES-type chip that couldn't properly recreate the classic Atari experience. The good news is that the designers, led by classic gaming veteran Curt Vendel, have been given the extra time to do things properly, and the resulting console, the Flashback 2 is a vastly superior product in almost every sense of the word. A large part of this is probably because the console is a rewired 2600 at its base, re-wired and scaled down.

The console itself immediately brings back memories of the original Video Computer System (VCS) console, with its classic woodgrain finish, brightly colored buttons and classic VCS style controllers giving the system an immediate rush of nostalgia for anyone who grew up back in the late 1970's and early 80's. The controllers themselves are quite sturdy, and are actually full-sized. This should make them more comfortable, and likely, more durable than the mini-sticks included in the first Flashback. What's even cooler about these new controllers is the fact that they are interchangeable with the original Atari consoles - unlike the Flashback 1. They were tested and functioned perfectly with our original 7800 console. Likewise, players can use their classic controllers with the Flashback 2 as well, our trusty Wico Red Ball worked flawlessly with the console. The hardware itself is about half the size of the original 2600 console and feels like a solid state electronics product, not a flimsy toy.

One of the biggest disappointments about the first Flashback was the emulation, particularly the audio, which didn't sound quite right. The odd NES-sounds appeared where the harsher, more primitive 2600 sound effects were, which could be quite disconcerting. This was extremely annoying, as the sounds played a huge role in creating the 2600 personality - replacing these was like changing the arrangements behind old Beatles songs while keeping the vocals. The emulation on the Flashback 2 is essentially perfect in this department with the original sound effects very much evident. You can really tell the difference in two titles. Playing Yars' Revenge on the first Flashback showed just how integral the original droning music was to the game. Without it, and the dulled rainbow shield stripe across the left of the screen, Yars' became a shadow of its former self. With the music and full rotating color restored, the classic title immediately returns to its hypnotic glory on the Flashback 2. Another flawed translation on the first Flashback, Battlezone is redeemed here as well, with the original sounds, gameplay and colors back in their full glory. These remakes are impressive but what's really most interesting from a gamer's perspective is the selection of games this time around. Instead of recycling the same selection of tried and true titles, as you'd expect, the Flashback 2 includes a variety of unreleased titles, homebrews and special release games made exclusively for the console.

There are surprises hidden in plain view throughout the console, in places you wouldn't expect. For example, there are two versions of Asteroids on the system, Arcade Asteroids and Asteroids Deluxe that were never made on the 2600. Arcade Asteroids plays just as the original 2600 version, but the graphics have been changed to more accurately portray the classic coin-op. The enhancements in Asteroids Deluxe might seem slight by today's standards, but the add complexity to the game and make it seem more interesting. Ironically, the original 2600 console release of Asteroids itself isn't included. Players will who look closely will also notice that the version of Millipede here is an alternate version, with different sprites and play mechanics that makes it a unique experience. The Flashback 2 also includes a number of prototype games that were never published including the legendary vaporware sequel to Combat. This legendary game is seen commercially here for the first time. Combat 2 is a very different game than the original, with much better graphics, more complicated terrain, which you can edit in one mode, and even extra weapons you can use. Combat 2 was actually announced by Atari in one of their catalogs, and the prototype was discovered several years ago. The game seems almost complete and is quite enjoyable. Classic fans will also find several other unreleased, but long rumored prototype titles here including Frog Pond, Save Mary and Saboteur. Frog Pond is a cool game that lets you catch flies with your tongue, while you can make them croak as well. Save Mary is an interesting game where you have to rescue your girlfriend by building a bridge she can climb up. Saboteur was released on last year's Flashback as well, but benefits immensely from the superior emulation, which allows its addictive, fast-paced play mechanics to really shine. Atari has also included Aquaventure, another unreleased game where you have to explore under ocean to find buried treasure while avoiding sharks and other sea monsters.

Most interesting of all of these titles are the newly commissioned sequels and homebrew games, which have never been seen anywhere until now. The most interesting of these is Yars' Return, a follow-up to the legendary space shooter. This plays similarly to the original, except that the Quotile enemy moves from the right of the screen to the center, allowing you to attack it with the cannon from both sides. This is a lot more challenging than the original, and unfortunately, seems to suffer from a lot of the dreaded flicker, but is still quite playable once your eyes adjust. Another sequel exclusively for the FB2 is Return to Haunted House. This is another cool remake for the system, with a brand new quest and enemies such as ghosts and witches chasing you from room to room. Interestingly, Return to Haunted House feels like it has more in common with Adventure than the original game. In a similar vein, Adventure II offers another quest with more challenging dungeons with more complicated layouts. Atari also commissioned several new translations, with the obscure, yet strangely addictive Lunar Lander making its debut in a first-rate translation that captures the minimalist feel of the arcade game, right down to the appealing black and white graphics. Space Duel is an excellent conversion of Atari's own Asteroids derivative, and the version on Flashback 2 does a good job in recreating the game's unique play mechanics and enemy variations. Fans of the Atari 800/XL/XE computer line have always said good things about Caverns of Mars, and the new version included here is an excellent translation, requiring the same tight reflexes to navigate the twisting tunnels. This is a surprisingly addictive game and another excellent exclusive conversion developed for the FB2. There are also two homebrew titles, Wizard and Atari Climber, both of which offer the solid, simple gameplay that have made the classic video game era so enduring.

Among the 40 games, there's the usual assortment of Atari classics such as Missile Command, Human Cannonball, Sky Diver, Video Chess, Outlaw and Maze Craze to name a few. There are also a few obscure and rare 2600 releases, such as Radar Lock, Quadrun, Radar Lock and, Off the Wall. All of these are fun titles, and their inclusion should save gamers who just want to play these rare games a small fortune in ebay purchases. In addition to these Atari classics, there are also two licensed Activision classics on the console: Pitfall and River Raid. Both are undeniably classics, and they return here in perfect form as well. The 40 games on the console are grouped into different themed sections such as Space Station, Arcade Favorites, Strategy, and other categories. This approach makes the menu quite simple and easy to navigate. What's most surprising about the game selection in the console is just how high the proportion is between known and relatively obscure titles, it's about even. This more interesting selection makes exploring the console a more exciting prospect for hardcore fans than most other all-in-one systems. However, the games are all loads of fun and should give it appeal to the casual audience as well. Overall, Atari Flashback 2 represents a quantum leap forward for the company with an excellent mix of known and obscure titles that makes it an excellent purchase for gamers who remember electronic gaming's pioneering days and younger players who may want an accurate version of the classic gaming era.

Grade: B

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