Fifteen years ago, just prior to the celebrated release of QUAKE, an interviewer asked John Romero to explain id Software's success in the broadest terms. The once-great game designer explained that both he and the rest of the principal id gang - Hall and the Carmacks - grew up playing games in arcades, which had enabled them to evaluate a diverse selection over an extended period. In doing so, they developed an instinctive understanding (at the expense of innumerable quarters and the efforts of Williams, Stern, Atari, Gottlieb, Namco, Nintendo, Taito, Midway, Konami, etc.) precisely what was fun and what wasn't. As a result, those younger game designers who had grown up on a glut of Nintendo and Sega cartridges (only a relative handful of which were worth playing) lacked this accumulative cognition.
Those of my generation who owned an Atari 2600 Video Computer System (or more likely two, as the most popular 1980 version usually came to the end of its life cycle just as the final, scaled-down '84 edition was released, if not a year before) remember it as the apotheosis of gameplay over graphical advancement. For a console that a glut of over 900 games were designed for, the 2600's ratio of good to poor games was extraordinarily high. Both Atari and the better third-party developers churned out an astonishing number of enjoyable, highly collectible cartridges that distracted the buying public from a hideous flood of absolutely wretched titles...at least, until 1983 rolled around.
So the 2600 faded away, the hopelessly flawed 5200 crashed and burned immediately after takeoff and the superior 7800 was trounced by the Famicom/NES (and to a lesser extent, Sega's Master System). By 1990, Atari was a has-been and the world was Nintendo's, but Atari enthusiasts like this author stuck with their durable cartridges and played them over and over until our 1984 2600s expired quietly.
Atari couldn't have chosen a better time to release their Flashback consoles than the mid-aughts, a period when yearning for the ephemeral joys of '80s videos games - those that didn't require five minutes to load or a lifetime to play - was still strong among my aimless age group. While the first Flashback was a quality product that just didn't satisfy, this one really hit the mark.
Designed to resemble the 1977 2600 console, the Flashback 2 merely looks like a smaller version of it, at two-thirds its size and less than half its weight. The Carter-era version's metal switches have been replaced by colorful red and yellow push buttons. Thankfully, a strip of faux wood grain still adorns its prominent front edge. Its joystick controllers are a whit smaller and lighter than those of the 2600s, slightly more responsive and not quite as durable - while I haven't broken one, the handles of these controllers can become unlatched from their bases during strenuous play. In this way, the Flashback 2 requires slightly gentler handling which is aided by their increased sensitivity. However, those who don't care for this dynamic will be thrilled to learn about one of this console's best features: it's fully compatible with any functioning 2600 joystick, paddle* or compatible 9-pin controller! If you have a Spectravideo stick in your closet, dust it off and go!
Like its predecessors, the Flashback 2 is also compatible with black-and-white televisions, and all compatible games therein can be switched between color and B&W in mid-game if desired. The color/B&W switch also enables access to one of two test screens. If the select and reset buttons are pressed while the Flashback 2 is switched on in color mode, a colorful, beeping joystick test screen appears. Set to B&W, an equivalent monochrome interface for testing paddle controllers* is rendered. These are especially useful to evaluate the functionality of old controllers.
Before you start playing, you'll want to set the console's instruction manual aside and ignore it completely. Though it's nicely printed and formatted with those slick Atarian typefaces, it's also riddled with typos and errors. For one example, it wrongly specifies Centipede as a game for one or two players. What's worse, the manual's summaries for certain games (most notably, Adventure) lack essential instructions. Those who need these can find them in AtariAge's manuals archive.
All of the Flashback 2's ports of either arcade or cartridge games replicate their gameplay identically, for much better and a little worse. Caverns of Mars and Lunar Lander are still a bit jittery. The games are grouped into four category listings: Adventure Territory (6 games), Arcade Favorites (9 games), Skill and Action Zone (19 games) and Space Station (6 games). While separate, categorized listings for these titles is a good idea, this reviewer takes issue with the categories themselves, and how poorly they're defined. While Arcade Favorites is a good category for those who remember playing Pong, Asteroids and its successors, Centipede and Millipede and so on in their local arcade, Asteroids, Asteroids Deluxe,Space Duel and Lunar Lander could just as easily have been listed in Space Station, something that's easy to forget twenty-odd times before remembering which menu they're located in. "Skill and Action" is even more vague - most of these games require skill and are action-packed! Why is Pitfall! located therein and not in Adventure Territory with Adventure, Haunted House, their sequels and Wizard?
Chances are, everything you want will not be here. I honestly would have liked to play the 2600's Space Invaders, Defender, Berzerk and Empire Strikes Back again, but it just wasn't to be. However, what was included was more than satisfactory. My motivation to acquire this was to play Yars' Revenge, and it's presented here exactly as it was, to my endless delight. So are Missile Command, Outlaw and Space War, the souped-up 1978 port of the early 1962 classic, Spacewar! Words can't express how delightful it is to play identical ports of these old classics, especially on a huge scale with the aid of my projector and stereo! Other games that I remember less fondly are also included. 3D Tic-Tac-Toe is demanding and well-designed, but difficult to manipulate. Video Checkers and Video Chess are comparable - both offer a good game for either one or two players, but the latter's best game takes awhile to finish; at its most difficult level, it can deliberate for as long as ten hours for any given move. Chess is still an attractive game, mostly for its color design, whereas Checkers is as ugly as sin.
Their gameplay is faithfully recreated, but not all of the arcade ports look as they did in their cabinets. Lunar Lander, Asteroids and Battlezone were originally programmed to display vector graphics via a vector monitor. Unfortunately, the sprites that replaced those clean, sharp, bright figures in these raster ports are inelegantly unattractive in comparison. Battlezone suffers the worst in this transition, which dispenses with its stark green/red outline graphics, crescent moon and spitting volcano for a full-color daylight war zone that just can't compare. Nonetheless, both it and Asteroids still play as well as they ever did, and Lunar Lander just as poorly - its failure in arcades was the result of a good concept's poor execution. Even though these 2600 versions of Centipede and its even more frantic follow-up Millipede aren't quite as vibrantly colorful as their coin-op equivalents, they still offer the same hyperactive gameplay they always have - a real treat for those of us who spit excited expletives during the most exciting bug hunt twenty-five cents could buy. Arcade Pong is aptly named, almost identical to the 1972 megahit that heralded its entire industry. If you're at all familiar, you know what to expect from it. This version can be operated with one or two joysticks or paddles*, if you have them.
Quite of few of the Flashback 2's restored selections are games that I'm only peripherally familiar with. For one example, I'd only played Combat a few times before; now, I find it hard to pull myself away from it whilst my girlfriend and I hunt each other with our little tanks, bi-planes and jet fighters. For another, Hangman is a great game for parties, the sort of shrill, demanding puzzler that'll trigger screams like, "NO, NOT MEAT, IT'S HEAT!!!" from sloshed dinner guests. As I never had much of an opportunity to explore Adventure during my precious few immersions, it felt cozy to reprise my role as a valiant yellow square and traipse about in castles and labyrinths, hunting dragons and seeking out crudely rendered items. My memory that Human Cannonball was equally boring and unsightly was corroborated by two minutes spent playing it. Dodge 'Em provides some momentary fun - a head-on race for survival ensues against a suicidal, computer-controlled race car that must be dodged by swerving from one lane to another in maze-like concentric roadways. An entirely different take on the subject of racing can be found in Fatal Run, a very fun (albeit inferior) Out Run clone, and one of the very last games produced for the 2600. A pleasantly brief diversion scored by some toe-tapping music, it's odd that Fatal Run was only released in Europe, as its desert setting is clearly evocative of the American southwest. Equally substantial, Maze Craze is also an entertaining way to spend an hour or two; two tiny players race each other to the ends of increasingly complex mazes while placing obstacles in each others' paths and avoiding roving squares. Surely among the toughest and most colorful of the 2600 releases, Off The Wall is a Chinese-themed Breakout clone that sports speedy gameplay and surprisingly intricate graphics, even for an '89 release. Less notable is Radar Lock, another of so many good-looking but regrettably bland dogfight simulators that presents little challenge. For more simple enjoyment, Haunted House is a cute moldy oldie that deserves to be revisited. One trudges through the dark in the titular house, lighting matches to illuminate their way, collect shards of a broken urn and return them to the home's main entrance while avoiding ghosts, spiders and other horrors. Secret Quest is an equally fun adventure set in eight alien space stations where the player's lone astronaut murders extraterrestrial intruders to replenish his energy and oxygen while searching for each station's self-destruct mechanism.
Licensed for inclusion on this unit by Vivendi SA, both Pitfall! and River Raid serve to remind gamers that Activision created some of the most innovative, attractive and challenging games for this platform and many others only a few years following its inception. One of the first platform video games, Pitfall! is still almost ludicrously hard to navigate, though no less fun for it.
Six unreleased prototypes were included for play on the Flashback 2. Some of these are so good that it's astonishing they were never released commercially; others are embarrassing enough to make one wonder why they ever saw the light of day. Probably the worst of the lot, Wizard is like Berzerk if stripped of all its entertainment value - even by the standards of early 2600 games, this is offensively primitive and clunky. Playing a sorcerer of some sort, one lethargically travels through a maze and wages combat with magical creatures at a pace that would put your grandmother to sleep. Far more fun and much easier on the eyes, Aquaventure is a nerve-wracking underwater excursion in which sharp swimming fish can kill your diver immediately on impact unless you shoot them. They aren't easy targets. Slightly more complex than its famous predecessor, Combat 2 is equally enjoyable, eschewing aircraft altogether for exclusive tank combat (with cruise missiles!) in sub-tropical terrain. Undoubtedly, the finest of these prototypes - and one of the best Atari games I've played - is Frog Pond, in which one or two players direct cute, croaking amphibians to leap and gobble as many airborne bugs as possible. Noisy, colorful and addictive, Frog Pond is exactly what the 2600 (and arcades) needed more of in 1984. That Saboteur was never retailed is equally bewildering, especially considering the assiduous effort invested in its lively, vibrant, relatively sophisticated graphics. It's tremendously difficult - as some sort of cybernetic whatsit tasked with destroying warheads and the malevolent species that manufactures them, it's almost impossible to do so without getting killed. Save Mary is beyond tedious, another of too many tiresome procedural exercises in which an idiot has to be rescued and the player is forced to acknowledge that nobody accomplishes anything while playing video games.
Created from scratch by high school student Greg Christensen in 1981, Caverns Of Mars was the first and certainly one of the best titles published by the Atari Program Exchange - a vertical scrolling shooter in which your spelunking spacecraft shoots and dodges its way through the red planet's inner depths. Still tricky to maneuver, even the game's flickery picture doesn't detract from its gameplay. In another homebrew titled Atari Climber, one player directs a little man up the ladders of a building to retrieve a baseball while avoiding killer vertical lines. It's another of those very simple, outrageously addictive games that were so commonplace twenty-plus years ago. I can understand why Quadrun was first released exclusively as a mail-order purchase through Atari's fan club, as it's a very well-produced title that plays horribly. Featuring gorgeous, bright, scrolling hues and slightly underwhelming speech synthesis, it's nice to look at and evaluate as a technical landmark for the platform, but it's also only difficult because its gameplay is so stiflingly unintuitive.
In addition to Combat II, a few new sequels to fondly remembered classics are also exclusive to the Flashback 2. Both Adventure II and Return To Haunted House are decent reworkings of their predecessors' original code. For those who enjoy Adventure, its sequel couldn't be more fun: the player's brave square must find its way through an increasingly complex maze while suffering the pursuit of a much more aggressive dragon. Return is actually much better than the first Haunted House, but its learning curve is considerably steeper; it's also even darker than the original, so turn off your lights or close your curtains or blinds before playing it! Best of all, Yars' Return is a cunning Yars' Revenge sequel, in which two drones hunt the Yar scout and the configurations of both the Qotile's shield and the scout's safety zone are radically reordered to present a much more claustrophobic scenario, the advantages and disadvantages of which are sure to surprise Revenge veterans like myself.
*This console also contains a second Easter egg: two paddle games in addition to Pong. At the main menu, push the joystick up once, down nine times, up seven times and down twice (1972 = Pong's debut) to access a "Paddle Games" menu of two titles - Super Breakout and Warlords. A Quadrapong/Breakout hybrid, Warlords affords some decent play, but Super Breakout - the first and best of all the many official and third-party Breakout variants - is a treasure for 2600 devotees.
At a $40 retail price (it can be had for significantly less on Amazon), there's no excuse for an Atari fan not to have one or two of these. It's far more portable than any of the original 2600s ever were (never mind the trouble of carting those clunky cartridges around!) and its backward compatibility ensures a wealth of options for its few peripherals. For those who affectionately remember fights with siblings that were started or finished over one of these 4-bit masterworks, who shifted in a wicker-frame seat during dinner in anticipation of far-flung adventure on the CRT, who capriciously traded cartridges with friends and regretted it once or twice, trust me - this is for you. For those who chafe at the Flashback 2's most obvious limitation and point to their weathered collections of beloved cartridges, I've news for you: with a modicum of skill, any dedicated hobbyist can crack this thing open and modify it to access those old carts...
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About the reviewer
Robert Buchanan (rbuchanan)
I'm a bibliophile, ailurophile, inveterate aggregator, dedicated middlebrow and anastrophizing syntax addict. My personality type is that of superlative INTJ.