Atari Flashback 7 Review: A retrogaming curate’s egg

The Atari Flashback 7 provides plenty of retro gaming experiences with more than 100 games on offer, but not everything here is as excellent as it might seem.

I’m a bit of a sucker for retrogaming kit. You may have noticed if you’ve been paying any attention at all. The Flashback 7 isn’t exactly a new bit of kit, having hit the US market late last year, but it’s just hit Australian shores, and on my travels on the wekeend, I spotted one on a store shelf.

Honestly, I did debate picking it up. $99 isn’t chump change, but it’s also not a prohibitive price for a properly licensed bit of kit that promises 101 Atari 2600 classics* to play.

Keep note of that asterisk. It’s going to be important.

Equally, though, I have a somewhat mixed relationship with all things Atari. I didn’t have a 2600 growing up. I was of the right era, but my exposure to Atari’s wildly successful console was almost entirely either in stores that had them set up, or a few friends who happened to have one, and, typically, around three games. I do own an Atari 2600 now (technically my wife’s) as well as a 7800 that I quite literally found by the side of the road.

No, really, I did. Wrote it up over here and everything. Wow. That was nearly a decade ago.

So I don’t quite have the nostalgic attachment to the world of Atari, but at the same time I’m a keen advocate for the idea that there’s more to games than flashy polygons or rock star soundtracks. You can make a very good, very playable game with only the most simple visual elements, as anyone who has ever played Tetris could tell you. The week having been a rough one, and feeling as though I could use some retail therapy, I indulged myself.

The Flashback 7 is so named because, unlike Nintendo and its rare-as-rocking-horse-effluent NES Classic Mini there have been Atari Flashback consoles (and variants) being produced for quite some time now.

The current mob that produces the Flashback consoles, AtGames, has been at it since 2011 with the Flashback 3. Each iteration has (more or less) simply added more available games, although the lineup has changed slightly over time. Annoyingly, there’s no Pitfall! on the Flashback 7; it was last seen on the Flashback 2. Still, 101 games ain’t bad, right?

From a strict design perspective, the Flashback 7, like its predecessors has a cute, small design that’s reminiscent of the classic Atari 2600 shape, but not quite right.

I’ve no idea if this is a dodge to get around paying the original designers, or some kind of other cost cutting measure, but if you’re going to sell nostalgia, I would rather they went the whole hog as Nintendo did with the NES Classic Mini and make it look as close to the original as feasible. It’s a small complaint, though, because this is still small, cute, and undeniably retro.

The Flashback 7 is the Clayton's Atari 2600. And if you get that reference, congratulations. You're old enough to remember the Atari 2600 when it was new.
The Flashback 7 is the Clayton’s Atari 2600. And if you get that reference, congratulations. You’re old enough to remember the Atari 2600 when it was new.

Unlike the NES Mini, you get two controllers, and to make matters even better, they’re wireless, charged by two AAA batteries (not included) each.

The use of wireless controllers is one part genius, one part problem. The NES Mini was criticised, quite rightly, for its ridiculously short controller cables. Basically, if you were lucky enough to buy one, picking up extension cables is more or less mandatory unless you live in a shoe box and are thus stuck nose to screen to your TV. You can’t reset to the games menu with the standard controllers, although some third party variants allow for this.

Instead, the Flashback 7 offers wireless controllers. If you’ve used a PS4 of late, you might think they would be Bluetooth. Maybe Wi-Fi enabled, or perhaps RF. You’d be wrong on every count, because instead they use good old-fashioned infrared. Although “good” might not be the best way to describe it, because it’s solidly line-of-sight-enabled infrared. As such, if you tilt the joystick the wrong way, or someone stands in front of the beam, you simply stop moving, or die, or fail, depending on the game you happen to be playing.

The Flashback 7 will take wired Atari 2600 controllers if you’ve got them, or paddles. There are some games where paddles aren’t mandatory, but they would make a huge diference, because they were originally written with paddle control in mind.

You can’t select a B&W mode on the Flashback 7, although I guess you could emulate it by turning down the colour controls on your actual telly. You mad impetuous thing, you.

Also worth noting is that the Flashback 7 uses a standard composite video output, rather than HDMI. Chances are if you’re buying the Flashback 7 standalone, your TV’s composite inputs may have a little dust in them, but they’re otherwise unoccupied. That does mean that picture inputs may not be as crisp as you might like, and you can’t easily plug it into a standard computer monitor either.

This was a cutting edge connector roughly around the same time that this song was a hit.
This was a cutting edge connector roughly around the same time that this song was a hit.

Enough about the hardware, which is functional, and a mile ahead of some of the terrible knockoff systems I’ve reviewed in the past.

See also:
RS-8 Game Player Review

Digital Dragon System GB-150 Review

What about the games, I hear you ask? It’s true that the Flashback 7 does contain 101 games. Here’s the full list of titles automatically installed on the system:

  • 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe
  • Adventure
  • Adventure II
  • Air Raiders
  • Air·Sea Battle
  • Aquaventure
  • Armor Ambush
  • Asteroids
  • Astroblast
  • Atari Climber
  • Backgammon
  • Basketball
  • Black Jack
  • Bowling
  • Breakout
  • Canyon Bomber
  • Centipede
  • Championship Soccer
  • Chase It!
  • Circus Atari
  • Combat
  • Combat Two
  • Crystal Castles
  • Dark Cavern
  • Demons to Diamonds
  • Desert Falcon
  • Dodge’Em
  • Double Dunk
  • Escape It!
  • Fatal Run
  • Flag Capture
  • Football
  • Frog Pond
  • Frogger
  • Frogs and Flies
  • Front Line
  • Fun with Numbers
  • Golf
  • Gravitar
  • Hangman
  • Haunted House
  • Home Run
  • Human Cannonball
  • Indy 500
  • International Soccer
  • Jungle Hunt
  • Maze Craze
  • Millipede
  • Miniature Golf
  • Miss It!
  • Missile Command
  • Motorodeo
  • Night Driver
  • Off The Wall
  • Outlaw
  • Polaris
  • Pong (Video Olympics)
  • Radar Lock
  • Realsports Baseball
  • Realsports Basketball
  • Realsports Soccer
  • Realsports Volleyball
  • Return to Haunted House
  • Saboteur
  • Save Mary
  • Sea Battle
  • Secret Quest
  • Shield Shifter
  • Sky Diver
  • Slot Machine
  • Slot Racers
  • Solaris
  • Space Attack
  • Space Invaders
  • Space War
  • Sprintmaster
  • Star Ship
  • Star Strike
  • Steeplechase
  • Stellar Track
  • Street Racer
  • Strip Off
  • Submarine Commander
  • Super Baseball
  • Super Breakout
  • Super Challenge
  • Baseball
  • Super Challenge
  • Football
  • Super Football
  • Surround
  • Sword Fight
  • Swordquest: Earthworld
  • Swordquest: Fireworld
  • Swordquest: Waterworld
  • Tempest
  • Video Checkers
  • Video Chess
  • Video Pinball
  • Warlords
  • Wizard
  • Yars’ Return
  • Yars’ Revenge

That Yars. Still angry after all these years. Did anyone ever think to send Yars to therapy?

That little IR port on the front of the Flashback 7 controller is very important.
That little IR port on the front of the Flashback 7 controller is very important.

Now, as I’ve noted already, there are some notably missing titles from the Atari 2600’s heyday not present. Nothing from the Activision catalog, which means no Pitfall, Kaboom!, River Raid or H.E.R.O to play with. But there are some real classics here regardless, right?

Well… sort of. Remember that asterisk relating to the number of “2600” games earlier?

There are a selection of games here that are effectively remakes of the 2600 ports of the arcade classics, so that for Space Invaders, for example, you don’t get the full crazy 112 variations of the Atari original. Yes, it does look a little nicer than the original, but if you’re going to tease my nostalgia buttons, then accuracy does matter.

See also:
Retro Games Challenge Week Four: Space Invaders (2600)

The same is true for Frogger as well; I would have to admit that my retro knowledge of the more obscure 2600 titles might have missed an upgrade tweak here or there for other titles. Flashback 7 also includes some much more modern indie 2600 titles (yes, they’re a thing) and they’re also somewhat mixed in their appeal, although there are some genuinely fun experiences to be had here.

I’ve long argued that it’s a good thing to understand the full history of video gaming, even if you only intend to play modern titles, and that means experiencing classic gaming. The 2600 is very primitive gaming by modern standards, and that means that much of what constituted gaming was still being determined. You can really feel the rough exploratory edges in some of these games, for better and often for worse.

I found I couldn’t help but build around the visual limitations of the games as I was playing them. So while they were visually crude, my own creativity filled in the gaps, and suddenly I had that vital emotional connection with what were, honestly, just crude rectangles of colour.

"Whaddya mean 'Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right A B A B'? What's a B button?"
“Whaddya mean ‘Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right A B A B’? What’s a B button?”

Also, Cannonball is one of the inadvertently funniest things I’ve ever done while gaming. It’s like a proto-Angry Birds with the added benefit of characters who say OUCH when you fire them the wrong way.

I doubt that too many people were hanging out for Fun With Numbers or 2600 Blackjack, though, and many of the more RPG-esque adventure titles are all but indiscernible without going online and finding the proper manuals. All you get with the Flashback 7 is a brief summary of each game, so that for example, Adventure is summed up as follows:

“The object of Adventure is to rescue the “Enchanted Chalice” and return it to the “Golden Castle” without getting eaten by evil dragons.”

Where do I start with that? Can you rescue a chalice if it’s not a sentient object? What am I doing, and why am I a block? Why do the dragons look like mildly pissed-off ducks?

Relax, dear reader. I do know the answers to these questions (except the duck bit), but many wouldn’t. It leaves some games as historical oddities, rather than something you’ll return to over time. If your objective in picking up a Flashback 7 was to enjoy all 101 games, I’m not really sure that’s all that possible any more, because some of them really haven’t dated all that well.

Yes, there are those who say that this is heresy, but if so, let it be so. Fun is subjective, and maybe you have fluffy memories of playing some of these games in your youth, or find the allure of 2600 Hangman impossible to resist for some reason. If so, more power to you, but for most, they fit more into the category of historical oddity than must-play title.

That being said, there are some nuggets of gold here. I would have preferred the original version of Frogger (apparently unavailable due to music rights issues), but the version here is very playable and fun. Ditto Space Invaders, Crystal Castles, Missile Command, Millipede, Cannonball, Combat and a slew of others.

Because they date from the classic arcade era, scores are very much the point most of the time, which means they also do rather agree with my recent thoughts on high scores.

See also:
NES Mini, Donkey Kong and the value of high scores

Your tastes as to the “good” and “bad” games may vary, and naturally you could go full satire on the whole shebang after a few beers and try your hand at any given games. The competitive sports titles haven’t aged well, but that can make for some outrageously funny moments as you play simplified takes on basketball, soccer or American Football, screaming at your blocky players as you try to outscore your similarly hampered opponent.

Overall, the Flashback 7 is fun, but flawed in some important ways.

So is the Flashback 7 a miss or a hit? In a way, it’s a bit of a curate’s egg, in that there are some extremely playable games on it, some games that are historically relevant but will genuinely only appeal to folks who adored them at the time, and some games that genuinely were part of the whole videogame crash period because they were ordinary at best. Every console generation has titles like these, and the 2600 was just the first of them, so time isn’t kind to them.

Will I get enough value out of it? Yeah, I’m happy enough with my purchase, although I own the key games already, simply because, like the NES Classic Mini, they’re a convenient way to play these titles and a great gateway to get others playing them because changing over games is so quick and problem free.

If you’re pondering getting Little Jimmy one of these rather than that PS4 thing you’ve heard of, however, as much as it pains me, the PS4 might just be the better buy.

Again with the retro heresy. I’d better get my coat.

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