Flashback

by Eric Schwartz
from the AmiTech Gazette, November 2017

Welcome to another month. This year seems to be drawing to a close both too quickly and not nearly fast enough at the same time. It seems like one of those years of one step forward, two steps back, or if you’re a public figure—run around in a circle, fall over, catch fire, then bitch about how bad media treats you. I’m glad I’m not a public figure, though I do like to bitch about the world in small computer user group newsletters.

On the continuing saga of Vampire-Quest®, I have been able to contact Kipper about my ordered card, and it looks as though mine may have been overlooked (as in—someone in Germany named Schwartz had theirs shipped out, which caused an assumption that someone in the US named Schwartz was taken care of as well. With this error corrected, I’m hoping we can get back on track, and back to waiting for the right reasons, as opposed to the wrong ones.

As you’ve no doubt been aware over the last handful of articles I’ve written, I have been on a bit of a classic and retro-gaming kick lately. In fact I recently completed playing through the original DOOM game, thanks to a program called Odamex on MorphOS. Odamex is an ‘engine’ with an interface for playing DOOM files and related mods, either one player or over networks. Even playing the original game with its original graphics, it’s nice to see it running smoothly on a 1080P screen on my G5 Morph machine.

Finally, I thought I would mention a new bit of hardware I picked up. You might be familiar with the “Flashback” line of plug-and-play TV game systems, which covered retro consoles from Atari to Coleco to Sega and more. Last year I wrote about the then-new Atari Flashback Portable handheld device. AtGames has a new 2017 edition of the portable available (along with new versions of their standard consoles, including versions of their Atari and Sega systems that output an HD signal, if not actual HD game content).

The Atari Portable has a slightly updated case design, though functionally identical, save for the nice touch of making the rechargeable battery user-removable via a screwed-on rear panel in the newer version. The directional pad is different in shape and feel. I don’t know if I’d say it’s worse than the 2016 version, but it’s certainly not any better, as it was always pretty poor for me (seemingly made for a small child’s thumbs, as the end of my thumb can completely cover it). The 2017 Portable offers seventy built-in games to the earlier version’s sixty, adding some classic gems from Activision along with Atari versions of Namco-licensed arcade games like Pac-Man, Dig Dug, Galaxian, and more. It’s worth noting that the Pac-Man on the portable is not the heavily-panned 1981 Atari version, but a much more recent and arcade-like homebrew. Whether this was done for licensee appeasement or revisionist history is unknown. On that note, the version of Frogger which is not an Atari 2600 version, but an arcade port, remains.

Like last year’s model, the true standout here is the SD card slot, which lets you play your own downloaded Atari 2600 ROM files on the device. Compatibility and emulation quality is far from perfect, but seems a bit improved from the previous device, and makes it easy to have a large collection of Atari games on the go.

So at roughly $50 (less at some places), is the Atari Flashback Portable (2017 Edition) worth getting? If you don’t already have the 2016 version, I would say sure. While it does improve on last year’s model in several ways, it backsteps / sidesteps in one or two others, and it’s not much of a net gain if you were paying full price. Overall though, it’s a convenient method to play the majority of all Atari 2600 games in a handheld form factor, and one of the only ‘Flashbacks’ or other retro TV game systems that is of much worth (IMO you’re better off with emulation on your home computer or a Raspberry Pi than any of the machines that hook up to a TV). On the downside, the controls aren’t too great (especially if you have large adult thumbs) and the small LCD screen doesn’t always work too well with Atari games that flicker objects on the display (which is a lot of them), but if you like your Atari games, the mix of price, capabilities, and form factor is difficult to beat (unless maybe you have an unusually good setup for playing Atari games through your phone.) With all the classic (and not-so-classic) mini game consoles, as well as retro mini C-64 and Sinclair Spectrum either here or on the way, I wonder how long we have to wait until the plug-and-play Amiga mini 500 shows itself with its 50 packed-in games? (about ten of which are any good, I’d wager)