ATari Flashback Portable review
Video Game Reviews
Out of curiosity more than anything, although maybe with a slight tinge of hope, I recently picked up an ATGames "Atari" Flashback Portable.
I was given a Flashback 2 about ten years ago as a gift from a couple of friends who knew I was into Atari. I plugged it in once, played through some of the exclusive games on it (most of which were terrible), and stuck it on a shelf in the closet, where it's been ever since (although I have used the joystick that came with it, since it's pretty good). The only thing I could think of to actually use the Flashback for would be to hack a cartridge port into it, and use it as a slightly smaller, less-compatible 2600 with composite video out. But I never bothered.
Since then, umpteen revisions of the Flashback have come out, and I haven't been inclined to pick any of them up.
But I'm not really part of their target demographic.
I have a working real 2600 (several, actually), a 7800, all of my original carts, and a Harmony cart. And despite all of that, I do most of my 2600 gaming in Stella anyway. And as of the Flashback 3, even if you wanted to, you could no longer hack a cartridge slot into them, so you were just stuck with whatever games were included.
Flashbacks aren't really for those of us who are already into the 2600, and own cartridges and consoles. That is, unless you're a completist and have to buy one of everything that has "Atari" stamped on it, or are curious to see how close (or far off) the emulation is, or can find some other use for the case.
The Flashback is designed for people who fondly remember the 2600 from when they had one as a kid, had gotten rid of it long ago, and sees this in the store and thinks "Hey - that'd be fun for my kids." So for the cost of a couple of pizzas, they throw it in their shopping cart, take it home, plug it in, are amused with it for a little while, then after it's gathered enough dust, it goes into the closet.
So keep that in mind when thinking of the Flashback Portable. Because it was designed for the same market.
But, with two key differences.
First, of course, it's portable. It has a built-in LCD screen, so no TV is required. This means parents don't have to bother with hooking it up to their TVs. They can just give it to their kids as soon as they get it home, and the kids can play with it anywhere. It's simple. There are no controllers to connect, no AC adapter to plug in. No extra parts to lose or break, except a USB cable for charging, which you can get anywhere. Sure - the kids would rather have an iPad, or an iPhone, or a Nintendo DS, but this is much cheaper. Besides the price, there are no extra games to buy and no worries about data charges or in-app-purchases. With a 20% off coupon, I was out the door of Bed Bath and Beyond with one for just under $35 including tax.
And when I say this is portable, it's really portable. Much more so than I was expecting. It's noticeably smaller (and lighter) than my PSP, and much smaller than my Lynx.
In fact, it weighs exactly as much as my iPhone 5 (with case), and isn't a whole lot bigger (although the Flashback's screen is certainly smaller).
The second key difference, is that in addition to the 60 built-in games, the Flashback Portable also has an SD card slot.
This means you can load up more Atari 2600 games on it. A lot more. The menu is limited to 103 pages of games, with 10 games per page. So unless you have a pretty extreme ROM collection, you probably aren't going to run out of room. To sort mine better, I batch renamed my ROMs with a manufacturer prefix. ACT = Activision, for example.
There are a few quirks with using an SD card to be aware of which you can read about here. And if you're on a Mac, there are a couple of other things you should know about to get the SD card to work well. It's going to be non-obvious for the typical buyer to get this to work, so this was definitely something added for Atari enthusiasts. Or more likely, Sega enthusiasts. Which we'll get to shortly.
Capacity aside, it's probably a good idea to pare down your ROM collection for the Flashback Portable anyway, since you can't set up subdirectories to organize your ROMs, and after a few dozen pages worth of games it becomes tedious to page through them.
That, and a bunch of your games probably aren't going to work anyway.
Of the games tested (as of this writing), 512 work fine, 72 have issues, and 124 are completely unplayable. Not all games have been tested yet, but it's hit-or-miss as to what works. Almost nothing from Tigervision works, yet Parker Bros. is a mixed bag. Activision fares better, but quite a few of their games have annoying (but not fatal) graphical problems. A lot homebrews do work, but there are still quite a few that have issues or just don't work at all (typically odd bankswitching schemes or DPC+ games). And you can forget about getting any SuperCharger games to work. If playing your favorite games is critical to you, it's best to check the compatibility list before buying.
Even for some games that otherwise work - you may not be able to actually play them. With only a d-pad, the Flashback Portable is effectively useless for games that need paddles (or a keypad).
That brings up the odd button layout of the Flashback Portable. While they managed to squeeze in all of the original console switches (and even added pause), the layout isn't exactly intuitive, and unfortunately isn't ambidextrous. This latter point is really a shame, since you only need one fire button for 2600 games and they could have easily made the existing layout ambidextrous by just swapping the S and A buttons and flipping the d-pad and display around in software (presumably). Also, as mentioned, there's no paddle control - even though there appears to be plenty of room in the unit to add a small potentiometer (to save space, it could have been recessed into the side of the unit). But the lack of the paddle control as well as the overall layout was dictated by AtGames wanting to build this as cheaply as possible, so they used the same molds for this and their Sega Genesis Portable (which requires the six-button layout and has no use for paddles). Given that the Sega unit was likely to be a bigger seller, it made sense for ATGames to put their resources behind that, rather than making something more specific to the Atari. Consequently, the Atari controls are a bit compromised.
That said, I've found the d-pad to be pretty good, and the fire button is nicely responsive. Playing Joust, for example, is no problem. Note however, some people have reported issues with the d-pad registering directions, or the fire button feeling stiff, both of which are likely attributable to the inconsistent (read: cheap) build quality. In other words, save your receipt.
The screen looks very nice - surprisingly so. Crisp and bright, although the viewing angle isn't great, as certain colors will appear different to each eye, making the display appear to flicker, even when it isn't. But it's still much better than what originally came on the Lynx or Nintendo GBA-SP, showing how far LCD technology has come - especially for the price. But here again, build quality seems to be a letdown, with at least one report of a dead pixel (and at this resolution, these are pretty big pixels), and some reports of the screen being installed crooked or off-center. Again - save your receipt. Don't be afraid to take it back for an exchange if the unit has noticeable issues. These were built to be disposable, so consider yourself lucky if you get a keeper the first time out.
Speaking of disposable, the battery isn't replaceable. At some point, someone will figure out how to hack a new battery into it, but it's certainly not designed to be user-replaceable.
While I haven't played mine to the point of failure yet, the manual claims that after a full charge you can expect 4-6 hours of battery life. That's not bad, but the charging time is really long. The manual states that the first charge will take about 11 hours (I left mine in overnight, and it was still going the next morning), and subsequent full charges will take about 7 hours. There is no charger included - just a USB cable that you can plug into a computer or standard USB charger to recharge the battery (the charger for my iPhone worked fine). I don't know if the unit will run directly off of a charger once the battery is shot, but having to plug it in while playing would sort of defeat the purpose of a portable anyway.
Audio emulation is acceptable - it still sounds like a 2600, but it can be noticeably off on some games. Also, the speaker emits an annoying buzz, but it isn't bad if you don't have the volume up too loud. The unit has a headphone jack, and an A/V output jack if you want to hook it up to a TV (cable not included, of course). I haven't tried the TV output, so I can't speak to its quality. But I didn't buy this to hook up to a TV. If I were to use it like that, I'd want to be able to plug proper controllers into it as well, and that's not an option.
One of my biggest disappointments with the Flashback Portable though, are the built-in games. For a lot of it, ATGames is scraping the bottom of a pretty empty barrel:
- Adventure II
- Air Raiders
- Atari Climber (aka Climber 5)
- Black Jack
- Circus Atari
- Crystal Castles
- Dark Cavern
- Demons to Diamonds
- Desert Falcon
- Double Dunk
- Fatal Run
- Frog Pond
- Frogs and Flies
- Fun with Numbers
- Haunted House
- Human Cannonball
- Miniature Golf
- Miss It!
- Missile Command
- Night Driver
- Pong (Video Olympics)
- Radar Lock
- Realsports® Basketball
- Return to Haunted House
- Save Mary
- Secret Quest
- Shield Shifter
- Slot Machine
- Space Attack
- Star Strike
- Stellar Track
- Strip Off
- Submarine Commander
- Super Breakout
- Swordquest: Earthworld
- Swordquest: Fireworld
- Swordquest: Waterworld
- Video Checkers
- Video Chess
- Video Pinball
- Yars Return
- Yars Revenge
Arguably, one of the best games on here (and one featured prominently on the box) is Frogger - but it's not even the 2600 version. It's a custom port - closer to the arcade game - designed to run natively on the Flashback Portable's hardware. Presumably, Konami didn't want the original Parker Bros. version to represent their brand anymore. (And yes, I know about the music issue. But it would have been relatively simple to just hack that out of the 2600 version). And while it's a nice version of Frogger (and the one game the sales clerk mentioned when I bought it) I would have rather seen them put their efforts into using the SuperCharger version. The version on the Flashback Portable has absolutely nothing to do with the Atari 2600 in any way, shape or form, so at best it seems disingenuous to me. But hey... they've gotta put something on the box to sell these. It's sure not going to be Wizard and unfortunately, it's not going to be Space Invaders either. While originally slated for the Portable (again, as another remake) it was pulled before the final units went into production.
You won't find most of Atari's best arcade ports on here either: Battlezone, Berzerk, Dig Dug, Galaxian, Joust, Jungle Hunt, Moon Patrol, Ms. Pac-Man, Phoenix, Stargate, Vanguard... or any arcade ports produced by any other companies. Or any classic Activision games. Or Imagic games. Or... well, you get the point.
There's so much missing here, it's hard not to be disappointed that at least some of it wasn't included. Yes - it costs money. But it could have made this unit so much better out of the box.
That's why the SD card slot is this unit's saving grace. While not all of those games work, at least you can load up some of them. That makes this worth having. Without the SD slot, I never would have bought it based on the included games.
So while that's fine for myself or other Atari enthusiasts, I just wish the built-in game selection was better for those casual buyers who will never, ever, load up extra games on it.
However, for the rest of us, because of its price, its size, and the fact you can load games onto it, the Flashback Portable is worth a look, despite its other shortcomings. If they could have just made the emulation a little bit better, it would be an unqualified "must-buy". As it is, it's a pretty fun, cheap, portable way to play some 2600 games. And until this came along, that was not an easy thing to come by.
In the end, I think Dave Dries summed it up best, "for the price, it's a really cool toy". If you think of it that way, and what you're getting for the money, it's a pretty amazing little piece of gear. If you want it to be a fully compatible, portable replacement for a real 2600, you're going to be disappointed. Check the compatibility list first - and use that as your guide for whether or not you'll get your money's worth.
For me, the lack of paddle support is fairly minor, and I wouldn't expect game compatibility to extend to homebrews using DPC+ or esoteric bankswitching schemes, but I would have hoped for better vintage game compatibility. I think the Flashback Portable is about 70% of the way there. So I'll give it a 7/10.