Saturday, December 2, 2017

Atari Flashback 2 - The Only Flashback Worth Anything




While browsing in one of my local thrift stores, I encountered an item I had been wanting for a long time, the Atari Flashback 2.  This mini-console with its built in games had interested me ever since it first game out.  Even though I already had a light-sixer 2600 and a Harmony Cartridge, I still wanted one of these.  The box was marked at $24.99, but the seal seemed to be still intact, so the purchase was a no-brainer for me.  In this blog post, let me describe the system, its capabilities and talk about its included games and its legacy.  This review may be 12 years too late, but I could not let this opportunity pass without comment.


The original Atari Flashback suffered from mixed reviews.  People liked the small size of the system and its price, but it did a poor job of recreating the games which it was designed to play.  It supported 15 Atari 2600 and 5 Atari 7800 games, but recreated them using a NES-on-a-Chip.  The NES has very different graphics and sound hardware compared to the Atari systems and the results were deemed to be pretty terrible.

Curt Vendel of Legacy Engineering/Syzygy Company designed the original Flashback but did not have enough time to implement a more faithful solution.  However, after the original Flashback sold well, Atari, Inc. gave him more time and money to build a more faithful solution.  Curt designed a system based on an Atari-on-a-Chip.  The original 2600 was driven by three chips, the 6507 CPU, the 6532 RIOT (RAM, I/O & Timer) and the Atari TIA (Television Interface Adapter).  Virtually all 2600s use the three-chip solution.  However, toward the end of the 2600's production, some 2600jrs came with a one-chip solution.  These boards are rare and the one-chip jrs have some minor incompatibility issues due to imperfectly replicated functionality on the embedded TIA in the one-chip.  Curt essentially recreated this one-chip and it is very, but not perfectly faithful to the three-chip 2600s.

The Flashback 2 comes in a cardboard box with screenshots of many of the games.  A full list of games cannot be found on the box, but there are enough images to identify most of the classics to be found here.  Opening up the box gives you a plastic tray and a plastic cover in which all the pieces of the system can be found.  Those are the console base with attached mono AV cable, the two joysticks, the manual and the power supply.  The console was designed to look like a miniature 2600 and is a huge improvement over the miniature but non-iconic 7800 look of the original Flashback.  Unlike some of the more recent Flashbacks, there is no rattling around of the box contents.  The manual is very light on instructions, but there is an official PDF manual that was available to download that gives full instructions for each game.  Atari's page for the Flashback 2 is long gone, but you can find the manual and other information here in this AtariAge thread :

http://atariage.com/forums/topic/79421-fb2-fb2-instructions-mod-links-faq-fb2-portable/

The control panel of the Flashback is not particularly aesthetically pleasing. The original 2600 panel had six switches Power, Color/B&W, Left Difficulty, Right Difficulty, Game Select and Game Reset.  Three switches were placed on the left of the cartridge port, three switches were placed on the right of the cartridge port. The 4-switcher and the Jrs relegated the difficulty switches to the rear, leaving two switches on either side.  The Flashback has five buttons on the panel, and while there is even spacing between the Power and Reset Buttons and the Right Difficulty and Select Buttons, the Left Difficulty button throws off the symmetry.  The offset Atari Fuji logo tries but does not solve the problem.  The Color/B&W switch would have been a better choice, but it is relegated to the rear of the unit.  Adding that button and a more judicious spacing of the buttons would have allowed the unit to have six buttons and the Fuji logo in the center.  Finally, given the placement of the Reset button, long-time users of the original models may have difficulty adjusting to its position near the power button.



It can be very difficult to determine the position of the difficulty switches.  The original difficulty switches were pushed up and down.  The up position corresponded to "a" and the bottom position corresponded to "b".  On the Flashback, you have to push the buttons in and out and there is no indication on the control panel whether the button as pushed in is position "a" or pushed out is position "a".  In addition, unless you are familiar with the travel depth of the buttons, it is difficult to determine whether the button is pushed in or out.

The included joysticks have a solid feel to them.  The Fuji logo on them easily distinguishes them from vintage joysticks.  These sticks are less likely to have suffered from the heavy use that plagues older Atari CX-40 joysticks if found used.  The controller ports on the Flashback 2 are designed for the plugs on these sticks, which have slightly thinner holes than vintage Atari or Sega controllers.  Vintage Atari and Sega Master System and Genesis controllers do work in the Flashback 2 but you need to have their plugs positioned just right or they will lose contact with the pins.  The same thing goes for the Atari Paddles.

Compared to the CX-40, the Flashback sticks may feel a bit different.  The old CX-40s used a piece of thin flexible metal foil over the contact area to make the connection for the directional or button.  These sticks are pushing rubber carbon pads onto a PCB with open contact areas like a gamepad.  They do not really have any tactile feel, whereas the CX-40s tended to have a bump where you have activated the switch.  The top of the stick has its dashes painted orange, but I do not know how durable the paint is.

The console uses composite video output, which is a huge step up in quality over the RF-only original units.  The Atari 2600 generates composite color and luma signals inside its TIA and mixes them together outside the chip.  The audio comes from two pins on the TIA and the console was originally intended to support stereo sound, but that was dropped in late development.  While the original 2600 is capable of S-Video and stereo audio, the Flashback 2's composite video and mono audio are good enough for the $30 price point for which Atari was releasing this console.

The dimensions of the Flashback 2 are significantly smaller than any cartridge-slot based 2600 or compatible.  The manual gives the dimensions at 4.5" long by 2" wide and 3" high.  The console weighs about 11.3oz.  There is a fair amount of empty space inside its shell.  However, before anyone gets too inquisitive, two screws are protected by labels designed to prevent people from opening their console and avoiding their warranties.  But if you open it up, you will find 24 test points clearly marked for connection to a cartridge connector.  Get a connector, a soldering iron and some ribbon cable and you can run Atari 2600 cartridges off this thing!  Dremeling a hole and finding a way to fix the cartridge slot in place is another issue :)  Most games and the Harmony Cartridge will run on a modded Flashback 2.

The best aspect of this Flashback 2 is that it contains an Atari-on-a-Chip.  By some miracle, this could still be done in 2005.  Curt Vendel was a longtime Atari 2600 enthusiast and headed a small team that made a 2600 in an ASIC.  Atari contracted with Vendel rather than an enginnering firm that knew nothing about the 2600.  No FPGA, no emulation and no Taiwanese clones.  Curiously enough, Jeri Ellsworth designed a C64 ASIC around the same time as the Flashback 2.  The C64 is much more complex than the 2600.   Her acclaimed design wound up in a plug-n-play joystick called the C64 DTV.  And you could mod that one too!

Unfortunately, those days of cheap but highly accurate and modable ASIC recreations are gone.  Today you have choices between cheap boxes and plug-in-plays offering ARM-based emulation or expensive boutique consoles that can run cartridges of FPGAs.  The former includes every Flashback after the 2+.  Atgames used an ARM-based emulator to reduce cost.  While quality emulation is available on the PC in the form of the Stella emulator, the proprietary emulator Atgames uses is not nearly as accurate as the Stella emulator or the ASIC used in the Flashback 2.

The menu is simple yet functional.  Games are broken down into four categories that are available when the console is powered on : Adventure Territory, Arcade Favorites, Space Station and Skill and Action Zone.  There is a fifth category for Paddle Games, but in order to access it, you must input a special sequence of directional presses using the joystick.  The sequence is Up 1, Down 9, Up 7, Down 2.  This gives 1972, the year Atari was founded.  Each category has a graphic and when the joystick fire button is pressed, the games in that category are listed in text.  You can scroll up or down to access the titles and you can return to the main menu after you get to the end of the list to select a game from another category.  You can't wrap around the game list (going from A to Z), which is slightly annoying.  Another annoying feature is that the Menu is not displayed using TIA graphic capabilities.  A final nuisance is that you must turn the power button on and off to return to the menu to select another game.  All-in-all, the menu system is simple and intuitive to use.

Let's get to the built-in games.  The Flashback 2 has 42 built-in games.  Two of those games were licensed from Activision and two of those games require paddles, but they cannot be accessed unless you use a code to access a hidden menu.  Let's start with the game list :

Game Name Release Type Controller Category # of Players Size
3D Tic Tac Toe Commercial Joystick Skill and Action Zone 1-2s 2
Combat Commercial Joystick Skill and Action Zone 2s 2
Human Cannonball Commercial Joystick Skill and Action Zone 1-2a 2
Outlaw Commercial Joystick Skill and Action Zone 1-2s 2
Space War Commercial Joystick Space Station 1-2s 2
Wizard Prototype Joystick Adventure Territory 1-2s 2
Adventure Commercial Joystick Adventure Territory 1 4
Arcade Pong Homebrew Joystick/Paddle Arcade Favorites 1-2s 4
Atari Climber Homebrew Joystick Skill and Action Zone 1 4
Dodge'm Commercial Joystick Skill and Action Zone 1-2s 4
Hang Man Commercial Joystick Skill and Action Zone 1-2s 4
Haunted House Commercial Joystick Adventure Territory 1 4
Maze Craze Commercial Joystick Skill and Action Zone 1-2s 4
Missile Command Commercial Joystick Arcade Favorites 1-2a 4
Pitfall! Commercial Joystick Skill and Action Zone 1 4
Return to Haunted House Hack (of Adventure and Haunted House) Joystick Adventure Territory 1 4
River Raid Commercial Joystick Skill and Action Zone 1-2a 4
Super Breakout Commercial Paddle Paddle Games 1-4s 4
Video Checkers Commercial Joystick Skill and Action Zone 1-2s 4
Video Chess Commercial Joystick Skill and Action Zone 1-2s 4
Warlords Commercial Paddle Paddle Games 1-2a 4
Yar's Revenge Commercial Joystick Space Station 1-2a 4
Adventure II Hack (of Adventure) Joystick Adventure Territory 1 8
Aquaventure Prototype Joystick Skill and Action Zone 1 8
Arcade Asteroids Commercial/Hack Joystick Arcade Favorites 1-2a/s 8
Battlezone Commercial Joystick Arcade Favorites 1 8
Centipede Commercial Joystick Arcade Favorites 1 8
Combat 2 Prototype Joystick Skill and Action Zone 2s 8
Frog Pond Prototype Joystick Skill and Action Zone 1-2 8
Quadrun Commercial Joystick Space Station 1 8
Saboteur Prototype Joystick Space Station 1 8
Yar's Return Hack (of Yar’s Revenge) Joystick Space Station 1-2a 8S
Asteroids Deluxe Hack (of Asteroids) Joystick Arcade Favorites 1-2 16
Caverns of Mars Homebrew Joystick Space Station 1 16
Lunar Lander Homebrew Joystick Arcade Favorites 1 16S
Millipede Commercial Joystick Arcade Favorites 1 16S
Off the Wall Commercial Joystick Skill and Action Zone 1-2s 16S
Radar Lock Commercial Joystick Skill and Action Zone 1-2s 16S
Save Mary Prototype Joystick Skill and Action Zone 1 16S
Secret Quest Commercial Joystick Adventure Territory 1 16S
Space Duel Hack (of Asteroids) Joystick Arcade Favorites 1-2a/s 16
Fatal Run Commercial/Prototype Joystick Skill and Action Zone 1 32S

Of these games, 26 are truly re-releases of games previously released on cartridges during the 2600's lifespan.  Fatal Run was never released in NTSC territories, so whether to call it a commercial release or a prototype is a matter of debate.  It was released in cartridge format in PAL countries, but I do not believe the Atari Flashback 2 was released in PAL countries.  Arcade Asteroids is just regular Asteroids without filled-in asteroids, so it it straddles the line between the true commercial release and the hack we have here.  So if you count them both, then you have 28 commercial releases.



Of those commercial releases, the Atari Flashback does have some bona-fide classics.  Adventure, Haunted House, Pitfall, River Raid and Yar's Revenge are some of my favorite games for the system and are bona fide original classics. Secret Quest appeared too late in the 2600's life to be recognized as a true classic, but it is a great original title with password saves.  I also like Millipede, Missile Command and Super Breakout.  Millipede eclipses Centipede and I always felt that Battlezone looks better than it plays.  Combat can be fun with two players but Warlords requires four.  

As far as the other commercial games go, most of the pre-Adventure games are just too simple to command anyone's attention for long.  Who wants to play 2600 Chess or Checkers?  Hangman isn't that much fun with only six letters.  3D Tic-Tac-Toe is gimmicky (but isn't it weird that the Flashback 2 contains three of the four 2600 games known to have been developed by Carol Shaw?).  Maze Craze, Dodge'm, Human Cannonball and Space War don't have enough going for them.  



Quadrun was only sold through mail-order back in the day and is insanely rare today.  It is another game that looks and sounds far better than it plays.  Fortunately the voice samples played correctly on my unit, it is incorrect on early Flashback 2s.  The game is strange, but the gameplay of firing and recovering your shots is not very rewarding.  Off the Wall is probably the only attempt to make an Arkanoid-style game on the 2600 during its lifetime, but it has a fatal flaw, no paddle support!  Radar Lock is essentially the Atari's recreation of After Burner, but its engine is shared with Solaris, which is another unsung classic.  Whenever I play Radar Lock, I am just reminded of the far superior game.  

Unfortunately there were certain Atari 2600 games developed by Atari that could not be put on the console.  The Pac-Man games, Berzerk, E.T., Defender, Stargate, Joust, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Space Invaders would have required licenses from other companies.  In 2010 Atari re-released the Flashback 2 as the 2+ and eliminated the Activision titles and the homebrew in favor of Circus Atari and a bunch of sports games no one wanted to play.  It does have the final revision of the Atari-on-a-Chip, making it the most compatible Atari-on-a-Chip ASIC ever made.


As far as the homebrew games go, most of them are not worth much.  Caverns of Mars is a flickery mess.  It plays like River Raid in reverse but does not have the level design or the graphics of that game.  Arcade Pong can use paddles and has AI, but it is extremely limited compared to Video Sports/Pong.  Yar's Return tries to reimagine Yar's Revenge as Star Castle, but the cramped quarters and constant flicker make it no fun to play.  Lunar Lander also flickers non-stop and since you spend most of your time staring at the screen while waiting for your module to move, its headache inducing.  Atari Climber is a comparative blessing because it lacks substantial amounts of flicker and seems to be a decent game.  I can't say too much about the Hacks either, I would have preferred more unique titles.  Return to Haunted House is really a hack of Adventure with Haunted House graphics used in its place.  It feels like Adventure, not Haunted House (and though the games are similar, there are differences in how they look, play and feel).  

The prototypes are hit and miss.  Fatal Run is like Battlezone in that it is a very good looking game but the gameplay is not quite up to the level as some of the more well-regarded titles.  Frog Pond is too simple a game, it was made for small children.  Saboteur is pretty decent, but you have to read the manual to figure it out.  Wizard is a frustrating experience.  Save Mary is good concept, it just needed another week in development because the game is really arbitrary about where you can place the crates needed to Save Mary.  Combat 2 does not advance the Combat formula sufficiently and requires two players.  Aquaventure is another good game and is very easy to pick up and play.

In conclusion, the Atari Flashback 2 was, despite certain nitpicks, an incredible purchase for 2005.  $30 bought you a lot of quality entertainment.  Its attention to detail, its good selection of games and its hackability brought it some lasting fame.  The games look, sound and play right.  It sold well, 860,000 units of the pre 2+ units were made and the console lasted far longer than its predecessor or any of its successors.  Unfortunately, it was the high-water mark of Atari's interest in real retro hardware.  After that, the successors were released by one of the bottom-feeders of the retro gaming companies, atgames.  Despite the success of the Flashback and some software distributed by Atari in the 21st century, the current iteration of post-bankruptcy Atari is seeking to crowdfund an emulation box, the Ataribox, to a very skeptical press and gaming public.  

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

This seems unfair, or at the very least, unsupported.

>After that, the successors were released by one of the bottom-feeders of the retro gaming companies, atgames.

Why dump on the follow-on Flashback units just for being emulation rather than SOCs?

Great Hierophant said...

For two reasons. 1st, because the 2600 emulation is second rate in terms of graphics/sound fidelity. 2nd, software emulation comes with all the negatives associated with emulation, namely latency. To be fair, I have just as much contempt for companies like Hyperkin which put out terrible NOAC-based consoles like the RetroN 1 (HD).

Tom said...

I'm with the author on this one; selling hardware means having the opportunity to offer reproductions at a high fidelity. Even using software emulation wouldn't necessarily hinder that if the hardware were designed for the task: imagine something like the 7800's drawing process where a single line is buffered then output. But software emulation on a generic ARM board is unavoidably about cost over precision.

Jonathan said...

Congratulations on finding a Flashback 2 at a thrift shop! I finally found one last year (complete, but not in box) after more than a decade of searching.

I especially appreciate your comments on the homebrew games.

Donnie Russell II said...

I picked up two FB 2s (one as a gift) years ago after reading on AtariAge about how it was engineered and the cartridge slot mod. You really need a CRT TV to go with it, which kind of makes an emulator acceptable if you don't have one.