Even though they’ve been out for quite a while, the other day I suddenly and inexplicably had the overwhelming urge to acquire an Atari Flashback Portable. Normally retailing for around 50 bucks, I did a little bargain shopping and found one on clearance for only $28. I figured I couldn’t go wrong at that price, so I made it my own.
I am really glad I did. I love this thing.
There’ve been mixed reviews on ATGames’ Atari Flashback units, but there’s no denying that they’re a convenient way to play classic Atari 2600 games on modern TVs. I’ve never felt the need to own an Atari Flashback however, since I own several original 2600s and hundreds of games. The one thing that was appealing to me about them was that their built-in library often included some unreleased games, homebrews, and hacks. But since the Portable is, well, portable, I thought it would be a fun little unit to have on the go, so I figured it might be cool to grab one.
The unit itself looks identical to ATGames’ Sega Genesis portable (which I have not played), with a d-pad and six action buttons. Why would you need six buttons for Atari games that only use one? One is of course the ubiquitous FIRE button, and the other five are assigned to the VCS’s console functions, such as Select, A/B difficulty switches, BW/Color, and the last one is used to Pause, which was never an original 2600 feature but is quite convenient here. There are two function buttons near the top of the unit that are used as Reset (to start your game) and a Menu button to call up the main game list.
The 60 games that the AFP comes with are a range of classic, well-known titles such as Adventure, Yars’ Revenge, Centipede, and the like. Almost all of them are Atari first-party titles, with some M Network (Mattel) games included as well. No Activision or other third-party titles are included here, but I’m gonna talk about why that’s not an issue in a minute. Also featured are a number of homebrews and hacks, such as Yars’ Return, Shield Shifter, Adventure II, and Return to Haunted House. Most of them are pretty cool, as the hackers in the Atari homebrew scene have been refining their craft for a couple decades now, and are continuing to push the ol’ VCS in ways never thought possible.
As I mentioned, the most interesting of the built-in games are some of the rarities and unreleased titles. All three existing SwordQuest games are here, and while EarthWorld and FireWorld are super common, it’s great that the much harder-to-find WaterWorld is also present. Atari’s unreleased Saboteur, Aquaventure, and Save Mary are playable as well. Another couple of titles worth mentioning are Stellar Track and Submarine Commander, which are two of three fairly rare first-party Atari games that were exclusively available at Sears for their Video Arcade-branded 2600 unit.
The one real oddball is Frogger, which is actually neither the Parker Brothers 2600 version nor the superior Starpath version — it’s a more arcade-accurate version made exclusively for the Flashback. Weird, but a nice game of Frogger never hurt anyone.
And while all that is great, there are two features about the Flashback Portable that really sold it to me.
One is the ability to connect the unit to a TV. While the small screen is actually very nice quality and looks great, I love the ability to play some of these rare games and homebrews on a TV screen, the way they should be. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come packaged with an A/V cable to do this with — there’s just a 3.5mm jack on top of the console labeled “A/V.” You’re gonna need to buy a 3.5mm/composite video cable, which can be a little tricky to come by as they are mostly used for camcorders. I had one laying around which I had ordered from Amazon a while back for another piece of equipment, so I was good to go.
The output quality is good — your average composite hookup, but there are no issues.
The second feature of the AFP which makes it a real Pandora’s Box is the inclusion of the SD card slot on top of the unit.
By loading up the card with ROMs, you now have access to the ENTIRE ATARI 2600 LIBRARY on this one small unit, ready to take with you or hook up to your TV. It is for this reason that the limited list of 60 included games doesn’t matter — you can play all the games you want from Activision, Imagic, Data Age, or any other publisher (even Froggo and Mythicon, if you’re a masochist). Again, this is great for playing rarities, so you can Chase the Chuckwagon or hold your own Atlantis II contest without paying through the nose for originals.
It’s recommended to use a smaller-capacity SD card, as the ones that are available these days (32GB, 128GB, etc.) are ridiculous overkill for a console whose entire library of hundreds of games fits in a few MB. I happened to have an old unused 4GB card sitting around (which is still WAY more than necessary), so I was golden.
There’s a great FAQ on the AtariAge forums for setting up and using your AFP here — it should be your first destination as soon as you bring yours home, as it’s a one-stop shop for all the best questions and answers. It links to the best SD card formatting software, and also to a .zip file containing all the official games and homebrews in the correct file formats and names, some of them having been patched to run correctly on the AFP.
It’s worth noting that not all games run properly on the Flashback Portable — some are a bit wonky, and I noticed that Pitfall II is not even included in the .zip file that includes everything else, so that one might be a no-go.
But all in all, the Atari Flashback Portable 2016 is a great piece of kit and I highly recommend it to explore the world of the 2600 for 50 bucks or less.
One last thing — you’ll notice that I’m referring to it as the AFP 2016. That’s because as of this writing (September 2017), they’ve just released the latest model of the AFP, which contains a revised list of 70 games and does include Pitfall! and more Activision titles. The design is somewhat modified and it retains the SD card slot, so I imagine if you can’t find the 2016 model for cheap, the 2017 version will do ya just as well. Happy old-school console gaming!