Atari Retro Handheld Review

Things that have aged well: The Jaguar E-Type, malt whiskeys, Anthea Turner.

Things that have NOT aged well: The UK’s post-apocalyptic road surfaces, casual racism, many, many Atari 2600 games.

Now you might be considering me a blasphemous fool if you worship the altar of Atari. You might even consider me an unqualified fool who “wasn’t there” when I drop a further bombshell and remind you that I was born in 1990 and so don’t have any first-hand experience of 2600 (or VCS) gaming to fall back on. Thing is though, despite starting my gaming journey with Sega’s Mega Drive, I’m not the sort of gamer to instantly dismiss older stuff from the 70’s/80’s based on it’s age. After all, without the flashy graphics and sophisticated technology that came later, games from this era had to rely on raw gameplay and that crack-like “just one more go” pull to get arcade goers to part with their coins and – subsequently – their folding paper money for home versions.

In short, I have big respect for the past and am always prepared to give something a go which is why I have been playing on this ‘Retro Handheld Console’ by Blaze featuring fifty Atari games. The problem is that the box craftily refers to the built-in titles as simply “Atari games” which might lead you into expecting the presence of some arcade classics. These are 2600 games though and without the benefit of rose-tinted vision, I struggled to muster up the enthusiasm to play many of these for an extended period of time. 2600 conversions were undoubtedly a big deal back in the day and the height of what a gamer could reasonably expect given the host hardware but in 2019, I have to say that most of what is on this handheld device is simply no fun to spend time with.

I will return to my gripes with the games in a moment. First though, I want to have a quick look at the device itself.

Atari1

I really like the design. The faux wood effect and grooved black plastic are a nice throwback to the 1977 original and if the Atari logo was to be removed, there would still be no doubt as to what this is. It’s such an iconic and nostalgic look. Furthermore, the red buttons are immediately reminiscent of the single red button featured on the famous 2600 joystick. Happily, the build quality on this thing does actually feel quite solid. It’s sturdy and the buttons don’t feel too cheap. The handheld takes four AAA batteries and comes with a standard headphone jack as well as an AV-Out port on the top edge.

My only criticisms of the hardware itself is the small screen (initially difficult to adjust to after years of huge, high quality smartphone and handheld console displays) and the fact that the sound isn’t that beefy through the headphones even with the volume wheel spun up to the max. I wanna hear those awesome Atari explosions damn it!

On the whole though, I was impressed with the overall finish and sturdiness of the handheld. As many retro gamers will be aware, a lot of these devices are hit-and-miss when it comes to construction quality and Blaze themselves have put their name to some poor efforts in the past. Not so here though – it’s a firm thumbs-up from me. I just wish that some kind of instructions came in the box because as it is, you are directed to an online site for the manual. The console doesn’t have built-in instructions for the games so some are pretty much impossible to fathom out without directions.

Let’s get back to those pesky games though and the first big issue: the lack of any third-party games. There’s none of Activision’s enduring classics present on the device for example and things get worse when you realise that a great many other essential games (third AND first party) don’t feature. Games such as Ms Pacman, Berzerk, Kaboom, Battlezone, Defender II and Jungle Hunt would have made this device a nice little pick-up-and-play distraction for example. Instead, the list of games is padded out with filler crap such as Fun With Numbers, 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, Video Checkers and a collection of hopelessly antiquated sports titles…the usual stuff that has been wasting space on Atari Flashback devices for years.

FwN-1
Isn’t it about time that this ‘game’ stopped appearing on Atari compilations and retro gadgets?

There are a few redundant and unenjoyable ports such as Tempest and also some extremely abstract role-playing games like Adventure and the Swordquest series – games that were fun back when you had no choice but to use your imagination while moving simplistic squares about but not so much in 2019. If you were there when these games were new however then you might be able to extract some nostalgia-fuelled enjoyment from them. Additionally, there are several games on the handheld that make no sense in the single-player environment such as Air-Sea Battle (ignore the second gun and play with yourself) and Pong. Playing Pong alone against the computer is a bleak experience that could well send you down a nihilistic route in life.

So are there any games worth buying the device for? Obviously there is an element of personal taste involved (as with anything in the field of entertainment) but these are the games – based on previous experience as well as with this device – that I will definitely be giving more attention to:

  • Asteroids
  • Gravitar
  • Crystal Castles
  • Millipede
  • Missile Command
  • Off The Wall
  • Radar Lock
  • Yar’s Revenge

Eight games out of fifty isn’t what I would consider a strong strike ratio however. Granted, I have eliminated the rest based on the fact that I personally have no nostalgia for the games or because I genuinely believe that they are creaky and no fun to play. If you grew up with the 2600/VCS then I would implore you to check out the full game list because this handheld may well speak to you a little more than it did to me. For younger gamers or Atari virgins however, I can’t recommend this product.

missilecommand2600-1
Missile Command is a classic that plays well for a 2600 conversion but this device needed more games of this quality to qualify as an essential purchase.

You want to be playing the arcade versions of games like Tempest and seeing what the 2600 was really capable of by digging into the Activision support, not playing Pong by your lonesome or something like Video Chess. The problem is that far stronger compilations of games have been released across various consoles over the last fifteen years or so. Emulation is also a thing as is Activision Hits Remixed for the PSP.

I wanted to like this because the device itself is pretty cool and surprisingly well put together but it could have been so much better. If you can find one dirt cheap or you receive it as a gift (like I did) then sure but otherwise, it’s just another underwhelming retro device that doesn’t stand out for any reason.

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