Retro Game Guy

It's the 1980's again!


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For the love of the Atari 2600…

2015 has been a crazy busy year for me, so I haven’t had much time to keep up with this blog.  It looks like things are going to slow down a little, so I hope I can post at least every couple of weeks.

When I decided to get back into gaming, I studied which system to buy and decided on the Atari 7800.  It was backwards compatible with the 2600 and 7800 games had near arcade quality graphics.   There was also a small, but active development community ensuring a steady supply of new games to come.

When I attended to Portland Retro Game Expo a couple of years ago, I was expecting to see all kinds of 7800 games, controllers, and systems.  To my surprise, there were hardly any, except for the AtariAge booth.  The dominant game system of the show was the NES, but the Atari 2600 was a close second

I didn’t really think about it at the time, but I have many times since.  Why was the 2600 the most popular Atari 8-bit game system?  The 5200 was short lived, had a small game library (constantly expanding now as 8-bit computer titles are converted), and controllers that broke easily.  The 7800 had a poor controller, but a 2600 controller could be used to play games that only require a single button and it really does have great graphics (for an 8-bit system).   I could see why 5200 wasn’t the top Atari system, but why the 2600?

Sheer numbers…

Over 30 million Atari 2600 game systems were sold from 1977 to 1992 and over 500 games have been developed for the 2600.  Let’s face it, anyone that grew up in the 80’s either had an Atari 2600 or knew someone who did.  So many classic games have been ported to the 2600 such as Berzerk, Missile Command, Space Invaders as well as original games like Kaboom, Pitfall, and Yars Revenge.  Combined with a still active homebrew community that cranks out several new games each year, the 2600 has continued to thrive.

New developments…

New circuit boards for carts and tools for development such as emulators and todays laptops and PC’s have allowed developers to do things that were not possible in the 80’s.  One of the 2600’s most recent releases ‘Space Rocks’ uses the ARM CPU on the ‘Melody Board’ to run code written in C.  The Atari CPU is used to ‘paint the screen’.  This has allowed for near arcade quality (80’s) games to be developed for the 2600.

Simplicity…

The other thing that the 2600 has going for it is simplicity.  2600 controllers only have one button and the unit only has six switches.  Most games are intuitive and can be played without even consulting the manual.  At the same time, there are some fairly complicated games like Solaris that can keep you playing for hours!

With all of this, it is no wonder that the 2600 remains the most popular Atari game system…

@Atarigameguy


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Hardware Happenings…

2014 is the 30th anniversary of the Atari 7800’s release and there are some amazing things happening…

AtariAge member CPUWIZ has been busy developing new cartridge boards for 7800 games. He has developed a board that can hold up to 1MB of memory, which will allow for some amazing new games to be developed.  He has also teamed up with RevEng (another AtariAge member) to develop some cool multi-carts for the 7800’s.  One of these has a new bankswitching scheme to allow 8 128K games to live on the same cart.  He has also gotten the green light from Bob ‘PacManPlus’ DeCrescenzo to develop a limited edition multi-cart with 8 of Bob’s 7800 ‘homebrew’ games on it.

Curt Vendel has been working on the Atari 7800 expansion module for over three years and hopes to release it soon.  This expansion module contains both Pokey and Yamaha audio chips, expanded memory, and high score keeping.  At the Portland Retro Game Expo last October, AtariAge had one of Curt’s prototype units in operation showing off the unit’s capabilities.  It was amazing to hear the difference that Pokey sound made for Donkey Kong!

Fred ‘Batari’ Qimby has also been hard at work on a new SD multi-cart for the 7800.  Previously known as the H2, Fred’s new cart will now be called the Concerto cart and he hopes to have it ready by the Portland Retro Game Expo this fall.  Fred hopes to be able to have the Concerto be able to host and play any 2600 or 7800 game on an Atari 7800.

With all of these new hardware developments, 2014 may shape up to be the best ever for the Atari 7800.  Amazing for a 30 year old system!

Flashback Fever…

ATGames will be releasing the Atari Flashback 5 in October.  Hardware wise, it is expected to be similar to the Flashback 4 with wireless controllers.  This time around, it will have 100 games built in.  The final game list has not yet be released, but let’s hope it now also includes games like Berzerk, Defender, and Midnight Magic!

ATGames has also announced that they will produce both an Intellivison and ColecoVison Flashback unit.  Both of these units with feature 60 built in games and overlays for the controllers, but the game list has not yet been released.  It is probably not likely, due to Nintendo’s licensing practices, but the ColecoVison Flashback with Donkey Kong built in would be killer!

As soon as more is know about the details of these Flashback units, I will be sure to post an update!

@Atarigameguy


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The Atari 5200…

I wrote about Atari 8-bit game systems back in February…today, I will expand a little on the 5200…

Released by Atari in 1982, the 5200 was intended to compete with the Intelivision system, but also ended up being Atari’s answer to the Colecovision.  Atari had attempted to develop a system to replace the 2600, called the 3200 (based on a 10-Bit CPU).  This system was difficult to program and was cancelled.  Needing a solution in a hurry, Atari took the design of the their 400/800 computers and made that the base of the 5200.  The 5200 has unique controllers with a keypad and analog, non self-centering, joysticks.  These controllers are notorious for failing and contributed to the limited success of the 5200.  The other limiting factor was that it was not backwards compatible with the 2600.  Eventually an adapter was released, but it did not work with early versions of the 5200.  This is too bad as the 5200 is actually a pretty awesome game machine and has arcade quality graphics and sound.

The 5200 is powered by 6502 8-bit CPU running at 1.79 Mhz.  It has 16 KB of ram and 2 KB of rom and can accept cartridges up to 32 KB without bankswitching.  The 5200 also includes a Pokey chip that allows for 4 channel sound.  Two different models of the 5200 were released.  The early models had 4 joystick ports and a ‘high tech’ RF switch box.  Later models had two joystick ports and a standard RF switch box.  A few games (such as Pitfall) only work with the 4 port version and the 2600 adapter only works with 2 port versions and a few late release 4 port units.  A total of about 1 million 5200′s were sold between 1982 and 1984, when the system was discontinued.

The 5200 was not a commercial success for Atari and is typically rated low against other home consoles.  Atari certainly made some marketing blunders, such as making Super Breakout the pack in game for the system (later, they would change it to Pac-man), and by not making it backward compatible with 2600 games.  The controllers and their failure rate were also a major issue.  The engineers at Atari developed better, self centering controllers and separate paddle controllers, but these never made it out the door before the system was cancelled.  The amazing 5200 track-ball controller did, however, make it into production as well as the 2600 adapter.

In order to review 5200 games for this blog, I purchased a 4 port 5200, a couple of Best Electronics second generation rebuilt controllers, and a trackball.  In the past few months, I have really come to enjoy my 5200!  Back in the 80’s, the knock on the 5200 was that the games were just the same old arcade ports such as Dig Dug, Galaxian, and Kangaroo.  Today, these arcade ports are the strength of the 5200’s library.  The 5200 controllers are still analog and non self-centering, but the issues with excessive failures have been mostly solved with upgrades from the folks at Best Electronics.  The 5200 track ball is relatively easy to find and typically sells for under $40.  Several awesome arcade ports such as Missile Command, Centipede, and Space Invaders are coded to take advantage of the trackball controller.  The difference in playing these games with the joystick versus the trackball is significant.

Centipede for the 5200

Centipede for the 5200

Although there have been a few great homebrew games developed for the 5200, there are not nearly as many as for the 2600 or 7800.  the ones that have been released such as Adventure II, Tempest, and Castle Crisis are all really amazing additions to the 5200 library.  Also, many complete or nearly complete prototypes that have been released such as Millipede, Jr. Pac-man, and Xevious  fill out holes in the 5200’s library.  Finally, many 8-bit games such as Caverns of Mars, Donkey Kong, and Demon Attack have been converted to run on the 5200.  The 5200’s official library was only 69 games, but homebrews, prototypes, and conversions, take the 5200’s library to over 200 games today!

It is a shame that Atari cancelled the 5200, after only two years on the market, and it is almost criminal that they held back several completed games.  It is also too bad the the updated, self centering controllers never made it into production.  However, if you really like 80’s arcade classics, playing games like Centipede (with the 5200 trackball) is about as close as you are going to get without finding a real arcade machine.  The Atari 5200 is a pretty awesome game system and, if you have previously discounted it, you should give it a second look!

@Atarigameguy


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8-Bit Atari Game Systems…

Since 1977, Atari has released a total of five 8-Bit game systems.  In this post, I will provide a description and a little information about each one…

Atari 2600 (VCS):

Released in the fall of 1977, the Atari 2600 was originally known as the Video Computer System and became the 2600 after the 5200 was released.  It was also sold by Sears as the ‘Sears Video Arcade’.  In the first year of production, the systems were actually made in Sunnyvale and had six switches and heavy, internal, RF shielding.  These units are known as ‘heavy sixers’ and are highly sought after by Atari collectors.  Over the years, many different versions of the 2600 were released.  In 1985, the final version called the Atari 2600 Jr was released.  This version was smaller and less expensive to produce and looked like a small 7800.  The final Atari 2600 was produced in late 1991.

The 2600 was powered by a custom 6507 8-bit CPU running at 1.19 Mhz.  It only had 128 bytes of ram and 4 KB of rom.  Until bankswitching schemes were developed, game cartridges were limited to 4 KB.  Ultimately, some late released games had as much as 32 KB.  Over 500 games were developed for the 2600 and hobbyists continue to develop new ‘homebrew’ games for the system.

Atari 5200:

Released by Atari in 1982, the 5200 was intended to compete with the Intelivision system, but also ended up being Atari’s answer to the Colecovision.  Atari had attempted to develop a system to replace the 2600, called the 3200 (based on a 10-Bit CPU).  This system was difficult to program and was cancelled.  Needing a solution in a hurry, Atari took the design of the their 400/800 computers and made that the base of the 5200.  The 5200 has unique controllers with a keypad and analog, non self centering, joysticks.  These controllers are notorious for failing and contributed to the limited success of the 5200.  The other limiting factor was that it was not backwards compatible with the 2600.  Eventually an adapter was released, but it did not work with early versions of the 5200.  This is too bad as the 5200 is actually a pretty awesome game machine and has arcade quality graphics and sound.

The 5200 is powered by 6502 8-bit CPU running at 1.79 Mhz.  It has 16 KB of ram and 2 KB of rom and can accept cartridges up to 32 KB without bankswitching.  The 5200 also includes a Pokey chip that allows for 4 channel sound.  Two different models of the 5200 were released.  The early models had 4 joystick ports and a ‘high tech’ RF switch box.  Later models had two joystick ports and a standard RF switch box.  A few games (such as Pitfall) only work with the 4 port version and the 2600 adapter only works with 2 port versions and a few late release 4 port units.  A total of about 1 million 5200’s were sold between 1982 and 1984, when the system was discontinued.

A total of 69 games were officially released for the 5200, but many other games have been ported over from the 8-bit computer line.  Additionally, many other games were developed, but not released.  Over the years, the roms of many of these games have been located and released to the public.  Homebrew development has continued as well for the 5200, but not at the level of the 2600.  One notable game, Tempest, was just released this month.

Atari 7800:

The Atari 7800 was released in 1984, shelved, then released again in 1986.  This was due to Atari’s sale to Jack Tremiel and contract issues between Warner and General Computer Corporation (GCC) (the 7800 was actually developed by GCC for Warner).

The 7800 was powered by a 6502 8-bit CPU running at 1.79 Mhz.  It is directly backwards compatible with the 2600 and runs at 1.19 Mhz when in ‘2600 mode’.   The 7800 has 4 KB of ram and 4 KB of rom and can accept cartridges as big as 48 KB without bankswitching.     It was designed as an ‘home arcade system’ and has arcade quality graphics and can manipulate a significant number of sprites without flicker.  The 7800 has two joystick ports (backwards compatible with 2600 joysticks and paddles) and shipped with ‘Pro-line’ digital joysticks with two fire buttons.  Many 7800 games only use one fire button and can be played with 2600 joysticks.  The biggest limitation of the 7800 is that it does not include a Pokey chip and only has two channel sound.  Provisions were made to include Pokey chips in game cartridges, but only two games include a Pokey (Commando and Ballblazer).

Less than 100 games were developed for the 7800, but it had the added advantage of being able to directly play almost all 2600 games.  Like the 2600, there is active homebrew development for the 7800 and more than twenty additional games have been released for the 7800 in the past few years.  About 4 million 7800’s were sold making it a moderately popular game system.

Atari XE Game System:

Released by Atari in 1987, this was essentially a repackaged 65XE computer.  The XE Game System shipped with three games (Missile Command, Flight Simulator, and Bug Hunt), a joystick, a light gun, and a detachable keyboard.  It could use most Atari computer peripherals and was able to play most all of the games developed for the Atari computer line.

A tremendous number of games were developed for the Atari computer line, so the XE Game System can play a huge number of game titles.  Since it includes a keyboard, it can also play more sophisticated games like flight simulator.

The XE Game System had limited commercial success and was cancelled in early 1992.

Atari Flashback 2:

In 2005, Atari released the Flashback 2.  Designed by Curt Vendel, the FB 2 contains a ‘2600 on a chip’.  It includes 42 built in games and it is possible to add a cartridge slot to the unit.  Between the 2 and 2+ (released in 2009), the FB2 has sold nearly 1 million units.  More detail on the FB2 can be found in my January 8th post.


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Atari Flashback 2, a review…

The Atari Flashback 2 is the system that Curt had in mind when he approached Atari about the Flashback concept.  In 2004, not enough time was available for development, so Curt went with the ‘NES on a chip’ design for the Flashback 1.  When he was done with the Flashback 1, he returned to development of what is now known as the Flashback 2.

With plenty of time for development, Curt designed a custom chip to produce an ‘Atari 2600 on a chip’.  Curt also included provisions on the motherboard for adding a cartridge slot.  A modified Flashback 2 can play most games designed for the 2600.  Taking a page from the Atari playbook, the name for the FB 2 project was ‘Michelle’ for Curt’s wife.  Her name is printed on the FB 2 motherboards.

The Flashback 2 looks like a small Atari 2600 and has two joysticks that are compatible with the original 2600 and, also, supports the use of original Atari paddle controllers.

Forty two games are included on the FB 2:

Arcade Favorites:  Arcade Asteroids, Arcade Pong, Asteroids Deluxe, Battlezone, Centipede, Lunar Lander, Millipede, Missile Command, and Space Dual.

Adventure Territory:  Adventure, Adventure II, Haunted House, Return to Haunted House, Secret Quest Wizard

Space Station:  Caverns of Mars, Quadrun, Saboteur, Space War, Yars’ Return, Yars’ Revenge

Skill and Action:  3D Tic-Tac-Toe, Aquaventure, Atari Climber, Combat, Combat 2, Dodge ‘Em, Fatal Run, Frog Pond, Hangman, Human Cannonball, Maze Craze, Off the Wall, Outlaw, Pitfall!, Radar Lock, River Raid, Save Mary, Video Checkers, and Video Chess

Paddle Games:  Super Breakout and Warlords (hidden from the main menu)

The hidden paddle games can be reached by pushing the joystick as follows:  up 1 time, down 9 times, up 7 times, down 2 times (for 1972, the year Atari released Pong)

There are a few cool things about the Atari FB 2:

  • since it is a ‘2600 on a chip’, the games work just like they did on the original hardware
  • supports the use of original Atari joysticks and paddle controllers
  • a cartridge port can be added (takes electronic knowledge)
  • includes hacks and homebrews (Asteroids, Atari Climber, and Return to Haunted House)
  • includes some exclusive games (Asteroids Deluxe, Lunar Lander, and Yars’ Return)
  • includes some previously unreleased games (Combat 2, Frog Pond, and Save Mary)
  • includes two Activision games (Pitfall and River Raid)

There also a couple of things to be aware of:

  • If you add a cartridge port, it does not support all 2600 games (due to some missing bankswitching and opcode capabilities)
  • the joystck ports are on the back of the unit, similar to the original 2600
  • It does not work with all TV’s

The FB 2 is an amazing console.  Although the last production run was in 2009 (with the Flashback 2+), they are still relatively easy to find second hand.  I paid about $20 for my FB 2, but consider it a bargain if you can find one for under $30.  With 42 games and a set of compatible joysticks, it is really a steal.  The only thing to be aware of is that it doesn’t work well with some ‘modern’ TV’s.  It worked great on my non HD TV, but some games did not display correctly on my Vizio HD TV.

At this point I have tested and written about all four Flashback units.  If you are looking for some Atari retro game fun, you can really not go wrong with either the FB 2, 3, or 4.  Due to it’s excellent emulation, 75 games, HD TV compatibility, and wireless controllers, I give a slight edge to the FB 4.  If you want to play games as Atari originally intended, then I highly recommend the FB 2!


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Atari Flashback 1, a review…

It may seem kind of silly to review a system from 2004 that is no longer being produced, but I think it is worthwhile as a base of comparison to the newer units.

I was able to purchase my Flashback 1 for less than $10 and it came complete with the base unit, power supply, two controllers, box, and a manual.  Having only seen pictures of these until this unit arrived, I was surprised at how small it is.  The Flashback 1 looks like a miniature Atari 7800 and is about half the size of the subsequent Flashback units.

The Flashback concept was developed by Curt Vendel of Syzygy (formally Legacy Engineering).  Atari agreed to produce the unit, but wanted to have it ready for the 2004 holiday season.  This only gave Curt about ten weeks to design the unit and he went with a design that is based on a ‘NES on a chip’.  Since the system is based on a NES chip, all games had to be ‘ported’ and a mixture of 2600 and 7800 games are included:

2600:  Adventure, Air-Sea Battle, Battlezone, Breakout, Canyon Bomber, Crystal Castles, Gravitar, Haunted House, Millipede, Saboteur, Skydiver, Solaris, Sprintmaster, Warlords, and Yars’ Revenge

7800:  Asteroids, Centipede, Desert Falcon, Food Fight, and Planet Smashers

At first I thought it would be cool to see how the five 7800 games translated, but I was soon disappointed.  Centipede isn’t too bad but Asteroids didn’t make the transition well at all.  Also, I find the 7800 game selection puzzling…Asteroids, Centipede, and Food Fight are popular titles, but Desert Falcon and Planet Smashers are less well known.  In fact, Planet Smashers is one of the rarer 7800 titles and, also, one of the poorest rated.  Given the quality of the 7800 ports, I am not sure that it would have mattered, but Dig Dug, Ms. Pac-man, or Pole Position II would have been better choices.

I am happy to say that the 2600 ports are much better.  Of course, more effort has been put in over the years to port and emulate the 2600, so I guess that this should have been expected.  The exception is Battlezone…this port is horrible and hardly worth playing.  Millipede, on the other hand, is a blast to play on the Flashback.  Also, the Flashback 1 introduced the concept of releasing prototype games and included the previously unreleased Saboteur.

Breakout and Warlords had to be modified to use the Flashback joysticks and I wasn’t expecting much.  These were a pleasant surprise and are very playable.

It should be noted that the Flashback 1 joysticks are not usable with standard Atari (or other Flashback units) as they are wired differently.

Given that we know that the Flashback 1 was a ‘rushed’ effort, I guess it would be a cliche to say that it seems half polished.  Unless you are an Atari collector and need to have one of these, I would recommend skipping the Flashback 1 in favor of a Flashback 2, 2+, or the newer Flashback 4.

The Flashback 1 is an important piece of Atari history in that it marked the return of Atari to the console market.  It also sold well enough to convince Atari to proceed with the Flashback 2.  As I will discuss in a future post, the Flashback 2 is the system that Curt really wanted to build in the first place.

Speaking of Curt, he is going to have a significant surgery this week and I want to wish him the best of luck and a speedy recovery!

Atari Flashback 1

Atari Flashback 1


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An Atari Flashback 3 or 4?

I have written a couple of posts about this year’s Atari Flashback 4, but some retailers still have Flashback 3’s for sale.  I have had a few questions about the differences between these models and which one is better.  So…let’s take a look…

Atari Flashback 3…

I purchased my Flashback 3 (FB 3) at a local retailer last year and, as of today, they still have these for sale for under $30.  The FB 3 comes with 60 built in games and two wired joysticks.  These joysticks have a softer feel than the original Atari CX-40’s, but have become my favorite for playing ‘one button’ games on my 7800.  In fact, the main reason that I purchased a FB 3 was to get a set of these joysticks.

As for the game selection on the FB 3, there are several classic games, including:  Asteroids, Battlezone, Centipede, Circus Atari, Gravitar, Missile Command, Video Pinball, and Yar’s Revenge.  It also includes several ‘prototype’ games not originally released by Atari:  Combat 2, Frog Pond, Saboteur, and Save Mary.

Wild for the FB 3!

Wild for the FB 3!

Atari Flashback 4…

I paid $40 for my Flashback 4 (FB4) the first week that it was available.  These were on sale for under $30 just before the holidays at a couple of stores in my area.  They are still available at several on-line merchants for between $40-50.

The FB 4 includes 75 games versus 60 on the FB 3.  The additional games are:  Black Jack, Breakout, Crystal Castles, Football, Front Line, Jungle Hunt, Polaris, Pong (Video Olympics), Return to Haunted House, Slot Machine, Slot Racers, Stellar Track, Street Racer, Space Invaders (special FB 4 edition, not 2600 version), Tempest, and Warlords.  I am not sure why, but one game that was included on the FB3, but not on the FB  4 was Secret Quest.

The addition of Front Line, Jungle Hunt, Pong, Space Invaders, and Warlords  justify the purchase of the FB 4 instead of the FB 3, but there are also a few other reasons to consider the FB 4. First, the FB 4 has wireless joysticks.  Although they are IR based, they work well and it is really nice to be able to sit across the room and be able to reset or change games.  The second reason to consider the FB4 is the ability to use paddle controllers.  Have you ever tried to play Super Breakout or Warlords with a joystick?  Third, the emulation is improved versus the FB 3.  It wasn’t too bad on the FB 3, but the emulation is ‘pretty darn good’ on the FB 4.

Wild for the FB 4!

Wild for the FB 4!

Recommendations…

Given the fifteen additional games, the ability to use paddles, and the wireless controllers, I would give the FB 4 a solid recommendation over the FB 3.  If you need some replacement joysticks for your classic Atari 2600 or 7800 and can find one for under $30, the FB 3 is still a great buy.

There is also a ‘Deluxe Edition’ of the FB 4 available for around $80.  For the extra $40, you get a set of paddle controllers and four additional posters.  If you can find one of these on sale for under $60, I would say that it would be worth the extra $$$ to get a set of paddles.

If you enjoy classic Atari 2600 games, both systems represent excellent value.  With that being said, the FB 4 gets my recommendation as a better system and a better value.