Atari Flashback Classics: Know Your Roots

Atari may be a shadow of a shadow of a shadow of its former self considering the number of hands the brand has passed through since the ’90s… but it’s fair to say that it still has a hold of my heart.

The Atari 2600 was just slightly before my time — I grew up with the Atari 8-bit home computers before moving on to the ST — but I’ve always been interested in and respected the deep roots video gaming laid down in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Consequently, I’ve jumped on board with most Atari 2600 compilations that have been available for platforms over the years… and had a great time with them.

The latest to appear is Atari Flashback Classics for Nintendo Switch. Boasting 150 games that were originally distributed across three separate releases for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it certainly seems to offer astounding value for money on paper. But how is it in execution?

Let me preface this by saying that I’m not going to go into great detail about individual games in this article — instead, I’ve recently launched a new video series called Atari A to Z Flashback, which you can watch here on MoeGamer, on the dedicated Atari A to Z site, or over on YouTube. New episodes in that series will appear each Saturday and will explore the complete collection a game at a time, beginning with the arcade titles before moving on to the console games.

No, instead today we’re going to talk about the package as a whole, and whether or not it’s a worthwhile investment for the modern Switch owner. My kneejerk answer as someone who is very interested in and concerned with game preservation is, naturally, “yes, of course it is, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it in the first place” — but not everyone is me, and thus there are some things we need to consider along the way.

Let’s start with a bit of history, since it’s actually quite an interesting tale.

Atari Flashback Classics, like most of the last few collections along these lines, was developed by an outfit called Code Mystics. Code Mystics’ founder was Jeff Vavasour, a man who has been enthusiastic and passionate about computers and emulation since his first TRS-80 in 1977. Over the years, Vavasour has developed emulators for a variety of platforms, beginning with a TRS-80 emulator for PC.

“Why emulate a computer when you owned it?” asks Vavasour in his comprehensive article about his coding history. “For the fun and challenge of it. Plus, if it worked there’d be no digging out and setting up clunky equipment in my small university residence. Three computers could live happily inside one notebook.”

Vavasour’s solid results with his emulators attracted the attention of Digital Eclipse, who in the early ’90s were a Mac-focused productivity software company just starting to investigate gaming. And they had ended up marking a significant moment in gaming history in the process: they were the developers of some of the first commercially available video game emulators, released for Mac in 1994 and able to play Joust, Defender and Robotron. This was before “hobbyist” emulation had really got underway thanks to projects such as MAME, and around the same time as Microsoft’s Microsoft Arcade pack. The difference was that Digital Eclipse’s titles were true emulation, while Microsoft Arcade consisted of ports designed to be as faithful as possible to the originals.

Digital Eclipse were initially just interested in licensing Vavasour’s emulation technology, but after getting to know him a bit better, he was offered the full job of working at the company, ultimately culminating in 1995’s Williams Arcade Classics, which released for a wide variety of systems ranging from Game.com to Dreamcast. By 2006, Vavasour was a vice-president of the company, by this point known as Foundation 9 Entertainment after several mergers. At this time, Vavasour claims, the company was one of the “largest independent video game developers in the world”, and it’s still going strong today; at the time of writing its most recent releases are the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection for Nintendo Switch, and the multiplatform Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection.

In 2009, Vavasour left Foundation 9 and initially worked as a consultant in the industry, but found himself eager to continue working on emulation of classic hardware and software. He formed Code Mystics to realise this dream and recruited a number of former Digital Eclipse employees to join him; the company’s first releases included Web-based versions of Atari arcade games, and their first boxed releases followed a year later, with Atari’s Greatest Hits Volume I for Nintendo DS.

In short, the Code Mystics very much know what they are doing when it comes to emulation — particularly of old hardware from the ’70s and ’80s — and this has very much come across in the projects they have worked on since their inception. It is also absolutely true of this latest Atari Flashback Classics release for Switch.

Emulation of both the arcade and console games in the collection is solid, smooth and authentic, even incorporating flaws and quirks the original systems had.  You can display raster-based games with or without scanlines, for one thing, and 2600 sprites flicker under certain circumstances — though, pleasingly, there is actually the option to turn this behaviour off. Vector-based games such as Asteroids, meanwhile, provide the ability to adjust the “glow” of the visuals to try and capture that authentic “dimly-lit arcade” feel.

A few concessions have had to be made here and there with regard to controls. Modern consoles do not have paddle controlers, for example, nor do they have the closely related “driving controller” for the 2600. For the uninitiated, these were early analogue controllers that worked by the player twisting a dial; the default behaviour in Atari Flashback Classics is to correspond the angle of the virtual paddle’s knob to the horizontal position of the analogue stick, which can make these controls seem extremely twitchy and hard to handle, particularly in games such as Pong and Breakout.

A little practice goes a long way, however (pro-tip: move the stick around the circular perimeter of its mounting rather than just across and you can be much more precise and delicate) — and if you still find yourself struggling, you can either adjust the sensitivity or switch to “relative” movement mode, which functions more like you expect a joystick to work. One noteworthy addition to the Switch version is that you can use touchscreen controls in handheld mode; these actually correspond more closely to how the original paddles worked, so if you can bring yourself to smear your greasy fingers over your Switch’s screen, you can play that way.

A new challenge that faced the Mystics this time around was how to handle the Atari 5200’s unusual controller, since previous Atari Flashback Classics collections had only incorporated 2600 and arcade titles. The 5200, meanwhile, had a non-centring analogue joystick, two fire buttons and a 12-button “telephone keypad” which would typically be adorned with an overlay specific to each game you were playing. (It also broke a lot, but we can assume this was not an aspect of the hardware Vavasour and company wished to emulate.)

The solution they came up with was to provide a “pop-up” interface at the side of the screen, where you could select from a series of virtual buttons to perform the functions that the keypad would have handled on the original hardware. It’s a little inelegant, but for the most part the functions on these keys weren’t things you would need to do during fast-action parts of the game, anyway.

It also highlights the fact that some 5200 games were impressively (some might say excessively) complex; Star Raiders, for example, has nearly twenty-four different buttons to use by incorporating a “shift” function on the keypad, allowing each key to do two different things. Okay, ten of those individual actions are for speed control when perhaps just “speed up” and “slow down” keys would have been perfectly acceptable, but it’s testament to how the Atari of the era was interested in providing experiences a little more complex and in-depth than what had come before in many cases.

So the emulation is solid and works within the constraints of the modern platform. Some aspects will take some getting used to — particularly the aforementioned paddle controls and the “push the direction you want your car to be facing” driving games — but there’s nothing to complain about there.

The overall package is organised into a menu that will look immediately familiar to anyone who has played one of Code Mystics’ Atari releases from the last few years — the distinctive theme music is even the same. The game list features the arcade games first, followed by the 2600 and 5200 games in a single list, sorted alphabetically.

Arcade games offer the facility to change various settings to adjust the difficulty or play time and tweak the controls to your liking. Optionally, you can play arcade games with authentic bezel art — Asteroids Deluxe even incorporates the static “3D” backdrop behind the vector graphics — and in handheld mode most arcade games can be played in vertical “TATE”-style orientation… but no documentation is provided, not even a copy of the original flyer. Most of the games are pretty straightforward to work out — a punter in the arcade wouldn’t have had access to a manual, after all — but it would have been nice to understand exactly how some of these games work.

Arcade games also provide online leaderboard functionality as well as the machine’s own high-score table. At the time of writing, the population of these leaderboards is relatively sparse as you might expect from a niche-interest title like this, but this is kind of nice in a way — it provides greater opportunity for anyone to work their way up the rankings and perhaps even take the top spot with a bit of practice. There also doesn’t appear to be any evidence of cheating at present, which is very nice indeed.

2600 and 5200 games provide a scanned copy of the original manual in the cases of the commercially released games, scanned copies of brief instruction sheets for homebrew and prototype games, and scanned greyscale copies of manuals in the case of the “M Network” releases originally developed by the Intellivision folks at Mattel. All of these documents can be zoomed and are perfectly readable even in handheld mode; some are a tad fuzzy at maximum zoom, but certainly not enough to obscure the important information.

Interestingly, 2600 and 5200 games also all include a copy of the system manual for their respective systems. If you ever wanted to see quite how much of a fire hazard the original model 5200 was (not to mention why the damn thing was so frigging massive) then now you finally have the opportunity! Lucky you.

As for the selection of games on offer, this is a solid lineup of Atari classics, though the value you will get out of the collection will depend on how much patience you have for old-school game design. It’s also worth noting that a few games require two players to work, though these are in the minority; many games with a multiplayer option either offer a single-player option or a computer-controlled opponent to compete against.

The lineup itself is good, encompassing both a variety of games we’ve seen numerous times before and some less common titles. A number of games have several ports available — you can play Missile Command in its original arcade, 2600 or 5200 incarnations, for example — and the platform-unique titles do a good job of showcasing exactly what the system in question was all about.

The main limitation on the library here is that, well, it’s all Atari stuff. Many of the most fondly regarded, enduring titles on the 2600 in particular came from third parties such as Activision and Imagic, but there is, understandably, no sign of those games in this compilation, so if you were hoping to revisit stuff like Pitfall!, Atlantis and River Raid, you’re out of luck, I’m afraid. This isn’t to say that the lineup that is here isn’t a solid selection of stuff that is firmly representative of what the 2600 had to offer, mind you — even the few that might seem like duffers (Basic Math/Fun with Numbers springs to mind) have their place, particularly when you consider something very important about this collection: its handheld nature.

Yes, this particular incarnation of Atari Flashback Classics sets itself apart from its PS4 and Xbox One counterpart(s) not only by collecting everything into a single library rather than splitting it across three separate discs or executable files, but by being fully playable on the go — arguably even offering a superior experience in handheld mode thanks to the touch controls and TATE option. And one thing I’ve come to very much appreciate since picking up this version is the fact that these old games are absolutely perfect for handheld play.

Your average Atari arcade game lasts no more than a couple of minutes. Your average early-era 2600 game typically lasts two minutes and 16 seconds (because, according to Atari veteran Joe Decuir, “2:16 is long enough to have fun without being exhausting”) and even the more complex 5200 titles conclude a playthrough in a matter of minutes. This makes the vast majority of games in this collection absolutely ideal for pick-up-and-play fun on the go, with the pursuit of high scores and achievements providing longer-term goals to challenge if you so desire. (And believe me, some of those achievements are beasts.)

The games are simple enough to teach even the most computer-illiterate of friends how to play without any difficulty, and the Switch’s Joy-Cons mean you always have access to two-player modes, whether you’re at home or out and about. The main hurdle for people who didn’t grow up with these games will be the primitive visuals and sound, but after a while this ceases to matter at all, especially if you’re playing with a friend; the way you interact with one another and share the experience becomes as much a part of the game’s presentation as those big chunky pixels and farty sound effects.

If you have the slightest interest in gaming history, this Switch version is, without a doubt, the finest collection of Atari games ever released in a single package. Those with more modern tastes may find it more of a challenge to engage with, but give it a chance — you might just find yourself surprised quite how compelling a bunch of coloured squares and a flickery-ass dragon that looks like a duck can actually be.

Stay tuned to Atari A to Z here on MoeGamer, on the dedicated Atari A to Z site, or over on YouTube to find out more about the individual games in detail.


More about Atari Flashback Classics

Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.

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5 thoughts on “Atari Flashback Classics: Know Your Roots”

  1. I do wish these compilations were more commonplace because if it’s one understated advantage they bring, it’s that you’re exposed to works you wouldn’t have checked out otherwise. I myself remember having an Atari collection on the PC some time back, and I learned of a lot of new games that way. It would be great if companies did that with series from later generations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’re getting a few now and then. Capcom has been quite good recently with the Mega Man and Street Fighter collections plus that excellent beat ’em up bundle. I’m still holding out for Konami to do a Castlevania compilation but I feel I might be waiting a while for that one!

      As for more obscure stuff, yes, it’s great. Activision are long overdue a rerelease of their 2600 games. The last release of those was on PSP, I believe, it’d be nice to have them on something a bit more up to date as there are some real crackers in there.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. There have been a few over the years, but none for a while — the last ones were on PS2 and PSP, I believe. If you have access to the appropriate hardware, those are both really solid releases with added authentic ’80s background music!

      Liked by 1 person

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