If you’re an old dick like me then your first gaming experience wasn’t with the Wii, or the Game Boy Advance, or the PlayStation: it was the Atari 2600.
While the NES was my first true love, my dad owned a 2600 – it launched in the late 1970s – and so that was my first exposure to this glorious hobby. Its games may look like cave paintings by today’s standards, but they were immensely important to the history of gaming.
Retro specialist Blaze is attempting to keep this history alive with this officially licensed handheld, but how do its 50 games hold up today, and does this £35 gizmo do a good job of replicating them? Let’s get stuck in.
The 2600 handheld – it doesn’t really have a proper name, it’s just called ‘Retro Handheld Console’ on the box – is designed to look like a portable version of the original Atari 2600 hardware.
That means it shares a lot of the 2600’s iconic features: that weird ridged black plastic and its vintage woodgrain finish are alive and well here.
Its controls are also designed to look like the classic black Atari joystick, the one with that satisfyingly pressable red button that gamers from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s fell in love with.
The two action buttons (though it only really needs one) have a similar feel to that original button, but the new red D-pad – ‘D’ meaning ‘disc’ in this occasion – takes some getting used to.
The most modern equivalent I can think of is the Xbox 360 D-pad, given that it’s also an eight-directional control embedded in a round disc, but it’s even less comfortable here because the directions don’t protrude in any way: you’re literally just pressing down on a big circle.
For the most part, though, the design gets pass marks from me. Rather than a generic box with an emulator bunged into it, it’s clear that some actual work has gone into making this look like the actual handheld sibling of the original Atari 2600, so fair play to Blaze. So far, before switching the thing on, it gets pass marks.
Here’s where the Atari 2600 handheld will make it or break it depending on your own personal tastes and gaming history.
There are 50 games in total here, covering a decent chunk of the original console’s 560+ game library. Here’s the full list:
Demons to Diamonds
Fun With Numbers
Off the Wall
Pong – Video Olympics
As you can see, a number of classics are present and accounted for: these include the likes of Centipede, Yar’s Revenge, Asteroids, Missile Command, Crystal Castles and Adventure (which was recently introduced to a new audience as a key plot point in Ready Player One).
There are just as many notable absences in here too, though, most likely due to licensing reasons. None of Activision’s classic 2600 games are included: that means no Pitfall, no Chopper Command, no Enduro, no Kaboom, Keystone Kapers or River Raid.
Licensing is also the probable reason for the lack of other Atari-developed games based on other IPs. You won’t find the likes of Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Pole Position, Mario Bros or E.T. here (though the latter is probably for the best).
Naturally, every ‘retro’ system with built-in games is always going to be missing certain titles. The NES Classic is missing the likes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Tetris and DuckTales, the SNES Classic should have had Donkey Kong Country 2, Chrono Trigger and Pilotwings, and the PlayStation Classic… well, enough’s been said about that on other sites.
That said, it’s still disappointing that a number of classics aren’t on this 2600 handheld, especially when a number of the games that have been added to bring the number up to a round 50 really haven’t stood the test of time (3D Tic-Tac-Toe, anyone?)
Those are the games, then, but how do they play?
Performance and product quality
The 2600 handheld doesn’t have an internal battery that charges via USB or any of that modern day malarkey: it takes good honest batteries. Four AAA batteries, to be precise.
I haven’t had it long enough to test battery life (I’ll update this article accordingly when I have more information), but I was able to test all 50 games without them dying so it’s not like we’re talking the Game Gear here – which ate batteries like Tic-Tacs – or anything like that.
Speaking of batteries, my unit has a problem (and yes, I’m still talking about the handheld, you filthy sod). The cover for the battery compartment is extremely loose, to the extent that the slightest touch with my finger will open it.
VIDEO SHOWING GAME PERFORMANCE AND BATTERY COVER ISSUE:
It doesn’t seem to have snapped or broken in any way, it just seems to be the way it is. You can see it in the video above: it’s not clear whether this is the case with every system or whether I’ve just got an unlucky one, but it’s worth mentioning. It isn’t a terrible situation because your hands naturally rest over the battery compartment anyway so it’s unlikely they’ll fall out or anything, but there you go.
The overall game performance is half decent. The games run reasonably well, though that’s to be expected from an Atari 2600 emulator (which requires so little processing power I’m sure with a bit of effort I could get my can of Irn Bru to run it). The sound is quite a bit off, however, and that isn’t just down to the speakers: I tested Air-Sea Battle on both the handheld and my own Atari 2600 console and the console’s sound effects are far more stable whereas the handheld’s feel a little frail and shaky (even with headphones on).
As you can see in the video above, there’s also a little bit of audio delay: fire a shot in Asteroids and there’s a fraction of a second before you hear it. Again, this is instantaneous in the original console.
There are also some video issues when games feature flashes. Whereas the original console handles these flashes without issue, the handheld creates a strange multi-coloured effect.
Finish a stage in Maze Craze and the screen is supposed to flash numerous colours, as you can see in this video which features actual console footage (you see the effect at 0:54):
On the handheld you don’t get clean flashes of colour like you do in the video above.
Instead, the colour breaks up into abstract shapes, as you can see here:
There are a couple of other little quibbles too. The screen, while nice and sharp, is quite reflective, meaning if you play it in strong light you’ll struggle to see anything other than your own gorgeous face.
It’s also worth noting that the ‘TV Out’ feature advertised on the packaging requires a separate cable sold for £4.99 on the Funstock Retro website (the box doesn’t make this clear).
This is a composite cable so it’s only going to be standard definition, but as I wasn’t supplied the cable for review I can’t speak for its quality. It’s a bespoke cable, though, so unless you buy it there’s no way to play it on your TV despite what the box claims.
I’m aware that all of the above makes for fairly negative reading but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still have fun playing the Atari 2600 handheld despite all its flaws.
There’s no denying that games this old really need an appreciation of gaming’s early years in order to really get the most out of them: give this handheld to an 11-year-old and they’ll horse it off a wall before going back to flossing or whatever the hell kids do now.
For the rest of us who can see past the blocky graphics, there are still some entertaining little titles on there and you should at least get your £35’s worth, even if the emulation is far from perfect.
It would be remiss of me not to point out the alternatives available to you, mind. The usually ropey AtGames has its own Atari console which costs £65: this includes 101 games and features some of the more well-known ones the Blaze model doesn’t (including Space Invaders and Frogger).
If you’re merely interested in the software side of things and aren’t fussed about new hardware, there’s also the Atari Flashback Classics collections. There are two of these on PS4 and Xbox (here’s Volume 1 and Volume 2 on Amazon UK), with a third on the way, and each contains 50 games: not just Atari 2600 ones, but 5200 and arcade ones too.
Even better, the Switch is due to get a single edition at some point that contains all 150 (though the release date for that is still up in the air).
There are plenty of ways to experience parts of the Atari 2600 library, then, and this handheld is only one of them. The one thing it does offer over the rest, however, is its appearance: it’s a gorgeous looking little device and looks brilliant next to the original hardware. There may be other alternatives out there offering more substance, but nothing beats it for style.
The Atari 2600 Retro Handheld Console is available now from Funstock Retro, priced £34.99.
In order that I could write this review, I received a review unit from a PR. The content of my review and the opinions therein were in no way positively influenced by this.
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