Atari Flashback 3 Review and Video

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Bill Loguidice's picture

NOTE: This is now the audio-fixed version of the video review, with much quieter in-game audio.

(Download the mp4)

Today I'll be taking a look at Atari's new Flashback 3, which, despite the name, is actually the fourth major Flashback system released. I reviewed the first Atari Flashback way back in 2004, when it was first released. Unfortunately, Legacy Engineering Group (LEG) was apparently only given 10 weeks to create the system from scratch and therefore had no choice but to rely on a NES-On-A-Chip (NOAC) to power the product. Since the goal of the Flashback was to deliver both a plug-and-play Atari 2600 and 7800 experience, this was definitely too tall of an order for what amounted to a Nintendo Entertainment System clone, particularly given the limited time to optimize the game simulations.

While the first Flashback clearly disappointed anyone remotely familiar with any of the 20 first party 2600 and 7800 games it clumsily simulated, the upside was that it sold enough for Atari to order production of a Flashback 2. This time LEG did have the time to do it right, and, while they dropped all efforts to replicate the 7800 experience, they ended up developing what amounted to an "Atari 2600-on-a-chip," whose high accuracy more than made up for the omission. Released in 2005, the Flashback 2 came with a mix of over 40 original, prototype, hacked, and homebrew Atari 2600 games. While the first Flashback was styled like a miniature 7800, the Flashback 2 was styled like a miniature Atari 2600 VCS, complete with simulated woodgrain. As a bonus, the two included joysticks were pin compatible with the originals, meaning they could be used on other systems that worked with Atari-style joysticks. This also meant that you could use original paddle controllers with the Flashback 2 to play the hidden paddle games. This was in direct contrast to the first Flashback, which merely converted its paddle games to make use of the joystick, which again, was not the way you wanted to experience those games. As a final bonus for those with the requisite skillset, the Flashback 2 could be hacked to add a cartridge port, which outside of a few relatively minor compatibility quirks, made it an ideal modern revision of the original Atari 2600 hardware, particularly since it had default composite video output rather than RF.

Somewhere in the 2006 - 2008 timeframe, LEG was working on an Atari Flashback portable, but Atari chose not to pursue its release for whatever reason (UPDATE: According to an individual familiar with the situation, LEG was also offering a Flashback 3 during that timeframe, which Atari also chose to pass on). I'm not sure of the exact details why, but instead in 2010, Atari released the Flashback 2+, which was more or less identical to the Flashback 2 (complete with latest revision of the internals), save for a handful of game swaps and some cosmetic variations. Perhaps this was some type of inventory clear-out somewhere in their supply chain or perhaps the economics of one last run of this type worked out (UPDATE: Thanks to onmode-ky for the link to the actual reason: http://www.atariage.com/forums/topic/156823-flashback-2-for-preorder-on-...). Whatever the details, Atari decided to go in a slightly different direction with the Flashback 3 in 2011, whose development this time was spearheaded by AtGames, with only superficial involvement from LEG (UPDATE for clarity: http://www.atariage.com/forums/topic/183139-flashback-3-at-e3-is-it-real...).

One of the downsides to the Flashback 2 and 2+ design for Atari was clearly the costs involved in the custom "Atari 2600-on-a-chip." AtGames gets around this by essentially leveraging emulation software-on-a-chip, which allows an off-the-shelf chip to be reprogrammed to act like an Atari 2600. While not quite as accurate as the Flashback 2/2+, the implementation is close enough where, unlike the first Flashback, paddle controllers will work on the Flashback 3 for those games that support them. The physical design of the Flashback 3 is very close to that of the Flashback 2, save for front joystick ports, omitting the b/w switch, and various cosmetic differences, such as relabeling the Reset button to Start.

Though clumsy in implementation, requiring holding both the joystick's fire button and the console select button for a few seconds (manual here, which has the usual sparse game instructions for a Flashback system), the addition of pause functionality is a nice bonus. Speaking of joysticks, the feel of both the Flashback 2 and 2+ joysticks was similar to the original, with sticks with a somewhat stiff, short throw. While of similar physical design, the joysticks included with the Flashback 3 are much looser and have a longer throw. Though I tend to err on the side of being a purist, I can't say I minded the change too much, as it seems to work really well, and of course, I can always plug in whatever Atari-style joysticks I want anyway.

This time, there are 60 games included (click here for the AtariAge Atari 2600 database):
3D Tic-Tac-Toe,Adventure, Adventure II, Air-Sea Battle, Aquaventure, Asteroids, Backgammon, Basketball, Battlezone, Bowling, Canyon Bomber, Centipede, Championship Soccer, Circus Atari, Combat, Combat 2, Demons to Diamonds, Desert Falcon, Dodge 'Em, Double Dunk, Fatal Run, Flag Capture, Frog Pond, Fun with Numbers, Golf, Gravitar, Hangman, Home Run, Haunted House, Human Cannonball, Maze Craze, Minature Golf, Missile Command, Night Driver, Off the Wall, Outlaw, Realsports Baseball, Realsports Basketball, Realsports Soccer, Realsports Volleyball, Saboteur, Save Mary!, Secret Quest, Sky Diver, Space War, Sprintmaster, Star Ship, Steeplechase, Submarine Commander, Super Baseball, Super Breakout, Super Football, Surround, Swordquest: Earthworld, Swordquest: Fireworld, Video Checkers, Video Chess, Video Pinball, Wizard, Yars' Revenge

Despite the inability to hack in a cartridge port, the 60 games on a plug-and-play system along with another set of Atari-compatible joysticks for those of us who still use and maintain classic systems is an excellent value proposition at a list price of just $39.99. As a bonus, a limited edition Atari poster is included, though I'm told it will change from what's included in my AtGames-supplied review unit due to licensing irregularities (UPDATE: The poster is staying as-is. It's rights-cleared.). It's not a particularly interesting looking poster as these things go, but it's still a nice bonus. With all this in mind, the Flashback 3 has the foundation of a real winner, but it all comes down to how the games play.

Unlike the previous Flashbacks that had their games accessible from categorized menus, the Flashback 3 is just one big list of games broken into consequitive pages, which some may prefer instead of trying to remember what games are in what category. As you scroll through each game title, you see a screenshot from the game, which is a nice touch, and it also clearly indicates whether a game is single or two player, which is a big help for those of us who can't remember what's what throughout 60 games.

Instead of trying to show you all 60 Atari 2600 games on the Flashback 3 that you've probably seen countless times before, I decided to pick three games from three different decades and compare them to what is shown on the Flashback 2+. Obviously this also limits me to picking three that appear on both. For instance, a good test of the Flashback 3 would have been Quadrun from 1983, which features speech and gave early releases of the Flashback 2 some trouble, but that's not included on the 3 so I can't do it. That omission is a bit odd, to say the least, and does make you wonder how capable the Flashback 3 actually is at replicating the Atari 2600 experience, so that's certainly something to keep in mind. Also, both Flashbacks caused no end of issues with my capture equipment. I tried two different types to boot. The issue is probably how some Atari games "trick" the display to see some of their effects. This translates to missing graphics in some of the captures that are present when viewed on a regular display. Nevertheless, this is something you should keep in mind with playing a Flashback 2 or greater on a newer television, that there's a chance it may not display the way it's supposed to.

The first game is the 1979 action-adventure classic, Adventure, a game that features one of the best known early Easter Eggs. As you can tell from the video, it plays well on both the 2+ and 3.

The second game is Yars' Revenge, from 1982, often cited as one of the best games for the platform. The video clearly shows that the colorful game plays well on both the 2+ and 3.

The NTSC version of Save Mary! was completed by late 1989 and scheduled for a 1990 release, with a PAL conversion completed in 1991. It too did not see release, so officially it's a prototype. Nevertheless, Save Mary! is a good example of a final generation first party Atari title, and, as you can tell from the video, plays well on both the 2+ and 3, though I did notice some variances between the two, for instance with Mary moving slower on the 3. In this case, the experience does seem better on the 2+.

As a final test, I wanted to see how the paddle games worked with real paddles. The game I chose was Atari's 1981 coin-op conversion, Super Breakout (though I did try others). I simply selected the game, unplugged joystick 1, and plugged in the paddles. Naturally, it should work much better with the paddles than with the joystick, but even trying three different sets of paddles, I just couldn't get it to respond properly. Perhaps there's some trick or some code to make it work properly, but for my tests, they didn't seem to. The paddle games are tuned nicely for the joysticks, but they still would play much better with proper paddle support. (If I find something out about better paddle support, I'll update this review.)
(UPDATE: I tried a fourth set of paddles and they work perfectly with the paddle games. You simply unplug the joystick and plug in the paddles and they work as they should. I have no idea why the other three sets did not work correctly, but I'll re-test on real hardware to make sure they didn't go bad, which is certainly possible.)

So, in the end, what do I think of the Flashback 3? My intention with this review was not to see how perfect the Flashback 3 was in terms of emulating the Atari 2600, but to see if it was noticeably different from what I remember of an Atari 2600 through normal play, and of course how well it avails itself against the recent 2+. In both regards, it avails itself well. If you can find this system for the $39.99 or less that it retails for, I say go for it if you want a nice 60 game plug-and-play Atari 2600 collection. It's a no-brainer in that regard, and you can consider the new Atari-style joysticks an additional bonus if you have a compatible console or computer lying around. If you already own a Flashback 2 or 2+, you'll need to look at the game selection to see if the handful of differences and slightly lower level of replicating the Atari 2600 experience is worth the money.

Regardless of your purchasing decision, at least none of us have to deal with another Flashback 1 type situation, and for most of us, that's good enough. Hopefully now that four of these have been released, Atari can move on from the Atari 2600 and start to leverage some of their other historical platforms, like the Atari 8-bit computer line. I won't be holding my breath, but I suppose if a similarly low cost emulator-on-a-chip situation can be implemented, there's always a small chance.

CONCLUSION: Worth buying!

(UPDATE: To access the in-game status screen, Secret Quest requires the b/w switch, which, as was mentioned in the review, is missing on the Flashback 3. There is no alternative way to access the status screen, so, quote from AtGames: "We are swapping that game out next year for the very reason you noticed.")

Comments

Anonymous (not verified)
Joystick worth it?

I saw a Flashback 3 at the store for $40. Didn't buy it and went on to research on the internets. Bing brought me here.

Cool video, really informative. I want to buy one but aside of Yar's Revenge and possibly Combat and/or Asteroids - which work really well on an Atari emulator and an Xbox 360 controller on the PC - I cannot justify the purchase.

I still use old Commodore / Amiga stuff, and maybe if the joysticks are decent it would be an excuse to buy this. What do you have for advice on this? I noted you said that felt well put together but the throw is longer than the original models.... is it worth $40 for these?

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Offline
Joined: 12/31/1969
Thanks
Anonymous wrote:

I saw a Flashback 3 at the store for $40. Didn't buy it and went on to research on the internets. Bing brought me here.

Cool video, really informative. I want to buy one but aside of Yar's Revenge and possibly Combat and/or Asteroids - which work really well on an Atari emulator and an Xbox 360 controller on the PC - I cannot justify the purchase.

I still use old Commodore / Amiga stuff, and maybe if the joysticks are decent it would be an excuse to buy this. What do you have for advice on this? I noted you said that felt well put together but the throw is longer than the original models.... is it worth $40 for these?

I really like the joysticks even if they feel different than the originals, but if you're asking me if it's worth $40 for the two new joysticks, then the answer is no. However, if you think some of the 60+ games might be fun - even if they're not perfect emulation - then in totality I'd say it's definitely worth it.

n/a
Terene (not verified)
Where Can I download Games

Thanks for the review. I thought it was great and I purchased the Flashback 3 for my wife who always wanted an Atari 2600 as a kid in the 1980's. She really wants Pac Man, do you know where I can down load games for the Flashback 3 to put on the SD card? Thank You. Video was great.

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
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Joined: 12/31/1969
It's play only...
Terene wrote:

Thanks for the review. I thought it was great and I purchased the Flashback 3 for my wife who always wanted an Atari 2600 as a kid in the 1980's. She really wants Pac Man, do you know where I can down load games for the Flashback 3 to put on the SD card? Thank You. Video was great.

Unfortunately, you can't as it has no SD card slot. You're limited to the 60+ games that are on there. You can purchase various devices for a real Atari 2600 or 7800, such as the Harmony cartridge to allow you to load in the games that you want on the real hardware, otherwise emulation on a computer is your only option. Here are a few sites that allow you to play Atari 2600 games in your Web browser: www.virtualatari.org and http://retrouprising.com/

By the way, the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man is considered one of the worst made. If you want to play a decent Pac-Man game on the 2600, I recommend going straight to Ms. Pac-Man, which is much better, or even Jr. Pac-Man.

n/a
Bitmerge6502 (not verified)
bill said: I don't think

bill said:
I don't think we'll ever see a ROM-capable system from a mainstream company for various reasons,

-just want to say (sega?) just released a plug n play genesis that has built in games + a SD slot to play roms. don't know much about it, but sounds interesting.

Bill Loguidice
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Joined: 12/31/1969
Licensing
Bitmerge6502 wrote:

bill said:
I don't think we'll ever see a ROM-capable system from a mainstream company for various reasons,

-just want to say (sega?) just released a plug n play genesis that has built in games + a SD slot to play roms. don't know much about it, but sounds interesting.

Yes, ATGames has released such things in the past, one of which I have. Technically speaking, these are not from Sega, just licensed from Sega, and I think that while they support ROMs, they don't officially allow it, meaning no instructions in the box (some of these supposedly "only" support "official" ROM packs). You can still do it though with relatively minimal technical acumen. I guess I should have clarified my statement a bit. The main problem is that companies like Atari, Sega, Nintendo, etc., still make money repackaging their old games for new platforms ad nauseum, so it's not really in their best interest to make it officially easy for the mainstream audience many of these devices are targeted at to do it themselves.

It's a mess of a market, regardless. You would think real money could be made with low cost, official packages of games on a device that functions like the original... Perhaps that business model will present itself one day. Certainly someone like a Nintendo could make a killing with such a product, though I think they're content with emulation on their systems du jour...

n/a
Rowdy Rob
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Joined: 09/04/2006
AT Games Genesis device.
Bitmerge6502 wrote:

-just want to say (sega?) just released a plug n play genesis that has built in games + a SD slot to play roms. don't know much about it, but sounds interesting.

I have one of these units, and like Bill said, it's not from Sega, but it uses the Sega license. It appears to be a hardware Genesis emulator, and it does have an SD slot so you can load in Genesis roms!

It seems to play reasonably well, but it has a rather mediocre selection of included games, most of which I don't think were released on the Genesis originally, or were very lesser-known games. Off hand, I think I recall only three games on the system that were top-tier: Sonic, Ecco the Dolphin, and Columns. The ability to add your own Genesis roms is a major plus, though, and is the reason I bought the device, although I have yet to test this functionality out.

Probably the main problem with this unit is that it requires batteries. The main unit does have an optional power cord, but the wireless controllers do not, and eat batteries like Pac Man gobbles dots! The controllers are not particularly great, and there's no ability to alternatively use real Genesis-compatible controllers.

Considering the compromises, I think the unit is worth the cost (around $30 US). It's a relatively portable Genesis device that allows you to use SD cards. I bought mine at Walgreens, and it's there when I find the inclination to mess with it.

Bitmerge6502 (not verified)
hold start + select while

hold start + select while power on.

Bitmerge6502 (not verified)
yes, Nintendo especially

yes, Nintendo especially loves to re-release older software with little or no updates (super mario allstars wii, DS virtual console) then charge prices comparable to new software. i think that's why piracy runs rampant. if more companies celebrated thier legacy games or added new content unavailable to pirates, the rom scene would die down & more people would turn to the new or rerelease, rather than going though the trouble of configuring an emmulator then hunting for roms. in other words: i think convenience drives the general market. & as for me i mod consoles like this to play games i like & ones that were too rare when i was a kid. it's nice to include common games (i understand licensing is an issue) but i think some more popular (now & back then) games would be more attractive to fans. take Solaris for example, it's an atari property. it was poorly recreated on FB1 but never included on FB2 or 3. but fb3 has the swordquest games, which is great for archive pourposes (yet no waterworld); but the game is unplayable without the comic book, so the adverage consumer isn't going to play it (wasted rom space).
i'm not complaining, i love these consoles, i just want to state my "vision" of the ideal game list, because i think attracting customers depends on the content, not the novelty

Bitmerge6502 (not verified)
i also hear (from one of the

i also hear (from one of the legacy games employees on another forum) that the FB3 can be modded to add a CF card. looking at the motherboard, i see the arm, bios rom, a TSOP flash rom (presumably where the game bins are) & blank solder points for another prom (like the bios chip). this board is far less hobbyist friendly than the fb2. no test points or silkscreen labels. the only place to add any peripherals would be the unused rom spot, or trace the ad lines back to the bios.

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