IGC Retro Odyssey: Atari Flashback Classics (Switch)

For the IGC Retro Odyssey concept, I have members of Indie Gamer Team set a target for me, where if I find that many games in a retro compilation compelling enough to play further, the set wins my Seal of Approval. For Atari Flashback Classics, the target number was 50 out of 150, or 33.3%. The actual set finished with..

Fourteen approved. Or 9.3%.

Maybe that was to be expected. I cut my teeth in the PS1/N64 era of gaming. The two most important games of my rearing were Crash Bandicoot and Banjo-Kazooie. Comparatively, most Atari 2600 era games would barely qualify as mini-games even then. I’m sure my opinions on these relics will infuriate the generations that came before me, but remember: nothing bad I say here undoes the historical contributions of Atari or its games. If you genuinely enjoy playing these “classics” today, I’m happy for you. But these games need to be evaluated on their own merit, without historic context, because they’re commercially sold today to gamers of all ages. Games between 29 to 47 years old. Where even the newest commercially-released game (which came out after I was born, I had no idea such games existed for the 2600) is still a game developed for a console that came out in 1977. These games were never meant to still be fun forty-years later. The test of time isn’t fair, but it still happens anyway.

Hell, Atari Flashback Classics is LOADED with games that didn’t even get the test of the present. Maze Invaders is a cancelled arcade game where you play as a drunken Lolo and plays like a cross of Wizard of Wor and Ladybug. It’s terrible, but in an endearing way, like listening to elderly basketball players bitch about the three-point line.

Arcade games are a little more future proof, and that makes sense when you think about it. They’re not something you purchase for the sake of enjoying at home. They were made for route operators or arcade owners to generate ongoing revenue. Companies who made games that quickly went obsolete, ending the lifespan of what should be a long-term investment, would be unlikely to get further business from operators. So the games had to be fun enough to generate revenue for a couple years.

That shows with Atari Flashback Collection. Thirty-two of the titles included are coin-operated games. I liked six of them: Asteroids Deluxe, Black Widow, Lunar Lander, Pool Shark, Red Baron, and Space Duel. One of those, Pool Shark, I’ll admit was a guilty pleasure. The concept is beyond stupid: you play as a cue-ball, and you simply move around a pool table pocketing the other balls. That’s it. It’s so dumb, but it also made me giggle in just how desperate it is. Also, it’s sort of funny because growing up a little girl who had a pool table in her home, I used to “play pool” by just rolling the cue-ball at the other balls with no rhyme or reason besides trying to pocket them. That someone took THAT, a six-year-old’s version of billiards, and made it into a video game.. I can’t help but wonder if creator Michael Albaugh (who was with Atari from 1976 – 2000) had a similar experience to mine. I can’t argue with a straight face that Pool Shark is a good game, but I had fun with it. That’s all that should matter.

By the way, Pool Shark was a complete failure. Operators hated it. Very few units were ever made. I can’t imagine why.

Other games in the set should have been good, but were let-down by poor translations of their unique arcade control schemes. Crystal Castles is one of the better games to come out of the Pac-Man craze, but you can’t replace a trackball with the Switch touch-screen, or even the analog stick. It’s just not the same, and can’t hold a candle to the original. Even with adjustable controls, the bear moved like he had just taken a Belushi-sized speedball, which practically renders the game unplayable (I called it Crystal Meth Castles). Every trackball game suffers this fate. While playing the set, I realized the only way you could do a proper home-version on consoles is to do a bundle that includes replicas of the arcade controls. Which, by the way, would be worth the price. People who actually give a shit about historical accuracy (and I do) would pay the difference. Tempest isn’t Tempest without a turbo spinner. Missile Command isn’t Missile Command without a trackball (weirdly enough, the Atari 2600 port plays MUCH better and was one of eight home games I liked in the collection). In fact, in only one game with unique controls, Lunar Lander, did the touch-screen controls feel like they were a suitable replacement for the original. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Maybe the games wouldn’t have stood up anyway. But at least they would have had a better chance. I know for a fact Crystal Castles is better than this, but my rule for IGC Retro Odyssey is I can only evaluate the games as they’re commercially available for modern platforms. The only version of Crystal Castles you can buy for consoles now is bear-ly playable. See what I did there?

This is Red Baron, which does hold up relatively well. It’s not amazing or anything, but it was the game that convinced George Lucas to sign a deal with Atari. So there’s that.

This issue carries over to the Atari 2600 and 5200 games that used unique controllers. For the Atari 5200, forget about it. Every game included with it either controls poorly or is overall a shoddy release. The ports of Millipede and Asteroids were so bad that I was honestly embarrassed for the company. The company that basically no longer exists, but still, they were pretty fucking shameful. Take a look at the 2600 version of Millipede (which I didn’t like overall, but hey, it’s pretty Millipede-like in terms of gameplay if not graphics)..

And now compare that to the Atari 5200 port, made for a significantly more advanced console (and mind you, this game cost nearly $100 in 2019 dollars back in the day)..

Genuinely repulsive. Only the most shallow, vain ignoramus would trade good graphics for good gameplay. Then again, Atari was run by Ray Kassar..

As for the 2600, unfortunately some sacred all-time games didn’t exactly hold up today. Adventure is probably the most famous of the lot that I had to fail. Despite the set being able to “eliminate” the infamous Atari flicker, Adventure still has blinking issues. Additionally, sometimes the Dragon spawns in a way you can’t hope to run away from. Sometimes you can maroon items in a way where you can’t reach them. And it’s just plain dull compared to modern games that I can’t simply vanish the knowledge that they exist from my mind. Honestly, I think I would have been bored with Adventure even if I had been born back then. It’s just such a nothing game.

Duck Duck GOOSE, mother fucker!

Weirdly enough, two of the eight home console games I enjoyed in this set never actually came out. Both Saboteur (which almost got reskinned as A*Team) and Save Mary (by Tod Frye, programmer of the infamous dumpster fire Pac-Man 2600) had more going for them than a typical Atari game. Well, fine, Save Mary is another “glorified mini-game” type of deal, but it’s a cool one. A woman is in the bottom of a well that’s filling up with water. You have to drop boxes that she can stand on. It’s very clever. It’s also the Duke Nukem Forever of its time. It spent years in development (Frye was probably only part-time by then, and the game was developed by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell’s Axlon), underwent multiple renditions, and ultimately never was completed in its original state. Still, Bushnell himself apparently called it his favorite Atari 2600 game. Meanwhile, Saboteur is cut from the Yar’s Revenge cloth. At heart, it’s a simple shooter, but dressed up slightly better.

Speaking of Yars, it was my favorite home game in the set. It actually held up relatively well, although there’s only two screens. It’s the one and only game in the entire collection I wish had more going for it, because the concept had legs and I would have felt compelled to continue on its own gameplay merits. A home-brew sequel is included in the collection, but it’s really just a glorified ROM hack that moves the action to the center of the screen and feels like Yars’ Revenge as played through a fun-house mirror. Again, ignore the way its advertised as a completely unique game. It’s a ROM hack, and nothing more. There’s a few of those included. Adventure II is a ROM hack of Adventure. Haunted House (the first video game to ever give me a seizure, which happened when my father bought me an early version of the Atari Flashback plug-and-play as a novelty gift before I started IGC) gets a sequel called Return to Haunted House, which is another Adventure ROM hack. Meanwhile, other un-released games included are Combat Two (which is so bad that it’s practically broken) and the 2600 version of Tempest that isn’t even finished and looks like it takes place on Skeletor’s underwear.

I hated the almost the entire Atari experience, but I did learn some things. I learned that Atari’s reputation of having poor arcade translations is total bullshit. Space Invaders isn’t included (given that it was THE killer app that sold the system, come on AtGames: cut a fucking check to include it), but I’ve played the 2600 port and it’s very close to the arcade experience. Asteroids is in the set, and the 2600 version I liked more than the arcade version (others pointed out you can cheese it and not even try, which might be true but I didn’t really explore it). Missile Command is stripped down, simplified, and better on the 2600 than in the arcade version (that might owe to the crappy control translation for the arcade version). Granted, that’s not always the case. Home versions of Crystal Castles, Pong (which has invincible AI), and Warlords are disgraceful. But still, if I were a kid in the 80s who was into Centipede, I don’t think I’d hate the game I got for the Atari 2600 if that was my only home option.

Don’t let the 150 game count fool you though. A lot of the games are stuff nobody in their right mind could want to play today. Educational games like Basic Math, board games like Backgammon or Checkers, and lots of sports games pad out the game count. Some of them are neat as curios. I came very close to saying “yes” to a bizarre one-on-one baseball game called Home Run that was such a desperate, god-awful attempt at doing baseball early in the 2600’s life-cycle (before the file sizes crept up) that you can’t help but admire it. It’s actually kind of playable too. In a silly, I’m laughing at you and not with you type of way. On the flip side of that, there’s stuff like Golf or Miniature Golf, both of which I think would have to be on the list of worst games I’ve ever played in my entire life.

About ten years ago, my Dad bought me a MAME panel, fully-loaded, off Ebay. Seven buttons per a player. Authentic arcade parts. It’s very nice. And I bring that panel up because included on its surface is a turbo spinner that exists just to play Tempest. That’s how important that spinner is to the Tempest experience: an arcade panel that cost close to $1,000 has an interface just for it. (Well, it also works as a steering wheel too, and it’s not like I’ve played all 12,000+ games I have for MAME so there might be other spinner-based games). No amount of controller adjustments to the Switch Joycons or alternative controllers (I tried a Pro and GameCube controller) can make up for the speed-of-light accuracy of the turbo spinner.

Really, there’s easily under 100 games in the set that most people would actually want to at least experiment with. But experimenting is as far as you’ll probably make it. The legendary Swordquest games are included, and the comic books that the tie-in contest used are available, but the gameplay is so abstract and so anti-fun that you can completely understand how only a handful of gamers submitted the correct answers. Neat ideas, I guess, but the actual “gameplay” would boil down to variations of Avalanche or Frogger or other games that already existed. And the Frogger-like components in the Swordquest games were honestly the worst versions of Frogger I’ve ever played. The Swordquest games started as a sequel to Adventure, and not that I like Adventure, but at least it was its own thing instead of derivatives of other, better games.

That was the story for Atari Flashback Classics to me: lots of ambition (sometimes. Anyone that thinks they weren’t totally phoning it in with garbage like Basic Math or Slot Machine is so drunk on nostalgia they probably vomit out chunks of Punky Brewster), lots of imagination, but no means to see it out. A lot of Atari’s staff were handicapped by things like limited storage (every single KB cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in production posts) and a cut-throat work environment where programmers cliqued-up and rarely intermingled. So yea, I hated most of the games. But, that I actually liked eight of 2600 games is kind of a miracle. I wish I could recommend the set because no collection of classic games is closer to the modern indie can-do experience.

It says Spire. IT SAYS SPIRE! That gigantic, bejeweled sword is MINE!

But I can’t. The controller translations are garbage. There’s no bonus features unless you count unreleased games (which I’m not) or instruction books. There’s online leaderboards, but only for the arcade games, and online leaderboards for terrible games is like putting garnish on a plate of shit. And there’s a lot of missing games. Why isn’t Battlezone on this set? Why couldn’t they spring the extra money and include Activision games? I mean, this is a $40 game. That ain’t cheap, and these games have such limited play value that you need as many reasons to buy as possible. I’m guessing Activision’s 2600 games haven’t aged that much better than Atari ones, but I can’t know until I play them. The only third-party games included are M Network games, and they all aged badly too. Really, this set just feels incomplete and cheap. Not as cheap as Flashback is on Xbox One, where the same games are broken into three sets of fifty games each and will cost you $60 to get them all. But still, the only thing keeping this from being the worst set of classic games I’ve ever played is the fact that I own Dragon’s Lair Trilogy.

INDIE GAMER CHICK RETRO-APPROVED RANKINGS

Arcade
1. Lunar Lander
2. Space Duel
3. Black Widow
4. Red Baron
5. Asteroids Deluxe
6. Pool Shark

Atari 2600/5200
1. Yar’s Revenge
2. Save Mary
3. Fatal Run
4. Saboteur
5. Combat
6. Bowling
7. Asteroids (2600 version)
8. Missile Command (2600 version)

Total Games: 150
IGC Goal: 50
IGC Approved: 14
**SET FAILS**

Atari Flashback Classics was developed by AtGames
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$39.99 just lost points with the senior demographic in the making of this review.

The same game is $19.99 on Vita. Same collection. Switch Tax!! Ba na na na na na na na SWITCH TAX! Yes, I just sang the Batman 60s theme but replaced the words “Bat” and “Man” with “Switch” and “Tax.”

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