Atari Flashback 2 video game console
Paul Sakuma  /  AP
"Pong" on the new Atari Flashback 2 video game console. Two paddles, one ball. Now that's gaming.
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updated 9/26/2005 8:10:58 PM ET 2005-09-27T00:10:58
REVIEW

Some sobering news for anyone who has recently crested 40: Everything you grew up with is now officially retro.

Clothes, music, hair styles — even video games.

Long before "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," there was "Pong," a simple video game from Nolan Bushnell and the folks at the original Atari Inc. Two paddles, one ball and no Hot Coffee mod to unlock hidden sex scenes. THAT was gaming.

The Atari brand has traded hands in the years since "Pong" hit the scene, but the new owners are still milking some mileage out of this game and 39 others with Atari Flashback 2. This $30 device offers a fun and affordable glimpse into gaming's past — one that, for better and worse, looks nothing like the present.

The console itself looks like a scaled-down version of an old Atari 2600, with faux wood paneling and other dated details. There are no cartridges to plug in, as technology advances have made it easy to stuff all of the games onto a small chip inside. And the controllers are exactly like the Atari 2600 joysticks of yore.

The unit connects to your home television through common audio and video RCA inputs. Many sets have these connections on the front, which is a bonus with this console because I found the cables that come with it a bit short.

Among the 40 titles are classics like "Centipede," "Asteroids," "Missile Command," "Yar's Revenge" and "Pitfall." Some are licensed from Activision Inc., which made games for the 2600, but most are original Atari gems.

How do these titles hold up in the face of today's video games with highly detailed graphics, Dolby Digital sound and online connectivity? As well as could be expected of large primary-colored blocks jumping around the screen.

But there is magic in the way those blocks moved. Hours of magic.

Games like "Missile Command" have the type of player interaction that remains viable in plot and movement. My mind was thrust back decades as I began to protect the cities closest to my ammunition bunker, keeping an eye peeled for smart bombs, those little blinking diamonds that fell from the sky and tried to evade my explosions.

And "Millipede," a sequel to the popular "Centipede" title, was a blast. I was racking up extra lives on only my second attempt as I weaved past that infernal spider that crept from the corners seeking to squash me.

The action games held up well, but adventure games like "Haunted House" and "Wizard" were mostly duds and offered little real suspense.

Seriously. How scary can a blinking green square be anyway?

The sounds produced by these games are rudimentary at best. Even my cell phone makes more intricate tones.

Nonetheless, lots of people simply refuse to let go of retro-gaming.

Consider that many who long for old quarter-gobbling arcade games like "Joust," "Defender" and "Crystal Castle" have gravitated to free software called MAME, short for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator. MAME can run the original ROMs from hundreds of arcade game machines. And those ROMs are also readily available online.

The legality of using MAME to play ROMs you don't actually own is up for debate. But an enthusiastic online community is keeping the old titles alive, and there's no debating the lure of a pixelated pastime that helped define a generation.

Atari has done a nice job of legally giving us another look at these early games, long after the consoles themselves have been relegated to the dust bin.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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