These days, retro gaming is all the rage. The Xbox Live Arcade's mixture of old arcade games and original casual gaming fare is a big hit on the Xbox 360, and the Nintendo Wii, the PlayStation 3, and the PSP will all have similar classic downloadable offerings available soon. PC gamers can opt for a service such as GameTap, which offers hundreds of past titles. Alternately, there are plenty of compilations available for just about any system--PC, home console, or handheld--that let you relive your glory days at the arcade. But if you want to go truly old school, the Atari Flashback 2 may be just the ticket.
The Flashback 2, released in 2005, is a faithful replication of the Atari 2600, the product that effectively created the home video-gaming market in the late 1970s. It's about two-thirds the size of the original and sports big yellow and orange buttons instead of toggle switches, but it's an otherwise faithful re-creation, right down to the faux wood paneling. A six-foot A/V cable is hard-wired to its backside; betraying the age of the source material, it's monaural, not stereo, but it'll plug into any free A/V input on your TV, A/V receiver, VCR, or DVD recorder. The Flashback 2 is powered by an AC adapter, unlike many of the other plug-in games that require batteries.
Instead of a cartridge slot, the Flashback 2 has 40 built-in games. From a main menu, the games are divided into four categories: arcade, adventure, skill, and space. Titles range from bona fide 2600 classics (Asteroids, Adventure, Combat, Pong, Space War) to some more obscure games (Haunted House, Yars' Revenge) and even a couple from third-party publisher Activision (Pitfall and River Raid). Moreover, if some of the other games--Aquaventure, Combat 2, Frog Pond, Save Mary, and Wizard--sound unfamiliar even to enthusiasts, it's because they're unreleased prototypes, available here for the first time. At the same time, many will lament the dearth of other favorites (Space Invaders, Pac-Man) that didn't make the cut for one reason or another.
The real highlight of the Flashback 2 is its controllers. The package includes two joysticks, which are near-perfect replicas of the Atari 2600 classic. When compared to today's increasingly complex gamepads--the Xbox 360 controller, for instance, has seven buttons, four triggers, two depressable thumbsticks, and a four-way directional pad--the simplicity of the eight-way joystick and a single action button is rather a breath of fresh air.