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.
The games play exactly the same as they did way back when, though one caveat looms: what was state of the art during the Carter administration doesn't hold quite the same allure after a quarter-century of raised expectations. Those old enough to remember the blocky graphics and rudimentary gameplay may be in for a shock ("I wasted three summers playing this?"); younger gamers will be equally stunned by the fact that these "classics" are far less sophisticated than any cell phone game, browser-based Flash title, or GameBoy Advance release to which they're accustomed. But that, of course, is part of the charm. The graphics may have been blocky, but the dueling biplanes in Combat, the gunslinging cowboys of Outlaw, and the anthropomorphic projectiles of Human Cannonball brought back a flood of happy memories and had us grinning in ways that Madden NFL 07 just couldn't match.
Our only lament was that the system didn't also include paddle controllers; playing Pong with the joysticks felt somehow sacrilegious by comparison. But there is a workaround: if you happen to have a pair of vintage paddle controllers in the basement, they actually should work with the Flashback 2; it uses the same connector as the original console--no adapter needed. In fact, the Flashback 2 ups the nostalgia ante by including an Easter egg: enter a secret code, and the paddle-friendly Super Breakout and Warlords games will be unlocked.
Another interesting "feature" of the Flashback 2 is that it's hackable. Because it's essentially the old 2600 on a chip (as opposed to an emulator), truly dedicated gamers can--and have--modified the Flashback 2 to run their collection of vintage cartridges and homebrew mods. Doing so is for dedicated DIYers only--those who aren't afraid of soldering circuit boards or violating warranties. But the fact you can do it at all is still pretty cool.
Compared to other retro gaming options, the Flashback 2 has the edge. It has twice as many games as the original Atari Flashback, which was based on the barely remembered Atari 7800, a console released during Atari's mid-1980s twilight years, when the company was well on its way to losing the gaming crown to upstart Nintendo. Unlike the battery-powered console-in-a-joystick offerings by Jakks Pacific, the Flashback 2 offers head-to-head, two-player action out of the box. Also, while you can play many of these same games on other hardware platforms, including the PC, the PlayStation 2, the Xbox, and the Game Boy Advance, the Flashback 2 is the only one that offers the visceral satisfaction of wrapping your hands around that vintage Atari joystick. Sealing the deal is the price: the Atari Flashback 2 is widely available for less than $30. When you consider that the Atari 2600's price would be a PS3-challenging $659 when adjusted for inflation, how could you say no?