The New Era Of Self-Contained Home Videogame Units

With "retro-philia" striking the hearts of older gamers trying to recapture the joys of yesterday's gaming, companies are seeking ways to fulfill the desire of bringing the classics back.  One of my previous articles covered the good and bad of game compilations made for the modern systems, and since then there have been more compilations emerging, one of them being the Zelda Collector's Disk that Nintendo is bundling up with its Gamecube system, featuring both NES Zelda games in addition to both Nintendo 64 Zeldas.  Another one has been the Activision Anthology for the Playstation 2, which not only improves on the emulation of classic Activision games for the Atari 2600 (with Kaboom! still suffering in the process due to the lack of a paddle controller), but also throws in some bonus material, like "virtual patches" that you could earn by reaching certain scores on your games and a handful of classic 80s tunes you could listen to while playing.

Jakks Pacific's Atari TV GamesYet another way that companies are offering compilations to satisfy the "retro-philia" urge is through the creation of self-contained videogame units that play a select handful of games programmed in.  This gaming option, which last appeared during the 1970s when Pong was a major videogame hit, seemed to have died out when the Atari 2600 and other systems near the late 1970s and early 1980s offered interchangeable gameplay through cartridges -- apparently, the novelty of a gaming unit that could only play a handful of games didn't sit very well with people who found themselves bored when they have played out all the games it could play.  However, the surprising thing about this form of home gaming coming back to the forefront is that game systems themselves have gone from using the cartridge format to using compact disks and now even DVD-ROMs, which while they offer more memory for creating bigger games, they also make themselves more prone to damage and being worn out than say nothing about the games themselves being much more complex and in some cases harder to play than what the early days of videogaming had to offer, and on top of all this there are numerous choices of games to play on any given system.

Jakks Pacific's Namco TV GamesFollowing the first batch of these new self-contained game units which were made by Oriental companies pirating classic NES games on a single controller, there are a few legitimate corporate products that touch upon gaming's greatest from the days of the Atari 2600.  Toymax has released a gamepad controller that could play 10 different Activision games for the 2600, Techno Source has brought forth one that could play up to 25 different games for the Mattel Intellivision, and Jakks Pacific delivered two that had 10 Atari-developed Atari 2600 games on one unit and 5 Namco-developed arcade games on another.  Of these four products alone, Jakks Pacific went the extra mile and made the Atari 2600 and Namco TV Games units look like the joystick controllers of their respective game machines, which adds something to the nostalgia factor of playing the classics again on your TV screen.

Techno Source's Intellivision 25-in-1As far as replicating the games themselves, I can only speak about the Namco TV Games model that I own, and the company has done a close enough job with all five included games -- Pac-Man, Galaxian, Dig Dug, Rally X, and Bosconian -- that only a die-hard classic arcade purist would make objections.  Admittedly, the sounds of Pac-Man and Galaxian are different; there's no voice samples in Bosconian, which I don't have much of a problem with considering that I hated hearing the mangled "Blast off!" and "Alert! Alert!" calls; the diving patterns of Galaxian aren't very wide and the Pac-Man power pills last a little longer than they originally did; Rally-X and Bosconian now have their radar scanners overlaying the game screen instead of in a separate window on the side of the screen; and diagonal movements in Bosconian are impossible to do with the controller since it only operates in 4 directions.  While the joystick and action button are responsive and sturdy enough for playing the games, other slight criticisms are aimed at things such as the occasional color flickering problem and the fact that it needs 4 AA batteries to run the unit; there's no AC adapter jack option, so you might want to stock up on some good long-lasting batteries.

Jakks Pacific's Activision TV GamesCriticisms and differences aside, though, playing these games from a game unit no bigger than a game controller itself is a real treat, and it does make me wonder what would have happened if something like this came out during the whole "Pac-Man craze" of the early 1980s.  At that time, the Nintendo Entertainment System was not yet heard of, and the Atari 5200 and ColecoVision were competing against each other for the title of "home system that brought the arcades home".  Loyalists of the Atari 2600 were dismayed at the translation job of Pac-Man done for their system, yet the Atari 5200 and 8-bit personal computer versions were almost near arcade-perfection for the technology that existed back then.  The only other game that was closer to arcade Pac-Man for the home was Muncher for the Bally Astrocade system, and that had blockier graphics than the Atari systems, yet it also captured what made Pac-Man a great game to play in the arcades.  Had the Namco TV games unit ever showed up back then, it would have made the arcades a much quieter place and would have made the home systems of that time look like they came from the Stone Age even though they would have the significant advantage of playing more games through interchangeable cartridges.

Will we see more self-contained game units like this?  Who knows?  Personally, I would like to see Nintendo get in on the "retro-philia" movement and license out the original Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Junior to a company like Jakks Pacific for instant home play.  Or legitimately re-release a collection of games from the 8-bit NES system, preferrably the two Legend Of Zelda games, in this fashion.  Or Sega could do it with some of its ancient arcade titles like Carnival and Zaxxon.  The possibilities for such future releases are endless.  Now if there's only room enough for all these self-contained game machines to be in front of your TV set!
1. Atari TV Games by Jakks Pacific -- Apparently, the unit doesn't emulate the Atari 2600, but rather attempts to emulate the 10 games included in the unit that played on the 2600 -- the 10 games being Adventure, Asteroids, Breakout, Circus Atari, Centipede, Gravitar, Missile Command, Pong, RealSports Volleyball, and Yars' Revenge.  The games selection is rather questionable, considering that some of the games used paddle controllers instead of joysticks, and that some of the games are also the least played games, in my humble opinion.  Of the games offered, though, only Asteroids and Yars' Revenge come very close to replicating the gameplay experience of the original 2600 versions, with only minor differences to complain about.  Perfectionists may be better off finding the real thing at garage sales and eBay auctions (or buy an Atari Flashback 2, as described further in this article), but those who don't mind what the Atari TV Games unit has to offer in comparison may enjoy the closest thing to having an "Atari 2600 on a stick."  For people who don't have the space for yet another gaming system, it's a very economical solution, and you don't have to wade through a selection of cartridges or disks to find what you want to play.
Jakks Pacific's Ms. Pac-Man TV Games 2. Ms. Pac-Man TV Games by Jakks Pacific -- As far as ergonomics is concerned, this version is somewhat an improvement over the hand-cramping feel of the Namco TV Games unit, though it does have a heftier feel to it.  The games included with this unit -- Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Xevious, Pole Position, and Mappy -- are such excellent renditions of the originals, nearly arcade-perfect in every way.  The only issues I have is that the joystick control for Ms. Pac-Man tends to get a little mushy in places where you want to move her up or down (partly because of the stick now being used to steer the player's car in Pole Position by having it being twisted like a paddle knob controller, perhaps?), and that the second button controller used for Xevious and Pole Position isn't quite as convenient in its placing to press; even though it's right near the main action button, you'd have to switch off from that button to press it unless you can manage to use the heel of your thumb to do so.
3. Konami Collector's Series Arcade Advanced by Majesco -- This unit comes packed with six Konami arcade games -- Frogger, Scramble, Time Pilot, Gyruss, Yie-Ar Kung Fu, and Rush'N'Attack -- and of the four that I've played, they seem like original 8-bit Nintendo conversions (particularly Gyruss).  Frogger suffers not only with having different sound effects, but also with having the score and lives display being so far down the screen that you can hardly see it.  Scramble and Time Pilot, meanwhile, benefit from now having the action buttons being held down for rapid-fire instead of constantly pressing them like in the arcade originals.  The joystick itself feels rather awkward to use, and the Start and Reset buttons could be made a bit bigger.
The Atari Flashback 24. Atari Flashback 2 by Infogrames/Atari -- Shaped like a smaller version of the original woodgrain-model Atari 2600 (at that time called the Atari Video Computer System), the Flashback 2 does plug-and-play Atari 2600 game units a big enough leap better by having the internals of the unit run actual Atari 2600 game program ROMs through a hardware-based system emulator chip.  The games in the unit include classic arcade-to-2600 games such as Asteroids, Battlezone, Centipede, Combat,  Missile Command,  Millipede, and Space War; classic 2600 originals such as Adventure, Haunted House, Off The Wall, Quadrun, and Yars' Revenge; some never-before-released prototype games such as Aquaventure, Combat 2, Frog Pond, Save Mary, Saboteur, and Wizard; and some new and/or modified games like Adventure II, Asteroids Deluxe, Atari Climber, Caverns Of Mars, Lunar Lander, Space Duel, and Yars' Return.  (A nifty bonus is that, if you enter a controller code at the opening menu screen when you turn it on, you also get some games like Super Breakout that you can use Atari 2600 paddle controllers on.) The system comes with two joystick controllers similar to the ones originally packaged with the Atari 2600 units that, except for the fact that the handles are now detachable, feel and work just like the original 2600 joysticks.
As far as how the games play on this "Atari VCS Jr." of sorts, I have only played about several of the games included, but there seems to be very few problems with either the system's emulation or the games themselves.  An early model of the Flashback 2 is unable to play the voices of Quadrun (which seems to be the model I have), but that's not even a game I would normally play, so to me it's a non-issue.  Some of the original games and hacks, however, are so glitchy to the point of causing problems with the TV screen display, and some of them like Yars' Return are not even fun to play.  The developers of the Flashback 2 have allowed game system modifiers to hack the system by adding a 2600-compatible cartridge slot to the system so people could play their old cartridges on the system.  I haven't tried this out yet (and I'm not sure if I will ever), but those who have done so to their Flashback 2 units have reported that it doesn't play all of the games made for the Atari 2600.  Also, modifying the Flashback 2 for cartridge use will sever the connection to the system's built-in games menu and supply.  People who own both an Atari 2600 and a Flashback 2 might want to stick with using the 2600 or get themselves another Flashback 2 for the sake of modifying.
Aside from these beefs and the lack of a system reset button that would allow Flashback 2 owners to go back to the menu screen to select another game to play (rather than having to turn off the system and turn it back again to do so, as it is right now), the Flashback 2 system is perhaps the best alternative for plug-and-play Atari 2600 gaming than the earlier Atari TV Games system.
Jakks Pacific's Super Pac-Man TV Games5. Super Pac-Man TV Games by Jakks Pacific -- If you got to have a version of Super Pac-Man to play at home on your TV set and you don't want to dole out money for those hard-to-find Namco Museum game compilation volumes for the Sony Playstation, this may be the most inexpensive way to have it.  Besides this game, it also has the original Pac-Man, Bally/Midway's Pac-Man Plus, and Namco's rarely-seen Pac & Pal, where Pac-Man flips over cards to unlock fruit prizes that you must get before one of the ghost monsters named Pal grabs it and carts it back to the monster pen.  It's a much better unit to hold in your hand than either the Namco TV Games unit or the Ms. Pac-Man TV Games model, and the joystick is good and responsive.  Like the Ms. Pac-Man TV Games, pressing the Reset button puts the game on pause so that you can go take a bathroom break or answer the phone or something.

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