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Retro Video Gaming on the Go

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If you grew up in the 70s like me, you probably remember the first wave of video games showing up in the arcade, and eventually coming home on the Atari 2600. I wasted a good portion of my childhood glued in front of a TV fighting Space Invaders, flying through Asteroid fields, and climbing to the top of a construction site to save a princess from Donkey Kong.

ATGames makes a popular line of retro-gaming hardware that plug into your TV and a 110 outlet, but if you want something convenient, portable and battery powered, they've come up with a new solution. The Atari Flashback Portable is a device about the size and shape of a smart phone. Charge it up, turn it on, and you're greeted with a list of some of the most popular Atari 2600 VCS titles of all time. In fact, you might notice that some of them, like Pac Man and Frogger, are far better than you remember - almost arcade quality. Others, like "Adventure II," you won't remember at all. 

That is because people are actively making games for this ancient console - and in the 40 years since it was released, they've gotten really good at getting every last drop of performance. In the case of Pac-Man and Frogger, people have gone back and fixed what were disappointing home versions of arcade classics. Adventure II is what is known as a "homebrew" game. In this case, someone took the original Adventure, one of the first Dungeons and Dragons video games ever, and expanded it with bigger dungeons and more castles to explore. 

The nice thing about these games is that unlike modern console games, you don't need weeks of playing for hours every day to finish them, and hours just to learn how to move around. These are the simple, straight forward games of our childhood, games you can pick up and play in a few minutes and that you can play for as little or long as you like. 

Some of the more popular titles you might remember include Asteroids, Centipede, Dig Dug, Frogger, Galaxian, Missle Command, Pac Man, and Pitfall! But don't overlook the old classic like Adventure, Dodge'em, Haunted House and Yars' Revenge. Once you work your way through those, try the newer homebrew versions of old classics, like Adventure II, Haunted House II, and Yars' Revenge. 

The device construction feels durable and solid, but the plastic feels toy-like. This isn't a $200 PlayStation Portable. I kind of like it that way. It feels more authentic and enhances the retro feel. If you could have bought this from Atari back in 1979, this is almost exactly what you would have expected it to be. The LCD display is small and difficult to see from certain angles. If you need reading glasses like I do, some games may be too difficult to see even wearing glasses. There is a single d-pad, 6 buttons and a start and reset button, a power switch and volume control. There is headphone jack, a video out jack that will allow you to hook the device up to a TV with RCA inputs, and a USB port for charging the user-replaceable battery. 

The most disappointing thing is that games like BreakOut and Kaboom! were designed for paddle controllers, and are virtually unplayable on the d-pad. 

If you're technically savvy, the most exciting thing about this console is the built in SD Slot. Use your PC to download a collection of ROMs from the internet and copy them into a folder titled Games on your SD card, and you'll instantly have almost every video game ever made for the Atari, including new ones made in the last 10 years. Best of all, these ROMs are available free, in a ready-to-go zip file, at a website called AtariAge.com. You can read more about it and download the zip file here.  Just expand the zip and copy the folder named Games onto your SD card, and you'll go from about 80 to almost 500 video games on the Flashback portable. This will also add the original versions of the updated versions of Pac Man and Frogger, allowing you to compare side by side the original versions to those that are available today. As new games are released, many of them will work with the Flashback Portable by simply downloading their ROM image from the internet and copying it into the folder on your SD card. Note that your SD card needs to be 8GB or smaller, and that the entire Atari library is about 4 megabytes, so you don't need a big or expensive SD card to store the entire library. 

While there are lots of other ways to download old retro-game emulators and ROMs onto your computer or smart phone, this requires more experience with computers and is usually less convenient. The Flashback Portable is designed to be easy for children and consumers to use and set up with downloaded ROM images. You don't have to be a computer expert to play these games on the Flashback. 

If you love old-school video games and remember the Atari 2600, the Flashback Portable is an inexpensive way to kill some time while you are laying over at a truck stop on a long haul, or waiting in line at the scales.  

Retail prices on the Flashback portable range from about $40 to $75. I picked mine up over Christmas at a Walgreens, but you can also find it on Amazon.com and other online retailers.