While this is hardly breaking news, it's been interesting to follow some of the drama around the "Atari 2600 Plug 'N Play Keychain" series from "Basic Fun". The first part of the drama involves the company's falling out with engineer Curt Vendel, most famous for being the lead on the "Atari Flashback" and "Atari Flashback 2.0" products, and launching "Awesome Arcades". The second and more relevant part of the drama involves the simple fact that these products, amazing form factor and low price aside ($15 each), are awful simulations, seemingly ignoring all the progress made over the past few years in TV Game quality (in fact, reverting back to the NES-on-a-chip of the first Flashback, which has been proven unable to properly simulate Atari 2600 games!). Perhaps "Basic Fun" should have just went with the quality product that Curt had originally delivered for them, rather than scrapping it and doing the products on the super cheap!
While the "Atari Flashback" was a weak simulation of both the Atari 7800 and 2600 systems using the readily available NES-on-a-chip as the platform, the "Atari Flashback 2.0" rectified this by incorporating a clever Atari 2600-on-a-chip, almost perfectly emulating the original hardware. After that and the prior "Commodore 64 30-in-1" (which essentially featured a C-64-on-a-chip), it's hard to go back to the kind of innaccuracies that are present in these keychain devices. Bottom line, the bar has been raised and we truly have the right to expect more, based simply on precedent and the countless other TV Games devices out there that do offer more authentic experiences, even of latter day systems like the Sega Genesis or arcade machines.
From the officially licensed product's Website comes this rather optimistic description:
A real Plug N' Play, featuring classic Atari Paddle and Joystick controllers and classic Atari games, is now at your fingertips! These authetic gaming units plug directly into your TV and feature full video graphics and sounds just like the Atari originals, but in a size small enough to carry in your pocket. Play on any TV in the house, take to your friend's house, even bring it with you to grandma's! The paddle controller features the original Pong, Breakout, and Warlords. Two versions of the joystick controller feature the best games from the original Atari 2600, including Asteroids, Centipede, Milipede and Missile Command. Each keychain includes a separate pocket size reel that holds six feet of cord and RCA jacks. Powered by 3 AAA batteries. (batteries not included)
well it's a keychain, they aren't supposed to play games ;)
The simple fact that they managed to get somehthing like this in is actually quite an achievement. But this horribly missimulations of the old games is exactly what could give retrogaming a bad reputation.... it'll make people think those bad blips, blops and awful gameplay are only suited for people who suck at the 'real games' of todays consoles.
Hastily I am referring all to our xbox 360 gamertags in the discussion forums!
-= Mark Vergeer - Armchair Arcade editor =-
It would be an achievment Mark if Curt didn't have a working keychain prototype that ran off of his 2600-on-a-chip. If they had gone with that, this discussion would be moot, as I'm sure we'd all have one by now. To simplify things, in order to save a few bucks, the firm making the chip decided to use the NES-on-a-chip, which is why the simulation is so pathetic. That's been proven for whatever reason to be unable to handle Atari 2600 simulation, let alone emulation. You would think after the Flashback 1 fiasco, as well as the other limp Atari games in a joystick or paddle prior to the Flashback 2, these corporations would have some responsibility to continue the positive trend. I realize they'll sell butt-loads even with a half-assed attempt, but it's a shame simply because it doesn't have to be that way.
I'm also a bit perplexed by the add-on, that contains the battery packs and connecting wires. Doesn't that defeat the purpose of having this thing on a keychain if you need to put that pack in your pocket?
NES-on a chip not only doesn't suffice in achieving approximations of 2600 games but it also lacks in NES emulation itself. The sound is just horrible and just does not approach true NES / Famicom sound. The compatibility of the NES-on a chip for NES emulation is also far from 100%. One can observe than by trying out these cheap famicom/nes clones that often have a whole load of illegal nes game rips on some sort of rom chip - some only offer the built-in games other actually feature a cartridge port - often compatible with Jap/US games - but not all.
I own a portable NES machine looking a little like a gba that is based on the NES-on a chip principe, it features a cartridge port only accepting non-existing mini versions of nes cartridges. It came with an adapter allowing certain games to run: Bomberman, Captain America, Gunnac and a 71in1 multicart all run, most of my other original Japanese carts don't.
Perhaps approximation of the 2600 experience can still be achieved by creating better ports of the games, because I do think that they've done a pretty bad job of porting the ones on the Flashback-1 machine. In the end only people infatuated with the gimmick will buy the keychain and true retrogaming fans will shy away from such a device. I for one would have loved to get a true 2600-on a chip keychain device, but I still would have frowned with the add-on-stuff allowing one to actually play the games on a tv-screen.
-= Mark Vergeer - Armchair Arcade editor =-