Jurassic Snark

Classic Atari is back, but Centipede isn't quite as fun as you remember.

Q. My young 'un is finally reaching gaming age, and I'd like to introduce him to some of the classics I used to enjoy. I mean, how can the tyke enjoy Halo 2 if he hasn't experienced Centipede too? Now, I've read that Atari is reissuing its classic console, or something. What's the word? Worth the investment?

A. You're thinking of the just released Atari Flashback, a $45 console that comes pre-installed with 20 "classic" games. Mr. Roboto uses those cheeky quote marks because, quite frankly, the Atari library isn't quite as enthralling as you might remember from your own tykedom. Buy it if you must, but for purely nostalgic reasons.

The Flashback is easy enough to hook up to your TV—it's truly a plug-and-play device. It comes with two joysticks fashioned after those of the Atari 7800 console, rather than the more familiar, boxier 2600 controllers. The game list hits all the high points of early Atari, like Adventure, Breakout, and yes, Centipede, plus a few obscure 7800 titles.

It doesn't take long to realize, however, that most of the games haven't aged well. Mr. Roboto remembers being enchanted by Haunted House as a robotlet, but couldn't take more than three minutes of it on the Flashback. Only Yars' Revenge displays a flicker of replay value, but the blasted enemy doohickey always attacks after the same number of beeps.

Since there's no expansion slot on the Flashback, you're pretty much stuck with the 20 presets for all eternity.

The better long-term strategy is Atari Anthology, an 85-game compendium for Xbox or PlayStation 2, slated for release next month. It's priced at just $20, though you've obviously got to have one of the compatible consoles too. But prices on those are coming down, and fast: Available October 31, for example, Microsoft's new Xbox deal comes with the console, two games (NCAA Football 2005 and Top Spin), and two free months of the online Xbox Live service. More holiday bargains are probably on the near horizon.

Unlike the Flashback, a full-scale console isn't stuck with the same roster of games, classic or otherwise. If you tire of the Atari Anthology, there's always the two-volume Midway Arcade Treasures series, each of which offers 20 games for $20. For Mr. Roboto's money, Midway's classic-era games trump Atari's in-house creations. On a desert island, would you rather have Atari's Asteroids, or Midway's Defender? 'Nuff said.

OK, so maybe you don't want to spoil Junior quite that much, getting him an Xbox or PS2 or whatnot. Another option is a plug-and-play console from Jakks Pacific's TV Games line (jakkstvgames.com). They've actually got two $20 Atari consoles, offering 10 games each: one with the classic 2600 joysticks, and one with the "paddles" that made Reagan-era Warlords such a hoot. Mr. Roboto's pick, though, is the 10-in-one Activision console, which features Pitfall. Pitfall, you see, absolutely rocks Mr. Roboto's world.

Of course, you can also go super-geeky on your kid and dredge up a genuine 2600 console on eBay for as little as $25. Games can be had for around $5—though they're often the real stinkers. Tapeworm, anyone? Mr. Roboto thought not.


The real deal

Speaking of antiques, amazon.com is currently offering used PSOnes for under $40. The PSOne is a streamlined version of the PlayStation 1, for which a zillion games are available at flea markets and yard sales—a godsend for gamers who can't cope with $50 price tags on the latest PS2 offerings. And hey, Electronic Arts is still churning out PS1 titles. Brilliant.


Cult of Mac

Mac-heads are already a pretty devoted lot, so it's doubtful that the new Leander Kahney tome, The Cult of Mac (No Starch Press, $40), will make 'em any more loyal. But that doesn't mean it's without serious entertainment value. Kahney, who writes the Cult of Mac blog for Wired News, includes 500 pictures of the splendid ways the faithful pay their respects. Who knew there were so many Mac tattoos out there?


bkoerner@villagevoice.com

 
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