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Atari 400 Mini review – a fascinating adventure in the land of 8-bit
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Atari 400 Mini review – a fascinating adventure in the land of 8-bit

To a kid growing up in the UK in the 1980s, the Atari 400 and 800 machines seemed impossibly glamorous. While most of my friends had Commodore 64s or ZX Spectrums (along with the occasional Amstrad or Acorn Electron), I only ever saw Atari computers on cool TV shows and movies, such as Videodrome and Police Story. Launched in 1979, these two models boasted an Antic video processor providing superior graphics for the era, as well as a sound chip named Pokey for improved audio. They were, like the Apple II, seminal machines for young game coders looking to create new types of experience beyond simple arcade conversions.

Opening up the new Atari 400 Mini was, then, an oddly emotional experience. The latest nostalgic release from Retro Games is a nicely detailed facsimile of the original computer, featuring a non-functional version of its famed membrane keyboard in luscious 1970s beige, orange and brown, as well as four joystick ports along the base (now USB rather than the original Atari joystick port standard). The console comes with a new version of the classic Atari CX40 joystick, which subtly adds eight extra buttons, thereby allowing for the fact that Atari 400/800 games could call on the keyboard to provide extra input options.

Built in are 25 games that show the range of what was being produced on the 400 and 800 (the 800 was the posher model, with more memory and a better keyboard) back in the early 1980s. There are quaint home versions of classic arcade titles such as Asteroids, Millipede and Battlezone, which are, if nothing else, charming reminders of the compromises home console and computer devs had to make at that time. And there are fascinating glimpses of genres to come, including Paul Allen Edelstein’s Capture the Flag, a two-player first-person chase game, and M.U.L.E., a multiplayer colonisation strategy game that influenced the entire management sim industry.

There are also interesting experiments with producing pacy 3D visuals, in the form of futuristic racing sim Elektra Glide and Encounter! by Paul Woakes, who would go on to make one of the era’s most fascinating 3D sci-fi adventure titles, Mercenary.

While a few of the games will be familiar to those who have bought the C64 Mini or other retro machines, it was often the Atari 400 versions that came first, so you’re getting primary source material here. Well, almost. While there’s no original hardware in use, the emulator that Retro Games has employed to run all these games is solid and accurate, allowing a very decent rendition of these 40-year-old treasures.

Millipede on the 400 Mini.View image in fullscreen

And while they are undoubtedly ancient, many of these titles – including Boulder Dash and Lee (originally entitled Bruce Lee, but I’m guessing the licence expired) – hold up as genuinely playable relics. Either way, I’ve had hours of fun discovering games I never saw the first time round as well as familiar favourites in different guises. Plus, in typical mini console style, there’s a rewind function to correct mistakes and you can save games to memory. It’s also possible to tweak the visual settings, opting for a CRT effect which mimics the display style of traditional TVs, and there’s a virtual keyboard if you play a game that needs further input options. It’s not exactly smooth to use, but it’s nice that it’s there if you need it.

Interestingly, one of the selling points of the 400 Mini is that it lets you “load your own programs” – which is the instruction manual’s euphemistic way of saying the console will play game files known as ROMs, which you can load in via USB stick. Most people will find these ROMs on the internet, though the legality of freely downloading game files is ambiguous to say the least – which is why Retro Games leaves it to the user to figure this stuff out. I tested this aspect running several games, and it’s an impressively smooth process: the emulator will accept files in a number of common formats and will play both Atari 400 and 800 titles as well as later XL/XE variations. When you insert a USB stick containing game ROMs, a thumb drive icon appears on the onscreen game list, and when you click on it, your added games are displayed. The system even supports games that originally came on multiple disks; plus, you can reconfigure the joystick buttons to match the input requirements of most games you try.

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Lee (formerly Bruce Lee) on the 400 Mini.View image in fullscreen

At £100 the 400 Mini isn’t cheap, and its games may be less compelling to newer players who will perhaps get more out of, say, the Mega Drive or PC Engine Mini machines with their juicy 16-bit visuals and recognisable franchises. As an accessible museum piece, however, it is a fascinating and well-crafted device, revealing games I’d never played in their original format, as well as totally fresh retro experiences. This is an industry that has consistently failed to safeguard its own heritage and history; official archives are often bare and inaccessible. The mini consoles are a tiny attempt to address this problem in an intuitive and curated format.

I am now a long way from that kid growing up in the 1980s, but finally playing some of these Atari 400 gems has reminded me of him and the things he was fascinated by. That in itself has made this tiny machine worthwhile.

Source: theguardian.com