Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be (Atari Flashback Edition)

I have a shameful admission: I was born in 1969.

I premiered in February of that year, which means I was born before man walked on the moon. Before Watergate, before the Dolphins’ perfect season, before gasoline had ever cost more than 35 cents per gallon. Ice trays were made out of metal and had to have dividers put in them to make cubes. Harry S Truman, Elvis, Bobby Darin, and both Moe and Larry from The Three Stooges were still alive.

When I was born in 1969, the only “video game” was some sort of Ur-Pong played by two PhD candidates at MIT when they finished organizing their punch cards. (Kids, follow that link. It’s important for you to know about history, even the vile and shocking parts.) There was also Spacewar!, which was pretty cool, but not exactly Grand Theft Auto.


Spacewar! is featured in this deleted scene from Reservoir Dogs.

Anyway, all of this is to say that I was in that key “annoy the fuck out of your parents until they will either kill you or buy you what you demand” demographic of 10-13 during the reign of the Atari 2600 as the home game console. I think at first it was the only such console, and so that helped with sales, of course. In 1981, having an Atari 2600 was like having an unlimited arcade (as long as Mom would go the $35 a game) in your house. It hooked up to your TV. It was complete bliss, and this is important, as I remember. I recall that I regularly interrupted my furious masturbation schedule (only recently implemented one fateful afternoon alone in the house) to play Asteroids to 1,000,000 points. It took hours. And it was worth it. Again … as I remember.

Oh, the games! From Atari, Asteroids and Defender and, yes, Pong. Also there were the ActiVision games like Pitfall!, Laser Blast, and River Raid. Sure, the maximum 4K of memory (that’s K, my lads and lasses, as in one thousandth of a MB, one millionth of a GB) made for very primitive graphics and sound, but the variety of gameplay and ingenuity of the game designers created unforgettable, unique, and, um …

Oh, God, no.

Let me jump ahead 33 years or so, to today. Literally today, as in the day I’m writing this. After hiding out in our asbestos and razor-blade–lined anti-Black–Friday bunker, the Spousal Unit and I ventured out into the world Sunday to procure supplies and beat a tactical retreat home. We did this for the good of the many, since we would be forced to kill, skin, and display as a warning to others anyone who used the phrase “Cyber Monday” within our hearing. Wasn’t “Black Friday” bad enough?


Photo courtesy of Wal-Mart.

But first, I saw IT. The Atari Flashback 5, a replica of the 2600 console that ate up so much of my formative years with 93 FRICKIN’ GAMES BUILT RIGHT THE FUCK IN. So I snapped up the $40 system, knowing that the S.U. and I could while away the hours listening to the screams of our neighbors as their backs broke under 75″ televisions and play the games that were so entertaining in my youth. (The S.U. is a bit younger—hell, who isn’t?—and her first video console was the Nintendo 64. So this would be a real “treat” for her!)

The use of irony quotes around the word “treat” above should key you in to the next part of the story. I plugged in the RCA connectors and got the batteries in the wireless (whoa) joysticks, and sat down for some awesome fun playing the 2600 … games … I, um …


And not for the first time, either.


“Ho ho ho! I’m the jolly old elf who takes a shit in your stocking!”

Okay, wait, maybe that’s too subtle. Let me put it this way. Here’s a complete list of the “games” on the Atari Flashback 5 Joy-Murdering Machine:

01 3D Tic-Tac-Toe 02 Adventure 03 Adventure II 04 Air•Sea Battle
05 Aquaventure 06 Asteroids 07 Backgammon 08 Basketball
09 Black Jack 10 Bowling 11 Breakout 12 Canyon Bomber
13 Centipede 14 Championship Soccer 15 Circus Atari 16 Combat
17 Combat Two 18 Crystal Castles 19 Demons to Diamonds 20 Desert Falcon
21 Dodge ‘Em 22 Double Dunk 23 Fatal Run 24 Flag Capture
25 Football 26 Frog Pond 27 Front Line 28 Fun with Numbers
29 Golf 30 Gravitar 31 Hangman 32 Haunted House
33 Home Run 34 Human Cannonball 35 Jungle Hunt 36 Maze Craze
37 Miniature Golf 38 Missile Command 39 Millipede 40 Night Driver
41 Off-the-Wall 42 Outlaw 43 Polaris 44 Pong
45 Realsports Baseball 46 Realsports Basketball 47 Realsports Soccer 48 Realsports Volleyball
49 Return to Haunted House 50 Saboteur 51 Save Mary 52 Sky Diver
53 Slot Machine 54 Slot Racers 55 Space Invaders 56 Space War
57 Sprintmaster 58 Star Ship 59 Steeplechase 60 Stellar Track
61 Street Racer 62 Submarine Commander 63 Super Baseball 64 Super Breakout
65 Super Football 66 Surround 67 Swordquest: Earthworld 68 Swordquest: Fireworld
69 Tempest 70 Video Checkers 71 Video Chess 72 Video Pinball
73 Wizard 74 Warlords 75 Yars’ Revenge 76 Air Raiders
77 Armor Ambush 78 Astroblast 79 Dark Cavern 80 Int’l Soccer
81 Super Challenge Baseball 82 Super Challenge Football 83 Space Attack 84 Star Strike
85 Sea Battle 86 Frogs and Flies 87 Sword Fight 88 Chase It
90 Escape It 91 Miss It 92 Shield Shifter 93 Strip Off

Okay? And here’s a list of the games that are even remotely playable:

01 Space Invaders

Here in Las Vegas, we have the wonderful Pinball Hall of Fame. It has many, many classic video games, pinball games (duh), and historical-type coin-operated entertainments too cool to go into here.


Jessica changed all her birthday money into pennies that year.

They have Space Invaders, and it costs exactly one quarter to play for 5, maybe 10 minutes. What I’m saying is that in order to make the Atari Flashback 5 pay for itself by playing the single game that doesn’t make you feel like you’re in a 1970s psychology experiment, you would have to play Space Invaders for more than 26 hours straight. When I was 12 and there was a kid who played the arcade Asteroids for like 56 hours, I was so jelly you could spread me on toast. However, when I was 12, I also thought that my faux suede jacket was the coolest thing since Garfield. We live and we learn is my point.

Also, my point is FUCK THE ATARI FLASHBACK 5. Since I do the heavy lifting on this blog, allow me to point out that in order to stuff this turkey with as many technically separate games as possible, the Flashback contains the following, all in incredible 8-bit graphics with 16 colors: Football, but also “Realsports” Football (whatever the hell that means, since it’s about as “real” as the stick-men flip cartoons kids do in the corner of boring paperbacks), and “Super” Football, with the same shtick for three kinds of baseball, three of soccer, and two of basketball. Mind you, all of these involve gameplay so non-intuitive that the sub–Lascaux Cave graphics hardly even bother you after a while.


Elephantiasis Therapy Challenge ’79 is still considered a classic.

This may be a bit of piling on, Your Honor, but please allow me to mention that in these so-called 92–93 games (hell, they don’t even know how many are allegedly on there), there are these games:

  • Chase It, Escape It and Miss It
    as well as
  • Star Ship, Star Strike, Space War, and Space Attack

In addition to the breathtaking variety of “Verb It” and “Space/Star Something,” there are extremely unappealing-sounding games such as (no joke):

  • Fatal Run
  • Fun With Numbers
  • Shield Shifter

In order, these elicited from me the following interjections: “Ugh,” “Jeez,” and “Huh?”

Anyway, my point is, as Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” (Turns out Mr. and Mrs. Wolfe had just moved without telling Thomas. Awkward.) I thought it would be a hilarious, fun, “retro” experience and it was instead yet another bit of evidence that my memory palace is more of a rusty trailer full of feral cats. I am returning the console tomorrow. I am decaying right before my own very rapidly degenerating into tragically nearsighted eyes. I was born in the 1960s. I need to find a game called Shopping Cart or Nap Mania! or maybe Arugula Hunt.


Desert Bus! Perfect! I hope I can play as a passenger.