Are the Latest Plug-and-Play Retro Consoles Worthwhile?

Are the Latest Plug-and-Play Retro Consoles Worthwhile?

We round up the latest batch of plug-and-play retro consoles and sort out the winners from the also-rans.

Plug-and-play retro consoles present one of the quickest, easiest, and most convenient ways of taking a gaming trip down memory lane. These miniaturized versions of classic gaming systems often pack a bevy of original releases, and come with authentic-looking controllers. But are they any good? We take a look at the latest editions of these systems and highlight their strengths and weaknesses.

Atari Flashback 7

Launched in October of last year, the seventh generation of AtGames' Atari Flashback console runs its games under emulation using an ARM-based processor. The lightweight system packs 101 individual titles that comprise a fairly broad range of classic Atari 2600 releases, as well as a selection of mostly throwaway homebrew and previously unreleased games.

Frogger is the big headline addition this year, although it's not actually the official Atari 2600 version, nor is it an emulation of the coin-op code. Instead, it's a clone that looks and plays similarly to the original. Space Invaders also gets similar treatment. They're both playable and fun, and should pass muster for most people – although purists may be disappointed. All the other games seem like authentic copies of their original Atari 2600 counterparts, and despite sometimes not sounding quite right – something that seems to be a common theme with AtGames' range of plug-and-play consoles – I think they're a good enough facsimile of the real McCoy to satisfy most players.

The diminutive console is shaped to resemble an original Atari 2600, and features a composite video out with mono sound. It comes with a pair of AAA battery-powered Atari-lookalike wireless joysticks that are a bit stiff and unyielding out of the box, but work reasonably well, despite a whiff of input lag. One thing to note is that they're infrared, and not Bluetooth, so that means you have to make sure you keep them continually pointed at the console, and don't accidentally cover the IR transmitter at the back of the device while playing to ensure that they function correctly. It's a bit of a pain, but the controllers work well enough for the most part. And if they do become an issue, you can always use standard wired controllers, which are compatible with the console.

The Atari Flashback 7 costs around $50, and is also available as a "Deluxe Edition" that comes with a pair of paddle controllers for $10 more. It's a reasonable package that provides an entertaining, if not quite 100% faithful trip down memory lane for those who want to experience the gaudy, low-resolution, disco-era fare that used to amuse gamers of yore.

Colecovision Flashback

Ever since I picked one up new for a knock-down bargain price many years ago, I've had a real soft spot for the Colecovision. It was a great machine in its day, and featured a range of excellent arcade conversions, as well as some pretty decent original games.

Unfortunately, not all of them are included in AtGames' 60-game miniaturized plug-and-play version of the machine. It does feature some classics like Zaxxon, Pepper II, Miner 2049'er, Montezuma's Revenge, and Venture, but lacks some of my favorites, such as Burger Time, Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., and River Raid. The system also pads out its selection of original releases with a handful of rather forgettable modern-era titles, but for the most part, Colecovision Flashback's range of games is good. While the games' visuals are faithfully reproduced, some sound quite harsh, and not like their original counterparts. This is a disappointment for me, as I find that that authentic audio cues are an important part of helping trigger a feeling of nostalgia while playing old games.

The weak sound isn't the biggest problem, however. What really lets this system down is its pair of hardwired controllers. They look just like the original Colecovision mushroom-style joysticks, which were already difficult enough to use, but these modern versions are exceptionally stiff and clunky. Hitting diagonals is particularly tough, and as a result, many of the games are frustratingly tricky to play. This is such a shame, as I was really looking forward to enjoying some of Colecovision Flashback's classics. Instead, I just found myself feeling rather disappointed.

Hopefully AtGames will produce an updated version of the machine with better controllers, but for now I can't heartily recommend buying this system - even if it is fairly cheap at around $40.

Intellivision Flashback

Like the Colecovision Flashback, AtGames' version of the Intellivision is lightweight, a little on the flimsy side, and features 60 games. And as with the two prior systems on this list, it connects to the TV via a composite video and mono audio cable, which delivers a decent picture that's definitely better than what you'd get using the original console's RF feed.

The selection of games is very respectable, with a broad range of mostly first-party originals broken down into six categories: Space, Sports, Gaming and Strategy, Battle and Sorcery, Arcade, and Education and Other. To be honest, I'm not much of an Intellivision expert. I never owned one back in the day, so I can't attest to the authenticity of the emulation, but after doing some research, it seems that Intellivision fans who've reviewed this system complain that while the games play very much like the originals, the sound isn't quite right. No real surprise there, then.

Fortunately, though, the Intellivision Flashback's hardwired controllers are a huge step up from the ones that come with the Colecovision. They’re not particularly ergonomic, but their action is positive, enabling you to play the console's ancient relics of the past quite well. A nice touch is that the system comes with a selection of overlays that can be slipped into the front of the controller to show which buttons do what. Sadly, there's not one for every game, but all the original overlays are printed in the manual, so at least you can figure how each game functions.

Occasionally wonky sound notwithstanding, Intellivision Flashback does the job well, and is a decent representation of the original console.

Pac-Man Connect and Play

Powered by four AA batteries, this bright yellow Pac-Man-shaped plug-and-play console features eleven games from Namco's coin-op vaults, plus an additional bonus title.

Pac-Man, Galaga, Xevious, Galaxian, Mappy, Dig Dug, Bosconian, and Rally X take top billing, and they're supported by a trio of lesser-known Pac-Man games: Pac-Man Plus, Super Pac-Man, and its sequel, Pac & Pal. The twelfth game is Pac-Man 256 – although it should be noted that this isn't the endless runner that was produced on mobile phones eighteen months ago (and on Xbox One, PS4, and PC last summer), but is instead a mini-game that lets you play Pac-Man's "broken" 256th level.

All titles are emulated very well, and look, sound, and play much as I remember them. Indeed, I was surprised at how crisp they appear running through the composite video cable that's used to connect the device to the TV. However, while the games look great, the console is a little awkward to use as a handheld because of its chunky, angular shape: Its edges are quite sharp, resulting in poor ergonomics if you want to hold it. The best way to use it is to rest it on a flat surface while playing. That said, the joystick itself has a good, positive action, and while it creaks and clicks a little under duress, it nevertheless functions well.

Overall, the Pac-Man Connect and Play console is a fun little plug-and-play device that's fairly cheap at around $20. If you don't have another means to play its featured games, I think it represents a good buy.

NES Classic Edition

Also known as the NES Mini, this palm-sized version of Nintendo's iconic mid-80's console was released at the end of last year, and features an excellent selection of 30 classic games. My favorites include the first three Super Mario games, Bubble Bobble, The Legend of Zelda, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania II, Metroid, Gradius, Excitebike, Punch Out!!, and Mega Man 2 – and I could go on. Bottom line, there's something for everyone, from platformers and puzzle games to shooters and RPGs.

Jeremy Parish reviewed the NES Classic Edition in-depth for USgamer in November, and he ended up strongly recommending it. The system's strengths include excellent emulation, which delivers authentic audio-visuals, and an HDMI output that helps make the games look exceptionally crisp. The gameplay experience is also faithfully recreated thanks to the NES Mini's controller, which feels exactly like the ones that came with the original machine.

The biggest issue with the NES Classic Edition – apart from its controller cables being a little on the short side – is simply getting hold of one. The system sold out almost as soon as it was released, and stocks have been in very limited supply ever since. Scalpers on eBay and Amazon sell them for anything up to $200, which is a huge markup over the system's $60 retail price.

So for now, if you want to get hold of this excellent retro-console, be prepared to put in some time continually checking online availability, or be ready to drop everything at a moment's notice and head out to your local Walmart, Target, or Toys R Us the moment they have them in stock. It might be a pain, but it's worth the effort: The NES Classic Edition is by far the best plug-and-play retro console available.

Sega Genesis Classic Game Console

The latest iteration of AtGames' Sega Genesis Classic Game Console features 80 different titles. However, while that initially sounds impressive, only half of them are official Sega Genesis releases. The rest are fairly poor original games that include such weird-sounding titles as Mr. Balls, Yawning Triceratops, Jack's Pea, and Meatloaf Rotation.

Fortunately, the selection of official Sega games is fairly good, and highlights include five Sonic the Hedgehog releases, three Golden Axe and Mortal Kombat games, and two Columns, Vectorman, Shinobi, and Phantasy Star titles. There are also some great, but not-necessarily-well-known releases such as Comic Zone, Chakan: The Forever Man, ESWAT, Eternal Champions, and Kid Chameleon. They're almost all first-party games, which means there are a lot of third-party classics missing from the list – games from EA spring to mind, along with the myriad of excellent shooters that were released over the years.

A neat aspect of the Sega Genesis Classic Game Console is that it's compatible with original Genesis cartridges, so if you still have your old games sitting around, you can use them with this machine. Hopefully, you also have your original wired Genesis controllers. Why? Because unfortunately, the wireless controllers that come with the Sega Genesis Classic Game Console aren't that great. They use ancient infrared technology, which means you have to make sure that they're always pointed towards the console, otherwise you'll break the connection. The controllers themselves are quite small, and while they feel a little flimsy, they work well enough: They're just not as good as the original Genesis controllers.

But what really is disappointing about this console is its emulation: It's just not up to par. The sound is particularly poor, and the music in some games sounds horribly flat. This is compounded by the rather fuzzy picture quality, which is nowhere near as sharp as the Pac-Man Connect and Play console, despite having the same kind of connection. It just seems that the Sega Genesis Classic Game Console hasn't been optimized for modern TV sets.

It's unfortunate that the audio-visuals are poor, as otherwise the Sega Genesis Classic Game Console is pretty good value for money at around $50. Hopefully AtGames will continue to update this system and will produce a new version that delivers a similar picture quality to the NES Classic Edition. That would make it a really neat little machine.

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