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

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

TAs a kid growing up in Britain in the 1980s, the Atari 400 and 800 machines seemed impossibly glamorous. Although most of my friends had Commodore 64s or ZX Spectrums (and the occasional Amstrad or Acorn Electron), I only saw Atari computers in cool TV shows and movies, like Videodrome and Police Story. Launched in 1979, these two models featured an Antic video processor that offered superior graphics for the time, as well as a sound chip called Pokey for improved audio. They, like the Apple II, were groundbreaking machines for young game coders who wanted to create new types of experiences beyond simple arcade conversions.

Opening the new Atari 400 Mini was a strangely emotional experience. Retro Games’ latest nostalgic release is a nicely detailed facsimile of the original computer, featuring a non-functional version of the famous ’70s membrane keyboard in lush beige, orange and brown, as well as four joystick ports on the bottom (now USB instead from USB). 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, allowing Atari 400/800 games to call on the keyboard to provide additional input options.

There are 25 games built in, showing the range of what was produced on the 400 and 800 in the early 1980s (the 800 was the fancier model, with more memory and a better keyboard). There are special home versions of classic arcade titles such as Asteroids, Millipede and Battlezone, which are at least charming reminders of the compromises home consoles and computer developers had to make at the time. And there are fascinating previews of future genres, including Paul Allen Edelstein’s Capture the Flag, a two-player first-person chase game, and MULE, a multiplayer colonization strategy game that influenced the entire management sim industry.

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

While a few of the games will be familiar to those who 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. Although there is no original hardware in use, the emulator that Retro Games has used to run all these games is solid and accurate, allowing for a very decent representation of these 40 year old treasures.

Jack of all trades on the 400 Mini. Photo: Atari/Retro Games/Plaion

And while they are undoubtedly ancient, many of these titles – including Boulder Dash and Lee (originally titled Bruce Lee, but I suspect the license has expired) – survive as truly playable relics. Regardless, I’ve had hours of fun discovering games I never saw the first time around, as well as familiar favorites in various 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 adjust the visual settings, opting for a CRT effect that mimics the display style of traditional TVs, and there’s a virtual keyboard if you’re playing a game that requires more input options. It’s not exactly smooth to use, but it’s nice that it’s there when you need it.

Interestingly, one of the selling points of the 400 Mini is that it allows you to “load your own programs” – which is the euphemistic way of saying that the console plays game files known as ROMs which you can load via a USB stick. . Most people will find these ROMs on the Internet, although the legality of downloading game files for free is ambiguous at best – which is why Retro Games leaves it up to the user to figure this out. I’ve tested this aspect with several games, and it’s an impressively smooth process: the emulator accepts files in a number of common formats and can play both Atari 400 and 800 titles, as well as later XL/XE variants. When you insert a USB flash drive containing game ROMs, a USB flash drive icon will appear in the game list on the screen, and when you click on it, your added games will be displayed. The system even supports games that were originally on multiple discs; Additionally, you can reconfigure the joystick buttons to meet the input requirements of most games you try.

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Lee (formerly Bruce Lee) on the 400 Mini. Photo: Atari/Retro Games/Plaion

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

I’m a long way from that kid growing up in the 1980s now, 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 little machine worth it.

The Atari 400 Mini is now available

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