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Monday, May 2, 2011

"Atari's Greatest Hits" for iPad: worst idea ever?

$14.99 for Basic Math?!? Sign me up!
I've commented before on iPad mania, which has seized this nation like swine flu. I've used an iPad before, and I must admit that I'm not a fan. There are aspects of it that I like: it's very sexy, it's light, with fantastic battery life. But I'm a nerd, and one of the classic symptoms of being a nerd is the ineffable desire to tinker with things. Apple's desire to prevent its users from tinkering with the iPad in any way is suspiciously paranoid, and reeks of censorship. How seriously would we take the Honda Corporation if they told us we could only use their cars on Honda-approved roads?

A case in point is Atari's Greatest Hits, just released by Atari for the iPad. The idea sounds great in theory: 100 of the best classic Atari 2600 and arcade games ever made, packed in one free app! Sounds great, right? What they don't tell you, however, is that while the app itself may be free to download, the games cost a buck apiece, or you can download all 100 for $14.99. Can anyone say bait-and-switch? As if that isn't bad enough, the games are slow and buggy, and controlling them accurately with the iPad's baffling touch-screen was a Sysiphean task. I thought it was impossible to ruin a classic like Yar's Revenge, but thanks to Atari's Greatest Hits, I couldn't even get past the first two levels before the damn thing froze and I gave up.

The especially infuriating thing about Atari's Greatest Hits is that I can download thousands of Atari games online and fire them up on any computer with an emulator - all without paying a dime. But Apple doesn't allow any apps other than those available on its App Store to be used on the iPad. This begs the question: why would I fork over my hard-earned money on a $400 iPad that forces me to pay fifteen bucks for a piss-poor version of a game I can play for free on an eMachines PC that's half the price?

What's even worse is that the current entity known as "Atari" has no connection to the original Atari Corporation, which went bankrupt in 1996. The Atari name, logo, and related trademarks have been bounced around for years between companies like JTS and Hasbro before its purchase by Infogrames, a French video game publisher. If Atari's Greatest Hits is any evidence, the folks at Atari clearly hired some hack programming firm to slap a bunch of old trademarks together as quickly and cheaply as possible for a quick buck. It breaks my heart that these classic games, which are the result of many hours of work by a great many very talented programmers and artists, are now being milked like a cow by people who clearly have no appreciation for how special they are to so many people.

It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, and everyone has to make money somehow; the video game industry is no exception to this. But there's no excuse for a product as shoddy and joyless as Atari's Greatest Hits.  And frankly, the iPad's kind of silly, too.

Friday, April 29, 2011

HARDWARE SPOTLIGHT: Caanoo, the greatest console with repeating vowels in its name since the Wii

You've likely never heard of the Caanoo, a Linux-based handheld video game system. That's because its creator, an ambitious South Korean startup called GamePark, has seen some trouble since its foundation in 1996. Due to protectionist trade regulations, South Korea does not import technology products from China, so the vast majority of its video game market is in PC games. GamePark was founded with the help of the South Korean government to help create an indigenous game industry, and it released several portable consoles between 2000 and 2005. Despite critical success, however, the consoles were a commercial disappointment, and the company went belly-up in 2005. Several former employees, however, have re-formed GamePark and purchased the former company's trademarks. Their resulting product may be one of the most pleasant surprises I've come across in the video game industry for some time.

Creepy disembodied hands love the Caanoo!
GamePark says the Caanoo is not intended to compete with Nintendo's Game Boy Advance or DS, but one look at the device's front panel certainly invites comparisons with the more famous machines. The Caanoo's operating system, however, is what really sets it apart from other portables in its price range. Not only does it have an SD card slot, 6 hours of battery life, and aspeedy processor with impressive 3D rendering, but it also features an Linux-based open source operating system that can be modified, hacked, and upgraded to your heart's content. Plus, in addition to games officially released by GamePark, there are dozens of compatible emulators for nearly every console under the sun available online thanks to the GamePark's robust online community of users. With just a USB cable and a few minutes, the Caanoo can be your personal, portable, arcade paradise.

Unfortunately, the Caanoo is only available in North America via importers, and instructions are only availble in Korean. However, user-generated forums, like and Caanoo News, make it easy for anglos to get set up. It can currently be found on online auction sites for about $200. Anyone who knows a more reliable way to get your hands on a Caanoo, please leave a comment and let me know!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Atari 7800 Expansion Module: a useless accessory for an even-more useless system

The 7800 Expansion Module: it also plays LaserDiscs
Once in a blue moon, I see a retro-gaming accessory that's so wonderfully dorky and useless that it brings a tear to my eye. The soon-to-be-released Atari 7800 Expansion Module may look like a prop from the lost Dark Crystal sequel, but if you're one of the 3 people who still has an Atari 7800, you can preorder it right now from Legacy Electronics. It even comes with a nifty Silver Atari-style box and instruction manual!

The Atari 7800, Atari's third video game console, was the company's attempt to unseat Nintendo from its dominance of the video game market after the release of the NES. Though it came nowhere close to accomplishing this, it was nevertheless a reasonably successful console with impressive capabilities and a solid library of games. Plus, the 7800 was backwards-compatible with Atari's famous 2600 system, giving it an extra library of thousands of well-known games for its users to choose from. According to Legacy's website, the 7800 Expansion makes the 7800 even better by adding 128K of extra available program memory, a built in High Score capability, and a 15 PIN/Serial port to enable use with keyboards, disk drives, printers, and modems.

Jack Tramiel would be proud.
It's a wonder why anyone thought that 2011 would be a good time to manufacture and produce an accessory for a 20-year-old discontinued toy, and at more than $100 with shipping, it's a pretty steep asking price. But considering its limited availability and authentically cheesy packaging, it's not too much of a stretch to say that this thing could be the ultimate Atari 7800 collectible (which, to be fair, isn't saying much). And if you've got a stack of Atari 2600 games lying around, or some old Atari 400 accessories, the 7800 Expansion may give your collection a new lease on life.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Atari User Magazine: All the news that's fit to bleep

This week I thought I'd give a quick shout out to the folks at Atari User Magazine, which bills itself as "the world's only Atari magazine." While I'm not quite sure that's true, Atari User is an enjoyable and lovingly-prepared published monthly online by Anglo Press, a team of bloggers from Germany.

Atari User is a revival of a newsgroup that was started by a group of Atari 8-bit users in the 1980s. Members later started a monthly newsletter, available on a floppy disk by subscription. Though this publication is now long gone, this new reincarnation explores the same themes as the former publication, and includes a wide variety of articles to satisfy every nerd's curiosity.

Each issue includes reviews of new homebrew titles, as well as profiles of systems, publishers, and other historical information from Atari's heyday. If you get excited by discussing the merits of PAL versus NTSC (if not, why are you reading this?), I highly recommend you head on over to Atari User's website; they certainly deserve a few of your bucks.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


This week, I humbly present to you another installment of my series, Don't Get Ripped Off!, in which I give you my best advice regarding things to spend your hard-earned money on. This week, I discuss flash carts, a range of ingenious devices that are definitely on the must-have list for any hardcore nerd.

Extreme Flash Advance, a Game Boy Advance flash cart, with a USB cable plugged in.
Flash carts are flash memory devices, similar to those USB storage devices found on keychains everywhere. Instead of plugging into your computer's USB slot, however, however, these devices plug into your vintage game console. This enables you to plug in your flash cart to your computer via a special cable, load up whatever game or program you like, then play it on a real, live, physical console. Neat, huh?

Flash carts are primarily used by programmers wishing to test their games during the development process, but they're also tremendously useful for gamers who want the authentic experience of a game console with the convenience of an emulator. There is a staggering variety of flash carts available online from online retailers like and eBay; most are made in China and are of poor quality. The most common ones are made for the Nintendo Game Boy Advance and DS.

Atarimax Ultimate SD, for the ColecoVision (also Atari 2600 compatible).

Generally speaking here, the more expensive units are the best. A 512mb GBA cartridge can cost as much as $200, but it's probably not necessary to spend that much, as most games are relatively small in size and need very little memory. Nevertheless, expect to pay at least $100 for a new unit; consider any price lower than this to be suspicious. Used carts are cheaper, but since flash memory has a limited number of read/write cycles, they will likely fail earlier. Some flash carts are actually memory card adapters, which are simply an adapter for a memory card (like an SD or CompactFlash card) built into a cartridge. These should be avoided like the plague. With a few exceptions that I list below, these adapters are unauthorized Chinese-made copies and are very flimsy and unreliable.

Flash carts for consoles other than the GBA and DS do exist, but are generally boutique items and not commonly offered for sale. Below are a few I've found to be well-recommended:

  • The Atarimax Ultimate SD is an SD card adapter for the ColecoVision console. It includes a 32mb SD card and a high-speed bankswitching card that can handle very large games (up to 512K). Made by Steven J. Tucker and available now online.
  • The Harmony Cartridge is an SD card adapter for the Atari 2600. It is currently in development, though the creator is taking orders on the product's website. It includes a 2gb SD card and a USB cable for connection to a PC or Macintosh.
  • The Cuttlecart is another Atari 2600 flash cart produced by Schell Electronics. Versions were also created for the Atari 7800 and Intellivision. All are long discontinued and quite dated (Windows compatibility only, requires a serial cable). It is, however, very reliable, and occasionally pops up for sale on eBay.
If anyone finds other flash carts they'd like to recommend, please comment and let us know! Happy hunting, and remember: caveat emptor...

Sunday, April 17, 2011

REVIEW: "Downfall" for Atari Jaguar

Once the undisputed king of the North American video game market, Atari's downfall in the early 1990s was slow, painful, and awkward. The company was devoting most of its attention to its line of Amiga computers, which left its video games division underfunded and understaffed. Nowhere is there a more obvious piece of evidence of this identity crisis than the Atari Jaguar, Atari's last and least successful video game console. Released in 1993, the Jaguar billed itself as the world's first 64-bit system. Though the system did see some great games (including one of my all-time favorites, Tempest 2000), lack of developer support and mediocre processing power had killed the Jaguar by 1996, having sold less than 250,000 unites.

Despite its status as a footnote in technology history, the Jaguar maintains a devoted base of fans who continue to develop homebrew games for it. Why anyone would do this is beyond me, as the Jaguar's odd CPU structure and limited graphics memory make programming for it an exercise in frustration and self-torture. Nevertheless, Jagware, a prolific programming collective that's released numerous other Jaguar games, has just announced its newest release: Downfall.

Downfall is a simple game that bears a striking resemblance to Man Goes Down, another homebrew game for the Atari 2600 written back in 2004 by Alex Herbert. The player controls a man continuously falling down as platforms scroll up the screen; you must survive as long as you can falling downward onto the platforms without falling off the screen. In this way it somewhat resembles the old NES game Ice Climbers, except in the other direction and without the cutesy cartoon characters.

Downfall's simplicity won't convince the uninitiated to immediately order a Jaguar on eBay, but it is a fun little diversion on an emulator. The scrolling background is detailed and highly fluid, controls are simple (though I can't imagine how it plays on the actual Jaguar controller), and the background music is catchy and clearly rendered. It is, however, ridiculously easy, and since the game has no variations or extra modes, you've pretty much seen all there is to see after about 15 minutes of gameplay. It almost resembles a programming exercise more than a full-fledged game.

A worthy effort for an perenially unappreciated console, but I certainly wouldn't spend money on a cartridge version. I'll stick to Tempest 2000 for my taste of early-90s Atari.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

This is your Game Boy after a tour of duty in Iraq

It's official: the Game Boy is the most durable machine ever conceived by human minds. Built to withstand a nuclear holocaust, the mighty grey wonder is made, not from plastic, but hardened plutonium reinforced with the cracked skulls of Roman barbarians. 

Anyone who's a member of the Game Boy generation like I am has a story to tell about the horrible treatment their little green-screened buddy endured. I, for one, distinctly remember diving into the Chesapeake Bay with my brand-new Game Boy in my swimming trunks. A friend of mine left his  on a bench near my middle school's playing ground for a week before it turned up in the Lost & Found. (Both our Game Boys survived their respective ordeals, by the way.)

But the undeniable winner of the "Takes A Lickin' & Keeps On Tickin'" award is this original Game Boy, a veteran of the Gulf War:

This disfigured, melted, charred Franken-Boy was the property of a soldier whose barracks were bombed in Iraq in 1991. Amazingly, the Game Boy survived functionally intact, even though its plastic body was partially exploded. It was shipped back to its owner after his tour of duty, and serves as a testament to the power and durability of Japanese industrial design. Now, its home is at the Nintendo World store in New York City, where it has been happily playing Tetris ever since.

Now, surviving a war zone is pretty remarkable, but personally, I won't be impressed until it survives an episode of Will It Blend?. But that's just me.