Blaze Atari Retro Handheld Console (60 Games Version)

(Blaze, available online or in selected stores, RRP £30)

As someone who grew up loving the Atari VCS (aka the 2600) and someone who played a considerable number of games on that system, it defines the nature of classic when talking about gaming. And I mean, classic. There is simply no comparison. There have been so many attempts to replicate that classic look and feel from various smaller versions of the wood grain effect to even the recent small Hyperkin Retron 77 which actually could take proper Atari cartridges, to a degree. Of course, modern gamers may baulk at the primitive graphics and sound in some cases, but here's the thing: the games had immense playability and the focus was on that with the "one more go" factor being strong.

Blaze have been responsible over the years for many licenced retro looking Atari products, from the mini arcade series to the ones built in to a replica of the Atari 2600 stick. And after the first release of the retro handheld console, which had 50 games, comes this new version, which has 60 games - and interestingly, 5 Atari 7800 versions as well as 55 for the Atari 2600. It also has a Micro SD card slot which means, in theory at least, that you could add your own library of games - but more on that a little later.

The Console
The console itself has around a 3" diagonal screen with a display that generally functions reasonably well. The front also has select and start, with a D-pad and two fire buttons (which you need for the 7800 games), which are styled to look like the 2600's woodgrain effect. The left side has the Micro SD card slot (the box says just SD card slot, meh) and the top has the on/off switches, headphone sockets, AV out and a volume slider. The back has an Atari logo with the woodgrain effect and it's here you need 4 AAA batteries. Yes, four. Thank heavens I had some Duracell batteries handy!

There is only a quick start guide provided: no manual as such, you have to go online for that. I guess that saves paper, but reading the online version of the manual shows one thing of note: it's only the manual for the original 50 games version, and not the one for the SD card. At least Blaze, if you're going to release a product with a digital manual, actually please bother to put the manual online - notably as there may be several people wanting to add games via their SD cards. You'll also note that the AV cable (a camcorder type one with 3.5mm hack to 3 phono (yellow, red and white) is also not included, probably to save on packaging and so that only those who want to connect it to a television would do so.

The Games
All 60 games are made by Atari, so for those of you wanting some classic Activision action such as River Raid, Keystone Kapers, Pressure Cooker, Enduro, Pitfall and so on, the answer to that is going to be a no. You do also have to wonder about some of the game selections - even the quick start guide mentions Air Sea Battle only having certain functionality and Maze Craze as a single player maze option with the second player left stationary. You do therefore have to wonder why these were included. You've also got the three released Swordquest games: Earthworld, Fireworld and Waterworld. No good without the comic book for the clues, and the fact that the associated competition ended up with prizes to be won back in the day.

What you do have though are some Atari classics: Asteroids, Centipede (both 2600 and 7800 versions included), Missile Command, the Realsports series (football, tennis and volleyball), Crystal Castles and best of all, Yars' Revenge, still to this day one of my favourite 2600 games. There's some which clearly were designed for the paddles though, such as Breakout, Super Breakout and Night Driver, so again, not sure why you'd include those. Pac-Man is there which always divides the critics - some really pan this conversion and yet I loved playing it on the 2600 as a child, so it's there, and indeed one of the highlights of this second version having it included. Oh well, there is no ET, always a blessing that.

Let's Play!
So with everything set, on with the console. The D-Pad lets you select the game through the screens with a replica of the front cover of the cartridge box as you scroll though. Because in some cases there's 2600 and 7800 versions, that helps identifying which one (and they're labelled A7800 Centipede for example). There's five games per page, with the final thirteenth page for selecting the SD card. Once in the game itself, you can use select for the game select, and start to get going. It's worth noting that of the two fire buttons, the one on the right is the primary one for the 2600 games, with the left being the first of two for the 7800.

So first of all, Human Cannonball. You had to get the angle sorted in order for the human to land in the pit. And this is where things started to go downhill. Amending the angle etc should be easy - or so you would think. On numerous occasions the controls wouldn't respond, and even a full power off and on and reselecting the game didn't sort that. On the other hand, Missile Command was pretty responsive, and all the missiles went where you aimed them and it did at least allow you to have reasonable reflexes. Haunted House did what it should do and the fire button to light the way was at least responsive.

Pac-Man suffers the same way as the original 2600 version does in terms of limitations, but is much more unresponsive here, the delay in between the D-Pad direction press and Pac-Man going that way means it becomes tiring, very quickly. Solaris really shows what the 2600 could do, and this version here seemed to play pretty well - a slight control response delay but nowhere near as noticable as on other formats. The sound also seemed to be a bit more higher pitched, and that seemed in keeping what I'd noticed on Pac-Man too - I suspect the real reason is that it's running those games in NTSC (North American TV standard) instead of PAL mode.

As I played through more games, it was clearly apparent - Yars' Revenge certainly didn't sound as evil as it does on the original, but still at least was the same game. Adventure is fairly basic, and that played pretty okay. Asteroids also did at least seem playable, as did Crystal Castles, although the directions with the D-Pad did seem a little off, it has to be said. Millipede was fast and frenetic and therefore just as it should be. In each case, the tiny screen was the main reason I died on such games like that, not necessarily always the lack of gaming skill on my part.

So what of the five 7800 titles? Well, Centipede played smoother, a lot smoother, and Desert Falcon was just as a 7800 enhancement should be of a 2600 title - better graphics and sound, but kept the same playability all round - well worth playing that version just for the added excellence - and thankfully the controls at least were tight and responsive. Food Fight was also good fun - although the difficulty does get ramped up a fair bit, so you need responsive reflexes on that one. Planet Smashers reminded me a lot of Crazy Comets on the Commodore 64, in terms of the comets you shoot, but plenty of other things to shoot down and even with a weapons selector too with the second button as well as collecting warps in the correct order to get to the end of the level. Asteroids again was an improvement, as you'd expect, and that thankfully also played well. So it definitely was worth playing those 7800 titles, and needless to say they're some of the highlights here.

SD Card and More Games
But wait! You can add more games, right? Well in theory you can. As I mentioned, there is no mention of this in the online manual, so had to find out the more hardcore way. A few definite things to note from my testing of this feature: You can only put game ROM images in the root folder of your MicroSD card. Anywhere else is not detected. Also, Atari 2600 ROMs appear to work fine if you have downloaded the NTSC version to the card. The PAL versions often do work, but you may find the screen is cropped off, especially at the bottom, so for games that need that, you might have issues.

I deliberately tried Pitfall II: Lost Caverns because of the extra expansion within the cartridge. The music, as expected, sounded absolutely awful, but the game did at least seem to play okay, so it's one of those you could turn with the sound off if you wanted to. Pressure Cooker NTSC version was all good and was fluid too, and as for some of the other titles I tried on the 2600, they generally were all good - Wizard of Wor though had to be started as a two player game and used the left character to play with - on a proper 2600 you'd just change joystick ports and off you go.

As for 7800 ROMs, yes they will be read - but absolutely forget about this. It doesn't work properly. The PAL versions as I suspected glitch all over the place and generally fail with graphic anomalies, or you can't press the corresponding buttons to continue. I tried the NTSC version of Impossible Mission, and it ran, but it ran way too fast to be even playable, running at around twice the speed of normal. Other NTSC versions I tried did at least load, but the speed was just way too over the top - the only main exception was Tower Toppler (known as Nebulus in Europe). It's a shame because if they had actually spent some more time getting this working, it would have been nice to play. In addition, even the NTSC versions did crash when loading - Ballblazer being one I tried out - and you can't get past the title screen on Commando for the 7800 either.

I have to say that this particularly was a wasted opportunity - there's no instructions as to how to add the games (I found the above myself) and no mention you really need to get the NTSC versions. And for the 7800 games playing way too fast, that was a massive waste right there. I'd have quite liked this to play 7800 games on the go, more so because I don't own a 7800 in my gaming collection. It did also leave me wanting to get out the Atari 2600 Jr (the small one) and play that with a proper Atari joystick, especially some of the classics there.

There's so much I wanted to like about this console, I really did, and as it was a present, it was an appreciated present and something which will come in handy for some train journeys in the future (headphones on of course). However, I can't help but thinking id I'd paid the full £30 retail price for this that I would have felt shortchanged on a number of levels - the lack of playability of some of the games, the selection not necessarily being ideal and the lack of TV connectivity unless you buy a cable separately - which you'd think some people might want to do for an instant nostalgia fix.

I also do see the SD card slot as a nice idea, but poorly executed. Sticking with NTSC 2600 games will work generally fine as long as they're not with extra expansion, but bar a few titles, the 7800 support is woeful - if there was a firmware release to fix that, it'd be a changer potentially. Oh, and the other major thing - the sound. It just doesn't do the classic sound effects of the 2600 justice, and any games with music just really do sound not so great either. That's also a letdown to say the least.

There are some positives in terms of that at least there are some classic games built in,so even without the SD card, it's pick up and play, and it's not the heaviest handheld either, so should be relatively easy to take with you. The screen seemed relatively clear too, but admittedly a tiny screen with some games will seem a little frustrating after a while. There's so much more this little handheld could have been, but effectively fails where it matters - and that's the biggest disappointment for me. If you get it as a present, you'll like it, but you won't want to pay full whack - not least if you can source a proper Atari 2600 and some games for that amount either.

Warren's rating: 48%