NES Classic Mini vs Atari Flashback 7
Nintendo and Atari go head to head with the NES Classic Mini and Atari Flashback 7, but which one is worth buying?
It wasn’t that long ago that if you fancied a retro gaming fix (and wanted to stay legal) you’d have to source a physical console, typically from eBay. For many systems the prices were reasonable, but as time has progressed, and especially since retro picked up some serious chic, the prices for consoles and especially games have skyrocketed. This has put affordable retro out of the price range of many gamers.
Nintendo caused something of a sensation when it released the NES Classic Mini late last year, but it was hardly the first to walk down memory lane with a multi-game retro machine.
Atari (or to be pedantically accurate, companies licensing the Atari name and IP) has been releasing Flashback consoles with a variety of Atari 2600 classics on them since 2004. They’re old hands at this retro console malarkey in other words, with the Atari Flashback 7 being the latest variant off the production lines. The Flashback 7 has just started hitting Australian store shelves, but which one warrants buying?
NES Classic Mini vs Atari Flashback 7: Build
It’s hard not to award points here to Nintendo for the NES Classic Mini. Yes, the controller ports are the wrong shape, and the cartridge door doesn’t open, but otherwise, the NES Classic Mini is a tiny NES in every other important aspect.
Comparatively, the Flashback 7 is more of an Atari’s-greatest-hits style design; one part wood grain, the other part Vader console, and the end result, while reminiscent of Atari’s most famous console, isn’t quite right enough. This won't affect how you play games, but if you want that authentic-but-shrunk retro experience, the Flashback 7 design isn't quite on the money, although it is appreciably close.
NES Classic Mini vs Atari Flashback 7: Connectivity
The NES Classic Mini connects via HDMI only, where the Flashback 7 uses a standard composite connector.
That’s a much more old school approach, and while my inner retro nerd kind of likes that, I can’t ignore the fact that HDMI is a lot simpler and will deliver a much cleaner image to most LCD or OLED TVs.
About the only upside for the Flashback 7’s use of composite is that the odds are pretty decent that your TV’s composite connectors probably aren’t doing much, so if you’re squeezed for HDMI connections due to the presence of other consoles or set top boxes, it might be easier to plug in.
NES Classic Mini vs Atari Flashback 7: Controllers
Both consoles provide replicas that very closely mimic the classic controllers for their systems of choice. The NES Classic Mini of course has two buttons and a D-Pad where the Flashback 7 only has a single joystick and button. That’s OK, because that’s what you’d expect from these systems. The NES Classic Mini however has some notable drawbacks. You only get one controller in the box where the Flashback 7 provides two, and the controller cable is almost laughably short. If you want to change games, you've got to hit reset on the console itself, rather than being able to do so from the controller.
The Flashback 7 comes with two controllers, and they're wireless, so technically physical range is not an issue. They're even inbuilt with functionality to reset to the game selection menu. Power comes from two AAA batteries (which are not supplied).
However, again, as with the use of composite connections, the manufacturers have gone very old school in their wireless approach.
The Flashback 7 controllers use infrared connectivity to the console itself with a fairly narrow beam of accuracy. This means that if you're not pointing the controller towards the console, it won't read any of your inputs. If anything, whether it's a leg, a cat or someone walking in front of you gets in the way, you will stop moving or firing, or having any input at all.
This can be used for simple mischevious fun, but it can also be annoying if you tilt the controller the wrong way. One plus point here is that the Flashback 7 also includes wired controller ports. If you do still have a 2600 or 7800 kicking around, those controllers will work just fine, including the paddle controllers.
NES Classic Mini vs Atari Flashback 7: Games
On the surface, the NES Classic Mini's 30 games to the Flashback 7's 101 games would appear to heavily favour the Atari console. However, this isn't just a counting game, although curiously the Flashback 7 does feature a counting maths style game amongst its roster.
The issue here is one of quality, and to a certain extent console generations. The NES Classic Mini features the very best of the NES catalog, and that means it includes some absolutely timeless games such as the Super Mario series, Metroid, Galaga, and even the curiously off NES port of Bubble Bobble.
Nintendo had time to study the growth of arcades and tailor its games to the late 80s gamer, and while the results weren't always spectacular, there are plenty of games on the NES Classic Mini that really have stood the test of time. Essentially speaking, back in the day Nintendo could learn from Atari's mistakes while also taking advantage of significant advances in the technology of the day.
The Flashback 7 largely licenses games from the direct Atari catalog, and that means that there are notably absent games, such as anything from Activision. So no Pitfall!, Kaboom! or River Raid for you.
Some games aren't actually the authentic 2600 versions either, so the famous 112 variations of Space Invaders are replaced with a version of the game that's a little more arcade authentic, but with only 9 variants. Frogger is the same, and while it's a classic game and a good version of that title, if you have fond nostalgic memories of the 2600 original, you'll find it somewhat odd to be playing a more modern take. There are also a handful of more modern independently programmed Atari games in there, with varying degrees of overall quality.
The other issue with the Flashback 7's game selection is that it comes from a period when video gaming was really only starting to be defined. That means that many games are essentially primitive. It's interesting from a historical perspective to see the 2600's take on games such as Blackjack or Backgammon, but that's not the same thing as those titles being games that have remained playable.
Your tastes and desires for nostalgia may vary, but there are an easy 50 or more games here that you might look at once, but not return to. It's not helped by the fact that each game has been summed up with a single paragraph rather than delving into their controls to speak of.
For that you'd need to look online, because figuring out what's going on in some of the more RPG-esque titles is all but impossible without instruction. Finally, there are some games in the Flashback 7 collection that were originally programmed with paddles in mind, and playing them you can really tell. I didn't have a set of Atari Paddles to test with, but I'm certain they would be way more playable with them than the standard joysticks.
Nintendo Mini NES vs Atari Flashback 7: Price
Technically speaking, the NES Classic Mini and the Atari Flashback 7 carry the exact same asking price in Australia of $99.
That's not the complete story, however, as almost anyone who has tried to get hold of a NES Classic Mini would be able to tell you. Nintendo's tiny console sold out almost immediately and then proceeded to crash online ecommerce servers every time an Australian outlet has put them up for sale. You can get them through eBay, but you'll pay a significant premium for doing so.
Conversely, we had no trouble to speak of finding a Flashback 7 on an Australian store shelf over the weekend and buying it straight away for the recommended price. If you want instant retro gratification at the right price, that's hard to argue with.
NES Classic Mini vs Atari Flashback 7: Verdict
The Mini NES has a smaller selection of titles and those regrettably short controller cables, but there's little doubting that the library on offer has aged considerably more gracefully for the average gamer than that of the Atari Flashback 7. For the general gamer, the NES Mini is going to be a better buy.
That's not to say that the Flashback 7 doesn't have some value to it. While it does have games you're not likely to look at twice, the focus on sheer simple score chasing and simple gaming mechanics does mean that some games, such as Missile Command, Millipede, Space Invaders and Frogger are timeless, and there's a certain blocky charm to their very simple visuals. If you want a great history lesson on the essential dawning of home console computing, the Flashback 7 is an inexpensive way to go about doing so.