There is and always will be a soft spot in my heart for the Atari 2600. It was the first gaming platform I had growing up, and even with its simple graphics and pew-pew sound effects, many hours turned into days (and probably even weeks) of gameplay over the years I played that thing. It is my sincere hope that my two young sons (ages 4 and 1.5) will find a short period of time in their lives to play the same games their dad did before they discover the wonders of the Xbox or Playstation or other gaming platform that wows them with surround sound, achievements, and first-person perspective.
There are many ways to play those early 2600 games, from finding working Atari 2600s at flea markets or in grandma’s basement to running an emulator on your home computer. There’s even a collection for the iPad, and earlier this year I wrote a review of the iCade that allows iPad owners to connect up their iPad to a joystick and some buttons and enjoy a large collection of 2600 games and a nice assortment of arcade classics such as Missile Command, Centipede, and Asteroids. The iCade has been a hit with visiting friends and family (well, those who have fond memories of early ’80s arcade and 2600 games), but the iCade’s large shell, retro colors and graphics have been a sore spot with my wife who prefers the device not be left sitting on a kitchen table, a coffee table, a dining table, or really anywhere that’s visible to non-geek visitors to our home. Bummer. (To be fair, she’s given me pretty lax rules concerning my workshop, the garage, and the basement… so I’m quite all right conceding the living room, dining room, kitchen, and other public areas to non-geek decorative tastes.)
Thankfully, a solution has now presented itself that will allow me to play my 2600 games with a real joystick and buttons as well as keep my wife happy with a subtle, non-imposing footprint. It’s called the Atari Arcade, and it is full of Awesome.
The Atari Arcade is made by Discovery Bay Games and is now available for sale at Apple Stores. As with other DBG games for the iPad (and I’ll be reviewing a few more in the coming weeks), the packaging is elegantly simple. The instruction manual is almost unnecessary as any iPad owner will easily be able to figure out how to properly connect the tablet to the Atari Arcade base. The base requires no batteries, by the way… so it really is ready to plug in and play right out of the box.
After connecting the iPad to the base, I discovered one very nice feature that I really never would have thought to add on my own. On the left and right sides of the base are two slider buttons that, when pushed forward, slide two rubber-coated pins that press against the bottom of the iPad (to the left and right of the Home button) and hold it securely in place. This helps prevent the iPad from tipping left or right when you (inevitably) jerk the joystick, for example, during an excited game of Centipede where that pesky spider is angling to take you out. Whatever the cause, I am thankful that the designer(s) thought to add in this locking feature that prevented my iPad from slipping out of the base.
Now let’s talk about the obvious — a red-ball joystick and four buttons. Given that most 2600 games only used a single button and a joystick, this isn’t a problem. Also, most early arcade games made do with one or two buttons. I’ve yet to find any 6 or 7-button arcade games (Mortal KOMBAT!!!!) for my iPad that I really want to play, so for now the Atari Arcade has enough buttons to handle my gaming needs. (But how cool would it be if something like Atari’s Gauntlet came out and used Bluetooth to allow 2 or more Atari Arcade owners to play together? I’ll push that up the wire to the DBG team and get back to you.)
As with the iCade, the joystick has a bit of play in it. I wish it offered a bit more resistance, but the fact that it returns to center quickly and has a short throw (the distance you have to push it left/right/up/down to reach its maximum movement) made it easy for me to adjust to quickly. The buttons are the click-variety — an audible click is heard every time you press one — and there’s no doubting about whether you’ve pressed one or not. Arcade cabinet aficionados should know that these four buttons are flat-topped and slightly smaller than the traditional standard-sized concave buttons you can buy when building your own arcade cabinet (such as the full-size cabinet I’ve almost completed). The buttons are not so small as to be a problem to use (I actually prefer this size given the smaller size of the base and the smaller screen of the iPad) but I do want to make others aware that these are not traditional arcade-style buttons.
Now let’s talk about your gaming options. The Atari Arcade is meant to be played with the Atari Greatest Hits app available on iTunes — if you already own the Atari Greatest Hits app (I have it on my iPad 1), you’re almost ready to play. After plugging in the iPad and opening up the app, you’ll discover that each game needs to be updated so that the Atari Arcade base is added to the (short) list of controllers. You can update each game individually as you select them to play (takes about 5 seconds for the patch to download and doesn’t require you to restart the app) or you can choose an option to download all the game updates which will allow all the 2600 games (about 80 in all) and 18 arcade games to be played with the Atari Arcade. (If you’ve not purchased and downloaded the app, the complete Atari Greatest Hits app library is about 108 megabytes in size — took less than 5 minutes for all games to download on my iPad 2 via Wi-Fi.)