Retro-Gaming On A Plug'N'Play Done Right

Posted by Lord Publius |

If you love video games even half as much as I do, then you know about the Atari Flashback series and various other Plug'N'Play game systems. You also know that the vast majority of these plug'n'play game systems are lackluster at best. Even the ones made by Atari (or under license from Atari by AtGames) are often quite uneven in quality. If quality isn't the issue, then they're just a re-hash of the same Atari 2600 games with each new version. The manufacturer merely adds a few more every year. The exception to that is the 2600 version of Battlezone. That one was removed, starting with Flashback 5, because Atari sold that intellectual property to Rebellion Software in 2013. Too bad since that's one of my favorite Atari 2600 games. At least Rebellion is doing something with the property that looks interesting...

Anyway, I think the Plug'N'Play consoles are a good idea, just poorly executed. (Especially with the numerous clone consoles of the SEGA Genesis floating around...) So, I started thinking about how to make this concept truly worthwhile. And this is what came to mind.

Also, I would like to clarify why I specifically went with Atari for the initial product. As a lifelong gamer, I have very fond memories of that company and I feel that younger gamers are forgetting the industry's history. As primitive as many of Atari's games are now, they are all still a lot of fun and have their own charm. Despite that, you won't find many of them (if any) on the Nintendo eShop, Steam, XBLA or PSN. The best you're likely to find would be the Arcade classics from the 1970's and 1980's, and perhaps a few random Atari 2600 titles. That's not fair to the truly excellent games on all the other Atari platforms that may not have even had much of an audience since the 5200, 7800, Jaguar, et al. never sold all that well.

And now, without any further ado...


IDEAS FOR A NEW ATARI FLASHBACK CONSOLE

PREMISE

An affordable Plug'N'Play retro console that...

  • Costs no more than $100
  • Plays a selection of Atari games from multiple platforms that are pre-programmed into the machine's main PCB on a ROM chip.
  • Downloads classic Atari games from an online service, and runs them through software emulation.
  • It will be possible to add more classic consoles from other manufacturers later via online software update. Number of classic consoles that can be emulated will be limited only by licensing and the abilities of our console's hardware.
  • If market conditions/demand presents itself, new game releases for this retro console should also be possible.

HARDWARE CONCERNS, REQUIREMENTS, ET AL.

  • Would a Raspberry Pi work well in this application? It shouldn't have any trouble handling the old games and their emulators but, what about new games? Using these small PCB's as the heart and soul of the machine could significantly reduce costs.Raspberry Pi It would also make it easier for programmers to produce software since the Raspberry Pi technology is already quite well known to software developers, hackers and tinkerers of all kinds around the world. The Raspberry Pi is also already used to make emulation consoles by some people. Why not us too? Not everyone will want to build their own computers and game consoles.

  • This console should have a look and shape that would be familiar to/popular with Atari fans & classic gaming enthusiasts. The 2600 would be the obvious choice, as it was used for most previous Flashback consoles. The Atari 7800 could also work since it was nice and slick in its design. It was also used as the inspiration for the first Flashback console. FalconIf not either of those 2 consoles, then it should be styled after one of the Atari ST series computers.

  • Current Flashback units are also very small, just 2.5 inches tall and 9 inches wide. This new Flashback (for lack of better name) should be larger, both to accommodate additional I/O ports and to provide more room for the internal PCB and its heat sinks.

  • Heat sinks should also be larger than necessary, just to ensure there are no overheating issues. We don't want anything like the infamous 'red ring of death' for early models of the XBOX 360 to happen to our console.

  • This new unit must be at least as powerful as the original XBOX, albeit with more RAM. 64 MB, which is what the first XBOX had, will be enough for running the old games. However, it won't be enough to help develop many competitive new games. This system should provide the company that option. Besides, it's probably not possible to get RAM chips that are only 64MB anymore.

  • Storage space for game software will be via internal flash memory of approx. 16GB, as the bare minimum. That should be enough to store hundreds of old Atari games from every console, computer, portable and arcade cabinet that the company ever made. The system should also allow for increased storage via USB thumb drives, external HDD's, et al. via a USB port.

  • Controllers packed in with the console will have a layout like the SEGA Saturn controller, with the addition of 2 more shoulder buttons. The shape should be something that allows a very comfortable grip for players and a very easy reach for the d-pad/analog stick and buttons. A cross between the XBOX 360 and Nintendo GameCube controllers would be ideal. I prefer to use a more modern style controller because they are FAR more ergonomic than any of Atari's own controllers ever were. The CX-40 joystick from the Atari 2600, as classic as it may be, is not all that comfortable for left-handed players. That's why I use a SEGA Genesis 3-button controller when I play 2600 games. Yes, you can use a SEGA Genesis controller on a 2600 or 7800 that's playing an old 2600 game. Don't even get me started on the joysticks for the 7800 console!

  • Controllers should also use USB connections, if we don't do wireless. Even if wireless is used, we should still be able to have the controllers connect via USB to recharge, just like with the PS3.

  • There should also be ports for 4 controllers or a multi-tap that makes 4-player games possible. (The Atari 5200 had a few 4 player games early in its short life cycle.) Adapters can be made for players wanting to use the original controllers for games from the older systems being emulated here, especially the old Atari 9-pin inputs.

  • The system should be able to utilize USB keyboards & mice for the old games that will need them. (8-Bit family and ST Series computer games, 5200 & Jaguar/Jaguar CD games for the number pad, et al.) There's no need for us to make a proprietary keyboard and mouse. It would be too expensive.

  • The console should utilize HDMI output, since RCA Composite & RGB component are becoming outmoded. If market demand arises, we will make RCA cables available to players with older TV sets. (Assuming there isn't already a step-down converter that translates HDMI to RCA Composite output...)

  • Console should also utilize stereo sound for the games that actually had that feature, especially arcade titles. All others will use Mono, just like they did on their original platform.

SOFTWARE CONCERNS & IDEAS

  • Console should have an easy-to-use, easy-to-program custom GUI-based OS. The name should be kept simple, something like 'Atari OS' or 'AOS' for short. I'm still not sure how this OS will work. Will it be UNIX-based? Will it have a GUI that's familiar already, aping one from a well-known platform like the XrossMediaBar of the PS3? Those are questions that the software engineers will have to answer since I'm not a professional programmer.

  • Pricing for the games available on this console are as follows:

    • 25 Cents: 2600/5200/7800
    • 50 Cents: 8-Bit family, ST Series
    • 1 Dollar: ALL Atari Arcade games, Lynx, Jaguar & Jaguar CD,
    • 2 Dollars: any Non-Atari classic system we get a license to emulate
  • The company should consider making new games for the system as well, just to keep the console relevant and increase its appeal beyond Atari fans and the Nostalgia-minded gamer. This will, of course, be dependent on market conditions/demand.

  • New games will be download only, unless we can come up with a small and cheap form of physical media. Preferably, it would be something along the lines of the game cards for the Nintendo DS & 3DS line. I would also prefer that the new games sell for no more than $20-30 at retail. That makes them price competitive with the games for current portable systems, which should have game cards that are around the same physical size. As illogical as it might be, many consumers will make that comparison.

  • Contact Jeff Minter of Llamasoft, apologize for the troubles he's had with Atari's idiotic owners in recent years, and convince him to make a new Tempest game for this new console. This would be in addition to porting over previous Tempest games he's made like Tempest 2000 for the Jaguar and TxK for the PlayStation Vita.

  • Contact Rebellion software about getting all the old versions of Battlezone onto this retro console as well, and possibly a new version. The new one they are making for the PS4's virtual reality headset looks like it could be awesome.

  • Get a version of the Pinball Arcade (or something similar) made for this console. We could make a hefty profit from Pinball fans that keep downloading new tables as DLC.

  • Talk to all the studios that make independent games for services like Nintendo eShop, PSN, XBLA, Steam, et al. and get as many of them on board as possible. The system's life is likely to be pretty short without them.

  • Contact the people who own the rights for non-Atari retro consoles that can be successfully emulated on this retro console. Since it would have power/capabilities similar to the original XBOX, we could also talk other companies into porting their old games to the new Flashback console. It should be able to handle everything from the 1st-6th generations. The controller layout should also be more than sufficient for the vast majority of those classic consoles as well. The systems I really want to emulate are...

    • Colecovision
    • Commodore 64
    • Commodore Amiga
    • Game Boy/Game Boy Color/Game Boy Advance*
    • Mattel Intellivision
    • NES*
    • SEGA CD
    • SEGA Game Gear
    • SEGA Genesis/32X
    • SEGA Master System
    • SEGA Saturn
    • Sony PlayStation (PS1)
    • Super NES*
    • Turbografx-16

The asterisk indicates a system where we can only provide 3rd party games since Nintendo will never let one of their 1st party games on a system they didn't create.

  • It's unlikely that we'd get 1st party games from any current console manufacturers like Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo. That makes me sad. However, we may be able to get the old Atari ports of Mario Bros. and the Donkey Kong games on our new emulator system here. The Atari 7800 versions of those games were actually quite good.

  • Pricing for all Non-Atari retro consoles and computers emulated here will be $1, with at least 50% of the profits going to the rights-holders of those intellectual properties. That's a deal they should find to be fair and equitable.

NoOuyaI know what some of you are going to say. 'This concept sounds a lot like the Ouya, Publius'. Well, it's not. I came up with this idea on my own without even thinking about the Ouya. Also, Ouya was download only whereas this new console might utilize physical media of some kind. Where that console failed, this one can succeed because we know our audience. We're targeting the classic gamer as a core audience rather than trying to be all things to all people.

Ouya never had a chance anyway. You can't compete against consoles like PS3 & XBOX 360 unless you offer them something different that they can't get anywhere else, like the motion controls on the Nintendo Wii. (And that will only take you so far before the consumer gets bored with it and starts calling it a gimmick.) Plus, Ouya just didn't have the graphical prowess to compete with the PS3, XBOX 360 and Wii anyway. It was an interesting idea but, it just didn't pan out.

I am not looking to turn this into my own version of the Retron 5 clone console, either. That system uses the actual cartridges of various classic consoles. My system here is going to be download-only, unless we can make a compelling business case for a form of physical media for new game releases.

So, there you have it, folks: my idea for retro-gaming on a Plug'N'Play (hopefully) done right. What do you think? Am I on to something big here or, would this also be too niche in its appeal? If something like this existed, I'd definitely buy one. It would give me the ability to take my classic games with me anywhere I go and work so much better than trying to configure emulators on a laptop PC to work with a game controller of some kind. That would be quite advantageous since my current job involves a lot of business travel. I'm sure many other gamers have a similar experience. Why be deprived of my classic gaming fix just because I'm always on the road?