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Home / Features / The Atari 400 Mini is now my favourite mini-console for scratching my retro-gaming itch

The Atari 400 Mini is now my favourite mini-console for scratching my retro-gaming itch

In going for something different, this child of the (very) late 1970s is far more interesting than you might expect

Atari 400 Mini top

Beige. Orange. Brown. The colours of the 1970s. Fortunately, I was very young back then and so was spared lasting trauma from terrifying interior decor. But at least in being there at the time I got to experience the dawn of home computing, through home micros that were very beige themselves. One was the Atari 400, now reborn as the Atari 400 Mini.

The folks at Retro Games have form in this area, having previously put the C64 and Amiga through a hot wash. I had mixed feelings about those minis yet felt oddly drawn to the newcomer. Strange, considering my memories of the original are hazy.

I do recall my parents bought an Atari 400. It sat under the TV, and they rarely played it. It was soon replaced by (bafflingly) a VIC-20, and then (more sensibly) a C64. The latter ended up hooked up to a tiny barely-functioning CRT in another room, so I could play Monty on the Run while my parents busied themselves watching Wogan.

Yet seeing this little lump of Atari 400-shaped plastic sparked a wave of nostalgia in me all the same. Even its cables are beige.

Keys are(n’t) good

Atari 400 Mini joystick
Although it says ‘top’, this joystick remake also has a left-handed mode. Nice.

Aside from the pint-sized form factor, there are other big differences between the Atari 400 Mini and its big brother. The Mini uses USB for accessories and HDMI to connect to a TV. Also, the keyboard doesn’t work. Although old-hands might joke the original’s membrane one barely did either.

The lack of keys is a non-issue, though, because Retro Games did something cunning with the joystick. It looks like an old Atari stick, in all its cramp-inducing glory. But it’s peppered with extra buttons that can be bound to keys. So you rarely need the clunky virtual on-screen keyboard anyway. 

Less cunning: the stick is badly optimised for a few of the games, where it’s prone to slipping into diagonals. I addressed this by sometimes using a SNES-style USB gamepad, which would have horrified my younger self, convinced gamepads were an evil fad and joysticks would reign supreme forever.

Still, none of that matters once you’re playing the games. And that’s where the Atari 400 Mini shines, at least for me.

Game on

Dropzone: like if Jet Pac and Defender had a baby.

You get 25 games built in, including a smattering of arcade ports, a few famous names, a handful of oddities, and a few duds. Surprisingly, there are few simultaneous two-player options. Perhaps the assumption is Atari 400 fans don’t have many friends. Harsh.

But like with the mini Commodores, you can plug a USB stick into the Atari 400 Mini and play games sourced from, ahem, ‘independent sources’. And while the Atari 8-bit library (400/800/XL/XE – although this unit also supports Atari 5200 games) doesn’t rival that of the C64 or the ZX Spectrum, there are hundreds of cracking games out there, many of which shine brightest on the Atari, such as the legendary Dropzone.

To my surprise, then, what I thought would be an also-ran became my favourite mini console yet. Maybe that’s because my fuzzy memories prevent nitpicking. Or perhaps these mini remakes are just getting better. But mostly, I think it’s because a system overshadowed by other home micros (and even Atari’s own consoles) finally gets a chance to bask in the retro limelight.

After all, there’s only so much Mario we can play. Someone has to look out for the underdogs and keep their classic games alive too.

Six of the best: Atari 8-bit games

There are 25 games packed into the Atari 400 Mini, many of which hold up surprisingly well. These are the standouts for me.

Boulder Dash (1984): Perfectly pitched arcade effort where you dig through dirt, grab diamonds and avoid death by monster and/or rock. This Atari version is the original and best. 

Lee (1984): As in ‘Bruce’. Until someone lost the license. Still, the game remains intact – a pacey platformer where you duff up enemies, and dart about grabbing gems.

Encounter (1983): Blazingly fast 3D arcade game where you blow up drones before they collide with your tank. Puts the also included port of Battlezone to shame.

Wavy Navy (1983)Galaxian, but with the player controlling a boat on an expanse of water with terrifyingly high waves. Tough, smart, shooty fun. 

Berzerk (1983): A quality port of the arcade classic, even including its speech. Not optimised well for the bundled joystick, mind, so you’ll need another controller. 

Yoomp! (2007): Trippy 3D game where you coax a bouncing ball along a tunnel strewn with power-up tiles. Disorienting, dizzying fun.

The Atari 400 Mini is available now for $119.99/£99.99. For more information, visit retrogames.biz. A unit was provided for review, in a comically large box with a very weak magnetic latch. So Stuff can also confirm that the Atari 400 Mini is robust enough to survive entirely unscathed with plummeting in surprise fashion to the floor and skidding under some office shelves.

Profile image of Craig Grannell Craig Grannell Contributor

About

I’m a regular contributor to Stuff magazine and Stuff.tv, covering apps, games, Apple kit, Android, Lego, retro gaming and other interesting oddities. I also pen opinion pieces when the editor lets me, getting all serious about accessibility and predicting when sentient AI smart cookware will take over the world, in a terrifying mix of Bake Off and Terminator.

Areas of expertise

Mobile apps and games, Macs, iOS and tvOS devices, Android, retro games, crowdfunding, design, how to fight off an enraged smart saucepan with a massive stick.

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