Atari Invites Parents to Travel Back to the '70s

The Atari Flashback 2 console mimics the home video games Atari pioneered in the 1970s.
The Atari Flashback 2 console mimics the home video games Atari pioneered in the 1970s. (By Paul Sakuma -- Associated Press)
By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 12, 2005

Long past its prime, Pong -- that simple '70s video game with two paddles and a bouncing ball -- is back.

Thirty years after it was first introduced to American homes, Pong is part of a retro plug-and-play gaming console that Atari Inc. is selling to parents nostalgic for the homely, simple video games of their youth.

The company has shipped nearly 500,000 of the Atari Flashback 2, in a bet that kids raised on the Xbox and the Sony Playstation will take to rudimentary video games that, for most of them, are prehistoric. Whether today's kids will roll their eyes at the Atari Flashback 2 or join their parents on a trip down memory lane is still unknown.

It's unlikely that the Flashback 2 -- decorated with faux wood grain to reflect the look of the original Atari 2600 -- will make an impact the way its predecessor did. Experts say the original gaming console -- introduced in 1977, two years after Home Pong made its debut -- helped launch the multibillion-dollar video game industry.

The Flashback 2 -- priced at about $30 -- isn't forcing users into buying expensive games to go with it. Instead of using replaceable game cartridges the way the Atari 2600 did, the Flashback 2 console comes programmed with 40 classic games including Pong, Asteroids, Centipede, Lunar Lander and Missile Command.

"When a parent is going through and seeing these toys, they are without a doubt reliving" childhood, said Russell Ginns, a Bethesda game designer and enthusiast. "There is a huge nostalgia factor."

"They are very popular," said Christopher R. Koller, merchandising director for video games at Best Buy. "They kind of harken back to their early days of gaming when they were younger, not unlike older music and older videos that they still enjoy."

To get a sense of how dated the games are, when Pong was first sold in 1975, the Captain and Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together" was the top pop song, "Jaws" was the No. 1 movie and "All in the Family" was the most popular TV program.

Ryan Barr, spokesman for New York-based Atari, said the Flashback 2 is the company's third such vintage product in as many years. The first two versions each sold more than 500,000 units, he said, noting that parents like them for nostalgic reasons and because they do not have the violence and complexity of many modern games.

In some ways, that actually makes it less of a competitor to today's video game consoles like the eagerly awaited Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, which promise spectacular graphics and effects.

Game experts said part of the appeal of the Atari Flashback 2 may be its relatively low cost and the simplicity of its games, allowing parents with slowing reflexes to keep up with their kids.

Children also do not have to wade through long instruction books to get the hang of the games, which are played with joystick controls and displayed on a TV screen.

Kenneth L. Moe, managing director of Scholastic Inc.'s Back to Basics Toys, said parents have a natural desire to share the fun of their younger days with their kids.

"There is an upswelling of parents, and grandparents particularly, who have fond memories of their favorite playthings, and they want that tradition to live on," said Moe, whose firm sells retro toys but does not carry the Flashback 2. "Something sparks a memory that they want to relive in their children. It's kind of a magical thing."

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