Review: Atari 400 Mini 1
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

After a flood of big-name micro-consoles that includes the NES, SNES, Mega Drive, PC Engine and Amiga, we now have what must rank as the deepest cut so far: the Atari 400 Mini. Based on Atari's range of 8-bit home computers, which first hit the market in 1979, this latest collaboration between Atari, Plaion and Retro Games Ltd comes pre-loaded with 25 games and costs $120 / £99.

Atari is on something of a retro drive at present, having released a collection of its games on modern consoles and the Atari 2600+, an (almost) full-sized replica of the console which dominated North American living rooms at the start of the '80s.

However, the Atari 400 is a less recognisable entity and could potentially be a harder sell. Is it worth a look? Let's find out.

Atari 400 Mini Review - A Short History

Released in 1979 alongside the Atari 800, the Atari 400 offered a more advanced audio-visual experience than its rivals thanks to its innovative use of coprocessor architecture – a first for a home computer. While both machines used the same MOS Technology 6502 CPU, the 400 was positioned as the more affordable of the pair and came with a membrane keyboard and single cartridge slot (the 800 had a mechanical keyboard and two cartridge slots, as well as expandable RAM and monitor output).

Review: Atari 400 Mini 1
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Despite being pitched as a personal computer, the Atari 400 and 800 were supported by a wide range of games, with 1980's Star Raiders becoming the platform's killer app. The fledging Electronic Arts also supported the system; Danielle Bunten Berry's iconic M.U.L.E. made its debut on Atari's 8-bit range, and took full advantage of the four controller ports for multiplayer.

As the decade progressed, Atari refreshed its 8-bit computer range with the 1200XL, 600XL, and 800XL, and, after Sam Tramiel took over the company and rebranded it Atari Corporation, the XE series continued the lineage, with the 65XE / 800XE and 130XE arriving in 1985 (the 65XE was later repackaged as the XEGS console). Compared to the 30-million-selling Atari VCS / 2600, Atari's 400/800 duo sold around four million units – not a commercial smash-hit in comparative terms, but still relatively successful for the time.

Atari 400 Mini Review - Design & Controller

Rather than base this new micro-console on the more 'premium' Atari 800, the decision has been made to model it on the entry-level 400 variant instead, complete with an imitation membrane keyboard (which doesn't work, sadly). The cartridge flap is also non-functional, although it's so well designed it looks like it should – a testimnent to the level of detail that has gone into this particular product.

The four controller ports at the front have been replicated using four individual USB-A ports, while the red power LED is present and correct. Spin the Atari 400 Mini around and you're presented with an additional USB-A port, HDMI-out and USB-C (for power). The power button is also located here.

The Atari 400 Mini ships with a single CXStick controller, a reimagining of the iconic Atari CX40 joystick used across the company's products at this time. The core design has been successfully retained, right down to the rubberised stick base and single red action button, but additional features have been added to bring it up to date. There are seven additional buttons integrated into the design, which allow you to drop back to the system's main menu and bring up the on-screen keyboard, amongst other things.

We tried connecting other USB controllers to the system, and the results were mixed. The PC Engine Mini pad, for example, correctly mapped the D-pad, but the Sega Mega Drive Mini controller would only map up and down and not left and right. The same issue was present when using the Evercade VS controller.

Like the A500 Mini – which was also designed by Retro Games Ltd – the Atari 400 Mini is pretty adorable from a purely physical perspective. It looks great, boasts impeccable detail and feels high-quality – so we've zero complaints when it comes to the design.

Atari 400 Mini Review - Games

The Atari 400 Mini comes with 25 built-in games, which are:

  • Basketball (1979)
  • Asteroids (1981)
  • Centipede (1981)
  • Missile Command (1981)
  • Miner 2049ier (1982)
  • Berzerk (1983)
  • Bristles (1983)
  • Capture the Flag (1983)
  • Encounter! (1983)
  • Flip and Flap (1983)
  • M.U.L.E. (1983)
  • O'Reily's Mine (1983)
  • Wavy Navy (1983)
  • Hover Bover (1984)
  • Lee (1984)
  • Millipede (1984)
  • The Seven Cities of Gold (1984)
  • Boulder Dash (1985)
  • ElektraGlide (1985)
  • Battlezone (1987)
  • Henry's House (1987)
  • Star Raiders II (1987)
  • Airball (1988)
  • Crystal Castles (1988)
  • Yoomp! (2007)

There's a good mix of games there, including the 1987 sequel to system-seller Star Raiders, which was originally supposed to be a tie-in for the Hollywood movie The Last Starfighter. The aforementioned M.U.L.E. is terrific fun with four players, while Atari's arcade heritage is represented by the 8-bit ports of Asteroids, Centipede, Berzerk, Missile Command, Millipede and Battlezone.

Elsewhere, there's a wide selection of other interesting releases, such as Jeff Minter's Hover Bover, The Seven Cities of Gold, Crystal Castles, Miner 2049ier and the absolutely amazing 2007 release Yoomp!, which pushes the Atari 8-bit hardware to its limits. Meanwhile, 1983's Capture the Flag is a groundbreaking release and one of the earliest examples of a first-person adventure taking place within a 3D-rendered environment – and with a split-screen view, to boot!

Even so, it's fair to say that the Atari 400 Mini lacks the kind of hit rate we're used to on the likes of the SNES Classic or Mega Drive Mini, but you can at least load up any game from the system's library via a USB stick. The Atari 400 Mini supports Atari 5200 games, too.

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You can load up your own ROMs using a USB stick — Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Atari 400 Mini Review - Performance

The Atari 400 Mini emulates all of Atari's 8-bit systems, from the 400 all the way up to the 130XE, as well as the Atari 5200 console. You can choose between 50 and 60Hz on startup, and the overall standard of emulation is excellent – as is the custom UI that has been created for this variant.

The jaunty, chiptune music that plays over the top doesn't get irritating, and the ability to view box art gives at least some connection with the original physical products.

It's possible to save your progress to one of four save slots per game, as well as pause and rewind gameplay up to 30 seconds. Two display options are available – 4:3 or 'pixel perfect' (the latter is best, if you ask us) – and you can even add a CRT filter if you wish, which introduces scanlines and makes things look rather fuzzy. Output is 720p, which is all it needs to be, really; the games you're going to be playing won't really benefit all that much from a higher resolution.

Because the image won't entirely fill your widescreen display, you can select a border to appear in the unused space – or simply opt for it to appear black, as is the default setting.

Review: Atari 400 Mini 1
The on-screen keyboard is handy for games that need it, but using a physical USB keyboard makes more sense — Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Holding down the two buttons on the top edge of the CXStick brings up an on-screen keyboard, which means you can input text when required. Many of the games on the Atari 400 Mini have had their keyboard commands thoughtfully mapped to one of the CXStick's seven additional buttons, so it's rare you actually need to invoke the on-screen keyboard anyway. If you'd prefer a physical solution to this, then you'll be pleased to learn that it's possible to plug in a USB keyboard.

Atari 400 Mini Review - Conclusion

There's no denying that the Atari 400 Mini absolutely achieves what it sets out to do – present a pint-sized replica of an 8-bit classic packed with games and embellished with modern-day features, such as HDMI-out, save states and the ability to rewind gameplay.

We also mostly approve of the pre-installed games; sure, it would have been nice to have the original Star Raiders, given its status as the Atari 400/800's killer app, but the sequel is pretty good, and the inclusion of the jaw-dropping Yoomp! is very welcome indeed. Besides, you can easily load up other games using a USB stick, so any issues you have with the system's pre-installed library can be fixed pretty quickly.

What's more of a concern with a product like the Atari 400 Mini is just how broad an audience exists for it; while the VCS / 2600 can all upon its considerable powers of nostalgia to generate interest, the Atari 8-bit family is arguably less well-known, even if its games are generally of a higher quality thanks to superior hardware. Because it wasn't as successful, however, the range of software available for the Atari 8-bit range is limited in comparison.

If you grew up with this system as a child, then the Atari 400 Mini is likely to be a dream product for you. We can't think of how such a mini-tribute could be improved; emulation is excellent, the ability to load up games is a boon, and we love the modern-day upgrades, such as save states and the 'rewind' function.

This device becomes a little harder to recommend to anyone who doesn't already have a solid connection with Atari's 8-bit computers, however; we probably wouldn't advocate as strongly for it as we would, say, the PC Engine Mini or A500 Mini; the games on both of those systems are better than what the Atari 400 Mini can offer – but then you'd expect that to be the case, given that it's based on a more primitive system.

As we've already said, you can't really fault the Atari 400 Mini when you consider its aims. It celebrates an important era of gaming history in a fully-featured and respectful manner, and allows fans to reconnect with some genuinely brilliant vintage titles in an affordable and hassle-free fashion.

As the market for these micro-consoles matures, it's inevitable that lesser-known, fringe systems are going to become part of the conversation – and we're all for that.

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