REVIEWS: 08.28.01 - Gear - Handheld Atari 2600 Player

One of the hottest new handheld videogame units is in such demand that the manufacturer is having a hard time pumping out enough of them. No, it's not Nintendo's Gameboy Advance. This summer's ultra cool videogaming-on-the-go gadget is the VCSp, a handheld version of the classic Atari 2600 game console (affectionately known as the "VCS" for "Video Computer System").

Yes, we're talking about the same Atari -- the one you played 20 years ago when it was the only name in videogames. Who else offered Space Invaders, Adventure, Missile Command, Asteroids, Pitfall! and even Pac-Man back then?

The VCSp isn't the product of some big videogame company that licensed the Atari name, but rather the lovingly handcrafted work of Benjamin Heckendorn, a 25-year-old graphic artist in Richland Center, Wisconsin. Heckendorn built his first portable Atari over a year ago as a hobby project. Since then, word of his ingenuity has traveled throughout the burgeoning Atari 2600 nostalgia community on the Internet.

Heckendorn takes a vintage Atari 2600, chops it up, rewires the circuits and stuffs it all into a casing he designed that's slightly bigger than a Gameboy Advance. The VCSp's LCD color screen is cannibalized from a handheld TV unit. The result is a retro design that evokes an era in videogaming history that never happened: This is what Atari would have sold had such a device been feasible back then. The VCSp plays all the old Atari 2600 game cartridges and features not only a Gameboy-style control pad, but a knob to play games that require a paddle controller such as Breakout.

Of course, nostalgia from a parallel universe comes with a hefty price. A Gameboy Advance can be had for $100 or less, while the VCSp will set you back nearly three times as much. Sure, you could almost buy a PlayStation 2 for the same price, but not even those can play old Atari games. What's more, Heckendorn will knock off $40 if you trade in a working Atari 2600 console.

Is it worth your while? Heckendorn thinks the ladies will like it plenty: "Atari is what women want, as far as games go. Women love that stuff -- especially Frogger, for some reason. It appeals to them much more than [the games that come] out now."

There's some "bird in the handheld" joke here, but we can't think of the punchline.

-- Howard Wen

Handheld Atari 2600 Player


$290 including shipping
($250 with trade-in of Atari 2600)

Anybody who whiled away their childhood on an Atari.

Cool Eighties prop that plays all the Atari 2600 game cartridges gathering dust in your closet.

Long wait while Ben makes you one; short battery life (only two hours).