The Atari 400 Mini is a cute little slice of video game history

Now that the miniature game console trend has already covered most of the larger devices from Nintendo, Sega, and Sony, we’re starting to move into more niche territory. The Atari 400 Mini is not a re-release of the company’s most recognizable console (that would be the 2600). And it’s not full of famous names. But that’s also part of what makes it so interesting: the little gadget is a cute and fun way to explore a very specific and formative niche in video game history.

Like its contemporaries, the 400 Mini is a reduced version of the original. That means a small box in a very 1970s shade of beige plastic, with a purely ornamental keyboard and cartridge slot. I appreciate how retro this thing looks; even the included HDMI and power cords are beige. It has five USB ports (four on the front, one on the back), an HDMI port, and a USB-C port for power. There’s a working power button on the back, coupled with a small red light to let you know it’s on. You also get a classic Atari joystick, equipped with a USB socket and the sneaky addition of a few extra buttons, including a shoulder button and a clickable circle around the stick itself.

This is a plug-and-play device, so setup is extremely simple. It doesn’t connect to the Internet and the visual settings are pretty standard. There are two options: 4:3 mode displays games in their original aspect ratio, while “pixel perfect” mode renders pixels as squares. You also have the option to add virtual scanlines to mimic the gaming experience on a CRT display. Other than that, there’s not much to do. You scroll through games alphabetically and it has console-level save slots, so you can pause and save your progress at any time while playing. Everything works quite well, although it took me a while to get the hang of navigating the menu with a big joystick.

The most important part is the games themselves. The 400 Mini has 25 built-in games spanning Atari’s 8-bit era. This includes anticipated titles like Asteroids And Centipedeas well as slightly more obscure versions like the nautical-themed shooter Wavy Navy And Hover over the top, Jeff Minter’s game about mowing lawns with a stolen lawnmower. The emulation is solid and I was surprised at how well some of these games held up. I had never played Crystal Castles before – a platform game in which a bear tries to escape a series of magical mazes – but I ended up spending hours playing with my eight-year-old daughter, passing the joystick back and forth. Likewise, space simulation Star Raiders II remains incredibly exciting all these years later, and I was very happy to discover Air balloona fantasy maze in which you play as a bouncing bubble.

This is a well-organized list, and I found almost everything except the very simple Basketball – still playable by modern standards. The collection does an excellent job of encompassing exactly what this material was capable of. And unlike most similar mini consoles, the 400 Mini can be expanded. The various USB ports allow you to connect a variety of joysticks and keyboards, and you can also insert a USB drive to load games. This opens up a lot of possibilities, especially given how robust the Atari homebrew scene is.

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This ability to expand the device is also important because the 400 Mini has some surprising competition. It’s really not that difficult to find ways to play Atari games right now. The company released a rebuild of the 2600 last year capable of reading old cartridges, and the excellent Atari50 The collection not only offers an extensive list of games, but also adds historical context with its interactive documentary format. With that in mind, a $119 mini console might be a tough sell. But the bookcase-worthy design, combined with its flexibility, might just push it over the edge – as long as you want it. Star Raiders.

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