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

March 30, 2024

Now that the miniature game console trend has already covered most of the biggest devices from Nintendo, Sega, and Sony, we’re starting to enter more niche territory. The Atari 400 Mini isn’t a rerelease of the company’s most recognizable console (that’d be the 2600). And it isn’t full of household names. But that’s also part of what makes it so interesting — the little gadget is a cute, playful way to explore a very specific and formative niche of video game history.

Like its contemporaries, the 400 Mini is a shrunken-down version of the original. That means a small box in a very 1970s shade of beige plastic, with a keyboard and cartridge slot that are purely ornamental. I appreciate just 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 USB-C port for power. There’s one functional power button on the rear, coupled with a little red light to let you know it’s on. You also get one classic Atari joystick, which has been outfitted with a USB plug and the sneaky addition of a few extra buttons, including a shoulder button and a clickable circle around the actual stick.

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

The more important part is the games themselves. The 400 Mini has 25 built-in games spanning Atari’s 8-bit era. That includes expected titles like Asteroids and Centipede, as well as slightly more obscure releases like the nautical-themed shooter Wavy Navy and Hover Bovver, Jeff Minter’s game about cutting lawns with a stolen lawnmower. The emulation is solid, and I was surprised by how well some of these games stood up. I had never played Crystal Castles before — a platformer where 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. Similarly, space sim Star Raiders II remains incredibly thrilling all these years later, and I was very happy to discover Airball, a fantasy maze where you play as a bouncing bubble.

It’s a well-curated list, and I found basically everything — with the exception of the dead-simple Basketball — still playable by modern standards. The collection does a great job of encompassing just what this hardware was capable of. And unlike most similar mini consoles, the 400 Mini has room for expansion. The various USB ports let you connect a variety of joysticks and keyboards, and you can also stick in a flash drive to sideload games. That opens up a lot of possibilities, especially considering how robust the Atari homebrew scene is.

Star Raiders II.
Image: Atari

That ability to expand the device is also important because the 400 Mini has a surprising amount of competition. It’s really not that hard to find ways to play Atari games right now. The company released a recreation of the 2600 last year that can play old cartridges, and the excellent Atari 50 collection not only has an expansive list of games but also adds historical context with its interactive documentary format. With that in mind, a $119 mini console could be a tough sell. But the bookshelf-worthy design combined with its flexibility might just push it over the edge — so long as you have a craving for some Star Raiders.

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