This article begins a new series: “What Console Can I Buy for $X?” We’ll begin at the baseline and assume that you want to get started retrogaming but have only $50 to spend. Total. Believe it or not, you can get a lot of gaming out that $50, especially if you are patient and can wait for a good deal. I’ve seen examples of most of the major systems sell for $50 or less fairly regularly, and this includes shipping costs. The more expensive the base console, the fewer games and accessories you can expect to get. So I’m here to help you decide which platform offers you the best bang for your buck. Let’s get started.
The first decision you should make is which platform to buy. If you’re just getting started in retrogaming, you’ll want one that is both cheap and a lot of fun. In my opinion, platforms meeting these criteria are the Atari 2600 and Mattel Intellivision. One platform that is cheap but not that fun is the Magnavox Odyssey 2. Other platforms such as the ColecoVision and Atari 5200 are a lot of fun but not as cheap; you can read about these in the next article in this series, “What Can I Buy for $100?”
If you want to play Atari 2600 games, you have one option that you should consider before all others: the Atari Flashback 2 or 2+. The Flashback 2/2+ is a Plug and Play console that has dozens of 2600 games built into it. It features much of the same hardware used in the original 2600; in other words, you are not playing versions of the games emulated by a different microprocessor. Other Atari Plug and Play options such as the original Flashback, Flashback 3, and the Jakks Pacific line feature emulated games for a less-than-authentic experience. The Flashback 2 includes Activision classics such as Pitfall! and River Raid, while the Flashback 2+ replaces these and some other titles with new titles. You can even hack the Flashback 2/2+ to accept a cartridge port so that you can play 2600 cartridges. Besides the built-in games, the 2/2+ offer some other advantages. The most compelling advantage is composite video output (the stock Atari 2600 offers only RF output). I also prefer the Flashback 2’s joystick controller to the original Atari CX-40 joystick controller. If space is an issue, the Flashback 2/2+ is less than half the size of the original 2600. One thing to keep in mind with the Flashback 2 (not 2+), however, is counterfeit units. It’s difficult to tell whether a unit is a lower-quality counterfeit, but there are tell-tale signs. Be sure to research this topic if you’re interested in a Flashback 2. Perhaps the best part about the Flashback 2/2+ is the price. Loose units sell for between $10-$20 on eBay before shipping. Playing around with a Flashback 2/2+ is a good and inexpensive way to tell whether you want to explore retrogaming even further or whether it wasn’t what you thought it would be.
On the other hand, if you want the authentic Atari 2600 experience, you can buy one of those too, plus a respectable number of games, for $50. You can check your local retro videogame stores and Craigslist, but I doubt that you will be able to buy a good set up for less than $50. Buying online is usually a better path, even considering the cost of shipping. Before heading off to eBay, the first place I would go is AtariAge.com. Atari Age is the one of the most important–if not the most important–online resources for all things Atari. It certainly hosts the most active and comprehensive online user forum on Atari. You should head there first anyway to do some research on the particular model you are after.
There are only a couple of models that are beyond your price range: the original “Heavy Sixer” and the Sears Video Arcade II. You should be able to nab every other model, plus power supply, at least one joystick, and some games for $50 after shipping. In terms of value, here are the remaining models (in order of descending value): “Light Sixer,” Vader (four-switch, all-black model), four-switch woodgrain, 2600 Jr. You may not be able to get a working Light Sixer with many extras for $50, but doing so is not out of the question. There are Sears versions of the Light Sixer and four-switch woodgrain; these usually sell for less than that Atari-branded version.
If possible, look for at least two working joysticks. Working (non-jittery paddles) paddles are a real bonus, as these can sell for $10-$20 by themselves. You should be able to get some games thrown in too, a dozen or more if you’re lucky. Common titles are worth no more than fifty cents apiece, so don’t overpay just because a lot of games are included. The good news is that many excellent games are also very inexpensive, so you can pick up classics such as Space Invaders, Asteroids, Yar’s Revenge, Warlords, Adventure, Ms. Pac-Man, Kaboom!, Pitfall!, River Raid, Combat, and others for next to nothing. If you do have a modern TV and don’t have an F-plug adapter (replacement for the RF switch box), you’ll need to budget for one of those, so it’s nice if one is included in the lot. The most important thing to look for is a fully-functional unit. Do not buy anything that is untested or that “worked when put away years ago.” Make sure that you can return the unit if it doesn’t work.
As mentioned above, consider posting a “Want to Buy” ad on the Atari Age Marketplace forum (there is a special sub-forum for Wanted items). Say what you are looking for and what you are willing to pay. Chances are that someone will offer you to sell you something close to what you are looking for that is also within your budget. You can usually trust the seller if he or she has been a longtime Atari Age member and has many posts to the forum (over a couple hundred, I’d say). The best thing about this path is that you can be sure that what you buy will be fully-functional, something that many resellers on eBay won’t be able to guarantee.
Click here for recent ending prices for all Atari 2600 consoles on eBay.
The other console platform that offers a lot of bang for the buck is the Mattel Intellivision. Like the Atari 2600, there are multiple models of the Intellivision at different price points and many of the most entertaining games are quite inexpensive.
While you will see many Plug and Play units that feature Intellivision games (they look like modern gamepads), these games are emulated, so you will want to pass on this solution.
There may be only a couple of Intellivision models that will exceed your $50 budget. There are the INTV System III and the Super Pro System. Functionally, these models are the same as the original Mattel Intellivision save for a red LED power light. They are different cosmetically and are rarer than the Mattel Intellivision because they were released later in the Intellivision life cycle. If you can obtain a working INTV System III or Super Pro System in good condition for $50, you should do so. There is also a variation of the Mattel Intellivision branded with the Sylvania name. While these are rarer than the Mattel model, you may be able to find one for about the same price because not many resellers are aware of the variation.
More likely you will be buying an original Mattel Intellivision or a Mattel Intellivision II. Again, buy only those examples that have been fully tested. Let’s start with the original Intellivision. What I like about it is that almost everything is built in: the two controllers are hardwired, and the power supply is internal. You will need only an RF cable and a switch box/F-plug adapter. If the good news about controllers is that, unlike the Atari 2600, you will probably receive a full set of them, the bad news is that, unlike the Atari 2600, 15 more buttons per controller may malfunction (twelve keypad buttons, four action buttons). I’d say that most common problem with the original Intellivision is “black screen”: nothing appears on the TV when you power on the unit. A lot of the time this can be fixed by inserting the cartridge almost but not quite all of the way. But you’ll want some kind of assurance from the seller that the unit is tested and working. For some reason, these models are very inexpensive. You can often buy an original Intellivision with a good set of games for $30 or so. There is a Sears version of the original Intellivision called the Super Video Arcade. This model comes with detachable controllers with straightened cords, both huge benefits. It usually sells for about the same price.
The Intellivision II has a reputation as being more reliable than the original model, but there are other important differences. Because of a hardware revision, the Intellivision II cannot play some of the first games released by Coleco (such as Donkey Kong). Second, the power supply is external, so you’ll want to make sure that it is included with the purchase. Third, the controllers have a different “feel” across the board: keypad buttons, action buttons, and disc. Personally, I strongly prefer the original controllers over those of the Intellivision II. Intellivision II units usually sell for a little bit more than original models, but you can still nab one with games for about $40.
Common Intellivision games are very inexpensive, and you can often find them complete in the box. In fact, common titles shouldn’t add more to a mixed lot than $1-$2 apiece. Excellent common titles include all the sports titles (be sure you have another person to play against), Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (Cloudy Mountain), Astrosmash, Utopia, Tron Deadly Discs, Atlantis, Demon Attack, and more.
Even though we’re on the subject of Intellivision, Atari Age still hosts the largest number of active Intellivision owners. Try there first if you want a good deal from knowledgeable sellers.
Click here for recent ending prices for Intellivision consoles on eBay.