Laura Truchon's "Pressed for Time" will explore the options for those who do not have a whole lot of time to devote to gaming, but need that regular "fix". Games that you can learn as you go, games you can start and finish while your mate is brushing their teeth, games that pass the time when the time is less than a standard television commercial break.

Simple things make me happy. You know, the non-complicated, no drama, no fuss, no extra time or brain power required, right there ready when you need it stuff. Kind of like microwave meals, only with better taste. Well, one particular item, which my brother-in-law Stephen pointed out to me, has been floating around for a number of months now and fits that simplicity bill quite nicely. Who says in-laws are a bad thing?

I present for your perusal the Atari 10-in-1 TV Games joystick controller by JAKKS Pacific, Inc. Some of you have probably heard of it by now or even purchased one for yourself. But if you're reading this column and not one of my relatives or close friends, then I suspect you actually do have a time issue on your hands and need some suggestion on how to get that gaming fix back into your everyday life. Well, this all-in-one game system may just be that remedy to bring pixelated joy back into your life without having to spend hours on perfecting fighting moves, looking for message board support, or seeking cheat codes to complete the game.

The first thing you may notice is the packaging, or more specifically the boy on the back of the box. Looking at it more closely now, it begins to frighten me. But true to classic 80's video game related advertisement fashion, the boy is standing, hands sticking outward, and face illuminated in a greenish yellow glow. His expression is that of a kid just struck dead on in the gut with a baseball bat, mouth hung open like a freshly caught bass and eyelids superglues to the top of his head. He looks like he is in shocking and agonizing pain. And magically the 10-in-1 controller hovers over his outstretched hands. A greenish-yellow tornado of stringy electronic goo, perhaps, shoots out from the controller and screen shots of ten classic 2600 games come twirling around for our enjoyment. I think some of the old Atari marketing department folk would be proud.

The system itself is essentially your standard Atari CX 40 controller with some minor differences. It is slightly bigger than the original and a bit deeper at the base to make room for the 4 AA batteries it requires to work. You still have your big red fire button and your stick, obviously. The system also includes on the front of the base an on/off switch, a power light, and three additional red buttons which are your reset, select, and start switches. Lastly it has the cord which has your Audio/Video jacks. Grab those batteries and you're all set!

The ten games included with the system are: Asteroids, Adventure, Missile Command, Centipede, Gravitar, Yars' Revenge, Breakout, Pong, Circus Atari, and RealSports Volleyball. A fairly decent collection for gamers on the run and not a bad effort for the company on this particular system. These are all based on Atari produced games for the Atari 2600 system and are overall similar to the originals, but not exactly the same. One of the main differences being that Pong, Breakout, and Circus Atari were all paddle games and you have to adjust to using the joystick instead. This in particular had caused me a small amount of frustration in the beginning, but it doesn't take long to get used to it and find that right amount of push and pull to be able to play the game well.

Let me look into my crystal ball and guess what some might be saying right about now. It is true that these games aren't difficult to find by way of MAME or even the Atari 2600 cartridges themselves. But what makes this pretty cool is that everything you need is right there in the controller. Well, you have to buy your own batteries first and put them in, but aside from that all you need is the TV or VCR or adaptor to plug in your A/V jacks and you're done. You don't have to change out cartridges or boot up a computer and it is extremely portable.

This by no means is the first all-in-one portable gaming system. In fact, Toymax released a similar 10-in-1 system under the TV Games label for Activision games, but with a more modern controller. Not to mention numbers of Famicom clone all inclusive systems that offer you some Nintendo based play. However, JAKKS Pacific's release is one of the first systems I've come across that actually feels like the real deal. OK, it is somewhat different in that it's a tad heavier due to the bigger base and like any new controller it may take some time to break it in until it feels as comfortable as the one currently hooked up to your VCS. It does feel a little stiff (oh so many puns I can think of for this article, but I'll refrain in the guise of good taste) and if you are a real stickler for authenticity, the texture of the plastic isn't entirely the same. Compare that to attempting to get a genuine feel on a PlayStation controller for similar games of the era and I still prefer the authentic design of this joystick.

Let's get on to the crux of the matter. Time and speed. There are some who complain that there isn't a cartridge port on the controller. I find this to generally defeat the purpose of the system. Man, when I want to get in a quick game and go, I don't want to put forth any effort other than sitting on my rump and flipping the power switch to "on." I have managed to get in multiple games of Asteroids and Missile Command as I wait up until the very last minute to head out the door for work and gargling the last bit of mouthwash. Switching out carts isn't mind numbingly slow, but if I'm grabbing the game system to take with me somewhere, the less clutter the better. And although I do agree that I would have liked to have seen more games included in the package, maybe leaving it at ten games wasn't such a bad idea. For me personally, when I'm faced with a lot of choices it takes me longer to pick something. If you had seen me as a kid on the days I was allowed to pick out a single candy bar from the store and it took me 30 to 45 minutes or longer to decide on just which one I wanted, then you would probably understand my less is more theory.

Back to the simplicity issue. When you flip on this game system, there aren't any splashy screens, long drawn out movies, nor shot after shot of the company's logo which on current games of today seems to be the rule of thumb (and there is no getting out of them by hitting the fire button or start which I hate!) Instead a brief few second flash of the JAKKS Pacific along with DC Studios, Infogrames, and Atari presents screen pops up and takes you right to the main menu of choices for your gaming pleasure. Pick and play. Such a rare and guilty pleasure to not have to deal with more than a single fire button or memorize any special moves. One of the most frustrating things I find that I deal with on the current systems is the constant training I have to put myself through just to get started on a game and die shortly thereafter.

Now if you feel you need some level of choice in your game play, there are some different modes you can pick depending on the game. Some offer two player game play, although it was hard for me to tell the difference from the one player games and it was easier to just hand off the controller to my husband to play for a while without switching modes. Some have more challenging levels or changes in the way the game is played. Breakout, for example, does offer you the choice to play a timed game or a standard scored game for every time you hit the brick off the wall. Yars' Revenge also allowed for multiple variations of game play, but I either am just too slow to see the difference or I am not familiar enough with Yars' Revenge to know better. Circus Atari includes more challenging variations, as well, but this is the one game that really bugged me not having a paddle to play with and was challenging enough as it was. I killed more innocent clowns that first day than I have in years of playing it. Cirque de Soleil would not approve.

Aside from the paddle issue, the only other two things I could see some room for improvement were the following. First, this system only runs on batteries. There isn't an option to use a power adaptor. This isn't a huge concern to me since I've been running just fine on the same set of store brand batteries for weeks now, but it might be a good feature if there are future advanced releases. Secondly, there is a distinct lack of instructions to assist in how you actually play the game. If you've played it for years, you'll probably make out just fine. But if you are new to the classics, then you may find yourself occasionally confused. Fortunately, there are plenty of links to sites which have reproduced or scanned in the original instruction manuals. You can find links to Atari related sites HERE.

Overall, this is quite the handy dandy little time saving toy and I plan on getting some more to eventually give out as gifts. For an average cost of $20.00 or less, it isn't a bad deal. I would most likely support the cost of it if more games were included, especially if it focused on less paddle games and included other classics such as Pac-Man or Frogger. One of the original press releases indicated that this product was at first going to be available in multiple colors, but I have only seen the traditional black controller and hope that it remains as such. Perhaps in the future we will see other releases with some enhancements. It wouldn't hurt to have the ability to hook two of these babies up together to give it a more genuine two player feel and, again, a power adaptor option may be beneficial.

So there it is in all of it's spritely glory, lightweight and easy to carry. Little time, little effort, still fun for all even if it isn't the "real thing." Even my very own CowCat gives the paw stamp of approval. This system will be out and ready to play in my home for a long time to come. I think folks crunched for time like me or just looking for a fun distraction will get a lot of enjoyment out this one. It's as easy as hitting the Fire button to start. Game on!


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