The oldest video game publisher in the world celebrates its 50th birthday, with a new retro collection and historical archive.
There have been a number of important anniversaries in recent years that the pandemic has managed to completely ruin. It was the 40th anniversary of Donkey Kong (and by association Mario); 30th anniversary of Sonic The Hedgehog, Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat and Mario Kart; and the 25th anniversary of Pokemon and Resident Evil; and many more besides. All of these passed with little or no mention, when under normal circumstances you would have been tired of hearing about them by the end of the year.
There is only one entity in the gaming industry that has been around long enough to celebrate a 50th anniversary and that is Atari (technically Nintendo and Sega are older companies but they didn’t start making games until later). Founded in June 1972, the iconic American publisher and developer was instrumental in establishing and nurturing the video game industry as we know it today. From the basic Pong to iconic arcade games like Asteroids, Centipede, Missile Command and Battlezone, Atari was the early pioneer in coin games.
It was equally important in bringing games to the living room, not just with Pong but via the Atari 2600/VCS console, which hosted both arcade conversions and original games like Adventure, along with third party titles by, or licensed from, the likes of Activision, Namco, Sega, Bally Midway, Williams and Nintendo. Atari not only helped create the modern video game industry but almost destroyed it, with the video game crash of 1983, but all that and more is covered in this excellent compilation/historical document.
Although a company called Atari still exists today, it is not the same company that lived and thrived in the 70s and 80s. It’s basically what’s left of French publisher Infogrames, as the Atari original struggled during the 16-bit era and its ambitions were finally shelved with the rise of the PlayStation in the mid-90s. It’s a point this “celebration” doesn’t want to emphasize, but it also doesn’t hide the fact, in what is one of the most impressive retro collections we’ve ever seen.
In general, video game companies are terrible at preserving their history. They’re always happy to cash in quickly on a simple remaster, but anything that requires money or effort is much rarer; all while publishers are happy to shut down the servers of modern online games as soon as they become unprofitable.
However, online connectivity is not a problem for any of the 80+ games included in this collection, which span from Pong itself to the golden age of arcades and the Atari VCS era, before moving on to the less popular post-crash consoles, the Atari ST home computer, and finally the Lynx and Jaguar consoles.
The problem, however, is that only games published by Atari themselves are included, so despite the Atari ST being more successful than anything else after the crash, there’s nothing playable for it – because Atari never published anything themselves on the PC. It’s no surprise not to find the Atari VCS versions of Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. but this doesn’t even include Activision classics like Pitfall! and River Raid. For similar reasons, the Star Wars coin-op vector graphics are missing and so is Alien Vs Predator on Jaguar.
It’s particularly unfortunate that neither Pac-Man nor ET The Extra-Terrestrial are included because they are the games that actually caused the video game crash and it would have been great to see them again. The event itself is not ignored, however, as there are two interesting mini-documentaries about it, including an interview with ET’s programmers. Still, it’s a shame that the chance for this to be a truly interactive story by Atari is lost thanks to the keys of third-party licensing.
Even if it’s just a first party, sifting through the Atari archives is still a fascinating experience. Instead of just a bland list of games you can play, the content is divided into five sections, for each decade of the company’s life, and you can follow a timeline for each, stop looking at pictures, watch videos or play the games. Not only that but magazine articles from the time, box art, comic books and even the original programming code for some of the titles.
The presentation is excellent throughout, with the videos featuring blurry fonts and 80s effects, while the emulation has been done by Digital Eclipse, who have a lot of experience with this sort of thing. As such, there are all the expected aspect ratio and border options, customizable controls and TV filters for the console titles.
In addition to this, there are six remastered versions of classic games, including the bat and ball game Breakout, where the gameplay is largely the same (and better remembered these days from the Arkanoid series) but expanded with various new power-ups, extra rules and a more psychedelic presentation. Having to use both analog sticks, to mimic a trackball, makes it less intuitive than it should be, but it’s definitely more fun than the original these days.
Quadratank is a four-player version of the classic top-down multiplayer shooter Tank, once again making the original concept much more appealing to modern tastes. Meanwhile, Haunted Houses is a remake of one of the first survival horror games ever, and while not scary, the Minecraft style is a lot of fun and gives a sense of how the game must have been experienced all those years ago.
Like Neo Breakout, Yars’ Revenge Enhanced is heavily influenced by Tempest 2000 (which is included in the collection and is probably the most playable game in its original form) in that it retains the basics of the original game but enhances it with a more colorful presentation.
Swordquest: AirWorld is even more interesting though, as it’s a completely new game built within the confines of the Atari VCS but using design notes from the creator of the original three games in the Swordquest series. It appears as a more complex version of adventure, as you explore a maze-like city in the sky, linked by various simple arcade mini-games. At the time it would have been groundbreaking and it’s still interesting now, including the pseudo-1984 equivalent of a Resident Evil-style doorway animation.
Finally, there is Vctr-Sctr, which is a sort of boss rush mode based on all of Atari’s vector graphics games, where the game smoothly switches between Asteroids, Battlezone, Tempest and so on. It’s a nice idea but it would have been better if the levels were randomized because the second one, based on the Lunar Lander, is a nightmare and kills the pace. In fact, we’d have preferred just straight remakes of every single game, given how well the modern controls and 60fps visuals work.
That’s at the heart of the other main problem with the compilation: very few of the games are still fun on their own. Most are still interesting and perfectly playable – especially golden age coin ops like Asteroids and Centipede, but there’s very little you can sit down to enjoy for hours on end.
There’s nothing anyone can do about it, and it’s certainly not Digital Eclipse’s fault, but the games in their original form should be seen more as museum pieces than outright entertainment.
However, it is clear throughout that this is the exact opposite of a quick cash-in. It even includes previously unreleased games, like coin-op Akka Arrh, which is a wonderful little gem where you defend a base and have to zoom in on different areas of the map to shoot aliens from a tower.
There’s also Maze Invaders, which is basically Pac-Man with a gun but apparently didn’t test well enough to be released; a basketball game for the Atari VCS; and a real oddity called Saboteur, by the creator of Yars’ Revenge, which was shelved despite being nearly complete. It’s basically three minigames in one, starting with what could be generously described as a slimmed-down version of Robotron: 2084, and while it lacks the elegant simplicity of the best games of the era, it’s exciting to see how the developers tried to wrestle with the limitations of technology.
There are also other lost games, like a VCS version of Millipede and something called Touch Me. We’d never heard of it before, but it’s similar to, but predates, the electronic Simon game that was ubiquitous in the late 70s and early 80s. In addition, there are a number of unlockable games and easter eggs, the most important of which are hinted at by short poems on the menu screen, suggesting what you should do in other games to unlock them.
It’s a shame that all the third party games are missing but other than that this does everything it can to celebrate Atari’s history and shine a light on the earliest days of video games. Especially as the presentation is engaging enough that it is of interest to everyone, regardless of age or whether they have played the games before.
In fact, if you have no idea who Atari is, this is arguably even more important. After a few hours of The Anniversary Celebration, you’ll have a much clearer understanding of the origins of the video game industry and how much, and how little, has changed over the past 50 years.
Summary of Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration review
Briefly: More than just a retro collection, this is a fascinating attempt to create an interactive history of Atari, going beyond digging through the archives and creating new remakes.
Advantages: Over 80 games, some of which have never been released before, all presented with a mountain of behind-the-scenes interviews and content. The new remakes are all interesting.
Disadvantages: The lack of third party games is understandable but unfortunate. Few of the games are that much fun these days, outside of historical curiosity.
Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5 and PC
Developer: Digital Eclipse
Release date: November 11, 2022
Age rating: 16
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