Atari 50 is an incredible playable tour through video game history

Atari 50 is an incredible playable tour through video game history

One of the biggest challenges in video game preservation is figuring out how to actually present old games. In 2022, there are more ways than ever to play the classics, whether it’s mini consoles, updated hardware, subscription services, retro collections or modern re-releases. While these can make old games playable for new audiences, they can’t always put them in the right context – which is especially important for really old games like, say, Adventure on the Atari 2600.

But an expansive new release, made by Digital Eclipse to celebrate Atari’s 50th anniversary, is the best attempt at a retro collection I’ve ever experienced. It’s available on almost every console out there right now, as well as on PC, allowing me to use my PS5 for its intended purpose: gaming Asteroids. The collection is huge, detailed and does a fantastic job of explaining why these games are so important.

The first thing to know about Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is that it is absolutely huge. It has more than 90 games spanning a few decades of history. Most of them come from the 2600 and arcades, but there are also PC games, 7800 updates and a handful of titles from unfortunate devices like Jaguar and Lynx. Rounding out the package are a number of unreleased prototypes, such as the sequel to Yars’ Revenge and updated or remastered versions of games such as Haunted house and Break out. Outside of the games themselves, the collection is packed with things like short documentaries with the original developers; old photos, newspaper articles, comic books; and high-quality versions of classic Atari box art. You can even see the original code for some games.

It’s a seemingly overwhelming amount of stuff, but the team at Digital Eclipse has cleverly organized it into a timeline. It is divided into five different eras, starting with Atari’s arcade origins before moving into home consoles and computers and ending with the heady days of the Jaguar. Timeline mixes supplementary material alongside the games so you can understand the context of a title before playing. You also don’t have to experience the timeline in any specific order. You can pick and choose what you see, delving into what’s most interesting and skipping things you already know. It’s kind of like an interactive museum exhibit, only on your television.

This context is especially important because many of these games have not aged very well. Even as someone who loves retro games, I get totally worried when I boot something like this up Swordquest. But after watching some videos of the designer explaining his work and delving into the comic books detailing the backstory, I was able to appreciate the series a lot more. I still can’t say I enjoyed playing them, but having that context helped me understand that these very confusing mazes were actually an important point in video game history, and helped pioneer action-adventure games as we know them. (Atari 50 even includes a redeveloped version of the previously unreleased fourth game in the series.)

I also really loved being able to compare different versions of games. For example, I found myself really getting into it Dark chambers, an early dungeon crawler. I started playing the Atari 7800 version and was impressed by its detailed characters and dungeons. Then I played the extremely stripped down 2600 port and was able to appreciate how much of the gameplay remained intact despite the massively underpowered hardware. Playing Scrapyard Dogan early one Super Marioplatformer, was a similar experience. First I played the bright and colorful console version and then the surprisingly capable handheld version from Lynx.

All this is facilitated by some modern features. Everything is fast and smooth, so it’s easy to switch between titles and Atari 50 has saved permissions so you don’t lose your progress when doing so. You can also pull up the controls and original instruction booklets at the touch of a button, which is especially important given that the controls can change from game to game and platform to platform. I should also note that you don’t have to experience Atari 50 like a timeline: if you want you can just play the games from a list like in most retro collections.

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But it’s that timeline that makes this collection so special. Without it, I probably would have played most of these games for a few minutes and then moved on; with that, I’m much more invested in understanding what they are and how they fit into the game’s story, and I know what to look for when I dive in. That said, there are some notable omissions. Since Atari 50 only has a few third-party titles included, major releases like the infamous ones E.T on the Atari 2600 and loved it Alien vs. Predator on Jaguar are not available. And while it’s not the fault of the team at Digital Eclipse, I have to reiterate that many of these games aren’t very fun to play in 2022. As a kid, I always thought 3D Jaguar fighter Fight for life looked incredible in magazine screenshots, and three decades later I was able to experience how awful it really is.

It does not take away from the performance Atari 50 is. It’s so detailed and sprawling that it feels like a history lesson told in a way that’s completely native to video games. The biggest compliment I can give it is that I now want this for every retro collection. Imagine Nintendo, Sega or PlayStation getting similar treatment. It’s a dream, but it’s one Atari 50 makes me really want to come true.

Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration launches November 11 on Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Switch and Steam.

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