The oldest video game publisher in the world is celebrating its 50th birthday, with a new retro compilation and historical archive.
There have been a number of important anniversaries in the last couple of years, that the pandemic has managed to completely ruin. There was the 40th anniversary of Donkey Kong (and by association Mario); the 30th anniversaries of Sonic The Hedgehog, Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat, and Mario Kart; and the 25th anniversaries of Pokémon and Resident Evil; as well as many more besides. All of these passed by with little or no mention, when under normal circumstances you would have been sick of hearing about them by the end of the year.
There is only one entity in the games 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). The iconic American publisher and developer was founded in June 1972 and was pivotal in establishing and nurturing the video games industry as we know it today. From the foundational Pong to iconic arcade games such as Asteroids, Centipede, Missile Command, and Battlezone, Atari was the early pioneer of coin-op gaming.
It was just as instrumental 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 games industry but also almost destroyed it, with the video game crash of 1983, but all that and more is covered in this excellent compilation/historical document.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’s not the same one that lived and thrived in the 70s and 80s. It is essentially what remains of French publisher Infogrames, as the original Atari struggled in the 16-bit era and its ambitions were finally laid to rest with the rise of PlayStation in the mid-90s. That’s one point this ‘celebration’ isn’t keen to emphasize, but it doesn’t hide the fact either, 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 make a quick buck from a simple remaster, but anything that requires money or effort is much rarer; all while publishers are happy to switch off the servers for modern online games the second they become unprofitable.
Online connectivity is not a problem for any of the 80+ games included in this collection though, which stretches from the original Pong itself to the golden age of arcades and the Atari VCS era, before pushing on into the less popular post-crash consoles, the Atari ST home computer, and finally the Lynx and Jaguar consoles.
The problem is though that only games published by Atari themselves are included, so despite the Atari ST being more successful than anything else post-crash, there’s nothing playable for it – since Atari never published anything themselves on the computer. 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 vector graphics Star Wars coin-op is missing and so is Alien Vs Predator on the Jaguar.
It’s particularly unfortunate that neither Pac-Man nor ET The Extra-Terrestrial are included since they’re the games that actually caused the video game crash and it would’ve been great to see them again. The event itself is not ignored though, as there are two interesting mini-documentaries about it, including an interview with ET’s programmer. Still, it’s a shame the chance of this being a truly interactive history of Atari is lost thanks to the vagaries of third party licensing.
Even though it’s first party only, it’s still a fascinating experience to sift through the Atari archives. Instead of just a bland list of games you can play, the contents are split up into five sections, for each decade of the company’s life, and you can follow along a timeline for each, stopping to peruse photos, watch video clips, 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 80s-o-vision fonts and effects, while the emulation has been carried out by Digital Eclipse, who have plenty of experience with this sort of thing. As such, there’s all the expected screen ratio and border options, customizable controls, and TV filters for the console titles.
On top of this are six reimagined versions of classic games, including bat and ball game Breakout, where the gameplay is largely the same (and better remembered nowadays from the Arkanoid series) but augmented by various new power-ups, extra rules, and more psychedelic presentation. Having to use both analog sticks, to mimic a trackball, makes it less intuitive than it should be, but it’s certainly more fun than the original nowadays.
Quadratank is a four-player version of the classic top-down multiplayer shooter Tank, which again makes the original concept a lot more palatable for modern tastes. Meanwhile, Haunted Houses is a remake of one of the first ever survival horrors, and while it’s not scary the Minecraft style visuals are a lot of fun and do give an inkling of how the game must have come across 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 gameplay but enhances it with more colorful presentation .
Swordquest: AirWorld is even more interesting though, as it’s a brand new game built within the limitations of the Atari VCS but using design notes from the creator of the original three games in the Swordquest series. It comes across as a more complex version of Adventure, as you explore a maze-like city in the skies, linked by various simple arcade mini-games. At the time it would’ve been groundbreaking and it’s still interesting now, including the pseudo-1984 equivalent of a Resident Evil style door opening animation.
Finally, there’s Vctr-Sctr, which is a sort of boss rush mode based on all of Atari’s vector graphics games, where the gameplay smoothly segues between Asteroids, Battlezone, Tempest and so on. It’s a nice idea but it would’ve been better if the levels were randomized as the second one, based on Lunar Lander, is a nightmare and kills the pacing. In fact, we would’ve preferred just straight remakes of each individual game, given how well the modern controls and 60fps visuals work.
That gets at the heart of the other main problem with the compilation: very few of the games are still fun in their own right. The majority are still interesting, and perfectly playable – especially the golden age coin-ops like Asteroids and Centipede, but there’s very little you’d sit down to enjoy for hours on end.
There’s nothing anyone can do about that, and it’s certainly not Digital Eclipse’s fault, but the games in their original form should be viewed more as museum pieces than straight entertainment.
It’s clear throughout, though, that this is the very opposite of a quick cash-in. It even includes previously unreleased games, such as coin-op Akka Arrh, which is a wonderful little gem where you’re defending a base and have to zoom in on different areas of the map to shoot aliens from a turret.
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 all but complete. It’s basically three mini-games in one, starting with what could be generously described as a slimed down version of Robotron: 2084, and while it lacks the elegant simplicity of the best games of the era it’s intriguing to see how developers were trying to wrestle with the limitations of the technology.
There’re other lost games included too, such as a VCS version of Millipede and something called Touch Me. We’d never heard of it before, but it is similar to, but predates, the Simon electronic game that was everywhere in the late 70s and early 80s. On top of that are a number of unlockable games and Easter eggs, the most significant 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 all the third party games are missing but beyond that this does everything it possibly can to celebrate the history of Atari and shine a light on the earliest days of video games. Especially as the presentation is engaging enough that it’s of interest to anyone, no matter their age or whether they’ve played the games before.
In fact, if you have no idea who Atari are, this is arguably even more essential. After a few hours with The Anniversary Celebration you’ll have a much clearer understanding of the origins of the video games industry and how much, and how little, has changed in the last 50 years.
Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration review summary
In Short: More than just a retro compilation, this is a fascinating attempt to create an interactive history of Atari, that goes above and beyond in terms of trawling the archives and creating new remakes.
Pros: 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.
Jones: The lack of third party games is understandable but unfortunate. Few of the games are that much fun nowadays, 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: 11th November 2022
Age Rating: 16
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