As it is apparent from Mortal Kombats recent 30th anniversary, major gaming industry milestones usually come and go with almost a peep. A bare-bones collection of past titles is often the best that juggernauts like Nintendo can offer for their biggest franchise. Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebrationis, however, a true exception. Triumphantly, a company that has struggled to stay relevant in the modern era has released the biggest collection of games ever made. Developer Digital Eclipse not only provides a great look at gaming’s past, but puts it into context while providing some great new ways to further Atari’s legacy as well.
Atari 50 interestingly differs from many other similar collections – including Atari’s own Atari Flashback series — because it is framed as an interactive museum. As a result, it doesn’t default to a main menu listing the 100 or so games available, but rather a list of specific eras, from its arcade origins to the Atari 2600’s introduction to the present day. From there, players can take an in-depth look at Atari’s releases through arcade leaflets, amazing video packages featuring insights from former Atari employees and video game luminaries like Tim Schafer and Cliff Bleszinski, and even some restored game design documents.
There have been some good documentaries and books about Atari, and Atari 50 competing with the best of them. It does not shy away from taboo subjects such as drug use, its embarrassing older releases such as Gotta — the Atari arcade game that had breast-shaped joysticks — or its own shortcomings that contributed to the game’s crash. From a historical perspective, this is a real selling point, and it has a huge advantage over the books and movies in that most of the games are actually playable and included here.
Interacting with these games is more appealing because of the framework this collection provides, as it contextualizes the time and place around each of their releases. While many titles are too simple or lack much gameplay appeal in 2022, they are certainly historical novelties and exciting when placed within the history of the medium, which again, Atari 50 do it so well. They are easy to play as just pressing a button from the museum menu will bring up the respective game. Live up to the subtitle, The anniversary collection shows how important the presentation is as it gives a premium feel to what could have been just another Looking back collection.
Some of the included games are classics and hold up despite their age, such as Warlords‘ brand of multiplayer fun. What makes this package even more appealing, however, is that there are six new titles from Digital Eclipse, ranging from 3D remakes of classics such as Yars’ Revenge to new sequels that keep the spirit of the originals alive. For example, the vector love letter Vctr-Sctr takes away from gameplay Asteroids, Lunar Landerand Storm and mashes them into a stylish high-score chase while Neo Breakout modernizes the original brick breaker. The wildest inclusion, however, is Swordquest: AirWorlda faithful recreation based on the original design documents for the canceled action-adventure game that ends Swordquest series. They might not be as appealing as individual titles, but they make excellent bonuses in this great historical collection.
But the game locks away a few obscure titles as unlockables. For example, one unlocks after walking through the museum, and another is found hidden away in the guide to Haunted houses. There is probably no one who dares to play Basic mathematics or Run 500, but having Easter eggs is an odd fit for a digital museum, since having the whole story on display is the impressive part. However, this approach means it takes full advantage of the interactive medium, and it’s also fitting given that the collection contains some of the earliest gaming easter eggs such as the infamous one found in Fairy tale.
Digital Eclipse is really underway. Just months later the excellent TMNT: The Cowabunga Collectionthe studio has turned it up again with Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration. While it doesn’t offer an absolute treasure trove of design documents and concept art (although there is plenty), its overall museum-like presentation and incredibly well-produced videos make it a delight for any gaming historian or anyone with fond memories of Atari. This is the closest gaming has ever come to having a Criterion Collection-type release, and is a plan that does justice to the groundbreaking company.