Atari, and its exuberant founder Nolan Bushnell, were 1970s trailblazers who formed, established, and pioneered the video game industry. Brushing a near-century of mechanical coin-operated gaming aside and barging pinball into a dusty corner, Atari became the focal point of bars everywhere with Pong in 1972. It was the dawning of the digital age, and Bushnell and co. were here to make it fun.
Sometimes we’re in danger of forgetting these facts. The Japanese gaming revolution did so much to build on, perfect, and usurp Atari’s initial endeavours — and in such a gloriously innovative fashion — that we tend to focus our retro gaming goggles somewhere between the mid-'80s to late '90s. It is, of course, generational. For those who grew up with them, there’s still an affection for Clive Sinclair and the early PC gaming boom, the Spectrums, the Commodores, and the Amstrad; the CBS Colecovision, the Vectrex, and the Grandstand console. But 50 years on and it’s now Atari’s moment, and it wanted everyone to know.
As a result, Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is a painstaking love letter to the organisation’s history and its accomplishments. You’re greeted with a superb interface, beautifully designed and rendered, but never overblown. It captures the nostalgic whimsy of Atari’s halcyon days right down to the background music and rolling video wallpapers.
And its fast, barely missing a beat when skipping smoothly through content, taking a split second to load box art to full resolution, or diving right into documentary footage as though it was waiting poised for your attention. Games, too, of which there are over a hundred spread across seven Atari formats, from Arcade, 2600, Lynx, Jaguar, and everything in between, spring to life with the tap of a button. There are no online options, leaderboards or otherwise, but with such a dense volume of content, it's easily forgiven.
The layout is clean, colourful, and neatly categorised through Arcade Origins, Birth of the Console, Highs and Lows, The Dawn of PCs, and The 1990s and Beyond. It’s a deftly organised odyssey that runs across timeline charts littered with trivia, images, developer interviews, and anecdotes. It’s a joy to explore arcade flyers, box art, classic ads, photographs, and a selection of excellently produced developer interviews from the original hardware creators.
Even the great Nolan Bushnell himself, sitting comfortably in his Atari 50 emblazoned T-shirt, joins the procession with a special recorded segment. It’s interesting to compare the presentation of Atari 50 with something like Capcom’s Arcade Stadium titles. The latter comes with pretty 3D-rendered gimmickry that resembles an actual arcade, but lacks the internal warmth exuded here.
With the development of this collection handled by Digital Eclipse, the games seem perfectly emulated, at least as far as we can tell, without any visual hiccups or delays. There are really nice arcade bezels for the 4:3 aspect ratio, with a soft but acceptable scanline filter and an option to change the glow intensity of certain titles to match how burned in the tube was on the machine you played as a kid. Some additional filters wouldn’t have gone amiss — perhaps something to really bring out that old CRT flavour — but as it stands the presentation is perfectly acceptable. Certain gems, like Asteroids Deluxe, have a simulated depth of field effect to render what was once a printed background sitting behind its glowing vector sprites, and it actually makes it feel as though you’re peering into the screen. It’s delightfully done, and a good example of the package’s attention to detail.
Far from a cheap cash-in, throwing old-school games together with a minimum of fuss, Atari 50, on the contrary, is all fuss: fuss about the company, fuss about the good times and the bad, and fuss about the universe Atari created. Classics include I, Robot, Food Fight, Yars' Revenge, Tempest 2000 and so many more. Only occasionally do you hit upon titles like Firefox, one of the first Laserdisc-driven arcade games, only to be disappointed to find that it’s info only and there’s no play option. This is doubly saddening with the absence of Computer Space, the world’s first arcade video game, and no Aliens vs Predator on Jaguar, most likely due to licensing issues. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial suffers the same fate, a relatively poor game that nonetheless has significance in the Atari story.
One can’t pretend that all of Atari’s output was solid gold. Even one of the Jaguar’s designers admits that the console’s output had quality issues, and it shows in the majority of its titles on offer. While certain Lynx, VCS and 2600 titles leave a little to be desired, and there’s bound to be something missing that upsets someone or another (in our case, 1983’s Star Wars arcade), but there’s so much to peruse that it’s more about the journey.
And, as if it wasn’t already a brilliantly produced package sewn together with abundant content, there are six brand-new games thrown in too. 40 years on and Swordquest: Airworld is a fourth sequel you never expected, inspired by its original creator, and accompanying the three entries that preceded it. Neo Breakout, is — you guessed it — an expanded, modernised version of Breakout with exciting new twists; Quadratank continues the tank series with a four-player battle royale; the confusingly titled VCTR-SCTR mashes up elements of Tempest, Lunar Lander, and Asteroids, going vector crazy with an addictive score challenge; and Haunted Houses reimagines the Atari 2600 original, now in a 3D voxel-built space, ready to reignite the survival-horror spark with fresh challenges. Yars’ Revenge: Enhanced — which isn’t the same game as the recent Yars: Recharged — revitalises the original with a glowing new graphical overlay that can be swept away to reveal its original pixels with a tap of the shoulder button. There’s even an unreleased arcade prototype, too, in the form of Akka Arrh, complete with simulated LEDs flashing behind the bezel.
That it’s called 'The Anniversary Celebration' rather than 'collection' is a substitution of phrases that couldn’t be more apt. With its smooth, fast, and perfectly-pitched interface, and rich, thoughtfully created content, Atari 50 really is an honouring of the company that founded the industry. It’s true that its content is going to have a greater appeal to an older generation of gamers, to today’s parents (and grandparents) who grew up in the whirlwind of the '70s and '80s arcade scene. For them, reliving moments and experiences that used to cost a pocketful of coins will be joyful. For others, understanding the appeal of a lot of these games will take work, and few of the titles outside of the Lynx and Jaguar catalogues are easy to pick up and play for the uninitiated. At the same time, Atari 50 is so thorough and engrossing a retro gaming tunnel, akin to exploring a virtual museum, that it transcends its target audience somewhat. For those interested in video gaming’s history, the unearthing of the past, and for gamers not afraid of what today is considered rudimentary, there’s a great deal of enjoyment to be had in this trip down memory lane.