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‘Atari 50’ review: The perfect holiday gift for retro gamers

By December 7, 2022December 9th, 2022No Comments9 min read

2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Atari’s Pong. While not the first arcade game made by Atari, and not exactly history’s first video game, the success of Pong kick-started the video game industry, and was the first step to where games are today as a major part of the entertainment world.

Atari 50 is the latest in a long line of compilations of the venerable video game company’s historic arcade and console catalog. There seems to be a new, definitive official one of these compilations every couple years, and they do little to distinguish themselves from one another. Atari 50 is different, however, as it is the first one of these collections to put the history of the company at the forefront.

Specifically, Atari 50 feels less like a collection of games and more like an interactive documentary or a virtual museum. The first view that greets players when starting up Atari 50 are four timelines that detail a specific era or medium: Arcades, consoles, computers, the ‘90s.

Inside of these timelines is an array of fascinating archival material and video interviews with Atari employees. The interviews are the great Atari documentary that Netflix never produced, and detail fascinating stories like the how a former Atari employee discovered the first production unit of Atari’s first arcade game Computer Space in a California farm, or how Atari 2600 programmers converted the company’s arcade titles into the simpler graphics of that console. There’s also television commercials, advertisements, promotional flyers, box art and internal documents that give a new look into the development cycle for games like Centipede.

The timelines at the heart of Atari 50 are easily navigable and tell an engaging story of the early history of video games through video interviews, ads, images and scans, all of which are high quality.

The timelines are truly as much of an attraction as the games themselves, and it’s fun to explore that material before or after playing the game along its run. The option to press Y to get straight to the list of games is also welcome.

Atari 50 has a different mix of games from previous Atari collections. The big Arcade and 2600 classics are still there: Pong, Asteroids, Centipede, Missile Command, Adventure, Yars’ Revenge and so on. Some of the games that had appeared on Atari Vault and Atari Flashback Classics, the previous Atari compilations, are missing (for now) although many of those were lesser known titles. Those are replaced by an array of games that had never or rarely appeared on Atari collections before, and all of Atari’s main console and computer platforms bar the Atari ST are represented. 

Solaris, released in 1986 long after the ’83 crash and the supposed death of the Atari 2600, is considered one of the console’s best ever and most technically impressive games. It hasn’t always been a given in these compilations, and it’s a treat to see here.

Some of the standouts from the console titles include the 5200 version of the Atari 400/800 computer game Star Raiders. That game was one of the most impressive of its day, and its simulation of space and depth still holds up today. While Star Raiders had appeared in the Atari Vault expansion pack a few years ago, its 2600 spiritual successor, the early space combat action game Solaris hasn’t often appeared on Atari collections and remains a technical powerhouse for such ancient hardware.

Atari and Digital Eclipse did a good job of selecting 2600 games for the collection that both tell the story of the system and still hold up as playable today. Not every game that had appeared on Atari Vault is here, and the collection is obviously missing licensed games, third party titles and ports of non-Atari arcade games, but there’s still games that show what the system was capable of and what styles of game play it pioneered. Adventure, Yars’ Revenge, and Haunted House are all endlessly replayable, and offer early peaks at what RPGs, shmup-style boss battles, and survival horror would evolve into over the coming decades. Some of the arcade conversions in the 2600 are interesting distillations of those games’ core mechanics to the simpler 2600 hardware.

I Robot was a flop when released in the arcade in 1984, but its gameplay is stellar and its graphics were at least ten years ahead of their time. Its release in Atari 50 is its first ever home release.

The usual arcade suspects are all here, but Quantum, Food Fight, I, Robot, Cloak & Dagger, and the unreleased games Maze Invaders and Akka Arrh are worthy additions to that always-present catalog. Atari’s best work was often found in the arcade, and no better example of that is I, Robot, available for the first time ever since its original arcade release in 1984 (legally, anyway) – there were no ports I, Robot is one of the collection’s biggest surprises and most replayable titles, a pioneering game that featured flat-shaded 3D polygons in 1984. I Robot’s gameplay is unique, a hybrid between a puzzle platformer and shooter that features concepts like enemies that require you to change your perspective to avoid. The game was a flop in its day and has become obscure despite its innovations, and it’s been waiting for something like Atari 50 to be rediscovered by a larger audience. I Robot is a must-play in this collection, and one of its selling points in terms of its actual games.

While the arcade games hold up really well and they’re all still a blast, your mileage may vary on the 2600 titles. Some of these games have held up real well despite their age and primitive graphics: Adventure, Yars’ Revenge, Haunted House, and Solaris are all still a blast, and some of the conversions are neat to compare and contrast to the arcade titles. Other titles like Surround and Combat are fun to mess around with as historical curios, particularly after reading a bit about their creation. For some players, these games might seem too primitive to play for long, but there’s still a lot of fun to have trying out these old titles and they should be given a chance instead of being brushed aside. 

Many Atari collections had only focused on the arcade and 2600 titles before, but Atari Vault gives representation to the 8-bit line of computers, the 5200 and 7800, the Lynx handheld and the oft-maligned Jaguar console that was Atari’s hardware swan song. Like the 2600, some of those system’s best games were not made by Atari or were based on licenses. What’s here is an unvarnished representation of those systems, particularly the Jaguar. Tempest 2000 aside, there are no Jaguar games here that are unheralded treasures the way I, Robot is, but fun can be had with the adorably dated Club Drive. Also, the inscrutable Jaguar pack-in title Cybermorph isn’t good but it’s actually a lot more playable than the Angry Video Game Nerd made it out to be all those years ago once you get a hang of its bespoke controls. 

“Where did you learn how to fly?” The Jaguar title Cybermorph is not an especially good game, but it’s an important one to Atari’s history, and its emulation here is superb.

It is a minor miracle to see the Jaguar, a famously difficult system to emulate, being featured here at all. According to an interview with Chris Kohler of Digital Eclipse by Herbert Shaw of GameRant, the DE team built a Jaguar emulator from scratch for Atari 50. That’s a perfect example of Digital Eclipse’s longtime reputation for care and historical preservation in their game compilations.

There’s also a couple brand new games made by Digital Eclipse and based on pre-existing Atari titles. Neo Breakout is a fun spin on the venerable Breakout games that is distinct from the Breakout Recharged game that Atari put out earlier this year. Haunted Houses is a quirky take on the Atari 2600 classic Haunted House that pioneered survival horror. Swordquest: Airworld at long last finishes the fourth and final chapter of an ambitious series of 2600 adventure games. The real highlight from this lot is VCTR SCTR, a tribute to Atari’s vector graphic games that mashes up gameplay from several of those games into something new and exciting. Along with I, Robot, VCTR SCTR is one of the biggest highlights on the entire compilation.

There are some omissions. Of course, there’s only a couple third-party titles like Miner 2049er, and licensed games that were produced by Atari from ports like Space Invaders and Pac Man to tie-ins like E.T. are missing, as expected. Activision’s titles, some of the best 2600 games, are also obviously missing. Those have never or rarely appeared on an Atari compilation, nor do they necessarily need to, but this would’ve been the one that they would’ve been most welcome. As with Atari Vault, Battlezone is missing because the rights to that legendary arcade title have been sold, but hopefully it pops back up as a DLC with an agreement. Some 2600 and arcade games that had been on Atari Vault and past compilations, like Red Baron, aren’t here either but their omission does not hurt the overall scope of what 50 tries to do.

The Atari arcade games made after 1985, when the company was split in twain and Warner kept the arcade division, are also absent. That’s also fine, as they’ve always been their own story and groups with the Warner owned Williams and Midway arcade titles. Those games did get ported to Atari systems though, and one that would be nice to see one day is the Lynx port of Klax, that handheld’s equivalent to the Game Boy’s Tetris. Speaking of the Lynx, because Epyx and Tengen games are off the table for now, the selections for that system feel unfortunately scant. It’s the one part of Atari 50 that falls short. Surely Scrapyard Dog and Turbo Sub aren’t the best showcases for what the Lynx could really do. The Atari ST, a beloved computer in Europe that held its own against stiff competition on that continent, is also missing; Perhaps because so many of its best and most important titles were all third-party.

One of many scans in the collection is are these pages of the Atari Age magazine detailing the prizes for the Swordquest series. The fourth game, Airworld, was never released at the time, but Digital Eclipse created it for Atari 50 and its playable, finally resolving one of the most infamous pieces of vaporware in all of video games.

Atari 50 is a perfect stocking stuffer for any gamer: The Gen X fan who remembers these titles when they were new, those interested in the history of video games and the development of the industry, or people who love fast-paced arcade action. It’s one of the best retro game compilations ever made and you’ll find yourself sinking more time into it than you’d expect. Atari 50 is the best presentation of a game company’s history in compilation form since Rare Replay. Hopefully, some other companies take Atari and Digital Eclipse’s lead and do something like this for the next of their own endless retro compilations (looking at you Sega and Namco).

Version reviewed: Nintendo Switch
Images courtesy of Atari and Digital Eclipse. All screenshots and images are the reviewer’s own from their personal copy of the game.

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Ryan Gibbs

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