To people of a certain age, Atari will evoke fond memories of hours spent in front of the TV, enjoying fast, fun, and engaging games. For those people born in the 90s or 00s, though, Atari is barely even talked about, aside from memes about E.T. being buried in a landfill. It’s a shame, because Atari’s past works represent a pivotal influence on gaming, and ought to be celebrated.
Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is doing just that. It also serves as a chronicle of the company’s history, expressed through the games it produced. That’s not to say that every game in this collection is a winner. Some of them are downright bad. But they all serve to illustrate points in time and what was happening then.
Atari 50 is presented as a timeline spanning various eras of the company, from its founding in the 70s to it’s decline with the Jaguar. The events are plotted chronologically, and the games can be played through this interface. There are over 100 games in this collection, including games from the Arcade all the way through to the Lynx and Jaguar. There are also a handful of modernized versions of games available. Five of the games are locked by default, and you’ll have to look in the library, read the clue, and try to figure out what to do to unlock it. You could also go find a walkthrough, but where’s the fun in that?
The collection also offers up tons of promotional material, artwork, and even documentaries and interviews with the surviving members of the company. It was a real treat to see some of the older commercials again. Digital Eclipse went to the trouble of upscaling them to 1080p and cleaning them up. The interviews are all very high quality, and they go into detail about some of the trials that Atari went through as a company throughout its life.
I found myself slowly moving through time, playing games, then coming back and listening to the stories behind those games. It’s an ideal format if what you’re after is something both educational and entertaining. It was very interesting to find out that after the North American game crash, there was still a demand for 2600 games. As it turns out, the folks that owned systems still wanted new games to play on it, even though retailers decided nobody was interested anymore.
You can also switch to a library mode, which allows you to jump around and find the games you want to play. This is nice, since once you’ve gone through the museum portion of the game, you’ve likely found some favorite games you want to get to quickly. I think what’s important to mention here, though, is that this is one of the few collections where the Museum aspect of it is front and center. The original PlayStation iterations of Namco Museum also did this, with a 3D museum you walked around in, but this timeline approach also works well.
The games are, by default, presented with borders and in their original aspect ratio. It is possible to change this, if you like. Vector based arcade games also have a slider you can adjust to simulate the Vector glow. It doesn’t quite get the same effect as playing these games on a real vector monitor would, though. It’s just something that is not possible to replicate because of the way the two technologies differ. Still, it’s a nice touch, and shows attention to detail.
The emulation in Atari 50 is excellent. In my time playing these games, I was unable to find anything that looked odd. Every platform here feels so close to the original that you’d be hard pressed to find issues with it. Atari games had a very distinctive sound, and the audio sounds just like I remember it, all those years ago on my cruddy bedroom TV. Many of the older arcade games used analog sound generation, so for those, Digital Eclipse opted to use samples, which work out very well.
More importantly, though, the Jaguar gets some time in the spotlight, and an emulator built specifically for this collection is used to run them. You can play Tempest 2000 to your heart’s content, and jam out to the soundtrack while you do, because it looks and sound just as it should.
Controlling all of these games is going to be tricky, as there were a number of different control schemes from game to game and era to era. This is another area where Digital Eclipse showed that attention to detail. Some versions of this collection take advantage of platform-specific control features. Trackball and spinner games can be played with the touch pad on the PS4/5, or with the mouse on the PC. Of course you can play with a game pad, but games like Quantum really shine with a mouse.
I could go on and on about how well done this collection is, but I’ll just say this, instead. There have been numerous retro game collections over the years that have felt like simple cash grabs. This is absolutely not the case with Atari 50. With the sheer number of games on offer, plus the obvious care that was put into making sure every one of these games played as well as it could, Atari 50 feels like it was made by people who genuinely love games for people who genuinely love games. It is an example of how a compilation should be done, and sets the bar very high for any collections that follow it in the future.