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Friday, May 24, 2024

Atari’s 50th anniversary game is actually great

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It’s no big reveal that Atari is not really Atari anymore, and hasn’t been since the mid-80s. The story of how this great name was passed from pillar-to-post over subsequent decades could be the subject of a book but, suffice to say, it seemed like it was being run into the ground at points.

The current owners, however, seem to understand and value what they have: in terms of the game catalogue at least, and understanding Atari’s unique and important role in videogame history. The latest proof of this is Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, a lovingly curated and presented collection of key titles from the company’s history that puts them in context.

I suppose the necessary caveat here is that I’m a nerd about game history and Atari, so this is kind of laser-targeted at my interests, but even so this goes above-and-beyond. The collection is built around “interactive timelines” which present trivia about the games, various contemporary imagery, documentary footage and, in some cases, new interviews with some of the figures involved.

Atari 50 also lets you hop into the game, give it a quick play, then hop back out to where you were in a timeline. This is perfect because there are over 100 games included in the package and, honestly, most you’ll only want to play for a couple of minutes to get some idea of what it was. The interface design here is top-notch.

That’s not to say there isn’t real quality here though: especially notable is the presence of Jeff Minter’s Tempest 2000, a standout Atari Jaguar shooter which is still fantastic. In fact the inclusion of Jaguar and Lynx games (Atari’s last real console and a short-lived handheld, respectively) is I believe the first time these catalogues have ever been returned to.

This is, I suppose, more the gaming equivalent of a museum tour than anything. But Atari’s history is fascinating. It arguably did more than any other company to build the videogame market in the United States, and hearing these pioneers look back on what they achieved and why they did what they did results in some great stories.

There’s also an element of the future here, in that Atari 50 includes six new games. Swordquest: AirWorld is a sequel by developer Digital Eclipse to an old classic, while Haunted Houses (which Atari optimistically calls a “survival horror” game) gets a 3D voxel remake. Quadratank is a sequel to the classic Tank that features multiplayer, while VCTR-SCTR mashes up various vector graphics shooters–Asteroids, Tempest, and so on–into one. Neo Breakout is a combination of Breakout and Pong, while Yars’ Revenge Reimagined gives one of Atari’s masterpieces a new look. 

I’ve been cynical about various iterations of Atari over the years, simply because they gave us lots to be cynical about. At times this company has seemed like a zombie, good only for selling t-shirts, and it’s been a long time since it had any relevance to the wider industry. Atari 50 won’t single-handedly change that. But it does show that the current custodians of this great name and lineage take it seriously, and want the Atari name to mean something to people once more.

Fair warning: these are (mostly) old games, no matter how well they’re presented, and you’ll get what you put in. If you’re curious about this company’s history and where home videogaming really took off, Atari 50 is a treasure chest of well-preserved gems that, if you meet them halfway, some can still really shine.

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