One of the biggest challenges in preserving video games is figuring out how to present old games. In 2022, there are more ways than ever to play the classics, whether on mini consoles, updated hardware, subscription services, retro collections or modern re-releases. While these can make old games playable for new audiences, they aren’t always able to place them in proper context – which is especially important for really old games like, say, Adventure on Atari 2600.
But an expansive new release, made by Digital Eclipse to celebrate Atari’s 50th anniversary, is the best attempt at a retro collectible I’ve ever experienced. It’s available on pretty much every console right now as well as the PC, so I can use my PS5 for its intended purpose: gaming Asteroids. The collection is huge, detailed, and does an incredible job of explaining why these games are so important.
The first thing to know about Atari 50: the anniversary celebration is that it is absolutely massive. It has over 90 games covering a few decades of history. Most of them come from the 2600s and arcades, but there are also PC games, 7800 updates, and a handful of ill-fated device titles like the Jaguar and the Lynx. To complete the package, a number of unreleased prototypes, such as the sequel to Yars Revenge and updated or redesigned versions of games like Haunted house and To burst. Outside of the games themselves, the collection is packed with things like short documentaries featuring the original developers; old photos, magazine articles, comics; and high-quality versions of classic Atari box art. You can even see the original code for some games.
It’s a seemingly overwhelming amount of stuff, but the team at Digital Eclipse have cleverly organized it into a timeline. It’s split into five different eras, starting with the arcade origins of Atari before moving to home consoles and PCs and ending with the disastrous days of the Jaguar. The timeline intersperses additional material alongside the games so you can understand the context of a title before playing. You also don’t have to experience the timeline in any specific order. You can choose what you see, dive into what’s most interesting, and ignore the stuff you already know. It’s like an interactive museum exhibit, only on your TV.
This context is all the more important since many of these games have not aged particularly well. Even as someone who loves retro games, I’m completely baffled when I start something like sword quest. But after watching a few videos of the designer explaining his work and exploring the comics that detail the backstory, I was able to appreciate the series a lot more. I still can’t say I enjoyed playing it, but having that background helped me realize that these very confusing mazes were actually a milestone in video game history, helping the pioneers of gaming action-adventure as we know it. (Atari 50 even features a newly developed version of the unreleased fourth game in the series.)
I also really liked being able to compare different versions of games. For example, I found myself really getting into Dark rooms, a former dungeon crawler. I started playing the Atari 7800 version and was impressed with its detailed characters and dungeons. Then I played the extremely stripped down 2600 port and could appreciate how the game remained intact despite the grossly underpowered hardware. Playing junkyard doga beginning Super Mario-style platformer, was a similar experience. I played the bright and colorful console version first, then the surprisingly deft handheld version of the Lynx.
It’s all made easier with a few modern touches. Everything is fast and fast, so it’s easy to switch between titles, and Atari 50 has save states so you won’t lose your progress when you do. You can also bring up the original controls and instruction booklets at the push of a button, which is especially important given that controls can change from game to game and platform to platform. . I should also note that you don’t have to experience Atari 50 in timeline form: if you want, you can just play the games from a list like in most retro collections.
But this timeline is what makes this collection so special. Without it, I probably would have played most of these games for a few minutes and then moved on; with that, I’m much more invested in understanding what they are and how they fit into the game’s story, and know what to look for when diving into them. That said, there are a few notable omissions. Since Atari 50 only has a few third-party titles included, important releases like the infamous HEY on the Atari 2600 and the beloved Alien vs Predator on the Jaguar are not available. And while it’s not the Digital Eclipse team’s fault, I have to repeat that a lot of these games aren’t very fun to play in 2022. Fight for life looked amazing in magazine screenshots, and three decades later I’ve seen how awful it really is.
This does not detract from the success Atari 50 is. It’s so detailed and sprawling that it feels like a history lesson told in a way that’s completely native to video games. The biggest compliment I can give him is that I now want him for every retro collection. Imagine Nintendo, Sega, or PlayStation receiving similar treatment. It’s a chimera, but it’s one Atari 50 makes me really want to come true.
Atari 50: the anniversary celebration launches November 11 on Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, and Steam.