Full disclosure, I am old enough to remember the very first home console war between Atari and Intellivision, with the ColecoVision getting into the fray late in the game. My childhood friends and I had many deep discussions about it. These days, not a lot of people remember that first console war because the video game market crashed (in 1983) just when home games were hitting their stride. But I can tell you, it was a fun time to be a kid who enjoyed video games.
And for my second disclosure, back when I was a kid, my parents let me pick whether I would get an Atari 2600 or an Intellivision console for an upcoming birthday. I did a lot of research, looked at the graphics and the games, and went with the Intellivision. I don’t regret that decision at all, especially since I eventually went on to obtain pretty much the entire catalog of close to 50 Intellivision games, plus the four that used the voice modulator. But as much as I was enthralled by my console, I also had a friend who got an Atari 2600 instead, and I had a ton of fun playing games at their house too. A few of those early titles, such as the D&D-like Adventure, made me sometimes wish that I owned a 2600 too.
I mention all of that because the new Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration title is likely to be best enjoyed by someone who had access to many of the Atari games growing up. I did not, and yet, I still very much enjoyed my time diving through this extensive collection of gaming history. So, even if you were not an Atari kid, you will probably still like what you find in this amazing collection.
The Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is hands down one of the most well put together collections of retro video games ever made. It’s not simply a bunch of ROMs thrown together under a menu. Instead, the developer Digital Eclipse has pieced together 50 years of gaming history and assembled it chronologically from the very first games through the entire run of Atari titles spanning multiple home consoles and arcade games. There are even five modern, never before seen, titles that can be unlocked and enjoyed that kind of show what it might have been like if we had more computing power for games back in the late 1970’s and early 80s.
In addition to about 90 titles to play, the collection also does a great job of explaining their history. So, you will learn, for example, all about the Crystal Castles arcade game when you come to it in the timeline, and how it had an actual ending, how the developers hid Easter eggs in it and how Bently Bear (the main character) was originally controlled in the arcade using a track ball. There is a detailed history for every title in the collection.
Of course, my plan was to dive right into Adventure first, since that was the game that caused the most Atari envy on my part as a kid. I was about to do that when I noticed that there was a video interview with the game’s designer, so I ended up watching that instead. And I was so glad that I did. Apparently, game designers back in the day were not allowed to put their name on their work. As crazy as that sounds today, that is how it was done. So, the developer for Adventure, Warren Robinett, hid his name inside the game, but to find it you had to perform a bunch of actions involving the magic chalice at the end of the game and a few other elements.
I was really shocked to learn how poorly game designers were treated back in the day and was glad that the collection had included that part of the history and not just only the good parts. But also, my childhood friend with the 2600 was pretty obsessed with Adventure, and I remember him showing me that same Easter egg that he had uncovered. Neither of us knew why it was there, but we were happy to have uncovered a secret room hidden deep inside the game. Now, all these years later thanks to this comprehensive collection, I finally know why it was hidden.
I’m honestly not sure what I enjoy more about Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration collection, the games themselves or the in-depth history of the video game industry that the collection presents. It’s a very slick presentation to be sure, with games grouped into different eras, each of which is also explained in terms of what was happening during that time in the industry, and how games were evolving.
The collection probably wants you to play the titles in chronological order, and that is certainly one way to go, moving from the oldest, most primitive titles into the games that are closer to what we play today. But I actually found another way to enjoy the collection. Going back to when I was a kid again, (forgive me for all this nostalgia, but this collection really feeds into that) my Mom at times would take me to a local department store that had a video game section at a special counter. It had attendants and everything, and just seemed like such a magical place to me. On those special trips to this store, she would let me pick out any one game I wanted, so I would look at all the amazing box art and try to decide which title to pick. Eventually I would choose my prize and start playing it as soon as we got back home. You can also approach Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration the same way, gazing at the beautiful box art or the colorful drawings on the side of the arcade cabinet, and then jumping in and playing whatever title you think would be the most fun.
As I stated before, Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is not like a typical retro game collection where titles are piled up under a menu. The title itself is part of the experience, offering a slick interface, detailed histories about each of the 90 or so included games and also a broader perspective about how games in general were evolving and improving over time. Of course, the games are the star of the show, and all of them are faithfully rendered and run great now on modern hardware, whether it’s a next generation console or a PC.
Anyone who appreciates video games or gaming history will have a great time with Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration. It’s less of a collection and more of a living, interactive museum where you can play with all the exhibits as much as you want. It’s both a fully modern take on gaming history and an incredible blast from the past.
Developers: Digital Eclipse
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Steam, Xbox One, Xbox Series X