A while ago I decided never to buy another retro collection. While the idea of a selection of classic games playable in one place sounds good, the reality is that I play them all for about 5 minutes each and never touch them again. This extends to hardware too. I once spent a weekend building my own Raspberry Pi-powered emulation machine, filling it with games, configuring all the emulators, and linking up a wireless controller. I don't think I played anything on it for more than an hour—except for Silent Hill, which I finished, because Silent Hill will always rule. I also owned a SNES Mini for all of a week before it went up on eBay. The point is, collections of retro games, in any form, are never as compelling as they sound on paper.
But Atari 50 has bucked that trend for me in a big way. After seeing some buzz about it on Twitter, I broke my rule and cautiously threw $35 at the Switch version—and was delighted to discover that this retro compilation, released to coincide with Atari's 50th anniversary, isn't just another arbitrary collection of ROMs thrown onto a disc with very little thought put into it. It's a lovingly curated museum that takes you through decades of Atari history and, brilliantly, turns the featured games into interactive, playable exhibits. You don't just play Pong: you learn its history too. If you have any serious interest in this medium and its origins, it's basically a must play.
Atari 50 is made up of a series of interactive timelines marking key moments in Atari's history, starting in the 1970s. As you move through the years you can look at high-res scans of early promo material and photos, but the real highlight is the documentary footage. Created specifically for the game, these professionally produced clips are made up of wonderful archive footage and talking head interviews with developers, publishers, and other games folk—including Atari veterans who experienced all this stuff first-hand. There are some industry veteran cameos too, from Cliffy B to Tim Schafer. The interviews are insightful and light-hearted, with a fun, celebratory tone and non-stop fascinating anecdotes. I could listen for days.
Hearing these stories, then being able to immediately play the game is a revelation. Retro compilations don't often give their games any valuable context. You might get a paragraph of text if you're lucky, but otherwise you rarely get a sense of what the games industry was like when the title in question launched. But in Atari 50, the games are surrounded by archival material and new interviews that explain why they were included in the first place. A lot of important, influential licensed games are missing, for obvious rights reasons, but otherwise this collection is an extensive and valuable document of the games industry's formative years.
We'd be here all day if I listed every game included with Arcade 50, but it's an extensive list going all the way from the company's earliest coin-devouring arcade machines to the Atari Jaguar, its ill-fated home console. All the classics are here—Pong, Asteroids, Breakout, Missile Command, Crystal Castles, Tempest, and so on—but there are a fair few deep cuts too. I also love how developer Digital Eclipse has created some modern takes on old games, including a very nice version of Breakout with a bit of a Tetris Effect vibe. You might only play these games for five minutes, but learning the stories behind them adds a huge amount of extra value.
Atari 50 has massively raised the bar for retro collections, and I'd love to see other publishers rip the idea off in the future. Imagine something like this for the SNES, Mega Drive, or Dreamcast. It's a big win for the people who make these games and consoles too, because it's essentially an elaborate piece of propaganda about how great they are. Big publishers love reminding everyone of their legacies and this is a killer way to do it. The games industry is also notoriously bad when it comes to archiving and protecting its history, and projects like this are an ingenious solution. After this, a few old games carelessly thrown together with no context just won't cut it.
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