Review – Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration
Before I start talking about Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, I think it’s fair to give you a little insight onto why this collection felt so special to yours truly. I have already stated in the past that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game was my first gaming memory, but the first system I could consider my own as a small kid was… an Atari Lynx. Yes. Of all damn things, the Lynx. I know how to play unknown crap like California Games and The Gates of Zendocon like the back of my hand as a result. That also made me cherish Atari ever since I was very little, in a decade where they couldn’t have been even less relevant.
When I started giving a crap about retro gaming, years later, I made sure to get myself an Atari 2600 as soon as I could. I even had the honor of having said console (and my Lynx) signed by none other than the father of Atari himself, Nolan Bushnell. So, you have to understand that a collection like Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is more than just a bunch of old games. If this is all you want, Atari Flashback Classics is a much cheaper option. This is a fancy buffet of historical information, old videos from the 1970s, posters, advertisements, brand new interviews, and games. Lots of games. Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is a love letter I have never been before in the video gaming spectrum. A truly worthy celebration of a company that not only resulted in gaming as we know it, but technology and pop culture as well.
In the roughest of senses, Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is another collection of classic Atari games. This is a highly curated list of completely remastered titles, courtesy of the best company in the world for this kind of job, Digital Eclipse. It’s not only from the 2600 and 5200 eras, but from every single system Atari has ever produced. We are talking about Atari consoles from the 70s and 80s. We’re talking about the Atari 400 and 800 computers. Yes, we’re even talking about Lynx and Jaguar games. You know all of those games you’ve heard about from the Angry Video Game Nerd? You can finally understand the fuss surrounding them, experience them first-hand, in a shockingly decent remastered coat of paint.
Old games aren’t the only pieces of software included in Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration. Digital Eclipse was given free reign to create brand new iterations of multiple Atari IPs. They aren’t part of the Recharged series, mind you: those are all brand new titles included as a nod to Atari’s future as a company. There is a brand new (and nigh-unplayable) version of Combat, a brand new Breakout, Haunted Mansion, and more. Those aren’t the best games in the collection, not even by a mile, but the fact they exist at all, and are all included alongside many other titles that have been integral to Atari’s history, is already more than welcome to add value to an already jam-packed collection.
The highlight of this collection, in my opinion, is the surprisingly lengthy collection of Atari Jaguar and Lynx games. Mind you, they are not very good (even though Cybermorph ended up being a lot less worse than expected), but they have finally been preserved in a legal manner for posterity. I wish Atari had managed to license some of these systems’ third-party games, as the Jaguar’s best games were Rebellion’s Alien vs. Predator and Ubisoft’s Rayman, originally planned as a Jaguar exclusive. I cannot complain, however. I have always wanted to play these titles, and even though some of them are truly abysmal, like the nearly unplayable atrocity known as Fight for Life, I can now. I now know what the Jaguar was all about. For a retro gaming enthusiast, this is worth celebrating.
Atari even managed to salvage some previously unreleased games’ source codes and have Digital Eclipse figure out a way to port them to a new machine. One example, for instance, is the cancelled 5200 version of Millipede, which is a lot better than it had any right to be. Some lesser known titles from the later years of the Atari 2600 (as in, back when the Mega Drive was already out) are also present. The biggest surprise, without a doubt, was this game called Secret Quest, an adventure game clearly inspired by The Legend of Zelda, with surprising visuals and depth for a game on a console which, at the time, was already twelve years old.
If Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration was just a mere collection of said games, it would have already been excellent. The thing is, playing well-remastered and brand new Atari games is just part of the experience. This is a treasure trove of gaming history and trivia. The sheer amount of videos, posters and fully scanned manuals included in here is just absolutely staggering.
Just like Blizzard’s anniversary collection, half of the fun is just watching hours upon hours of interviews and historical footage from back in the day. Watching news pieces from 1972, with people having a hard time describing to a wider audience what a “video game” even is, is delightful. There are countless videos of a young Nolan Bushnell, with mutton chops as large as the ones worn by the Mungo Jerry lead singer, basically explaining the genesis of his company, which was also responsible for the birth of the Silicon Valley as we know it. There wouldn’t have been an Apple or a Google without Atari settling in Sunnyvale back in the 70s. It was all thanks to games.
The other good chunk of the videos included in the collection is comprised of modern interviews. Everyone you can imagine has been interviewed. Good old Nolan is here. Howard Warshaw being rightfully honored for more than just E.T., but also Yars’ Revenge and the innovative (at the time) Raiders of the Lost Ark game. David Crane, the creator of Pitfall, shows up and even explains the complications of having to develop games for such ancient and unknown hardware. Older developers aren’t the only celebrities featured in these interviews. Cliff Bleszinski, of Gears of War fame, and Tim Schafer also open up about their love towards Atari games, and how they were part of their childhood. The footage included in Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is better than most documentaries out there.
Atari doesn’t shy away from its failures, either. E.T. is mentioned. Drug usage is mentioned. An entire chapter of the documentary series opens up with one of Atari’s older engineers from the day saying “the 5200 sucked”. They sure mention that the Jaguar wasn’t a true 64-bit console, but actually an underpowered console with two 32-bit processors that made coding for it nearly impossible. I’m not going to lie; I actually thought Atari was going to sugarcoat some of the more “embarrassing” moments of its history. But it doesn’t. It’s all there. The reasons for the decline of its empire are all documented in this collection. Sometimes, even in playable form. Sadly, that doesn’t include E.T., as awesome as that would have been.
There are a few issues in this collection, though. Namely, it’s its overall presentation. Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration‘s main layout lists all of its features (as in, games, interviews, notable moments in history, etc) in chronological order. It feels a bit confusing if all you want is to play games, at least at first. Atari’s intention is for you to dive into the company’s history and play its games almost as a bonus, and I get that. For those who just want to play a bunch of retro stuff, there is an option to solely list all of the games included in the collection, but it feels a bit messy and convoluted.
There’s also the fact that, well, some of these games have aged poorly. But that’s part of the collection. Digital Eclipse did a great job remastering these titles, namely the Jaguar ones, but some of them are just plain bad. The console failed spectacularly for a reason. That being said, I legitimately feel like there are some small gems available for the system. It’s either that, or DE’s remastering efforts were so pristine that Cybermorph (the “where did YOU learn to fly??” game) is now an actually playable and decent enough 3D shooter for 1993 standards. Certainly more playable than Star Fox for the SNES.
I know I’ve said time and time again that “game x” is a love letter to “franchise y”, to a nearly exhaustive degree, but Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is just something else. It’s a worthy celebration of one of the most important companies not in gaming’s history, but technology history in general. Hell, maybe even the 20th century as a whole. The sheer amount of games included in it, both old and new, would already make this collection worth checking out for a retro enthusiast, but the tons of extras, namely footage from the 70s and modern interviews with Atari alumni and celebrity fans, result in this almost becoming a playable documentary. Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is the real deal for retro enthusiasts. A beautiful history lesson about gaming in general, and a perfect homage for the iconic company.
They are very dated Atari games, but they still look decent when it comes to the quality of the remastering efforts. The Jaguar games look shockingly crisp and so do the brand new games. The documentary bits are excellently shot.
They are old games, with simple and responsive controls. Very few games have bad control schemes, like the new Combat game and Fight for Life. The overall UI interface is a bit confusing as well.
The sound in old Atari games could easily be used as a torture device, but the Jaguar games don’t sound terrible. The same applies to the documentaries and the brand new games.
A love letter to the earliest days in the history of gaming like I have never seen before. It almost feels like an event. It’s basically a playable documentary, to the point that the 90 games included in the collection almost feel like a bonus.
Final Verdict: 8.5
Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PC and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Xbox Series S.
A copy of Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration was provided by the publisher.