How to present old games is a big challenge in video game preservation. Modern rereleases, mini consoles, updated hardware, subscription services, and retro collections are just some of the ways you can play the classics. These can make old games more accessible to new audiences, but they aren't always able to put them in a proper context.
The Atari 50th anniversary release is the best attempt at a retro collection I have ever seen. I can use my PS5 to play Asteroids, thanks to the fact that it is available on every console and PC. The collection is detailed and explains why these games are so important.
Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is huge. There are more than 90 games that have taken place over the years. There are also PC games, 7800 updates, and a few titles from the Jaguar and Lynx. There are a number of prototypes, like the sequel to Yars' Revenge and updated versions of games, included in the package. There are things like old photos, magazine articles, comic books, and high-quality versions of classic Atari box art included in the collection. The original code can be seen for some games.
The team at Digital Eclipse was able to arrange it into a timelines. It starts with Atari's arcade beginnings before moving into home consoles and PCs, and ends with the Jaguar's demise. Supplementary material is interspersed with the games so that you can understand the context of a title before you play. You don't have to experience the timelines in chronological order. You can choose what you see and what you don't see. You can only see it on your television.
Many of these games have not aged well. I am completely flummoxed when I play Swordquest. I was able to appreciate the series more after I watched some videos of the designer explaining his work and read the comic books about the back story. The mazes were an important point in the history of video games and helped pioneer action-adventure games. There is a newly developed version of the fourth game in the series.
Being able to compare different versions of games made me happy. I was getting into Dark Chambers. I was impressed by the detailed characters and dungeons of the Atari 7800 version when I first played it. I was able to appreciate how much of the game remained intact even though the hardware was vastly underpowered. It was like playing an early Super Mario game. The bright and colorful console release was the first thing I played.
Modern touches make this simpler. Atari 50 has save states so that you won't lose your progress when you do, and it's easy to swap between titles, so it's fast. The controls can change from game to game and platform to platform so it's important that you bring them up with a press of a button. If you want, you can just play the games from a list as in most retro collections.
This collection is special because of that time period. Without it, I would've probably played most of these games for a few minutes and then moved on; with it, I'm more invested in understanding what they are and how they fit into gaming history. There are a few things that aren't included. Atari 50 only has a few third-party titles, so important releases like E.T. on the Atari 2600 and Alien vs Predator on the Jaguar aren't available. There is no fault of the team at Digital Eclipse, but many of these games are not very enjoyable. When I was a kid, I thought the 3D Jaguar fighter Fight for Life looked great, but three decades later, I can't help but think it's terrible.
Atari 50 isn't taken away from by that. It feels like a history lesson that is straight out of a video game. I now want this for every collection, that's the biggest compliment I can give it. It would be great if the likes of Nintendo, Sega, or PSone were treated the same. It is a pipe dream, but it is one Atari 50 that makes me want to go crazy.
On November 11th, Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration will be available on a number of platforms.