By Brian Bolding
When Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration was anounced by Atari on June 29, 2022, I was doubtful that the game would be anything substantial. This isn’t because I felt Digital Eclipse could not deliver, but, rather, I didn’t know Digital Eclipse’s reputation for pumping out some amazing games. (Since then, I’ve witnessed the deliciousness that is the Cowabunga TMNT collection and the long-overdue Garbage Pail Kids new exclusive game, made for the NES and other systems.) Instead, I was comparing this announcement to countless others I’d heard over the years, from the perspective of a much-beleagured vintage video game fan. Sure, I’d lived through Atari as a kid and knew all the 2600 classics back in 1982. I waited in line with my Dad for 2600 Pac-Man at Skaggs Alpha-Beta for $40 and loved it like it was gold. Unfortunately, when the NES came out in 1986, I was hooked, and left Atari in the dust. It wasn’t until the mid 90’s when I began to feel interested in these vintage games again. I got a 7800 and a game or two and enjoyed it; I bought the random Atari 2600 game at thrift stores over the years, but my love for Atari games didnt really reach a crescendo until the pandemic of 2020. My Dad had just passed away in my arms from alzheimer’s a few months prior – the world felt bleak and lifeless. Then, I discovered podcasting and Ferg’s wonderful “Atari 2600 Game by Game Podcast” and the delectable “Into The Vertical Blank” Atari podcast by the Fulton brothers; both amazing podcasts which heightened my love for these classic Atari systems and games. Then, I got hooked. I’m forever grateful to these guys for showing me the way – that Atari made some incredible games and systems and the world has never truly understood their significance and meaning to gaming and popular culture as we know it.
I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that there have been countless Atari collections and compilations over the years, some with varying degrees of success and longevity. While I enjoyed them, I always felt there was something lacking, like we were just getting small sips from a bigger fountain of fun. From the Atari games put out on the Gameboy and Gameboy Advance with 1 or 2 games, from the Atari Flashback systems (which I loved, and own them all) and all the other Atari compilations here and there; too many to count! I feel that Atari had become that company that produced those slightly graphically sub-par games, from earlier and leaner times, times long ago that many were ill-prepared to fully represent and honor as they should be honored. Their brand had become more of a sign of the times, a novelty gag on a clearance rack that surely doesn’t do the grandfather of video gaming justice. One thing all these compilations had in common was that they all pretty much contained the same games. How many times can I play Atari 2600 Asteroids before I scream? Where are the games from this Jaguar system I kept hearing about but never saw in person? What about the arcade games that Atari made for decades? I mean, I love ‘Adventure’ and all, but, how many times can I play an Atari compilation with the same 20, 30, 40, 50 or so games? The Atari Flashback systems that atGames produced were a Godsend to me years ago, but after awhile, even those began to feel a bit stale to me, each new version only adding a handful of ‘new’ titles that every fan surely already owned. The Atari Flashback systems quenched an ocassional gamers thirst, but not an Atari fans’. When Atari 50 was announced, I was used to these countless copy-cat compilations over the years. What Digital Eclipse delivered on Friday, November 11th at 12 pm on my doorstep via UPS, is nothing short of a complete miracle and masterpiece!
After interviewing Stephen Frost on my Atari-centric YouTube show, “That Atari Show,” a week ago, I got more and more excited for this compilation to come out. I was so excited to talk to the head of production (who previously worked for Sega for a decade and represented the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise) about a game that us Atari fans had been greatly looking forward to. Sure, we were skeptical, but I wasn’t ready for what I actually got. Mr. Frost described the game as “like walking through a museum where you can go wherever you want,” and you aren’t confined to walking through in a single-file line. Instead, you were allowed to go look at whatever you wanted or let your curiosity be the guide. “You can jump right in, and it’s fast,” Mr. Frost said. Since when has this ever been the case with any Atari compilation? While this sounded spectacular to me, I definitely wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I popped the game into my Nintendo Switch last Friday. I rushed home after work, through menacing Friday afternoon traffic, and lo and behold – there it was! I opened the shining gold Steelbook edition I’d preordered and popped the game in. After a 5 minute game update on my Switch, when the loading screen popped up and I glanced at the menus, my eyes welled up a little during a launch day video I was in the middle of recording. I blamed it on me tripping to go grab a soda before starting the game. The only thought I had then was: …is this for real?
After playing Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration now for two days, I can honestly say that this is no ‘compilation’ like any you’ve seen. In fact, Digital Eclipse have gone out of their way to label this “The Anniversary Celebration.” Nowhere in that naming is the words ‘collection’ or ‘compilation.’ That’s because this game is so much more than a compilation or collection could EVER be; in fact, this game is just like walking through an Atari museum and each game is represented like the works of art that they deserve to be. Stephen Frost was right, you really CAN go anywhere you like on Atari’s 50-year timeline of highs and lows. Atari 50 has literally made my expectations about ‘what a compilation or collection of games should be’ end up completely redefined. The game opens up on the timeline, where you can choose to go into the long and glorious Arcade years, or you can jump into the Birth of the 2600 Console, or beyond to other lesser-known forays into gaming. Of course, there is also content about the Lynx and Jaguar systems, which have never been commercially emulated before, in such special and specific ways. (As an aside, Digital Eclipse made brand new emulators for Lynx and Jaguar games, which they own, and Stephen Frost indicated to me that they are willing to work with Atari again should the prospect ever arise and both parties are in agreement. The emulators work wonderfully.) There are videos and factoids interlaced throughout, alongside pictures, ephemera, console information, manuals, secret ‘Atari handshakes,’ other videos, interviews with Atari programmers, developers and other Atari aficionados from over the years, and more. The collection contains about 103 Atari games, ranging from 1978’s 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe for the 2600, ending with Yoomp! from the Atari 800 computer, and highlighting everything in between like Picassos or Rembrandts in a vintage gaming museum, unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. (Trust me on that.)
It was at this point where the entirety of the game began to make my eyes well up with joy. Why would a grown 47 year old vintage gaming lover be doing that, you ask? Well, the way Atari and Atari games and properties have been handled over the years has been lackluster, to say the least. We see Atari t-shirts in the malls, we see that fuji logo emblazened on everything, from coffee cups to beer koozies to underwear to stickers to anything you can imagine. When we fans are presented with games or ‘complations,’ they’re always the same 10 to 50 games we’ve all played a million times before. (Not to belittle those games, they are classics, to be sure, but… what about the rest?) So, I’ve been sitting here for nearly 2 days now, off and on, firing up my Nintendo Switch OLED and playing Atari 50 to my hearts’ content. My first impressions have pretty much stayed consistent with my present impressions: this is not just a copy-cat Atari collection, it’s more like a full Atari museum! It’s an Atari fan’s dream! While I do feel the Atari 8-bit computer games could be more fully represented here, as well as the Atari 5200, this collection is immense and it’s 103 games have filled my Atarian heart with pure joy. Not only are there dozens of games many have never had the chance to play before, such as Fight for Life for the Atari Jaguar or I, Robot, one of Atari’s rare arcade offerings, but there are videos about every topic imaginable, in the appropriate timelines in which they occured. For instance, there is a video detailing drug use at Atari (a must watch!) and how one Pong machine malfunctioned (due to too many quarters pouring out of it!)
The game list here is quite impressive! We have games for every Atari system represented here, from Atari arcade to Atari 2600, Atari 5200, 7800, the Atari Jaguar and the Atari Lynx, the Atari 8-bit computer line, and much more! (There is even a video about the amazing homebrew gaming community that is a must see!) The attention to detail here is staggering. There are ‘reimagined’ games that Digital Eclipse also created just for this release, which include: Quadratank (for 2 or more players), Yars Reimagined (which allows you to ‘switch’ to the original game with the flick of a button), Neo Breakout (which is an amazing new take on Breakout that I couldn’t put down), VCTR-SCTR (a vector lovers dream, my favorite!), Haunted Houses (another unbelievably fun favorite) and SwordQuest: Airworld, the legendary fourth game in a series, which was planned over 40 years ago but never completed and released, until now! The attention to detail in each of these games alone is worth the admission price. You can also customize many functions of the games, such as sensitivity of joysticks and glow of the screens, and much more. For those pickier vintage gaming lovers, you’ll find something here of value and be able to customize it a little more to your liking. I was so impressed by VCTR-SCTR that another tear began to well up in my eye. This game is amazing! It’s a new game, made just for this compilation, mashing up Asteroids and Lunar Lander, as well as other games, which is a joy to behold. The fact that Digital Eclipse went out of their way to create brand new content for this compilation is nothing short of miraculous.
If zooming the Atari timeline isn’t your style, you can also go directly to the Game Library to browse all the incredible games included. There are even some easter eggs (which, coincidentally, was made popular with Atari’s Adventure by Warren Robinett, but it was not THE first, that title goes to Starship 1, by Ed Fries.) There are ‘confidential’ documents to unlock and other aspects which are made available once you browse the entire timeline and earn 100% on completion of it. The scope and size of this game is simply incredible, and – while we all wish there were licensed Activision or Imagic games included – (you can understand why they’re not), this Anniversary Celebration is much more than meets the eye. Once you pop it in, you’ll be floored with all the amazing content at your disposal and you may find yourself unable to put down that controller. It’s an amazing accomplishment for Mike Mika, Stephen Frost & team at Digital Eclipse, and from one Atari fan to many out there – this collection is the only Atari compilation that I feel does Atari right. What I mean by that is that we’ve seen countless compilations over the years, as I stated earlier, which all focused on those same 50 or so games we’ve seen and played hundreds of times. Here, we have classic Jaguar and Lynx games for the first time, and we have Atari 8-bit games and some incredibly rare arcade games, 2600 and 5200 games and, yes, even 7800 games. There’s even a virtual version of Touch Me, which was Atari’s foray into Simon-like handheld gaming for children. I actually own one of those handhelds and the attention to detail here is 100%. It’s amazing that Digital Eclipse managed to pretty much throw in everything but the bathroom sink (and if you’re wondering if there were gold-plated bathrooms at Atari for top-selling programmers or execs, you can find a video on that here, too.)
Overall, there is some amazing Atari content here, that a fan like me would not find anywhere else, in one comprehensive, immaculate package. Atari finally got it’s day, and that day exists in this collection. I’m sure Nolan Bushnell must be grinning right about now, knowing the great praise this collection will receive, and after the reviews I’ve read, I’m glad my opinions and takeaways are very aligned with their own. Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is a sight to behold! If you’re a vintage gaming fan, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy. If you’re an Atari fan, this one’s a no-brainer. You won’t regret this purchase one single bit. By the way, the gold Nintendo Switch ‘steelbook collectors edition’ is only $10 more, is physical media, is a MUST for Atari fans. Grab it now! You won’t regret it!
Thank you, Digital Eclipse, for making this love letter to Atari something us Atari and vintage gaming fans can be proud of. This is immaculate. This is unreal. This… is the new standard for compilations and collections that each company should follow. Digital Eclipse just got there first, even though it took 50 years to get there. After playing this compilation (or, excuse me: Anniversary Celebration) like a wild-eyed youth, I can honestly say that this was well worth the wait. This is one purchase I would have paid twice as much for if not more, and the lovingly crafted Reimagined games alone will have you smiling from ear to ear, just like you did when you sat on that shag green 80’s carpet indian-style playing Combat or Missile Command with your brother or sister, back in the day.
My rating: A+
The video of me reading this review can be found here:
Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, is available NOW on Nintendo Switch, PS5, PS4, Xbox, Steam and eventaully, on the Atari VCS. MSRP is $39.99 and $49.99 for the Switch steelbook edition. Buy yours today!
Brian Bolding is a writer, artist, actor, ham radio technician, photographer and vintage gaming & Atari lover who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his 2 chihuahuas, Pippa and Gopher, and cantankerous kitty Cooper. His website is brianbolding.com, which also mirrors ballistikcoffeeboy.com, a website he has maintained since 1997, featuring vintage gaming, pop culture, art, photography, tech reviews & more! Brian also runs the YouTube vintage gaming site, Ballistik Coffee Boy.
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