Feline Power & Reviving Air: Atari 50th Interview with Digital Eclipse

Huh, it’s been a while since the last interview, hasn’t it? Well, I decided to do a shorter one, asking questions on a whim regarding an upcoming compilation I found pretty interesting (Seeing how I’ve enjoyed prior work from this studio), and to my pleasant surprise, all ten of them were answered!

No major sections and long histories here, Digital Eclipse has been around for a long while, but the recent iteration made in the mid 2010s really upped their game compared to the one most known from the GBA/PS2 Era, focusing exclusively on compilations with a ton of history to them: even if you don’t enjoy the games on offer, the history segments are usually more than worth the purchase, and even the one that didn’t do much for me (Disney Aladdin/Lion King) had plenty of material to go through that took a couple of hours. Seeing how they made my most loved compilation of the last decade though, I figured I’d try to interview them if I could, and when a chance popped up, I was more than happy to do so!

The Atari 50th Collection is set to launch today, November 11th, and it includes a bunch of games. A lot of repeats from older compilations, but tons of obscurities seldom done before, if ever, and a lot of my questions aimed to ask about that sort of thing. I may love Millipede and Crystal Castles, but I’m pretty eager to see how I Robot and Tempest 2000 hold up, so thus, I sent over ten questions about various parts of the compilation, and got answers from an assortment of people. Thus, I hope you enjoy this fun interview with Digital Eclipse!

Q1: The last “Company Anniversary ” set you guys at Digital Eclipse did was SNK 40th, which happens to be my personal favorite of the Digital Eclipse sets… With Atari 50th, did you feel that particular compilation was an inspiration in any way, perhaps on how to capture the historical significance of a company?

A1: [Stephen Frost, Head of Production] I was the only person on the Atari 50 development team that also worked on SNK 40th, so I don’t necessarily think that any particular aspects of that collection consciously got brought over to Atari 50. However, in both cases, there was a larger focus on trying to provide the historical context (and a bit of a timeline) for both the games and the company, so it makes sense that the two of these releases share some similarities.  

While SNK 40th still focused more on the games first, Atari 50 pushes the games just a little bit out of the spotlight in order to more emphasize this idea of an interactive journey through Atari’s history. The games still play a very important role in telling that story (and are instantly accessible with the press of a button), but they are not the first thing that you see when you get into the celebration. 

Q2: The Timeline structure is one I found to be pretty nifty and makes this stand out from the other compilation, Atari Flashback: I particularly noted in my SNK 40th review how much I loved that aspect of the museum, and seeing it incorporated into the game selection here is pretty exciting! What was the motivation to bring this feature forward as a main focus for Atari 50?

A2: [Chris Kohler, Editorial Director] With each new Digital Eclipse release, we think about how to push the envelope and add new features that help us tell the story of these classic games. Atari 50 was a great opportunity to radically reinvent the concept, in part because as you point out, there is already a standard Atari game collection on the market. This is not a collection, it’s an interactive journey through Atari history in which games, digital artifacts, trivia, historical context, and interviews are all integrated into a cohesive whole. The Atari library also fits well with this concept because we’re talking about decades’ worth of games here, from Pong in 1972 to Fight For Life on the Jaguar in 1996, and even beyond with homebrew games and all-new titles. It would do a disservice to the player to simply take all of those different games from different eras of history and lump them all into a menu labeled GAMES with no context around them.

Q3: Lots of people wonder about the nature of one particular game in the set: Akka Arrh! This game was pretty infamous for basically hiding for many years, and only recently sneaking out into the public eye of the internet. I’m especially curious to know, did you guys find any sort of development or historical info on this game during the making of Atari 50? Of all the arcade games, this is definitely the one that has me the most intrigued!

Indeed, in Atari 50, Akka Arrh comes with a neat border that lights up as you play!

A3: [Chris Kohler, Editorial Director] We’re also thrilled to be able to include Akka Arrh in Atari 50, and while we weren’t able to include any additional artifacts in the timelines for this game, we think it’s presented very well with a cool animated recreation of the original bezel. Be sure to check this one out!

Q4: The Atari 8-Bit computers are seldom, if ever reissued or even mentioned in most modern Atari sets, so to see a few games from the 800 show up is really surprising! A lot of PAL folk are noticing the lack of the Atari ST here, however, which seems to be due to the odd licensing from the Warner Bros side of things. Did you guys plan to get in any Atari ST titles, and how did porting the 800 games turn out? Especially since the only other prior Atari 8-Bit reissue I can recall, was a very old compilation by M2 of the Spelunker games, which had the Atari 8-bit version of that title as one of the games.

A4: [Stephen Frost, Head of Production] Each time we introduce a new emulator into the mix, it brings with it a variety of challenges that have to be overcome. The biggest issues, of course, is making sure that the emulator is accurately representing the original game and that it’s performant. In the case of the 800, fortunately, it worked great from the very beginning and the only significant work we had to do was really just the normal process of getting things running properly on all console platforms. There were some minor hurdles every so often in addressing glitches or strange emulation issues that pop up from time to time, but the overall process of getting the 800 games working properly was pretty straightforward.

In regards to the ST, we did evaluate potentially adding support and started work on an emulator, but in the end it just didn’t warrant the time and resources needed to get it to happen. Quite honestly, there simply weren’t enough titles on that platform (which weren’t already out on other platforms) that we would be able to get rights to in order to justify taking attention away from other aspects of the celebration. So, in the end, we just cut it. However, we do love the ST platform and hope that we’ll get an opportunity in the future to put a bigger focus on it.

Q5: Another seldom reissued set of games here is from the Atari Lynx, which only recently got ports due to the Evercade gaining rights to several sets of titles from that platform, mostly from a company known as Songbird Productions who got rights to the Lynx ports of games such as Ishido. Seeing a few Lynx titles here makes me pretty pumped, but one thing I have to know: is the screen rotation brought over?  And was incorporating the link cable ever a possibility, or not viable? Not too many games used it, but the full Slime World experience would be a miracle to see pulled off in the future…

A5: [Stephen Frost, Head of Production] From an emulation perspective, the functionality and support for the ComLynx cable was definitely worked on. However, as it is a pretty CPU-intensive feature, we would probably need to spend some additional time optimizing it should we come across a gameplay situation where it was warranted. It is not included in this release, though.

As far as the screen rotation functionality, that is definitely something we can implement if needed, but none of the Lynx games in this release really take advantage of this ability.

Q6: Regarding the newer stuff included here, the biggest addition for me comes from Swordquest Airworld, finally being a reality after all these many years. Of course, the four game set was intended to be part of a big contest, and while obviously such an old contest is not valid, I can’t help but wonder: was Airworld designed with potential competitions in mind, even with the age of the internet? Were any documentation of the original scrapped Airworld game used in the making of this realized project?

A6: [Dave Rees, Engineer] There is no comic and no physical prize — those would have been great but were simply beyond our goals for this. The game was what we knew we could deliver and make it feel like a classic Swordquest adventure. AirWorld can be solved, and you’ll know when you’ve completed its challenges, but we hope it’s not just about who gets there first. There is room for everyone on the path to enlightenment!

The only documentation/concept that we used directly from Tod Frye’s original vision for AirWorld was the backdrop for the game: the I Ching. Once we dug deep into the I Ching depths and learned more about how it works, what it means, and why it exists, the design direction revealed itself quickly. We knew we weren’t going to have a comic book as part of the game experience, but the I Ching grid, which is used as a guide when performing a divination, was a great solution. It is an 8 x 8 matrix, and each cell within represents a hexagram. Each hexagram has a meaning, and thus we could build our entire world, as well as our puzzles, around it as is. It really is the perfect setting for a Swordquest game.

Q7: Any particularly interesting stories to share regarding the interviews in this compilation? Considering our current age of the pandemic, were any Atari vets tough to track down, or were there any interviews that fell through the cracks and weren’t able to be done? The work done in Samurai Shodown & Disney Classic Games was pretty great, so I’m eager to see how these interviews turn out!

A7: [Chris Kohler, Editorial Director] The challenge with the video interviews in this collection was primarily that we had very little time in which to research, schedule, and film them due to the tight production schedule! We are extremely fortunate that so many Atari legends were ready and willing to film on short notice. Some who were not able to participate on video, like Centipede designer Dona Bailey, contributed all-new quotes via email interviews, so we could make sure they were represented in the timelines. We told our interview subjects that nothing was off-limits and they could tell their true stories—this is not a sanitized or bowdlerized look at Atari’s history.

Q8: Obviously, the biggest draw of this set is the world premiere of Atari Jaguar emulation, and in the recent trailer, the games shown off appear to be quite a chunk of the US library! (Seeing how there was only a few dozen in total to begin with) What was the miracle to getting this pulled off, and is there a potential chance that this emulation technology could be incorporated into future sets/licenses? (ie: Antstream Arcade, Evercade, etc)

In Atari 50, Jaguar games look and play great, but they even come with a neat border based off the demo stations from the time!

A8: [Rich Whitehouse, Jaguar Emulator Developer] I guess you could say the miracle was writing a brand new Jaguar emulator! I succeeded in making an emulator that’s very performant, portable, and compatible with the entire Jaguar library. From a technical standpoint, it would definitely be possible to put the emulator on more platforms. Depending on the target hardware, it may require some optimization work, but the emulator generally runs great on most types of CPUs.

[Stephen Frost, Head of Production] We generally work on our emulation technology with the idea that it will be used in the future, as well, so the doors are definitely open for that. We already have some potential ideas on ways to use a variety of the emulators in this release in other projects, but we’ll have to see if any of them come to fruition.

Q9: On the subject of Jaguar still, one of the most infamous parts of it was the CD add-on, which often failed and didn’t really work all that well. Are any CD games included here, and if not, was emulating that even tougher than the base hardware, or was it mainly due to a lack of licensing?

A9: [Rich Whitehouse, Jaguar Emulator Developer] I’m not sure what the licensing status is for all of the CD games, but tackling the Jaguar CD is still part of my personal future agenda. For this collection, however, it was a little bit out of scope. I’d already burned a lot of midnight oil to get the base Jaguar emulation up and running on schedule!

Q10: Lastly, what is Digital Eclipse’s long-term hope for this compilation, compared to the many others that have come out for Atari stuff in the past? 2600 stuff is done a lot, but even some of the games I spotted weren’t reissued much, if at all, so it’s clear this is all in on both familiars and obscurities. Do you see this being the definitive Atari compilation, or could we perhaps be surprised by DLC in the future, perhaps with the aforementioned Jaguar CD stuff, or third party licenses such as Songbird/Warner?

A *lot* of historical effort was done for this compilation, but one of my favorite that not many others have caught is that Digital Eclipse made manuals for some games that didn’t originally have any, such as SABOTEUR

A10: [Stephen Frost, Head of Production] While there are no current plans for any DLC or additional content updates right now, there is always potential for that in the future if it makes sense. We do feel that this celebration is a very balanced and thorough exploration of Atari’s history, but we are talking about 50 years here. There are so many other stories that could be told and games to be experienced, especially from third-party companies, so we hope that we’ll have further opportunities to explore at least some of that in the future. 

Honestly, though, it really depends on the success of this celebration. So, if you are interested in seeing more, please do go out and support this release. 

[Chris Kohler, Editorial Director] The Atari era was so diverse, the amount of games so voluminous, the richness of the history so deep, that I don’t know if any one project could ever be called the “definitive” look at the era, especially something that attempts to gather up 50 years of history into a single package! My hope for this collection is that it leads people to the realization that “Atari” is so much more than a single style or genre or decade of gaming, and that we create a new group of Atari fans who want to revisit these games in new and unique ways in the future, which we will be happy to continue to explore.

And there you have it! Super big thanks to all at Digital Eclipse who answered my inquiries. I recently purchased the collection with my own money to help enhance this article and do a review for the website, so you should see that in the next few weeks! With each collection, I feel these guys improve their A game more and more, so I’m pretty hyped to see where the future goes for Digital Eclipse!

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