Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration (Steam)- Review

Title: Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration
System: PC (Steam)
Price: $39.99
Release Date: 11/11/2022


Prelude

A few months ago, we covered the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Cowabunga Collection, which ended up being a lovely compilation of several great Turtles games bundled up by Digital Eclipse. I noted in that review that it seemed their skill in general was getting more and more polished and sharpened up, and indeed, they return yet again with their most ambitious project yet: Atari 50, a compilation of not just games from the 2600, but from across nearly all the Atari systems, presented in a way that makes the museum mode from past compilations part of the main experience.

Obviously, being a compilation with 100+ games, covering each title individually in detail would lead to my death, but there are six new reimagined games here, and all the systems on offer do their own quirky tricks with the emulation… So let’s see what this interactive documentary of sorts has to offer for Atari fans!

Presentation

Unlike some recent collections we’ve covered lately, Atari 50 has had a ton of work put into the presentation, and it shows; practically this entire compilation is a presentation in and of itself. See, instead of a split Museum/Game Library like prior DE sets, the main categories available after startup are historical sections covering eras from the early 1970s to the mid 1990s, and like the timeline of games present in SNK 40th, these go over the history of what games were available that year from the company, and more.

Much, much more in fact, for Atari 50 doesn’t just provide a bunch of fun trivia to read and scans/screencaps, but video interviews, retrospectives, vintage archival footage, a few adverts, gorgeous 3D Box replicas, and HD Manual/Flyer scans for nearly every included game in the set. It’s absolutely packed and presented in a very neat chronological order that’s done so damn well I can’t even begin to describe how much it surprised me. I always shout out SNK 40th whenever I can due to how that museum mode was just so much fun to browse through, but this takes that and evolves it to the next level and beyond, very good stuff. They even went and made brand new manuals from the ground up for all the unreleased home games in this collection, making them fit right at home with the ones that already existed in the past.

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Along with the impressive timeline and historical context given as the bulk of the experience, (though there is a game lineup you can visit and sort by year, console, etc if you so please) each of the represented systems are given love and care in how they’re presented. Arcade vector games emulate the glow effect and backgrounds incredibly damn well, a far step above other recent reissues such as the Evercade version of Asteroids arcade, helping to make games like that or Tempest retain their rad art style.

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The backgrounds and filters are adjusted on a per system/game basis, meaning that some arcade games like Akka Arrh replicate the LED effects on the side of the cabinet screen to a shocking degree of accuracy, along with other fun visual efforts such as an impressive looking TV filter for home console games, (looking best with the Jaguar stuff, I feel) and an evolution of that LCD filter I praised in the Turtles collection, which now goes with the Lynx games here and well, it’s absolutely perfect.

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No, seriously, the Lynx of all systems included here might just have the best combination of border + LCD filter I have ever seen on any title in a retro reissue, as it just looks so damn good, especially on the bulky Steam Deck. Sure, you can turn these off and play normally, but I oddly didn’t turn the filters off, despite normally doing so in most of these sets, and with Lynx games I was bummed there weren’t more Lynx games to throw this cool shader at, since it really rules. It was also a neat touch seeing the border to Atari 2600 games go from the basic, early-era box stripe to the late 80s logo when playing games from that era like Secret Quest, or the Jaguar’s border mimicking that of the demo kiosks set up waaaaaay back in the day.

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If that wasn’t enough, the new reimagined games all have their own retro-inspired presentations to them, with Swordquest Airworld having options to mimic the framerate of the original hardware, with pixelart fitting in perfectly with the other three games here, (despite being a new game) Neo Breakout giving a different spin on a modern Breakout that compliments nicely with Breakout Recharged, Haunted Houses going for a funny voxel take with 3D environments to explore, Yars Revenge having a gorgeous bright face lift, Quadratanks looking as if it was ripped straight from a toybox, and the outstanding VCTR-SCTR transitioning from one vector classic into another in such beautiful fashion. What would normally be treated like mini bonuses in other sets truly shine as their own games here, even the shorter ones, and they all feel right at home with the classics.

Gameplay

This compilation review will be a bit different: rather than going through game by game for each title in this compilation, I’ll only do that for the reimagined games in the set, since they’re the closest to full blown exclusives with enough depth for me to write about in detail. Rather, to cover the rest of the content here that I didn’t touch on with the presentation aspects, I’ll break things down by system and give a rough overview of how each library is represented and curated. Let’s start from the beginning, shall we?


ARCADE GAMES: Beginning with Pong, well… It’s Pong. Arcade Pong is a bit odd since the original arcade machine can’t be emulated 1:1 due to how it was made, so instead we have a faithful recreation, including the lack of a CPU opponent. Right off the bat with this very first title however, Digital Eclipse shows their strength by having mouse support as an option for controlling the paddle. Since the Steam Deck I’m reviewing this on allows for mapping the mouse to one of its touchpads, that means controlling all the arcade titles which require oddball controls such as the aforementioned paddle, dial, or trackball is immensely improved by this mapping.

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The arcade Breakout titles feel super smooth to play at home for the first time in years, while trackball games like Millipede, Centipede and Missile Command feel a bit less perfect, but still far superior to traditional joystick controls. (which are still an option for those who prefer that style, or are on consoles) In this area pretty much everything I tried felt great and fun to control, whether it used normal controls like I Robot or Asteroids or the aforementioned oddball schemes from the arcade. As noted earlier, the vector titles all have display settings meant to imitate the glow from the original arcade monitors, and while obviously no visual filter will ever match the original experience perfectly, the vector games here are an absolute delight to play in the dark thanks to that faithful attention to detail.

Lineup wise, you got pretty much every major pre 84 game that the current version of Atari owns. Pong, Breakout, Missile Command, Tempest, those are all here, and newcomers like I Robot and Akka Arrh add incentive for those who have seen the classics in compilations a bajillion times before, with all of the included titles in this category doing something to tickle my fancy or focus on scorechasing for a while. The only thing off I noticed while playing this lineup is that Warlords appears to not save high scores like the other titles, which is a shame since that is by far the best brick breaker in this set of arcade games.

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Atari 2600: Hey, it’s the game console that is the most notorious here for being reissued to death! And yeah, for the most part everything in this batch of games has seen some sort of reissue, and if you’ve played Code Mystics’ Atari Flashback Classics set then you’ll be familiar with a lot here. Digital Eclipse wasn’t a slouch on making these simple games retain their fun factor, however, for they did quite a lot of cool things that made some games included here way more enticing to play compared to those earlier sets, usually thanks to including high quality scans of the original instruction manuals for every game here. (Even unreleased games like Saboteur, Millipede 5200, and Realsports Basketball have a neat manual, made specifically for this compilation!)

You can choose which game style to boot the game in before doing so, and titles that used the paddle accessory like Breakout will map to the mouse, meaning that yep, on Steam Deck/PC you can play these versions with smooth control as well. These games were mostly made before the notion of an in-game “High Score” even existed, so even with the handy save state feature there’s little reason to scorechase in these titles outside of memorizing your last best score and trying to beat that, just like the old days.

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That doesn’t mean 2600 games are pointless, fair from it! They have the most fascinating bit of the timeline by far, with tons of high-res original art and video interviews covering just how tricky it was to either make original experiences for the console, or downsizing the hit Atari arcade titles for such a limited console. Considering how long this system stuck around for, you even get some later experiences that are truly exciting, with Secret Quest becoming a new favorite of mine, along with the intriguing Solaris. Yeah, it ends on a weak note with Fatal Run, but just comparing the manual that came with Combat to Fatal Run’s manual shows just how much gaming as a whole evolved in that timeframe, which I found to be the best aspect of the experience by far.

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It also helps that all of the games picked for this section are pretty fun and not too frustrating, unlike stuff like Atari Golf that gets thrown into other collections and makes you want to rip your hair out. The only real things I’d argue are “missing” from this lineup would be Aquaventure (which is another HSW unreleased title, a really addictive one that would have gone great with Saboteur) and Video Pinball. (solely for being a chaotic, fun experience that is great with friends)

Atari 5200: This is where things get a bit strange, since this is the successor to the 2600, only it didn’t do so hot and had a ton of problems with faulty controllers and such. Not many games in this selection, but the ones we got here are really good, including an unlockable port of Millipede that was planned, but cancelled, a pretty looking rendition of Super Breakout, (complete with mouse support) ports of two games also on the Atari 800 side of things, and the most ambitious/confusing game in the entire collection, Star Raiders, which was given quite the treatment here: not only do you get some helpful historical info in the timeline on this game, but it also comes with a ton of enhancements to make this planet traveling game make a bit more sense to modern players such as myself.

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Compared to Solaris, I still found Star Raiders to be pretty cryptic and confusing in a lot of ways, but I appreciated the extreme attention to detail on replicating aspects of the 5200’s crazy controller and the general quality of life provided for this one game. It controls a whole lot better now than it did in other compilations at the very least, now that I know what all the buttons do.

Atari 800: This is the computer lineup! We don’t have much here either, but two platforming games originated here, in the form of two titles starring Bounty Bob. They’re OK, and serve as decent scorechasers with some funny death animations, but the big highlight here is Caverns of Mars, a truly addicting vertical shooter!

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This was easily the gem of the lineup no doubt, with a homebrew game known as Yoomp being thrown in as a bonus. That game is pretty dull in my book, but it is a neat historical relic showing that even in the 2000s people were determined to push the old Atari systems to their limit!

Atari 7800: This ended up being the NES-like of the Atari console heritage, and it shows in quite a lot of ways: more in-depth games, displayed Hi-Scores, and ports of arcade classics that now looked better than the original games! Asteroids and Centipede both rock on this console, but the big highlight here is Ninja Golf, an Atari 7800 exclusive only really reissued via Evercade and Antstream before now, and it has pretty much everything you could hope from an 8-bit hidden gem: cool premise, (belt scroller + golfing) fun score mechanics, (even if they can be easy to break) plenty of fun levels, and a unique loop that manages to be perfect for pick up and play sessions. Good thing there’s save states to help you out with this one!

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Another highlight comes from Dark Chambers, which is also on the 2600. Both versions are pretty fun, and serve as a decent dungeon crawler you can even have a friend tag along in, and are the closest thing you’ll get to Gauntlet in this set. (considering how that is tied up with Warner Bros) It’s not nearly as engrossing as Ninja Golf or the arcade ports, but it manages to be an interesting experiment nevertheless. A funny example of a poor game on this system comes from Scrapyard Dog, which manages to be just an ugly, speedy platformer with tons of dull level design elements to it, along with some godawful music to boot. Definitely worth adding here anyhow though, because…

Atari Lynx: Oh, how this system is so cool and the lineup here could have been so much more: Warbirds was planned to be in this set, but pulled so late due to legal issues that the game build on the Switch cartridge still has this fully playable if you don’t update it, and that’s a damn shame considering how this system’s emulation just rules all around. I already praised this emulator for having one of the best border/filter combinations I’ve ever witnessed in a reissue, which is why it’s sad they couldn’t have gotten more first-party games on here, or stuff from Songbird.

Still, of the five games included, two are pretty damn good, with the other three being OK at best. Turbo Sub is a super fun first person action game, with smooth controls, great scaling and fun combat, and the best game of this set of five is Scrapyard Dog, which takes that awful 7800 game and completely redoes it into something fun for portable play, serving as a great Lynx platformer. The other three here aren’t much to note, with Basketbrawl being pretty boring, the Volleyball game being too confusing and Missile Command/Asteroids not even having any form of a local Hi-Score feature, just existing as prettier versions of those old arcade classics. With most of the Lynx’s lineup being owned by other companies, it makes sense why so few titles were included here, but man, this emulator rocks and deserves to be used by more than just five titles. Least the timeline shows off tons of cool trivia about this console along with flyers of the other games that existed at the time.

Atari Jaguar: Now this is the pinnacle of Atari 50: tons of great historical info, interviews, and the first ever reissues of several Atari Jaguar Games, very famous for being a console that’s nightmarish to emulate unofficially. Built ground up for the collection, this comes with a small, but fun set of games, with the only dud of the bunch here being Trevor Mcfur, solely due to just how hideous and sluggish that game feels to control. Still, it was a launch title, so I get why it made the cut. Fight for Life is also here as well, and yeah, it’s still the infamous “unfinished build” that made it to retail. Horrible, but not as ugly as some of the other fighters on the console, so somehow still a better pick than what they could have given us.

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For the other games though? You have Evolution Dino Dudes, a version of The Humans that plays way better thanks to the numpad controller letting you swap between your tribe on the fly, along with other titles such as launch game Cybermorph, Atari Karts, Ruiner Pinball, and the grand jewel of them all, Tempest 2000, which is by far one of the top five quality games in this entire set. Everything Tempest did that was great, Tempest 2000 does better, with cool powerups, fun enemy placement, a perfect challenge level, and super addicting gameplay, all leading to a god tier scorechaser no longer imprisoned on the Atari Jaguar. This one game is so good in fact, I argue it’s worth the price of admission to the compilation as a whole, and we aren’t even close to done!

Really the only gripe I have to give to the Jaguar emulation is that it seems in-game saving isn’t consistently done: I lost my Ruiner Pinball Hi-Score progress despite it working fine a few times, and my Tempest 2000 scores were not at all consistent with saving, leaving me to just rely on save states to record those in the end. Nevertheless, this emulator is otherwise pretty damn incredible, and I truly hope it gets more usage in future compilations. If you were waiting for one big thing to sell you on Atari 50, well, Tempest 2000 is it, but there’s also another section of games that are equally as good, if not better…

Reimagined Series: As if making great emulations across Atari history wasn’t enough for Digital Eclipse, they outright decided to make their own tribute games to Atari’s legacy and throw them in here as fully featured experiences! These are the titles I’ll individually go over, since they are deserving of such, so let’s just kick things off and see how these six hold a candle to the emulated releases they pay tribute to…


Haunted Houses: A cute modern take on the Haunted House adventure game, with multiple houses this time! Still the game general idea, with you being a cute pair of eyeballs running around, dropping and swapping items to find your way out of the spooky buildings without getting scared to death, but with a closer perspective. Pretty fun twist, and while this didn’t grab my interest as much as the other titles here, it still is a quality followup on the original Haunted House! Even when it tries to be scary, it manages to do so in a charming way, which just makes me smile.

Neo Breakout: As if Breakout Recharged wasn’t a fun enough experience this year, here comes a new Breakout title with a bunch of pre-made stages! Neo has it all, from cool gimmicks and powerups, the option to turn your ball into a super shot, and a color-matching mechanic perfect for scorechasers, Neo Breakout is a great time, made even better with a mouse or the Steam Deck’s touchpad. This is probably my third favorite game on the entire collection, hands down.

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What makes Neo Breakout even better is that it doesn’t just contain a batch of stages to go through, but also a new mode known as Battle Breakout: here you fight a wall of bricks to break, and the closer to the center you get, the more bricks form on your opponent’s side as the wall is pushed over to their end. While I was unable to test with a local partner before the review, playing with the CPU was still quite the tense tug of war, making this an excellent bonus mode I can see being a hit with friends and family. Part of me wishes there was some sort of endless mode where you battled opponents until you lost, but otherwise Neo Breakout is absolutely top-notch, and would be well worth it as a separate game.

Quadratanks: Combat! But with four players. This is an interesting spin, using both the control sticks to aim and move your tank, with a bunch of powerups and stage hazards thrown into the mix. Again, only tested with bots, but this is a pretty fun update to the original 2600 title, even though there’s not much else to it besides bullying the opponents. It also has the trickiest secret game to discover among them all, so if you really want to go old school use this to solve a riddle and see if you’ll get further than I could.

Swordquest Airworld: The climatic finale comes after 40 years! Made from the ground up based off the myth the original creator intended to base this chapter off of, (the I Ching) this is another entry in the puzzle-focused SwordQuest series. No comic or contest this time around, but the manual made for this release is easily available at the press of a button, so either you traverse the rooms and try to solve the riddles and puzzles yourself via minigames, or use the manual for clues… Or look up the solution online. (but that’s no fun!)

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Despite how it looks and sounds, this is not a ROM release, and you can even turn on a setting to force it to run like a 2600 game, slowness and all, leading to one of the most authentic retro tributes I’ve seen in recent memory. Definitely not one you’ll be able to dive in easily, but more than worthy of being up there with the other three SwordQuest games in this collection.

Yars Revenge Reimagined: This one is pretty peculiar, but I could tell what they were going for. Built off the original game code, you have this gorgeous remake of the original Yars Revenge, (also included here as the original ROM) with the same fun gameplay that it always had, with the cool option to switch to the original presentation (now in 16:9) at the press of a button. There really isn’t much else here since it literally is just the original game with a new coat of paint, which unfortunately means, no local hi-scores since the original game didn’t have that. Still, all the game modes and such are here, and it does serve as an intriguing look at just how old code can be repurposed to make an old game look stunning while being every bit as fun as it ever was.

Touch Me: Funny name aside, this is a clone of Simon, replicated in digital form. It sounds stupid and worthless to include here, but as one who’s a huge fan of LCD handhelds, I’m all for them being reissued or remade in some way, and the timeline even has a handy section on other handheld toys Atari was working on that got canned. Saves your high scores, does as it’s supposed to, not much else.

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VCTR-SCTR: Hands down, the best title in the entire collection. Yes, out of all 100+ Games. So just what makes this so good? Well, how about a tribute to some of Atari’s Vector games, shifting between them on the fly and transitioning across time in such a wonderful loop, with a perfect control scheme? Yeah it’s a score chaser, but my god is it so, so good. You move with the left stick, shoot with the right and use the shoulder button to shield, and that’s all you need to do!

Rush into Asteroids, have some chaotic fun, then onto Lunar Lander, made easier and actually comprehensible now, before shifting into a behind the view segment appearing to be like Battlezone? (Absent due to Atari giving up the rights long ago) Then you go up into the sky to play Tempest, before the next wave begins. It’s tough, it’s incredibly challenging, and there’s even a mode where you control two ships tethered to each other that makes it even harder, but VCTR-SCTR is just so, so addicting. The perfect, definitive entry in this compilation for pick up and play fun, and a wonderful tribute to the Vector era as a whole. Sure, it only has a local leaderboard and I’d love for this to have some sort of online leaderboard, but even then I can’t stop competing against myself!

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The gameplay loop is just that engrossing, and easily the highlight of the entire set, showing that these compilations can be more than just vintage games, and even mix newer titles that again, would be more than worth the purchase price as a standalone product. But for this $40 compilation? Such an addictive game as a bonus title feels like robbery.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this is easily one of the toughest reviews I’ve ever had to write, since there’s so, so much good here that exceeds the bar for retro compilations of the past and pretty much does everything I wanted a followup to SNK 40th to do. The Timeline is outstanding, and the amount of archival material here is insanely good, especially the fact that it isn’t shy about discussing other companies or products that were popular on these consoles even if they can’t be included. It even acknowledges that current Atari is just a reskinned Infogrames, with no shame! It truly is an excellent timeline of Atari from the early 70s to the late 90s, and even without the games, would be a top in class documentary all by itself.

But as a game compilation? Ooooh, so much of it here is done just right. I already mentioned my love for the Arcade and Lynx presentations here, but really there isn’t a badly emulated console in the whole set, outside of those irritating in-game save issues with Jaguar titles I noted, along with the lack of DIP Switch settings for the Arcade titles. But outside of those two, every game here controls, feels and acts just like I hoped they would, and even the reimagined bonus games are great, with two of which being so high quality they can also sell the package by themselves. Seriously, VCTR-SCTR and Tempest 2000 may just be a Steam Deck addiction for the next few months.

When the only issues I can think of are those aforementioned Jaguar bugs, the lack of more Lynx games, and no Arcade DIP Switches, I think this compilation goes to show that as a certain friend of mine told me, games are made with teams, and it’s the work of those teams that made the games you enjoy and have fun with today. And more than any other compilation, Atari 50 does the damn best job of respecting that mindset than anything else I’ve played in a long, long while. Outside of the unavoidable roadblock of no Warner Bros titles, Atari 50 is a godly compilation that couldn’t have been more lovingly curated, and just like how I sung the praises of SNK 40th for years to come, I’ll no doubt be doing this for Atari 50 and hoping this is a template for future compilations, from all over the world.

I give a Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration a 10 out of 10.

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