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Review: With Atari 50’s Interactive Museum, Digital Eclipse Shows a Bright Future for Compilations

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atari 50 review

When we’ve covered compilations of older titles in the past, we’ve often found them to be less valuable as games to play in the modern era and more suited as a documentary archive to peruse. With Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, Digital Eclipse shows an understanding of its aging subject matter, treating it with reverence but also building its collection around being an educational time capsule.

In Atari 50, you’ll find two separate presentation schemes. The first: a four-part timeline, presenting videos and scanned artifacts interspersed with the related games themselves. You can bypass this and head to the second, a sortable game library, if you want! But it’s clearly intended for you to peruse the exhibits first and not just run and raid the gift shop.

This museum approach makes sense! After all, trying to sell a Jaguar compilation as “fun games you should play” is, frankly, ill-advised. But putting some here, as an intellectual curiosity surrounded by artifacts of the day and an explanation of their place in history? Now that works.

atari 50 review

Atari 50‘s narrative has a clear point of view, too: that of the designers and programmers of the era. This is logical! That was who they were able to interview, and the team at Digital Eclipse likely identifies with their position most. There’s no real effort to get into the business side of things along the way. We would love to have heard what it was like to market the systems and games, or the business realities of Jaguar-era Atari! But this ain’t an independent project; it’s bankrolled by the company that relies upon preserving and promoting nostalgia for Atari’s games. There’s an unshakable veneer of PR to the selected topics.

Atari 50 also skips from 1998 to 2020, avoiding covering the ups and downs of that era. And we get it. The compilation likely couldn’t cover that with the same detachment of the earlier times. (And those execs are maybe still there.) But it could have been worth a few mentions of what Atari did then, like the Atari Flashback’s role in the proliferation of plug-and-play consoles and some of the quirkier merchandise to come out of the move to licensing out the brand.

Ultimately, it’s no wonder why later Atari systems like the Jaguar failed. The compilation talks a lot about the marketing problems (which likely didn’t help), but they also had, uh, these games to use to sell the hardware. A few included Jaguar and Lynx games in here can still be fun, but between being limited to first-party releases and the Jag’s efforts to show off new tech at the expense of coherent visual design and controls? Yeah, the selection doesn’t particularly stand the test of time.

atari 50 review

Both the good and bad of the later Atari consoles stems from a strict adherence to design philosophies established over a decade before. The best titles recapture the white-knuckle arcade feel of Tempest, while others feel like they can’t catch up with the approachability and polish of their modern genre peers.

As a case study, let’s look at Atari Karts, a fairly standard racing game for the Jaguar. There’s a desire to look “technologically superior,” which manifests itself in some rough ways. Tons of colors! Uh, without considering whether it looks any good. Three-dimensional hills on the otherwise-essentially-Mode-7 race track! That honestly disrupt and mildly disorient more than make the driving interesting. Meanwhile, the menus are clunky. The controls are already on less-than-solid footing, before you deal with the game’s collision detection. The sound design is, um, yeah. Bad.

Anyway, you get it. We’re psyched to see the work to make Jaguar games playable by a wider audience, but they serve as a spectacle and a curiosity. We don’t recommend you play them with any seriousness.

Conversely, the older games feel more modern. The controls and such do take some time to grasp for those who didn’t play them back in the day, but games like Combat and Asteroids are elegant in their technologically forced simplicity.

Our tip for navigating the best of the 2600 games in the library? Sort by year, then play the early stuff. It’s still a great time to boot up Surround or Outlaw with a pal. On the other hand, some of the ambition of later titles exposes the weaknesses and limitations of the hardware. And it’s often in ways that make the games themselves more painful to play.

atari 50 review

And then, of course, there are actually a few new games in Atari 50, a generous selection of originals in a compilation already stuffed with content. They vary widely in scope and concept. There’s the basically-a-2600 game, Swordquest Airworld. This completes the intended four-game series of puzzly adventures. Yars’ Revenge has gotten a gameplay-identical facelift, one that can swap to the original look at any time. Haunted Houses, meanwhile, is a self-indulgent sort of project. It’s a 3D reimagining of the original horror game that is more of a thought experiment than a viable title on its own.

The remaining three are the ones that most deserve your attention: Quadratank, Neo Breakout and VCTR-SCTR. They’re all more thought-out, and based on gameplay that holds up fairly well today. So let’s start with Quadratank! This one leans into ideas from modern single-screen party games such as Bomberman and the Atari 50 devs’ own IDARB, and feels more frantic and less calculated than the original Tank and Combat releases. VCTR-SCTR mashes up the company’s old vector games into one experience, moving the multitasking dial just a bit closer to the WarioWare side of things. And Neo Breakout is, well, Breakout! But games like Shatter have shown that the gameplay formula pairs well with some cool visual effects, and that’s just what we get here. There’s also a mode that brings in aspects of Pong to create a head-to-head mode that works fairly well.

quadratank screenshot

As an interactive museum exhibit, Atari 50 is quite successful, if with a clear point of view. As a labor of love, it’s filled to the brim with everything Digital Eclipse could fit. Whether it transcends “well-crafted curiosity” status, though? That’ll depend on your nostalgia for a library of games that has some trouble standing the test of time.

Developed by Digital Eclipse and published by Atari, Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration launched on November 11, 2022 for $39.99. It’s available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One and Series S/X, PC and… even the Atari VCS, somehow.

Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration

8

As an interactive museum exhibit, Atari 50 is quite successful. As a labor of love, it’s filled to the brim. Whether it transcends “well-crafted curiosity” status? That’ll depend on your nostalgia.

Note: Siliconera unfortunately does not have a museum rating scale. This score reflects its merits as a game.

Food for Thought
  • We don’t usually like filters and elaborate borders in retro compilations, but they seem appropriate here.
  • A lot of work was done on Star Raiders, a particular favorite for the Atari 800 crowd, to make it run a bit better and have more visual elements to aid play. But if you didn’t play it then to build up nostalgia and muscle memory? Yeah, it still might be a bit too dated for you to enjoy.
  • The dev team clearly had a lot of fun with the locked games and the hint riddles for unlocking them. We’d never say too much fun, but this stuff did make us think hard about it.
    If you want to know more, check out Siliconera's review guide.
    Graham Russell
    Graham Russell, editor-at-large, has been writing about games for various sites and publications since 2007. He’s a fan of streamlined strategy games, local multiplayer and upbeat aesthetics. He joined Siliconera in February 2020, and served as its Managing Editor until July 2022. When he’s not writing about games, he’s a graphic designer, web developer, card/board game designer and editor.