The Atari 50th Anniversary Celebration is a Fun, but Incomplete, Exhibit of Video Game History

I picked up the Atari 50th Celebration collection (affiliate link) the other day and found it to be a wonderful tribute to Atari’s contributions to video game history. It has a mixture of emulated games along with documentary material presented in an easy to follow timeline.

You can see it in action in this livestream I did on Amazon. The gameplay starts around the 13 minute mark. I am playing the Switch version but it’s also available for just about every current gaming platform.

The games and documentary materials are organized into eras that take the user step-by-step through the development of Atari’s arcade games, home consoles and computers. It keeps track of progress as the user works through what feels like a museum exhibit. They produced some videos specific for this release along with additional archival footage and documents from Atari’s archives.

The game emulation feels pretty solid. Digital Eclipse, the developers of the collection, added some really solid filters to the emulation that come very close to capturing the look and feel of CRTs of the era on a modern television.

I was especially impressed with how they depicted the arcade version of Breakout. The original game used a black and white CRT but had a colored overlay placed over the picture tube to add color. Digital Eclipse’s depiction of it looks pretty spot on – note how the blue band runs through the borders of the play area on the bottom:

Unfortunately some of the games that were designed around specific control surfaces (steering wheels, spinners, etc) don’t translate very well to modern game controllers. Analog sticks work well with games that originally used joysticks but Breakout is pretty hard to control without the precision of a spinner or paddle controller.

But to add some additional value Digital Eclipse and Atari did produce six modern interpretations of 80’s era games, including Breakout. They’re all a lot of fun and capture the feel of vintage games while being much more friendly towards modern controllers. I especially liked VCTR-SCTR which is a modern homage to the vector games of the early 80’s that plays like a medley of Asteroids, Lunar Lander and more. These definitely add some value lost by control issues on some of the vintage titles.

A bigger shortfall is that the history feels incomplete without Activision games like Pitfall, the 2600 ports of Pacman & Space Invaders, and of course the infamous ET game that some credit with causing the 1983 video game crash. While most of these important milestones get mentioned in the timeline, the games are missing due to licensing issues.

Atari is a shell of the company that dominated the video game market in the 80’s so they probably couldn’t come up with the budget to license the Atari ports of other popular games.

Activision gets a mention in the collection, but no games can be played due to licensing issues.

But the collection does manage to deliver a nice sampling of popular games across every console Atari released including the 2600, 5200, 7800, the 800 home computer, the Lynx handheld and the Jaguar. All in there are 103 games in the collection with five 2600 games that are unlocked by achieving certain milestones in the other games. There’s a full list and unlocking instructions over at IGN.

There’s definitely something for everyone but I would have liked to have even more games included even if they didn’t make it to the historical timeline. For example my Dad and I used to play Atari bowling quite a bit when I was 3 or 4 years old and it would have been great to have that included here even if it wasn’t historically significant.

The bottom line? The Atari 50th Celebration is a lovingly curated exhibit of video game history that ends up a feeling incomplete. The six new games included do make up for that a bit but it’s a shame that the full Atari story can’t be told due to licensing restrictions. Hopefully I’ll live long enough for all of this stuff to find its way into the public domain so we can get a full collection for the 100th celebration!