On June 27, 1972, Atari, as we know it today, was born. Well, technically, it was born a few months earlier under the name Syzygy Engineering, but the name Atari started life in 1972. I know this and many more interesting facts about the company because of Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, Digital Eclipse’s love letter to the gaming giant.
Atari 50 is essentially a playable documentary, walking you through 50 years of Atari’s games, home consoles, handhelds, and PCs split into five different timelines. Each of the five timelines focuses on a different aspect of the business, with dates sometimes running concurrently. Each one is packed with videos, images, design documents, and more. It’s a museum exhibit in a box and a delightful one to boot.
This magical history tour contains an astounding 103 playable games, from the original 1972 arcade version of Pong to a selection from the Jaguar and Lynx, Atari’s final home console and handheld, respectively. Each is a 1:1 port as if Digital Eclipse ripped the motherboards from the machines themselves and transferred the game into my console. While there are plenty of old favorites like Asteroids, Breakout, and Adventure, I found some of the lesser-known titles, like Quantum and I, Robot, fascinating in their own right.
Not content to simply port over old titles, Digital Eclipse included a handful of other titles elevating this collection to the stratosphere. Two separate homebrew games appear in the story, one for the Atari 800 PC and the other for the Atari 2600, which showcase just how much can still be done with older consoles in the present day. Seeing a game company even acknowledge the homebrew scene is rare, but for Atari and Digital Eclipse to embrace the community enough to include it here is wonderful.
However, it’s Digital Eclipse’s own creations that steal the 50th-anniversary show. The Reimagined series includes seven old-school Atari games rebuilt by the team for the modern age, and seeing these older games is wonderfully nostalgic. Haunted Houses is my favorite reimagining, as the defined 3D environment completely transforms the original experience. Yars’ Revenge Enhanced is also very good, even though it doesn’t stray as far from the original.
I must include one important caveat: these are Atari games in their original form, meaning they are as rudimentary as classic games get. Some games have the lifespan of a mayfly, while others – the multiplayer games in particular – have more to offer. Even the Reimagined set, while well-crafted, may only last 15 to 20 minutes per session. This is a collection of quick hits, and it doesn’t take very long to get through the 100 games included in the library, meaning your mileage may vary from a replayability standpoint.
Outside of the game library, the love and care Digital Eclipse put into this project is unmistakable, as is evident by some of the relics it has included in each of the timelines. The hundreds of photos, old box art, and videos offer an incredible look back at what Atari was at the height of its powers. The old 1980s-era TV commercials are particularly notable; seeing a child express excitement for E.T. is hysterical in hindsight.
Some of these inclusions go above and beyond. Take The Swordquest series, which had three released games and a fourth that never launched. Back in the day, each game was bundled with a small comic book that not only told the story of the game, but also gave clues on how to solve the puzzles within the corresponding game. Atari 50 includes each one of those comics in their entirety so you can get the full experience and benefit from those clues.
As for that fourth unreleased Swordquest, Digital Eclipse found the design concepts from the series’ creator Tod Frye, built it from scratch, and included it as one of the seven “Reimagined” games. To say that this collection is thorough is an understatement, and Digital Eclipse’s respect for the source materials is noticed and appreciated.
My favorite part of the historical inclusions are the dozens of video interviews with not only members of the Atari team throughout the years but other prominent game developers across the industry. Notable Atari alumni featured include company founder Nolan Bushnell, Al Alcorn who is credited as the creator of Pong, and programmer Eugene Jarvis. Other featured names include Double Fine’s Tim Schafer and Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski. Each interview adds new stories, anecdotes, and a bit of technical wisdom to the legend of Atari, while giving the whole collection that special documentary feel, with little moments of explanation peppered throughout a treasure trove of digital artifacts.
With Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, Digital Eclipse has set a new bar for future historical compilations in video games. It’s a digital traveling museum exhibit, as the game bursts at the seams with nostalgia thanks to more than 100 playable games and hundreds of relics from the developer’s vault. While a good amount of the games offered will pass by quickly, those brief life spans cannot weigh down the amazing historical value of Atari 50, and I hope Digital Eclipse has more wings of its digital history tour opening in the coming years.