On June 27, 1972, Atari as we know it today was born. Well, technically, it was born a few months ago under the name Syzygy Engineering, but 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, taking you through Atari’s 50 years of games, home console, handheld, and PC, divided 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 docs, and more. It’s a museum exhibit in a box and a delightful one to boot.
This magical history tour includes an astonishing 103 playable games from the original 1972 arcade version of Pong to a selection of the Jaguar and Lynx, Atari’s last home consoles and handhelds, respectively. Each is a 1:1 port as if Digital Eclipse ripped the motherboards off the machines themselves and transferred the games to my console. While there are plenty of old favorites like Asteroids, Breakout, and Adventure, I found some lesser-known titles like Quantum and I, Robot fascinating in their own right.
Not content to simply port older titles, Digital Eclipse included a handful of other titles to elevate this collection to the stratosphere. The story featured two different homebrew games, one for the Atari 800 PC and the other for the Atari 2600, which showed how much could be done with older consoles in the present day. Seeing a game company even acknowledge that the homebrew scene is rare, but wonderful for Atari and Digital Eclipse to embrace the community enough to include it here.
However, it’s Digital Eclipse’s own creations that steal the show for the 50th anniversary. The reimagined series features seven old-school Atari games remastered by the team for the modern age, and it’s surprisingly nostalgic to see these old games again. Haunted House is my favorite reimagining, as the defined 3D environment completely transforms the original experience. Yars’ Revenge Enhanced is also pretty cool, even though it’s not too far off from the original.
I should include an important caveat: These Atari games are in their original form, meaning they are just as rudimentary as the classic games. Some games have a life span of the mayfly, while others – especially multiplayer games – have much more. Even reimagined sets, while well-crafted, may last only 15 to 20 minutes per session. It’s a collection of quick hits, and it doesn’t take too long to get to the 100 games included in the library, which means your mileage may vary in terms of replayability.
Outside of the game library, the love and care Digital Eclipse put into the project is unmistakable, as evidenced by the few relics included in each timeline. Hundreds of photos, old box art, and videos provide an incredible look at what Atari was at the height of its powers. The vintage TV commercials from the 1980s are particularly notable; It’s hysterical to see a kid express his enthusiasm for ET.
Some of these inclusions go above and beyond. Take The Swordquest series, which had three released games and a fourth that never launched. In the past, each game was bundled with a short comic book that not only told the story of the game, but also gave clues on how to solve puzzles within the respective game. Atari 50 includes all those comics in their entirety so you can get the full experience and benefit from those clues.
For that fourth unreleased Swordquest, Digital Eclipse found design concepts from series creator Todd Frye, built it from scratch, and included it as one of seven “reimagined” games. To say this collection is complete is an understatement, and Digital Eclipse’s respect for the source material has been seen and appreciated.
My favorite part of the historical inclusion are the dozens of video interviews, featuring not only Atari team members over the years but other prominent game developers in the industry as well. Notable Atari alumni 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 little technical knowledge to the Atari legend, while giving the entire collection a special documentary feel, filled with a treasure trove of digital artifacts interspersed with small moments of explanation.
With Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, Digital Eclipse has set a new benchmark for future historical compilations in video games. It’s a digital traveling museum exhibit, as the game booms with nostalgia thanks to over 100 playable games and hundreds of relics from the developer’s vault. While a good amount of the proposed games will pass quickly, those brief lifespans can’t diminish the amazing historical value of the Atari 50, and I expect Digital Eclipse to have more wings of its own digital history tour in the years to come.