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If you know your gaming history, you will realise that at one point, Atari pretty much WAS the games industry, churning out massive hits both in the arcades and at home through its popular 2600 home console. Celebrating the company's rich history, this collection pulls together 50 Atari titles and makes them available in their original format on the DS
Unfortunately, this collection is as notable for the titles it doesn't include as the ones it does. Notable omissions include some of the very titles that made Atari into such a trailblazer. Amongst the 2600 games, there is no Space Invaders (THE killer app for the machine) Pac-Man or Paperboy. Equally, the arcade games featured are drawn from Atari's early titles and it would have been nice to have had a mix of older and later titles (such as Road Blasters). In fairness, at least some of these omissions are due to licensing issues (Atari doesn't own Pac-Man or Space Invaders, whilst Road Blasters is from later in the company's history when it had changed hands).
Even allowing for this the game feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. At first, 50 games on one cartridge seems pretty good... until you stop and think about it. The capacity of the DS cartridge is 512 megabytes; most of these games take up just a few kilobytes - that's an awful lot of blank space on the cartridge which could have been filled with even more games. Look deeper still and it get worse. Yes, there are 50 games, but not 50 unique titles. Some of the games are replicated. Battle zone, for example, is provided in both its original arcade game format and the version that was released for the 2600 version. This duplication is true of other titles.
There's also rather too much filler: games that were not particularly good even on first release, have not aged well, or both. Probably about 60-70% of this compilation consists of games that you will play once, realise why history has forgotten them. Had developers Code Mystics included the cream of Atari games, this really would have been a collection to drool over; as it is, it's a little underwhelming.
Thankfully, there is some good news on the horizon. Although the quality of games included might be a little variable, it does include some bona fide Atari classics. Titles like Battle Zone, Centipede, Lunar Lander, and Missile Command. These were simple, yet massively influential games that are still fun to play today. Unlike many modern games (which give you an "Achievement" just for pressing the Start button), they are rock hard and provide a serious long term challenge.
Emulation has been handled well. The games play smoothly, graphics are flicker free (or where there is flickering this was a "feature" of the original game) and the limited effects sound like they are coming from an old Atari machine to help recreate that authentic atmosphere. Controls have been mapped across to the new platform without losing too much and whilst they can't replicate the innovative controls of so many classic Atari arcade games (Missile Command's trackball, for example), they do work well.
Unfortunately, whilst emulation is good, some pretty lazy programming lets the side down. Fire up Centipede, for example (one of my favourite Atari games) and developers Code Mystics couldn't even be bothered to change the screen layout. The game is displayed sideways on the DS's screen and, as far as I can work out, there is no way to fix this. So, if you want to play Centipede, you have to hold your DS lengthways instead of the usual way. This makes prolonged gaming extremely uncomfortable.
At least some attention has been given to other aspects of the package. The Extras section gives scans of the original box artwork and instruction manuals; a quiz tests your knowledge of Atari's history (although there are only a limited number of questions and the painfully cumbersome method of uploading your score to a league table was clearly devised by either a sadist or an idiot). There are even a couple of prototypes for games which were never released and which have never been seen before. Again, though it's a bit of a missed opportunity. Given that so many of these titles broke new ground, it would have been fascinating to read a potted history of their development or watch unlockable interviews with some of the key players. Guess I'll have to rely on my subscription to Retro Gamer magazine for that.
To the modern gamer, of course the games all look and sound really rubbish. However, if you remember that programmers were often trying to cram a whole game into miniscule amounts if memory, then what they achieved is nothing short of miraculous. And whilst they might look and sound basic, there are some genuinely addictive games on offer. There's no need to update them with snazzy HD graphics or surround sound; they work far better within the constraints that gave birth to them.
Although there are some bright spots, this is a real missed opportunity to celebrate one of the most important companies in gaming history. The whole package has a thrown together feel, like it's is nothing more than a cheap cash in on the Atari name. Yes, there are some great games that still play well today, but there are also some serious omissions and more than a few filler titles that lower the overall quality.
You can pick this up second hand for around £7. If you are a real retro gamer and a fan of the early Atari games then there is enough here to justify purchase. It's just a shame because with a bit more care in title selection and implementation this could have been so much better.
(c) copyright SWSt 2013