What do we mean when we say a game is good? Specifically, what does a reviewer mean when they say a game is good? When someone casually playing a game says it’s good, that’s clear enough – they usually mean that the game was fun, they enjoyed it, or it made an impression on them. For reviewers, the question is a bit more fraught. A game could be good because it provides a ton of value for a low price or represents a step forward for the industry, even though it’s not, strictly speaking, fun. When we say a game is “good” in a review, that can mean dozens of different things. This is all to say that although I’ve had more fun playing other games in 2022, Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is unquestionably this year’s Game Of The Year, at least in my opinion.
When you boot the game up, you might think (as I did!) that Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is simply a simple games collection, allowing you to play through over 100 games from Atari’s history – and you’d technically be right. There is an extensive list of games from Adventure to Yar’s Revenge for you to play around with, including a few lovingly-produced new games courtesy of Digital Eclipse that re-imagine Atari Classics for the modern era. Personally, my favorite was the 80s-tastic VCTR-SCTR, a mix of Tempest, Lunar Lander, and Asteroids.
Playing these games is a special experience, even if most players won’t want to grind through all four SwordQuest titles. Ping-ponging through the collection of games here for long enough really does transport you to a simpler era of gaming, and soon you’ll find yourself chasing a high score in Dodge’ Em. I didn’t grow up with these games, they were before my time, but the nostalgia factor here is still through the roof.
If that’s where Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration stopped, that’d be enough for a mild recommendation. It doesn’t.
Contextualizing The Cartridge
The real draw of Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is that it is a living, playable documentary of the entire history of Atari. The game library isn’t what comes up when you start Atari 50 for the first time. Instead, you’re greeted with a selection between four menu options, each representing a different era and focus of Atari’s history. Proceeding through these choices brings you to a timeline, and this is where the game really shines. If you follow the timeline, you’re taken through a guided, interactive tour of Atari, complete with concept art, design documents, business cards, file photographs, vintage videos and commercials, and hours of interviews with former Atari designers.
This means that, essentially, what the game is doing is putting all of its collected titles into context. You don’t just play Yar’s Revenge; you watch a video of the game’s designer talking about the game’s creation, you see a bunch of concept art, you immerse yourself in the history of the moment, and then you play the game. It’s unreal how important this presentation style elevates everything.
It’s also not simply a fawning retrospective. The game doesn’t shy away from talking about the labor issues at the time and how Atari’s refusal to credit designers or pay them fairly essentially birthed the first third-party game companies. They talk about drug use in the studios. They talk about the failure of the Atari 5200. It’s a celebration, sure, and it’s all in service of commemorating Atari’s 50th anniversary. Still, it isn’t as sanitized a version as you’d expect from something with the Atari logo on it.
Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is my Game of the Year because of what it represents for gaming. It is a loving tribute to, arguably, the most important gaming company ever, and the attention to detail Digital Eclipse showed in contextualizing all 103 games in the collection means that this game is more than the sum of its parts.
It feels weird to call it a game, in fact. It’s more akin to a Criterion Collection box set, complete with director commentary, alternate audio tracks, and interviews. The games aren’t the star here. I don’t see myself coming back to this game that often to chase my high score in Gravitar, though I certainly might. I’ll come back to it to remind myself of an era of gaming I wasn’t around for. To be immersed in the asterisk in a footnote of history, the same way I do when I watch video essays.
We live in an era of entertainment where the digital archival of media is weak. HBO Max can essentially memory-hole entire creative works, leaving fans with no legal way to watch them outside of piracy, simply because they want to save a couple bucks on residuals. Nintendo is famously litigious towards the folks who provide emulation tools – which, yes, can be used for piracy but are also vital tools for preserving history. Publishing houses are currently locked in a legal struggle with the Internet Archive over their policy of digital lending, and if they win, that’s another blow against archival.
Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration doesn’t fix any of these problems. But its release shows us what digital archival in gaming could look like. Many of these documents were fished from dumpsters when Atari went bust. These slivers of history could have been lost forever. Instead, Digital Eclipse found them, polished them up, and put them into a museum where they belong.
|A case study of what game collections should be.||A few of the games on the 2600 haven’t aged well. Go figure.|
|Insightful interviews with designers|
|Even the simplest games shine when put in context.|
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