Review: Atari Greatest Hits Volume 1 For The Nintendo DS

Playing retro games is much adu about nuance.   If the little things do not feel “right”, the overall game is usually failure, no matter how much effort went into recreating the past.  Nuances are much more than graphics: they also come in the form  timing,  sound design, responsiveness to controls, and  other intangible details that make-up a whole product.

Atari retro game collections usually fail on the nuances.  The worst offender of this was Atari Retro Classics for the DS, and updated, “re-imagined” graffiti mess that lost nearly everything in the translation.   Atari has attempted to make amends for this 5 year old mistake with Atari Greatest Hits Volume 1 for the DS, a straight ahead emulated retro collection like we have not seen from Atari in many years.

Here is a video that shows this new title:

I’ve been playing Atari Greatest Hits Volume 1 for an entire week now.   I have to admit, my first reaction was “huh?” .  I love Atari and Atari games, but at first glance, this pack appears to have included an entirely random selection of games.    The title includes 9 arcade games, and about 40 VCS games that cross all genres and with dates that stretch from 1972 (Pong – Arcade) through 1988 (Sprintmaster -2600).  Since Atari released 100’s of games from 1971-1996, you can see that this is in no way a definitive collection.

When I think of the Atari 2600, I think of games that changed my world when I played my 2600 in my formative years: Combat, Night Driver, Breakout, Circus Atari, Street Racer, Canyon Bomber, Space Invaders,  and Yar’s Revenge, just to name a few.   None of these classics are included in this package.   It’s obvious that these are saved for a volume 2, but that is a bit presumptuous of Atari, as I’m sure this title needs to sell well before that project is greenlit.

The included arcade games fare much better, as the choices appear to make sone kind of sense.  The pack includes the “big 5” of Asteroids, Battlezone, Missile Command, Centipede and Tempest.   It also includes the aforementioned Pong, Lunar Lander, Gravitar and Space Duel.  However, let’s start with the VCS games, as they are probably the reason most people will pick-up this package.

I will start by saying that the Atari 2600 emulation appears to be spot-on.  You are given the chance to configure all of the 2600 console controls (difficulty, select, reset, etc). before each game starts.  You are also give a description of the features of each game variation, which is extremely useful since most original atari 2600 games had dozens of variations, all of which were described only in the instruction manual.  The controls of each game are easily emulated on the DS using the control pad and buttons.  Most two player games have been opened-up for multi-player on the multiple DS machines, which is a great added feature.

The game selection falls into a few categories that I have defined myself:

Big Named Nostalgia: These are arcade games that pulled people to the 2600 in the 70’s and 80’s but now feel lost in translation.  The games that fall into this category include Asteroids, Centipede, Gravitar, Missile Command and the Tempest prototype.  The games are done pretty well for the 2600, but for anyone except Atari afficianados, these are just not essential, especially since the included arcade versions are very well made. In fact, it might argued that you could call this set of games ” the posible reason the video market crashed in 1983″ because they show the limitations of of the hardware that  (in part)led to consumer disillusionment.

Pure AtariNerd Nostalgia: These are 2600 games that are fun because fans recall their specific quirks and nuances from the 2600 days, but someone who has never played a 2600 would wonder what all the fuss is about.  These games include Adventure, BasketballHaunted House, Slot Machine, Human Cannonball, Football, Fun With Numbers, Math Grand Prix,  Home Run, Championship Soccer, Miniature Golf, Star Ship, Video Checkers, and Air-Sea Battle.  These are not all bad games.  In fact, Championship Soccer is one of my favorites, especially because of the fireworks show that appears when you score a goal.  Adventure is great to play to see if you can find the dot.  Home Run is fun two-player “over the line” simulator, and Air Sea Battle is a pure classic.  However, most of the fun is built on nostalgia.  There is nothing wrong with that, but it is what it is.

Nice Try Atari:  When Atari was trying to pull itself out of the abyss after 1982, they pulled out all the stops and let developers use more memory in their cartridges which meant they could create more elaborate games.   Many of the best games were licenses that could not be included here (i.e. Vanguard, Ms. Pac-man), so we are left with the games from Realsports series and the Sword Quest series.   Realsports Baseball, Football, Tennis and Boxing are fine looking games, and should be fun via multi-player.  however, the limitations of the Atari 2600 shows through.  Even though the games look good for a 2600, they still could not model the sports very well, mostly because of the limited one button interface.   These are more like museum pieces to show people when they argue that the 2600 could not make create sports games as well as Intellivision.  It could, and these make for nice pieces of evidence.  However, as games to play on the DS they leave a lot to be desired.  Swordquest Earthworld, Fireworld and Waterworld fair, umm,  differently.  They show that the VCS could create some interesting effects (hey 3D door opening sequence, I’m talking to you), and nice animated characters (the main guy running around).  They also show that at this point, Atari was flailing for game designs, because these are simply not fun to play.    What’s really disappointing about these titles is that, from the looks of them, there is no reason Atari could not have created an addictive adventure game like Zelda for the VCs, they just did not have the game design chops  to pull it off.

Total Surprises: The later era Atari  games (1982-1988) do not all disappoint.  In fact, some of them are surprisingly, quite good.  Battlezone for the 2600 plays better than the arcade version in this pack, and looks great too.  Sprintmaster,  is a great little driving game, and it shows why games like Indy 500 might have been left out of this collection.   Realsports Volleyball was always a favorite of mine, and it hold-up here as well.  I find myself returning to these often.

Casual Greatness: If you stopped here, you would think this collection was failure, but that’s not the case all.  In fact, this is where the story changes.  There is a collection games in this pack that translate so well to the DS, I wonder if Atari planned it this way, or simply hit on something they should concentrate on for the future.  These games are brilliant, timeless, contests and translate perfectly to the DS.   Too bad it took 33 years for them to find their true home.  Here are some details of each one and why they work so well:

  • 3D Tic Tac Toe: I never liked this on the VCS, but as a brain teaser to play on the DS, it works really well.
  • Atari Video Cube : This might be the star of this title.  You switch tiles of 6 sided cube, trying to make all the colors on each side the same.  It’s an obvious take on the Rubiks cube.  This would not have been very exciting on TV screen in 1982, but here it works brilliantly.  It has just right level of challenge and addiction be be  monster hit in it’s own right.
  • Bowling: Yes, it’s bowling and it doesn’t use motion controls.  However, as simple bowling contest, it’s pretty cool and a quick, fun little time killer.
  • Dodge ‘Em : This is kind of multi-player Pac-Man car game.  It’s great fun in single-player, but as a multi-player game on two DS’s it would really shine.   The cars move automatically, and you need to avoid the other guy, and “eat the dots”.   I never liked this on the VCS, but here it just seems to work.
  • Flag Capture : This is an addictive strategy game.  I believe it is based on mainframe game, but I might be mistaken.  The closest comparison I can give you is Minesweeper for Windows 95. This is another game that had no business on a TV screen, but in your hand it plays great.
  • Hangman : Yep, just Hangman, but also a great little addictive game that find its legs (pun intended) on the Ds.
  • Outlaw : I’d forgotten how much I liked this game.  The modes where you blow-away the wagons and cactus are brilliant.   The first “destructible” environments? As a one or two player games, this is just a fun time.
  • Sky Diver : A perfect little casual game where you sky dive out of  plane and try to hit targets.  This was good on the 2600,  and it works here too.
  • Slot Racers : This game is for two-players only, so that is its’ biggest downfall.  The idea here is that you travels around maze and try to shoot the other guy.  This was not super compelling back-in-the-day, but as a quick play multi-player casual game, I think works really well.
  • Steller Track :  This is text-only version of the mainframe Star Trek game.  It’s like Star Raiders as a text adventure.  It’s also a good time with your DS.  A horrible or horrible game to try to play on TV, but works in this format.
  • Surround : This is Tron Light Cycles light.  I loved this on the 2600, and it works well in this format too.

There you have it.  I believe those 11 games  are the “real” reasons to play this title on the DS for 2600 games.   After playing these, I wondered what other games Atari missed that would fit into this category as well.

Arcade Games

Besides the collection of VCS games, there is the previously mentioned set of arcade coni-op games.  This is an easier set of games to review, because they are really just emulated arcade games.  The set is hit and miss, but the when it hits it really hits!  Atari has attempted to include alternate controls using the DS touch pad, and in some cases, they really go along way to help make these games work.

Battlezone : This is the worst of the lot. There is just no good way to emulate the arcade controls.  They try a couple different configurations, but in my opinion, it’s lost cause.  Not fault of Atari, this game just needs to be played in an arcade.

Bonus: Military Battlezone:  In the bonus features you will find the “military” version of Battlezone.  It’s very cool to see and play for the first time.

Pong: It’s Pong.  The regular controls are terrible, but the “slider” controlled with the stylus is like revelation!  I can’t wait to play Breakout this way (next collection please Atari).  I wonder though, why Atari always includes this game,  There are about a dozen other Pong-like games Atari made after this one, that have never been translated.  I would have rather seen one of those, especially with these new controls.

Centipede: This game offers two different screen configurations, the standard horizontal screen, and vertical DS screen turned on it’s side.   I found the “vertical” version unplayable, even though it looks the best.  However, the horizontal version plays perfectly fine, and it great fun.

Lunar Lander : This game is a true classic, but it has remained pretty much unplayable in emulated versions until now.  The graphics are bit small, but the included touch screen “throttle” control matched the coin-up and helps bring this game back to life.

Missile Command: You use 3 different buttons to fire from your 3 bases in this games, so it matches the coin-op.  They offer a “trac-ball” touch screen control, but it’s hard to get working.   The standard controls are fine. This is game that has been recreated many times, but I think it might simply be best served as a coin-op.

Gravitar: This is a nice version, but the graphics are bit too small to really play the game effectively.  However, the format here gives the most precise control of any version I have played.

Tempest: This game is almost imposible to emulate because the controls are so specific to the game.  Atari has made a gallant attempt though, adding a touch control to emulate the spinner.   I have had a lot of success with it, and this feels like the best version of this game I have ever played, but it’s still not quite perfect.  I would have liked a circle to move around on instead of the binary right-left control.

Asteroids And Space Duel:  I’ve saved the best for last because, honestly, for me, these two games are the reason to buy and own this collection.  Both Asteroids and Space Duel, in this package, are simply the best versions I have ever played on any platform.  The game play, button options, nuances, etc. are so well done, that I was pulled into each one and the rest of the interface disappeared.  While the graphics are small, the rest is perfect.  These two games are what retrogaming is all about.  I did not feel like I was playing an emulated versions of Asteroids or Space Duel, I felt like I was back in the Safeway supermarket, blasting space debris with my brother by my side, wasting away early 80’s summer days as if they would last forever.  For me, these are the most successful games in this package.

Atari Greatest Hits Volume 1 for the DS is a very good collection and a must-have for Atari fans.  Atari did a great job with this one, and it works in surprising ways that I did not expect when I first started playing. The collection works on several levels and I sincerely hope Atari will create more collections, of this type. hopefully leveraging more of their coin-ops from the 70’s and games from systems like the Atari 800, 7800, 5200 , ST, Jaguar, and Lynx.


-Steve Fulton (8bitsteve)

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