Atari 50th Anniversary Celebration: First Look

I own pretty much every Atari collection ever produced for nearly every platform it was produced for, going all the way back to the Atari 2600 Action Packs released by Activision before the internet was even a thing.

However, almost every single collection has ignored most Atari output post-1984, left off some of the best that Atari had to offer before 1984, and/or treated the subject with a dismissive or lighter touch than I would have liked.

atari50_1Atari, in the greater scheme of the video game world, it seems, is a bit of a joke.

The best and prolific output from the original Atari, Atari Inc. came before modern video games found their footing. Atari was the golden-child of the golden-age (1977-1984), a time when video games were considered simultaneously “a fad”, “a wall street bubble”, and an “immoral force that needed to be shut down and eradicated” by the PTA moms of America, but also “the greatest thing ever invented” by kids like myself.

That Atari was the Atari I fell in love with.

It was the Atari that created the video game industry by combining creativity and technology together in a way that had never been done before.

It was the Atari that put amazing coin-op games into the foyers of liquor stores, laundromats, and miniature golf arcades of my childhood.

It was the Atari that translated reasonable facsimiles of those gamesatari50_6 to their home consoles so I could play them any time I wanted.

It was the Atari that made the 400/800 computers that promised to teach me BASIC programming, if I could just get my hands on one.

It was the Atari that I promised myself I would, one-day, work for making games when I grew-up.

It was the Atari that, through sheer creativity and marketing muscle, drove the video game culture of the Golden Age.

It was also the Atari that made such huge mistakes that in 1983 their memory was literally and figuratively buried in Alamogordo New Mexico, by the truckload, from a factory in El Paso, Texas.

And it was that Atari that in July 1984, came to a sudden and somewhat shocking end.

The free-wheeling culture of Atari Inc., where games were designed and played by genius creative engineers, where only the very best ideas made it out to the public for the world to see; THAT Atari was paraded into the street by Steve Ross, CEO of parent company Warner Communications, and beheaded, signaling the actual death of the Golden Age of video games.

The corpse was then handed to Jack Tamiel and his sons who had just fled Commodore.

The “head” of Atari; the brains; the fun; the adventure; the spirit; the soul.
That was gone, seemingly forever.

Sure, the corpse of Atari lived-on for a while, milked for it’s vital resources by Tramel Technologies/Atari Corp. as the way to launch Jack Tramiel’s “Commodore-revenge-sex” 16-bit computer line the 520 ST /1040 ST.

And because Atari had been such a bright star in the Golden Age, for a while anyway, it kind of worked.

The ST line was a solid general-purpose computer sold at rock-bottom prices. The Atari 7800 was a “shoulda-been-a-contender” mid-80’s game console (a leftover created by Atari in the Golden Age era). The Lynx handheld was an amazing piece of technology that was acquired by Atari Corp. from the genius minds at Epyx (by possible nefarious means). The Atari 1040 STe and Falcon030 were the 16/32-bit computers to finally rival the Commodore Amiga (a computer-line with an actual Golden Age Atari lineage as it was engineered in part by Jay Miner, who was also an engineer for the Atari 400/800)

atari50_8Then came the Jaguar in 1993, and Atari’s supposed return to the video game world.

But the video game world had changed too much.

Gone were the cheerleading enthusiasts in magazines like Electronic Games of the Golden Age where the editors were fighting for the very life of video games against a culture that wanted to cancel them out of existence.

Instead, there were the “important” publications of the 1990s like Next Generation and the tastemakers in their pages. They had “seen it all”, especially how the mistakes of Atari Inc. in the Golden-Age almost killed video games for good, and how those same mistakes were fixed by later consoles. They saw how game design itself had expanded and evolved past the single-screen arcade contests Atari Inc. was known for.

They were suspicious of the Jaguar and had good reason to be.

The rock-bottom cost-cutting nature of Atari Corp. was a million miles away from the expansive, rich, amazing games they had fallen-in-love with after Nintendo emerged in 1985.

Atari might have started the video game business, but with the Jaguar their motives were suspect.

The Jaguar was pretty good technology, but it was still feeding off the headless corpse of Atari Inc. The brains, the game design, the creativity of the original Atari was not there. Atari Corp. did the best they could with what they had, but there is just so much that can be done with rock-bottom budgets farmed out to vendors who were taking a huge opportunity cost by not spending their time developing for Nintendo and Sega.

When Atari Corp. finally folded for good (in a merger with a generic hard drive manufacturer named JTS too appropriate for words), it was like the body finally succumbed.

I never stopped being an Atari fan. Through all of the ups and downs, my brother and I owned nearly every major Atari product in the era of their release: 2600 in 1981, Atari 800 in 1983/Atari ST in 1987/Atari Lynx in 1991/Atari Jaguar in 1995.

Every time a new computer console was released, we hoped “this would be the one”.

We LOVED Atari so much.
The Golden Age had such a huge effect on us.
The Atari name and Fuji logo had us hooked for life.

And since then, we have been part of a small group of loyal, seeming ever-suffering Atari fans.

I moved on to the PC in 1992, and PSX in 1996, then onto modern consoles and computers, but Atari was never forgotten. I’ve gladly purchased the (mostly) shovel ware style retro collections sold to capture the wallet-contents of people just like myself: hungry and desperate for anything Atari so we can relive a tiny bit of that feeling of the Golden Age.

But that feeling has rarely, if ever returned.

Over the years I’ve watched Atari, the first video game company, get treated like a joke.
I’ve watched as modern consoles and their online stores forget that Atari ever existed.
Sometimes I’ve ignored jokes at Atari’s expense and occasionally I’ve come to their defense.
But it always felt a bit like losing battle.
No one will ever appreciate Atari like we did in 1982.
No one.

Except maybe one name (well two actually)

I avoided the 2014 documentary Atari: Game Over believing it would be another snarky laugh at Atari, like I’d seen ever since the mid-1990s. I did not want to see the Atari VCS E.T. game or programmer Howard Scott Warshaw get blamed for the downfall of an entire industry (as by then my research pointed squarely at the decisions made by Steve Ross and Ray Kassar and not on a single game or programmer).

But I heard rumors that the movie was actually good, so one afternoon in 2015 or so, when my wife and kids were away, I sat down to watch it.

What I saw was breathtaking, shocking even,
The movie UNDERSTOOD the feeling of being a Golden Age Atari fan.
The movie UNDERSTOOD the literal and figurative imagery of the burial at Alamogordo.
But the movie did something even greater.
By telling the Atari Inc. story, by digging up the dump in Alamogordo, and by giving Howard Scott Warshaw a redemption story, the movie made me proud to be an Atari fan again.

atari50_3When I was watching the movie, for some reason, one name stuck out to me as important, and that name was Mike Mika and his company Digital Eclipse.

I’d noticed the name Digital Eclipse as the developer of some of the better Retro Collections, and Mika seemed to be the genuine article: a modern game developer who was inspired by the Golden Age of Atari.

Loosely, over the subsequent years I’ve watched Mike Mika through Twitter posts and I’ve always been impressed with both his Atari knowledge and his willingness to share it, while also participating in some of the nerdiest and geekiest conversations you might imagine about Atari, 70’s and 80’s

To me, Mike Mika and by extension Digital Eclipse were the real deal.

2022 has been a busy year, so when I saw, that Digital Eclipse were planning to release a product named the “Atari 50th Anniversary Celebration”, my interest was piqued, but also fell behind other things: my work, getting my kid to college, helping my other kid switch jobs, helping my wife go back to work after covid, and helping my high schooler navigate the horrors of their junior year.

I knew the product was coming out for Christmas this year, and I even pre-ordered a copy, but I wasn’t thinking much about it, to be honest.

Then yesterday I got the opportunity to try out the digital version on my PS5.

Distracted by 2022, it was not at the top of my mind.

I did know that for The Atari 50th Anniversary Collection, Digital Eclipse developed several “new” Atari inspired games, and I knew that unlike nearly all other Atari retro collections, the package included Atari 8-bit/7800/Lynx/Jaguar titles and that it included over 100 games.

But I’ve been disappointed before.

I’m a long time Atari fan of course, which means 38 years of pretty much constant disappointment.

atari50_2But when I loaded the game on the PS5, something entirely different happened.

I’m not sure if it was that Digital Eclipse absolutely nailed the look and feel of the interface to match the designs of Golden Age Atari, the sweeping, ethereal music soundtrack, or the expansive looking menu of options, but I was overcome with emotion.

Finally, Atari Inc, Golden Age Atari, my Atari, was showcased with such care, such love, such reverence, that I was overcome with joy, and at the same time grief for all the lost time in-between.

I started to cry a bit.

It was so fucking beautiful.

I’ve yet to sample all of the Atari 50th Anniversary Celebration, but what I’ve seen is more than impressive.

It’s downright monumental.

atari50_5The collection of games is expansive and includes many favorites that have been missing over the years (the Food Fight and Quantum coin-ops, a playable version of 8-bit Star Raiders, Caverns of Mars, the 3rd party Miner 2049er, Lynx Turbo Sub, Jaguar Tempest 2000, just to name a few), plus new games inspired by Golden Age Atari like the magnificent homage to all vector based games, “VCTR-SCTR”.

The controls are magnificent.  In most previous collections (like Atari Vault), the controls for some of the older coin-ops have been messy at best, and unplayable at worst.  Here it is obvious the controls have been honed and optimized to near perfection.  I could actually play Pong, Breakout, Sprint 8, and Firetruck and feel the nuances of the controls in ways that I have not felt since the 70’s in the local arcade.

But it’s not just the games. The entire package is like a game itself, with easter eggs to find, and content to consume.  The contextual video interviews alone are worth the price of the entire game.  The interface is so easy to navigate, and such a joy to behold, it should become the Defacto standard for packages like this in the future.  In many ways, it’s the promise of 90’s “multi-media” actually achieved, where history, gaming, and discovery all intermix into an overwhelmingly satisfying package.

The current version of Atari led by Wade Rosen has been making some good choices as of late, especially with their above-average “Recharged” games, but nothing they have done can compare to the detailed love and care invested by Digital Eclipse into the 50th Anniversary Celebration.

I’ve only scratched the surface and plan to write much more about this title later, but for me, for now, the release of the Atari 50th Anniversary Celebration marks the next step after the reincarnation of Atari that began in the Atari Game: Over documentary.

The head, the brains, the creativity, and the energy of the old Atari, have been discovered again and are on display in this package. Digital Eclipse have proven themselves to be the true inheritors of the legacy of Golden Age Atari.

Godspeed Digital Eclipse.
May it serve thee well.


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