Although it's hardly worth boasting about now, the Atari 2600 was the second console this reviewer ever owned, remarkable not for the quality of the games but for the fact that those games cost almost as much as full priced games are priced at now, a quarter of a century down the line. We had it tough back then, I tell you. Being something of an arcade addict even in my pre-teen years, the prospect of playing Space Invaders, Dig Dug and Ms. Pac-Man on a home system was just too much to resist, even at their horrendous rip-off price tags. But when you're eight and don't know any better, you'd see those gloriously attractive sleeve designs and melt. And then get home and stare with wide-eyed disbelief at how little the graphics resemble the arcade and feel somewhat cheated.
My flirtation with Atari's wooden box of joy was relatively brief once I'd worked out that better machines like the awesome (for the time) CBS Colecovision were doing almost arcade-perfect versions of Donkey Kong, but I'm always grateful to Atari for bringing gaming to the mainstream, however technologically retarded the results were in reality. The fact that you can buy almost all the significant games of this era in one whopping package, comprising 65 2600 games and 18 Atari arcade originals for less than the price that Ms. Pac-Man cost me back in 1983 has to be a good thing, right?
Indeed, ever since Infogrames picked up Hasbro Interactive (which itself had held the Atari rights for a while and was content making awful remakes of old Atari properties) we were wondering when the since-renamed Atari was going to cash in its chips and get around to milking some of its back catalogue for the retro nostalgists among us. That time, ladies and gentlemen, is now.
But although the title suggests an all-encompassing Anthology of Atari retro goodness, this is more of a first bite; the kind of early arcade hits (up to about 1982) and the 2600 machine, at the expense of any titles from 5200, 7800 or, indeed, its early stabs at home computing. More accurately, this is the Atari Anthology: The Early Years.
Concentrating on the Arcade Originals for a moment, this collection of 18 hits could almost be justifiably released as a separate entity, featuring some true classics of the early days, notably Tempest, Pong, Super Breakout, BattleZone, Centipede, Millipede, Missile Command, Asteroids (and Deluxe), Lunar Lander, Gravitar, Crystal Castles and some curiosities that even I hadn't come across, including Black Widow, Red Baron, Space Duel, Liberator, Major Havoc and Warlords.
All about the gameplay, son
Of that list, it's surprising how well some of these stand up today, especially the awesome Dave Theurer favourite Tempest, not to mention Missile Command and the gem-chasing Crystal Castles. Admittedly the likes of Pong, Asteroids, and Super Breakout are laughably simplistic whichever way you look at it, but still have a gameplay purity that stands the test of time once you get over the almost complete absence of graphical frills. As your dad will probably tell you; it was all about the gameplay back then, son.
Even some of the less-celebrated arcade originals provide a decent amount of curiosity value, especially Black Widow, and the bizarre Major Havoc. Only where the games were sold on being cutting edge or just plain derivative do they suffer in gameplay terms now, so the wireframe titles like BattleZone and Red Baron don't exactly get the pulses racing nowadays, but still for those of you that sunk your change into these machines at the time, it's impossible not to feel a degree of fondness for them included as part of such a low-priced package.
However, the 67-strong 2600 collection really stretches credibility for the most part, with the vast majority of the titles within deserving to be locked away for all eternity. The main thing to consider here is just how technically crippled the 2600 actually was as a games machine with just 128 bytes of memory to store the game state in. According to the historical data, that's two lines of text; an almost unbelievably small amount of memory to do anything vaguely creative with, but they did try. In the latter days the games came on 8k cartridges, so they did get a weenie bit more ambitious, but essentially you were dealing with an advanced Pong machine that wasn't really fit for doing anything terribly advanced.
The year that punk broke
Realistically, the 2600 (released originally in 1977, would you believe?) was already woefully underpowered by the time arcade gaming was at its commercial peak ('79-'82), and thus any attempts to port these benchmark-setting games was normally a pretty futile exercise that more often than not approximated the experience to a greater or lesser extent, but didn't really do the original sufficient justice to warrant charging the end user the equivalent of seven times their weekly pocket money.
And what's more, due to the licensing restrictions imposed this Atari Anthology doesn't even include the arcade versions of anything that wasn't produced by Atari itself, so thoughts of being able to run through those fondly remembered versions of Space Invaders et al go out of the window, sadly. It is of some consolation, however, that Atari has thrown in all the conversions of its own roster, including Centipede, Super Breakout, Crystal Castles, Gravitar and many others. The gameplay of most of these are reasonably intact, but when you're talking about inferior versions of games that not only don't look as good, but don't play as well as the original versions thrown in the Aracde Originals section, they represent little more than completist value.
Looking elsewhere, you're hopeful of finding a few hidden gems; but it's not exactly aided by a menu system that arbitrarily sections off games by genre, with, for example, Mind Games and Adventures loosely bracketed in their own sub menu. Having little knowledge of the full back catalogue, it's somewhat daunting to wade through them without any knowledge of whether most of them were even well regarded at the time. It's certainly good that each game comes with a box art and manual scan, but some sort of measure of their relative worth would have been useful; not to mention some sort of brief guide to playing them. Although you can zoom in on the instruction manual on screen, the text is fuzzy and indistinct to be of much use. Still, most of the games are so simple that actual instructions aren't really required in any case.
Powering through dozens of these unfamiliar titles, such as the hilarious Bowling, Realsports Baseball, Swordquest Fireworld and the like, it's almost a harrowing experience that takes a leap of faith to even begin to get anything more than a laugh out of them. Even games we recall getting a modicum of enjoyment out of at the time, such as Night Driver, not only look utterly hilarious in a modern context, but simply don't work without the Paddle controller, and the same applies to many of these games we suspect. If there's a single 2600 game among the 67 that pulls of some sort of impressive hardware trick, we're not aware of it, but to criticize them on the basis of their looks is hardly fair. The machine was, after all, technologically challenged in just about every way imaginable.
Atari and Digital Eclipse have tried to spruce up the package a little with a few fun additions that enable you to make the visuals go Trippy (and therefore make the game unplayable), or speed up the game double (likewise), a speed up/slow down mode called Time Warp (ditto), and a sort of Wario Ware-style Hot Seat mode where you get 15 seconds of game time on a randomly selected game with the aim of scoring as many points as possible. Fun ideas, but hardly the sort of things you'll switch on more than once.
As an insight into the Atari glory days Anthology does its job in as much that most of its early-era classics have been emulated to perfection, and come laden with plenty of archive documentation scans to keep retro fiends engrossed for hours. And for the price you can't really argue with it, unlike certain retro re-releases we could mention, but we're fully expecting the inevitable Anthology 2 to be of much more interest.
You had to be there, maaaaan
Ultimately, Atari Anthology is one of those packages which only people who were there at the time and owned one should realistically bother with, unless you're feeling incredibly curious about how this thing we call videogaming all began. Gamers under about the age of 25 will frankly be utterly amazed at how basic things were back then, while those old enough to have owned (and who knows, maybe loved) a 2600, or hung around the arcades will have a few hours of curiosity sated before moving well and truly on. It's certainly worth looking at on the basis of some seminal arcade originals (if you're not willing to faff around with emulators), but the 2600 catalogue is something even ardent retro fetishes would struggle to see the value in these days, but when you're talking about pence per game, it's hard to knock it.
6 (in terms of value for money) / 10