Review: Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration (Nintendo Switch)

Over 100 games are bundled into Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration. Gold is traditional for 50th anniversaries, so does this compilation bring it home? The answer is yes.

Having teased the compliments to come, I need to disclose that Atari was a big part of my childhood. Is this review colored by nostalgia? Absolutely, and I freely admit it. That said, even if you’re approaching this collection more with curiosity or with history in mind, $39.99 is a steal for what’s on offer here.

Given the vast number of games, I must be selective about the highlights. This means skipping over 2600 and 5200 games, curiously truncated from the Atari Flashback Classics collection. You’ve undoubtedly played many (most) of these, as they are easy to come by. Given that many have aged poorly, let’s skip to the main draws.

The 7800 never stood a chance against the NES in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, but it has some solid games mixed in with the redundant offerings here, such as Dark Chambers and the cult classic Ninja Golf. Plus, its version of Centipede, with four skill levels and co-op play, is A-1. However, that game also leads to a refreshingly candid in-game admission, namely that ports of old arcade games had limited success competing in the market of the time.

While the Game Boy destroyed all portable competition in the ‘90s, the Lynx was an overpowered system well ahead of its time. Sadly, with only five games representing it, you won’t get a proper taste of how cool it was. That’s just a fraction of its library, and there are some head-scratching omissions (Warbirds). But the challenging platformer Scrapyard Dog is superior to its 7800 counterpart. Turbo Sub (a port of an obscure arcade game) is a nifty showcase for the system’s power. And I don’t care that this collection already has four other versions of Asteroids and Missile Command each; the rare “Super” Lynx cart (Atari’s final release for the handheld) features awesome updates of the arcade classics.

Nine Atari Jaguar games are here, reflecting how mixed the console’s library was. Despite sharing my name, Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy is a subpar, at best, launch shooter that certainly did the system no favors. Ruiner Pinball is an average-pinball title. Fight for Life wasn’t much to look at, with gameplay delivering little to write home about. Fun fact, that game disappointed me so much that I gave away my cartridge to a friend back in the day. As Atari’s final Jag release, it sent the poor-selling (only 125 thousand) system out on a low note.

There are some Jag gems here, though. Cybermorph, the ambitious pack-in, took a long time to grow on me, but it’s a sizable shooter/explorer with depth. So stick with it and “learn to fly.” Just ignore the “CD-quality cyber techno soundtrack” promised on the box and hope the sequel, Battlemorph (Jag CD), arrives as future DLC.

1994 brought a Jag game that everyone loved in Tempest 2000. A great tube shooter that still feels unique; I actually prefer this version over Tempest 4000, thanks to the AI Droid implementation and multiplayer. 1994 also brought a game nobody loves but me, Club Drive. It might be a garbage game “objectively,” but it’s a genuinely enjoyable favorite of mine. Call it insanely silly, glitchy, or worse, and I won’t fault you. But I call it charming, a laid-back romp through primitive polygon courses. It was a failure, but it failed with style.

Last but certainly not least are the handful of reimagined games. One could easily argue that these stick too close to their inspirations. But I’m always up for some Breakout and Yars Revenge, and these enhanced versions with updated visuals and music are just a couple of the entertaining offerings.

I must give fair warning that many of these games have poor default control setups for whatever odd reason. Admittedly, many post-2600 games did have unique control setups. But take a few minutes at the start of each title, look the default setup over, and remap to something more comfortable and sensible.

When not playing, you can peruse the timeline showing Atari’s history from the arcades and 2600 highs, through its pc days, and into the end of Atari as we knew it in the mid-90s. There are many cool-with-a-capital-C videos that gaming history buffs should eat up. I’ve learned a lot.

I mentioned earlier when discussing the 7800 that I appreciate this compilation’s candidness. The timeline is full of this. The poor design of Atari’s pinball machines in the late ‘70s. Acknowledging the battle with the technically advanced Intellivision in the early ‘80s and fumbling the 5200’s backwards compatibility and analog controller shortly after. The crash. The highs and lows of its PC line. 

Most appreciated (as a Jag owner in the ‘90s) are the recognitions that the claims of 64-bit power were…let’s say, artful. No, the Jag didn’t really give a “true” 64-bit experience. It overpromised but underdelivered. But it’s more popular now than it ever was during its retail life, something even those who worked on it can’t quite understand. Jag (and Lynx) games must be the focus if any DLC comes to this compilation.

The worst reminder is that Activision devs were paid low while not receiving credit for their work. Therefore, we must continue to suffer their absence, which makes this compilation incomplete. Alas.

Those looking for more modern touches should know that leaderboards and multiplayer are local only, limited to games that originally had them. At least you can save at any time, which is helpful for the meatier titles or some with difficulty spikes.

I need to repeat for emphasis the value here. Take a game like Atari Karts on the Jaguar, an okay title in the mold of Super Mario Kart on the SNES with some subpar collision detection. An original cart goes for hundreds of dollars. And it’s not alone for expensive or rare games. At $39.99, this collection is a steal, especially as a physical copy.

Whether you’re looking for a nostalgic kick, curious to check out rare titles, or looking to bone up on games of a bygone era, Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration has you covered. Yes, some odd omissions, seemingly from something other than licensing, leave you wondering. And there are numerous redundant and “one time is enough” games. But the rare gems are worth finding, playing, and replaying.