Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Square One.
Recently I went out of my way and bought a Super Gun. No, I'm not part of the National Rifle Association. A Super Gun is a misnomer for a device that allows you to play Arcade boards in the comfort of your living room. It also costs an arm and a leg (and no arm means no hand...CRAP!).
Why did I damn myself to a steady diet of ramen for the next few weeks? For the love of the game. Just as there are new games constantly coming out, there are old games that you want to go back and revisit.
Each of us has our own gaming history, and the games that we grew up with have etched their permanent marks. To fulfill the desire to relive he glory days, some people buy full-on cabinets. Others enjoy the games of their heyday through the boon of arcade emulation.
Now fans of old Atari games can travel back in time with the Atari Anniversary Edition, a commercially released emulation compilation of 12 Atari arcade games from the late 70s and early 80s. The chosen 12 are Asteroids, Asteroids Deluxe, Battlezone, Centipede, Crystal Castles, Gravitar, Millepede, Missile Command, Pong, Super Breakout, Tempest, and Warlords.
Most of you are familiar with this batch already, but for the uninitiated, here's the rundown. The titles included are broken down into a few different gaming themes.
First off are the 'bouncy' games. Pong, as if you didn't know already, is digital ping-pong. Two white vertical paddles bounce a square ball back and forth...over and over again. Super Breakout has you bouncing the square ball against a wall of bricks. Warlords is essentially a four-player version of Breakout, with castles in four corners fending off a bouncing fireball. The weirdest and most obtuse objects in video game land just seem to have the innate ability to bounce.
Five of the games use vector graphics, an old-school line-rendering graphics system that led to some of the first 3D games. Battlezone, for instance, is a first-person tank game that marked an important step in using the third dimension. Asteroids and Asteroids Deluxe place you in the cockpit of a spaceship fending off asteroids. Gravitar pits your planet against malicious extra-terrestial attacks, and Tempest is a vector-based shooter.
The third group of games share the classic trackball control system. Crystal Castles is kind of like an isometric Pac Man. Missile Command has you protecting three cities from scores of nasty missiles. Centipede and Millipede pit your little shooter against an onslaught of creepy crawlies. I remember spinning the Centipede trackball in the lonely arcade of a Chinese restaurant that has since been torn down. By no coincidence, this is my favorite in the collection.
In general, the emulation looks good on a PC monitor. The graphics are sharp and accurate. Plus, there's an 'enhanced' mode that substitutes slightly updated graphics while keeping the original game play intact. I like the fact that they tuned up the look of the games without violating what made these games fun in the first place.
The biggest problem with this collection is the interface. How did we play these games back in the day? Dials, trackballs, joysticks, and those arcade micro-switch buttons with that distinctive 'click'. Sure, the game is playable with a mouse and keyboard, but to the people who want this game the most, it isn't the same.
One solution is to follow in the footsteps of Arcade Emulator fans and build your own arcade controls. Obviously, it's not the best answer for everybody, just the hardcore geeks. REALLY hardcore.
There's a selectable overlay for each game that simulates the borders of an arcade game cabinet. It adds a little arcade flair, but in some cases (such as the vector based games), it makes the screens far too tiny. Thankfully, these frames can be unselected, giving you a full-sized screen.
Frankly, these games aren't for everyone. While Centipede, Tempest and Missile Command still seem to hold up rather nicely, the other games aren't really as fun as they once were. I mean, Pong? Can you really sit and play that for more than a few minutes a week? Super Breakout? Maybe if they never released Arkanoid, I guess, but let's be honest. Warlords was fun at the time, but the controls render it unwieldy.
In turn, the best part of the game is the historical treasure trove of information. There's a museum of images that includes everything from Atari pins and patches to arcade vendor advertisements for the individual games. These archives are highlighted with video interviews of Nolan Bushnell, the creator of Pong and Atari.
I recently went to a symposium of video games and art and heard Nolan Bushnell speak in person. As one of the 'founding fathers' of video gaming, he offers a plethora of insightful commentary concerning the beginning of the industry and particularly the business side of developing Atari.
Less of a game package and more of an historical anthology, the Atari Anniversary Edition is an interesting one to grade. Thankfully, it's very cheap, clocking in at $15. Can you imagine having to pay $50 for Pong in this day and age? Short of spending thousands and thousands for each of the individual original games, 15 dollars doesn't seem that bad. Of course, there's also everyone's favorite FREE arcade emulator, MAME, but not so strangely enough, the particular ROMS for the games within this collection don't seem as easy to find.
This package works well enough, and the historical background info is plenty interesting. But if you're just looking for history, books on the rise of video games are still cheaper, just not as interactive. The collection is a good value, and perhaps for some of you, it will transport you to yesteryear faster than any Delorean ever could.