Evolution is relative.
Imagine yourself wandering the halls of the Louvre and you happen to notice the Mona Lisa hanging on a wall. It looks a little different – they’ve given her a party hat and some shades – but it’s definitely her.
[image1]“What the heck happened to the Mona Lisa?” you ask the nearby guard, a man you thought would have protected Da Vinci’s classic work from such mutilation.
“It evolved,” he informs you, “and now it’s better. We have a bunch of other paintings too, but you’ll have to go through a maze to see them. Most people won’t make it.”
That would make for a pretty disappointing museum visit, don’t you think? Many of us go to such places to appreciate our cultural roots in their original splendor. Maybe we have a favorite mural, or maybe we just like to come back every now and then to soak it all in one more time. Revision would mess with all of that. Without a sense of time and place, the artwork would be nothing more than dabs of paint on a canvas.
In a sense, Atari Classics Evolved is the digital equivalent of that unfortunate museum tour. The package includes eleven classic titles that have been tweaked and visually enhanced to keep up with modern times, plus you can unlock more than fifty classics released on the Atari 2600. The good news is that except for the latter, which thankfully haven’t been enhanced at all, each game is available in both its standard and ‘evolved’ forms. No one’s forcing you to go the revisionist route.
With that said, there are times when you might want to. Lunar Lander, in case you haven’t played it before, revolves around landing a shuttle on various points of the moon. They’re all pretty rough places, with only narrow space on which to plant your vessel. Also, you have limited fuel. The object is to land as many times as possible – and as quickly as possible – so that you can gain points and add to your reserves before repeating the process. When you run out of fuel (or patience), the game ends. In the evolved form, you can make out a lot of details and get a good idea on whether or not you’re going to land successfully. There’s a bit more guesswork involved if you play the classic edition.
Another example of the evolution working out properly comes from Warlords. Fortresses are placed at each corner of the screen and balls start rocketing between them. The goal is to catch one, then fling it at your rival’s walls, so that you gradually break down his defenses and finally obliterate his base. The evolved version actually makes for a frantic experience where you’ll start to think nothing can go right, but in an addictively enjoyable way. The action is easy to follow and the controls are fairly responsive as you move your device around your walls. Try playing the game without the enhancements, though, and you’ll find that your paddle is jerky and imprecise. Games are much shorter and a real chore to play, to the point where you’ll wonder how the project ever found an audience large enough to see it through.
[image2]For every evolutionary success, though, there’s a corresponding failure. Take Pong, which has been visually enhanced so that it more clearly resembles a game of table tennis. The shape of your paddle morphs slightly depending how high or low you are on the screen, which is quite distracting and about as welcome as a bull in a china shop (~Ed. Oh, really?). Predictably, hitting the ball back and forth isn’t any more enjoyable just because it’s harder to tell what you’re doing. In fact, you’ll probably find yourself wondering why you’re playing any sort of Pong at all when it’s not the original. Games have come a long way since the days when hitting a ball between two paddles counted as cutting-edge entertainment.
Even in its standard form, Pong can be a disappointment on the PSP. That’s because moving the paddle up and down isn’t anywhere near as smooth as you might hope. The sensitivity is too touchy. You’re either crawling or flashing all over the place like a streaker at a football game. Neither is good for returning the ball. The same malady affects Super Breakout, which makes it almost unplayable.
Then there are Centipede and Millipede, which seem perfect for the analog stick, but are executed poorly. The problem is that you’ll often fly upward and into an enemy you would otherwise avoid, because unless you’re using the d-pad, it’s difficult to move strictly left or right at tense moments. It’s hard to know whether to blame the programmers or the hardware, so most of us will probably cuss at thin air and harbor general resentment toward the world at large. I know I did.
Another disappointment is that some of the eleven main games in the bundle are essentially repeats or weren’t particularly fun even twenty years ago. Centipede and Millipede are different games, sure, but both involve firing bullets at insects as they make their way toward the bottom of the screen with malicious intent. Asteroids Deluxe may add a few twists on the ever-popular Asteroids formula (it’s nice having a shield, for sure), but most people who have extensively played the original probably won’t spend more than a few minutes on its sequel. Then there are games like the once-impressive Battlezone, which is poor enough by this point that you would gladly succumb to a hamburger patty in Daikatana instead, and Tempest, which was never much to talk about in the first place.
[image3]You might think to yourself that the stinkers on the collection can just be avoided, which is true, but then you’d miss out on all the unlockable content. It turns out that each of the eleven titles in the compilation has four challenges you can complete. Once you’ve conquered all forty-four of them, you’ll reveal more than fifty classic games originally released on the Atari 2600. None of them have been enhanced, but that’s just fine. The problem is that to experience even one of them, you have to completely dominate the main games. If you’re missing even one award, you’re fresh out of luck. It’s like going on a date and being told you’ll have to kiss the mother before you can have any fun with the daughter.
Overall, Atari Classics Evolved winds up feeling just short of average despite its obvious strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, there are more than sixty games available in portable form. Some of them have even been genuinely enhanced, if you’re interested. Unfortunately, many players probably won’t have the patience to unlock the full library of classics and will be stuck with the eleven that are available from the start. Since some of those are redundant or crippled by control schemes that don’t translate well to the PSP, the average player is going to wind up disappointed. It’s a worthwhile compilation, but only if you’re the right person. Everyone else should steer clear of this particular museum.