Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration Review

50 years of amazing Atari games and juicy company secrets

By Paul Hunter

Let's get right to the undeniable fact: Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is the best interactive history tour in video games ever. No other compilation comes even remotely close to the absolute polish and perfection of this robust offering. And ironically, the 100+ included classic games, as great as they are, are not even the best part.

Let's time hop back to 1971 and get this interactive journey underway, here are three things I liked about the game...and one I didn't.

Liked: Interactive Timeline

The Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration goes way beyond being just a collection of games. Its main attraction is the five massive interactive timelines that detail the highs and lows of Atari. It begins with Atari's arcade origins, then explores Atari's home consoles in the 70s and 80s, later you get into Atari's PC business and finally it wraps with the history of Atari's Lynx and Jaguar consoles, as well as their current endeavours like their Recharged series.

Each of the timelines peels back the Atari business giving you a true insider look at its key staff, marketing decisions and product offerings. The rich collection of 'artifacts', as Atari calls them, include actual pre-development design memos written by developers, such as one that refers to Centipede as "Bug Shooter aka Shoot the Centipede". Later you learn that Atari's coin-op executive producer Lyle Rains suggested that Centipede instead be reskinned with a "dragon quest" theme, with the player a wizard that fights a dragon. It's just fascinating stuff that anyone with an interest in gaming history will get totally absorbed in.

Other captivating inclusions in the interactive timelines are the full source code to 1977's Combat on the Atari 2600, a hilarious 'console war' magazine advertisement showing a jaguar scaring Sonic and Nintendo, Atari's comically bad secret gamer handshake, and iconic 80s Atari commercials, mullets and all. It's a veritable treasure trove of ancient goodies that gives you a whole new perspective on Atari and the birth of video games.

Major credit has to be given to Atari for tackling some of the most controversial parts of the company's history, including a short video explaining how some Atari staff did drugs like marijuana and even cocaine—plus they had an in-house drug dealer. There's also a video that explains how creator Howard Warshaw actually named Yars' Revenge after Warner Communications' Ray Kassar, then appointed as CEO of Atari, whom the Atari staff all loathed. Howard simply reversed Ray's name to "Yars" and suggested the name to Atari's marketing unit. This might actually be the very first trolling act in gaming, just fascinating. You'll also learn about how Atari staff left to found Activision, after years of frustration earning salaries as low as $20,000 and being offered a turkey dinner as a bonus for their games earning millions in profits. Wild stuff to say the least!

On the topic of firsts, these interactive timelines give you riveting accounts of major milestones in gaming, many of which we completely take as a given these days. For example, you'll learn about the very first video game that actually credited the development team, and also how the Adventure creator, Warren Robinett, included a secret room in the game featuring his name—at a time when game credits didn't exist. You'll also learn about the history of vector graphics, holographic games and an early, never released Atari VR headset. I knew Atari was a pioneer in the gaming space, but it's astonishing just how much they contributed to gaming as we know it today.

Liked: Learning About Atari's Many Products

Before checking out The Anniversary Celebration, my knowledge of Atari was their early home consoles and arcade machines, Lynx and Jaguar consoles, and PC business. But Atari also produced so many gadgets I had never even heard about, but do now, thanks to this collection.

I had no idea that Atari was constantly inventing new products in a variety of gaming industries, many of which sadly never came to market. For instance, I learned that in 1975 Atari created a pinball division, starting with a game called The Atarians. I'm almost laughing just typing that out (lol). Atari also created the first electronic music visualizer sold commercially named Atari Video Music. The company also prototyped a holographic handheld that never saw a commercial release. Just think about that, a holographic handheld console, incredible!

The weird and wacky Atari creations didn't stop there though. For their Atari 2600 console, they produced an analog paddle controller, along with a 12-button keyboard controller. Most fascinating though was in 1980 Atari created an Acoustic Modem that attached to your rotary telephone to "dial-up" members in your local bullet board community. I'm just so impressed at how many creations came out of Atari—this Anniversary Celebration gave me a newfound appreciation for this historic game company.

Liked: So Many Classic Games

Atari 50 gives you a playable library of games, 100+ in all, across seven different platforms: Arcade, 2600, 5200, 7800, Atari 8-bit computers, and, for the first time ever on modern consoles, Atari Lynx and Jaguar. Plus, the team at Digital Eclipse has created five reimagined games, including updated versions of Yars' Revenge, Breakout and Haunted Houses. You also get the fourth and final entry in the Swordquest series, which has never been released before, and you get a flat-screen version of the Atari Touch Me handheld device that plays a version of Simon Says.

Getting into the classic Atari games, it includes essential gaming like Adventure, Asteroids, Black Widow, Centipede, Crystal Castles, Lunar Lander, Missile Command, Pong, Tempest, Yars' Revenge and 90+ other pioneering games. A lot of these games haven't aged so well, and some of them are better suited to dial analog controllers (like Pong), but it was still wonderful to revisit them, even if I only played some of the briefly. There are some though that have stood the test of time, including Tempest, Centipede, Millipede, Astroids, Ninja Golf and Warlords, among others.

I never did own an Atari Jaguar or Lynx, although my friends did so I had some exposure to those consoles. But as a non-owner of these consoles, it was cool to check out games from their respective libraries, such as Super Asteroids & Missile Command, Atari Karts, Fight For Life and Tempest 2000. Most of these games are modestly enjoyable but I was actually surprised at how average some of these games were especially given the high quality of competitors' titles on consoles like Nintendo 64, PlayStation and SEGA Saturn.

Didn't Like: Missing Games

As I was playing through the lineup of games in this collection, I couldn't help but wish this was an 'Atari console' collection, instead of being limited to just games made by Atari. I get it though, this is a 50th anniversary celebration collection. Other games, I'm sure, were excluded because Atari couldn't get the licensing rights.

Some games that I wish made it into The Anniversary Celebration include E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Pitfall, Frogger, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Joust, Q*bert, Donkey Kong and Battlezone. Those games are such classics, and arguably many of them are better than the games included in the collection, so it's such a shame they didn't make it. I wish Atari would sell DLC packs with some of those games—I'd be the first in line to buy!

The Verdict

Atari has just set a new benchmark for retro game compilations with Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration. There's been a lot of talk recently about how bad the gaming industry is at preserving its history, but this robust package should be the ideal that all game companies strive for. This collection explores the company's rich history with videos, high-quality digital scans and the inclusion of 100+ games spanning 35 years of Atari's arcade, console and PC legacy. I'm absolutely floored at what Atari has given us here, it's the ultimate collection for Atari fans or anyone with an interest in gaming history.

Final Score: 9/10 - Amazing

Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration details

Platform: PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
Developer: Digital Eclipse
Publisher: Atari
Genre: Arcade, Action
Modes: Single-player, Multiplayer
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

A key was provided by the publisher.