When you open the arcade gaming history books to the early years, they should feature the name "Atari" in big, bold letters. Though strongly associated with home consoles in later years, Nolan Bushnell started this gaming empire in the arcades with games like Pong and Breakout (the assembly of the latter machines famously assisted by two young men named Wozniak and Jobs). After the buyout by Warner Communications, production of arcade machines proceeded side-by-side with home console endeavours. This was also a way of feeding exclusives to the Atari 2600 and later platforms, and therefore there's a lot of "golden oldies" in the Atari vaults to choose from.
Given the ageing gaming demographic, it's no surprise that Infogrames (then the company’s IP-holder) saw fit to release a compilation of classic Atari arcade games on Nintendo's Game Boy Advance. The partnership with emulation experts Digital Eclipse (who came to prominence among retro-aficionados via their work on the excellent "Arcade Classics" series for Midway on the Sony Playstation) produced a faithful collection of arcade releases that is still the best overview of the early Atari catalogue on a handheld system even now, eight years on.
The presentation is pretty straightforward, with a simple left-right toggle on the D-Pad used to flip through the seven games on offer whilst a catchy electronic track plays in the background. This is a selection of some of the most popular titles from Atari prior to the split into separate arcade and home console divisions: Missile Command, Tempest, Centipede, Super Breakout, Battle Zone and Asteroids. The seventh is a bonus trivia game made to test the knowledge of all but the most fanatic of fans – a nice treat to break up your classic gaming fun.
Though controls aren't customisable, each game offers a couple of schemes which should cover the bases – within the limitations of the D-Pad-plus-four-button controls of the GBA. You can play Battle Zone with separate controls for each tread mapped to the D-Pad and buttons or use the former alone; Asteroids likewise can be played with thrust mapped to Up (as standard on home console and PC versions) or via a separate button; and Super Breakout and Tempest offer D-Pad or shoulder button movement to attempt to give it more analogue feel, simulating the scheme used in the arcade.
The results aren't always completely successful, but all the titles are certainly playable. Tempest won't allow you to zip around the edge of the playing field like the rotary spinner of the arcade, but the developers have seemingly tweaked the difficulty to compensate. Missile Command likewise feels a bit awkward using the D-Pad to move your cursor rather than a trackball, but again, very subtle difficulty changes mean that gameplay isn't ruined. The remaining games feature control schemes which were either digital or more easily adapted to digital input, and these play without any issues at all.
Although the designers weren’t always able to emulate the original, the classic screen aspect ratio is happily available via an option to present games which featured vertical monitors in the arcades (Centipede, Tempest and Super Breakout). Though playing them in this way with your DS Lite or SP might feel a bit awkward, it should be quite doable on the original GBA and works perfectly well on the more compact Game Boy Micro.
Being able to play Tempest and Centipede without a squashed playing field is definitely preferable for the arcade purist, though it must be said that despite compression, the vertical games actually play pretty well with the conventional GBA presentation thanks to the great work in the visual department. This is especially true for the three games which were originally displayed on vector displays in the arcades. Even on the tiny Micro screen, the wireframe graphics of Asteroids, Tempest and Battle Zone look terrific, though distant objects in the latter two tend to become unformed blobs. It's simply a credit to Digital Eclipse and their attention to detail that they were able to present these titles so well on the GBA, as in the wrong hands, this collection could easily have ended up a disaster.
Though Infogrames seems to have been largely uninterested in exploiting the classic IP they acquired along with the Atari brand, they at least took some care when they chose the development team to produce this cracking collection of classic games. Though some of the controls are a bit uneven due to having to adapt them to the GBA's traditional NES-style interface, each title is playable and features faithfully reproduced sights and sounds of the arcade originals.
If you've ever played these games in their original format, it's a real treat to have them in the palm of your hand; if you're unfamiliar with these legendary hits, it's worth tracking down this collection as it's certainly one of the best of its kind available for any handheld.