Retro Atari Classics Review
Posted by Sean Aaron
When classic compilations go wrong
Since retro compilations started to become a decent way for companies to earn money off their old IP, it's become the norm to see classics from some of the bigger names in the industry repackaged in each succeeding generation of consoles since the late 20th century. Unfortunately Atari has mis-stepped with its follow-up to the quality Game Boy Advance release Atari Anniversary Advance due to an apparently poor choice of developer in Taniko, who went for style over substance, spoiling much of this collection of golden oldies.
The streamlined interface from the GBA game returns, though it's touchscreen-only as befits the DS; tapping left and right on-screen buttons will take players through the ten games on offer. There are three more than the GBA release – four if you consider that one of the games from the previous collection was a bonus trivia game rather than a proper arcade game – though why Breakout has been substituted for Super Breakout and Battle Zone is absent from this collection is a mystery only Atari and Taniko can answer.
Despite the questionable absence of games from the last Atari collection on a Nintendo platform, you're still getting a pretty decent cross-section of old Atari games covering a few genres with a list that looks like a who's who of arcades and pizza parlours from the early 80s: Asteroids, Lunar Lander, Centipede, Gravitar, Missile Command, Tempest, Sprint, Breakout, Warlords and even a reproduction of Pong would certainly entice anyone who remembers the Dawn of Gaming. Unfortunately once you start playing these games you'll find that they don't quite live up to your memories – not because the games aren't as good as you remember, but because their translation to the DS is so uneven.
Rather than emulating or porting the code across the board as Digital Eclipse did on Atari Anniversary Advance, Taniko has opted to reproduce them with an eye to adapting them to the DS's touchscreen controls rather than focusing on making them as faithful as possible to the arcade. Some of these translations are pretty good, enough so that the collection will be worthwhile to those who are big fans of the classics, but many are quite disappointing. Lunar Lander, Gravitar and Asteroids are the stars of the show, looking and playing most like their arcade counterparts. In all these cases the increased resolution of the DS screen over the GBA is put to good use in simulating the vector graphics of the arcade and though the touchscreen controls are rubbish, the D-Pad and buttons provide an experience that's pretty close to the real thing.
Breakout, Warlords and Missile Command are the middle-of-the-road titles. Using the stylus to directly control the paddle in Breakout provides an excellent level of precision which we would say is better even than using the paddle of the arcade or the Atari VCS, but it would have been nice to have the extra Cavity and Progressive game modes from Super Breakout available, as they're more interesting than the rather basic original game. Warlords uses a virtual slider on the touchscreen to control an on-screen paddle to similarly great effect, however the game simply ends rather than increasing in difficulty after you defeat your opponents, which is rather disappointing. Missile Command offers better (if less authentic) control than the arcade trackball by launching missiles from the nearest base to the part of the screen where you tap your stylus. For some strange reason, despite the arcade game being a standard horizontal display, both DS screens are used. Since you cannot directly tap on the top screen to fire, you hold a shoulder button and tap an approximate location in the bottom screen to fire at in the top. Since this is pretty poor for accuracy we'd suggest simply waiting for incoming missiles to enter the lower screen instead; the extra speed and precision of tapping to launch compensates nicely.
Pong and Sprint play okay, but frankly you're unlikely to want to play either of these more than once. Like Missile Command, Pong is reworked as a vertical game for some reason, with your opponent's paddle in the top screen. Playing against the computer isn't terribly interesting, though using the stylus to control your paddle works well enough. In Sprint, the stylus works best to steer, but even then it's not that great and the D-Pad isn't much better. Gear shifting is done automatically for you so you only need to press the accelerator, but like Pong this is another game that hasn't aged too well. You score as long as you're driving around the track; rather than a proper race you're just trying to reach the next score milestone to keep on driving. We reckon the developers would have opted for Super Sprint instead, but since that title is part of the Atari Games library, it would have been out of bounds seeing as that's owned by Midway (now Warner Interactive).
Our biggest issues are with two of the bigger draws in the collection: Centipede and Tempest. Both games look and control decent enough (Centipede even uses both screens to replicate the vertical monitor of the arcade), but it quickly becomes clear that something isn't right when you start to play. The Centipede playfield is actually zoomed in a bit and the difficulty greatly toned down: the spider – arguably the biggest continual hazard in the game – hardly bounces up and down at all and does so at a very slow pace no matter how far into the game you are. Tempest is also quite a bit easier in difficulty than the arcade, and lacks sufficient graphical clarity with enemies sometimes hard to distinguish from each other (Tankers and Flippers) or behaving in completely incorrect fashion (Pulsars). Neither one of these is likely to make fans of the originals terribly happy.
If you want a little variety in the visuals there's a "remix" mode where the original graphics are swapped out for some rather goofy ones supplied by "famous" graffiti artists, but it's not really worth bothering with. Even though all of these games were multiplayer in the arcade you'll find that only three of them are in this collection: Pong, Warlords and Sprint – of course given that download play isn't supported you'd need to have friends who were equally barmy enough to own a copy in order to exercise this option, so you'll either have to imagine what it could be like or carry around multiple copies for that impromptu Warlords game.
Retro Atari Classics should have been an excellent collection given the extra space, control options and superior hardware of the DS, but unfortunately it falls pretty far short of Atari Anniversary Advance in the quality stakes. Die-hard fans of arcade classics will certainly find this collection worthwhile for a handful of the included titles, but we cannot make a general recommendation due to the rather poor treatment these games have received overall.