Usually, when it comes to retro gaming compilations we tend to see two schools of thought: quality or quantity. The former usually consist of a modest helping of games, but each is given lots of care and attention and supported with heaps of extra content. Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection and the recent SNK 40th Anniversary Collection are good examples of this, with their massive curated art archive sections.
Then there’s the latter, which tend to do away with flashiness in favour of jamming as many games in there as possible. Sega Mega Drive Classics falls into its category, with its no-frills helping of 51 games, and it’s fair to say Atari Flashback Classics doesn’t just fall into it too, it leaps in screaming at the top of its lungs.
You see, there are no fewer than 150 games in this one, easily making it the biggest retro compilation ever on any system. That’s because it actually takes three separate Xbox One and PS4 releases – Atari Flashback Classics Vol 1, 2 and 3 – and crams them all into one 356MB package. “Hang on,” you may be asking. “It’s got 150 games and it’s only 356MB?” Well, don’t forget these are games from the dawn of the video game industry we’re talking about.
The ton and a half of games on offer here cover three different formats. There are 32 Atari arcade games, 102 titles from the iconic Atari 2600 (originally known as the Atari VCS) and 16 games released for the more powerful Atari 5200. Some games turn up in duplicate or even triplicate across these formats; the likes of Asteroids, Centipede and Missile Command are available to play in their arcade, 2600 and 5200 versions, for example.
While 150 games sounds like great value for money at first, once you start working your way through them it becomes clear that many of them have aged incredibly badly. We aren’t talking NES levels here, either; the majority of those games can still provide plenty of entertainment if you take their age into account. Atari's offerings feel like barely playable cave paintings in comparison.
While many of the games available in this compilation were released in the early ‘80s, a large number of them – particularly some of the arcade ones – are from the 1970s. You’ve even got Pong in there, which is 46 years old. We’re all for a bit of vintage gaming goodness, but when you’re playing a game that’s so old a total of 54 countries have been formed since it was released (seriously), there comes a point where it’s difficult to squeeze any more fun out of it.
Many of them have awkward control methods, too. At the time, these extremely early days of gaming were an exciting hotbed of experimentation; developers weren’t just laying the groundwork for the games themselves, they were also trying to establish the definitive way to play them. As a result, you had all manner of trackballs, analogue knobs and joysticks doing the rounds back in the day, not to mention the Atari 5200’s bizarre 12-button controller which looked more like a telephone handset with a joystick on the top.
This makes for some fairly hit-and-miss controls on this Switch collection. The joystick-based games all work perfectly well, but the analogue ones can be iffy. There’s an option to adjust sensitivity but despite a lot of tweaking we could never settle on anything that felt comfortable enough; an analogue stick is fine in most situations but it’s a different type of control to an analogue dial or trackball and so playing the likes of Super Breakout and Crystal Castles can be awkward. Thankfully, handheld mode adds touchscreen controls, letting you slide your finger around the screen instead; this works much better.
Those 5200 games are a far bigger problem, though. Because of its bizarre controller, which had more buttons than the Cadbury factory at full production, some of them are played in an extremely awkward manner with a column of buttons down the left-hand side of the screen that have to be activated with the touchscreen, or by browsing through them with the D-Pad. Games like Miniature Golf become an exercise in frustration as a result.
Let’s focus on the positives for a minute. There are still some iconic games in here that remain playable to this day. The likes of Asteroids, Yar’s Revenge, Tempest, Centipede and Gravitar will still keep you entertained as long as you can see past their primitive visuals. These are the games that prove that age-old claim that it doesn’t matter how a game looks as long as it’s still fun to play. The addition of online leaderboards is also a welcome touch, even if they’re pretty sparsely populated at the moment (we’re currently 23rd in the world at Millipede, which definitely isn’t justified).
The emulation is flawless too, though to be fair we’d expect nothing less given that there’s probably more complicated tech to be found in an amiibo (and not even a good amiibo, a rubbish one like Daisy). There’s an optional scanline filter, you can choose to add an authentic glowing effect for the early vector-based arcade games, and any coin-ops that had a vertical screen (like Centipede) open in handheld mode by asking if you want to play vertically. Everything runs like it’s supposed to, occasionally questionable controls aside. And the fact that every 2600 and 5200 game includes a scan of its manual is a real life-saver when it comes to some of the most abstract games, many of which will have you scratching your head just figuring out how to start them.
The problem is, even though there are 150 games in here there are still major gaps. You have to bear in mind this is a compilation of Atari games, not games on Atari systems. As such, some of the most famous (and infamous) third-party 2600 and 5200 titles are notably absent. Granted, licensing issues mean some of them – The Empire Strikes Back, the notorious E.T. – were never going to be on here anyway, but it’s a shame deals couldn’t have been stuck with Activision, Bandai Namco and Square Enix to get the likes of Pitfall, Pac-Man and Space Invaders on there.
Instead, filling those gaps are some truly hopeless titles that nobody cares about and are clearly just there to make up the numbers. If the thought of playing the likes of Slot Machine, Video Checkers and Basic Math gets you worked up into a frenzy then you should probably turn yourself in at the nearest police station, because chances are you aren’t safe to be around people.
Quantity over quality has never been exhibited so perfectly as it is here. Having 150 games is undoubtedly impressive, but when the vast majority of them are barely decipherable, let alone playable, you’re probably only really left with around 15 titles that will hold your attention for more than a minute. While the contribution these games made to the evolution of gaming in its early days can’t be denied, many of them are stepping stones that we don’t need to walk over again. Had there been some sort of museum mode that helped give more context to each title’s place in the history of gaming that would’ve been much better, but as it is you’re left with a huge stack of games of which around 90 percent just won’t hold your attention, no matter how much of a retro fan you are.