Retro compilations have been a staple of gaming for some time now and publishers whose roots go back to the early days of gaming have been cashing in on their back catalogs and gamers’ nostalgia with mechanical regularity since gaming embraced the disc format. Now Atari has released Atari Classics Evolved, which, despite claiming to be “evolved”, is a classic compilation at heart, eleven games from Atari’s arcade heritage gathered together on one UMD for the PlayStation Portable, in their original form and in a new “evolved” design.
Whether or not gamers will be interested in a package like this hinges on the selection of games, so here’s what’s on offer: Asteroids, Asteroids Deluxe, Battlezone, Centipede, Millipede, Lunar Lander, Missile Command, Pong, Super Breakout, Tempest and Warlords. In addition, around fifty (yes I said fifty) games from the Atari 2600 can be unlocked for play (more on that later), although they’re Atari-published games, so those of you hoping for something awesome like Frogger or Pitfall are out of luck. Also, it’s worth noting that since Asteroids, Asteroids Deluxe, Centipede and Millipede are basically the same game, this lowers the value of the package a bit. Almost everyone knows, if not loves, the games in this collection as a whole and as such I won’t go into detail on each, but a few are worth mentioning: Lunar Lander is still great, the evolved version of Warlords is amazing and playing Tempest will remind you that, despite all of Jeff Minter’s whining, Space Giraffe was basically just Tempest.
The evolved versions of most of the games simply feature disappointing graphical upgrades and in some cases they actually make the game worse! Asteroids works better with a minimalist presentation and Super Breakout’s evolved form is simply annoying due to the sparkling, glowing tail effects put on the ball. For reference, the evolved versions are a lot like the classic arcade games you can drop $5 a piece for on Xbox Live Arcade; the version of Missile Command on this disc is identical to the Live Arcade’s version.
The controls for many of the games feel a bit off. Centipede is spot on, but Pong and Super Breakout’s paddle controls are maddening; the delay between the initial button press and the response is highly frustrating, but if you hold the d-pad down the paddles go flying across the screen at speeds that boggle the human mind. It should also be noted that some games require the PSP to be held vertically to compensate for the original screen ratios, which can take some getting used to.
Two games stand out above the rest: Pong and Warlords. Pong’s evolved forms, including an air-hockey skin and a pinball skin, are great if completely unbalanced fun, in spite of Pong’s 1980s-bad AI. Warlords is abominable in its original format, but the new version smoothes out the control and spiffs up the visuals, making for an intense game of four-way adversarial Breakout. I had never played Warlords before popping in this UMD, so that might taint my judgment, but Warlords is the most fun you’ll get out of this package.
In addition to simply rehashing the games on their own, developer Stainless Games wisely added an achievements-like Awards system to the game. Each evolved game has four different benchmark awards, encompassing anything from a high score to gaining an extra life to beating the third wave of Asteroids shooting only fifty times. Besides the never-ending high score pursuit for most games, the awards are the only thing bringing any replay value to the table.
The Atari 2600 games are unlocked all at once, after every single award has been unlocked. It would have made a lot more sense in terms of player gratification to unlock the old ROMs one by one, but instead you get them all in one deluge. The problem is, aside from Combat and Football, there’s not a lot worth your time here – and Combat has to be played with two people using the same PSP at the same time, so its value is dubious at best.
In the end, whether Atari Classics Evolved is worth picking up depends upon just how much you want some classic arcade games in your pocket. The “evolved” angle isn’t worth much, unless you really want the ultimate Warlords experience (which is admittedly awesome). The graphical upgrades aren’t worth the price of admission and the wireless functionality, such as high score uploading and ad hoc multiplayer for some titles, isn’t really worth bothering with. If you’re looking for something more than a run-of-the-mill, simple retro compilation then this is not your disc, but if retro is all you crave then you’ll find some of the earliest gaming greats on this little UMD.