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Playing Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration brought back Dan’s memory of a black and white CRT, a wood-veneered TV cabinet, and a mysterious Atari VCS.

Long ago, I wrote about the Christmas of 1982. It was the Christmas I received a ZX Spectrum from my grandma (and Santa). And it is the Christmas I largely credit for nurturing my love of video games.

But it was earlier that year – by my hazy recollection, at least – at my other grandma’s house that I actually played my first video game.

Most weekends, I would visit her East London home. My dad would do jobs around the house while grandma set up a production line of weak cups of tea. Meanwhile, I would pass the time playing with Lego bricks and second-hand Battlestar Galactica toys. They are warm, sunlit afternoons of memories.

On Saturdays, we’d sit together, watching TV and cheering on wrestling superstars like Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. The television was a hulking piece of furniture that loomed over me like an elephant. It was an antique, even then. A black and white set that took five minutes to warm up and released an oddly comforting smell of burning dust as it roused from slumber. The screen – so giant to me at the time – was concealed by two wooden panels that would flap open like ears and clip into place, keeping glare from the glass.

Atari 50: Anniversary Celebration - VCS

One weekend, we arrived to discover an Atari VCS console attached to the television, along with two games to play. The first was the classic David Crane adventure Pitfall. The other was the not-so-classic Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel’s Castle. These aren’t the video games that transformed my life, but their efficient, blocky graphics left a vivid imprint, despite the absence of colour.

I never saw the console again, and to this day, no one can explain why it was there or who loaned it to us. Nonetheless – for one weekend only – grandma had somehow conjured up some cutting-edge home entertainment.

My only other interactions with Atari came three or four years later during occasional visits to my 2600-owning friend, Mark. We’d race for glory in Dragster, blast alien hordes in Threshold, and attempt to solve the Riddle of the Sphinx.

Yars' Revenge

These distant memories were stirred by the recent release of Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration. It’s the latest in a long line of retro video game collections, but the first I’ve played to present its subject matter as a museum exhibit instead of a greatest hits compilation.

Developer Digital Eclipse has assembled a comprehensive tapestry that charts Atari’s history across 100-plus games, from the arcade and VCS through to the Lynx and Jaguar. As with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection, the studio’s mission statement of preservation is on point throughout, with excellent emulation across all systems and a range of carefully considered display options. And in addition to the old classics, there’s also room for a few modern makeovers. (The new Yars’ Revenge is a spectacular highlight.)

Atari 50: Anniversary Celebration - TV

Although the retrospective covers Atari’s existence up until the late 90s, it’s the raw simplicity of the company’s early work that fascinates the most. There’s something magical about the way these games encourage the player to meet them halfway and imagine the sights and sounds that 2 KB of memory could never create. In a month where God of War Ragnarök throws the kitchen sink at the screen, it’s a reminder that many modern games still have a clear lineage to these basic expressions of play.

The artwork of the era also helps. Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration includes a wealth of packaging, posters, flyers and manuals featuring work from the likes of Cliff Spohn, Susan Jaekel and Steve Hendrickson, to name just three. Each illustration is a masterpiece in its own right and gives life to the experience beyond the primitive on-screen images. 

Elsewhere, a measure trove of archival video shows how the media and public grappled with this new art form. There’s an endearing innocence on display as genres become defined and the lexicon of video games takes shape. Present-day reflections from a host of Atari luminaries also reinforce the mythology of a workplace built on creativity, experimentation, and plenty of weed. Hearing these stories first-hand – with all the excitement, pride, and regret that comes with them – is informative, amusing, and sometimes heartbreaking. It paints an evocative picture of a pioneering time, although it does ignore some of the more troubling stories that have come to light in recent years.

Atari 50: Anniversary Celebration - The Crash

I’m no child of Atari, but the company’s influence and legacy are undeniable. Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration manages to avoid being a pure nostalgia play and is an exceptional document of gaming’s first steps and stumbles into the mainstream. It’s Digital Eclipse’s best work yet.

More than that, it has provoked some poignant family memories. My grandmothers spent most of their lives raising kids and running households on very little money. Honestly, it’s baffling that I have them to thank for bringing video games into my life. But they did. So that’s also something to celebrate.

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