This week, Atari and Digital Eclipse are releasing Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, one of the biggest collections of their library to date. The team worked diligently to make sure that every era and all notable titles were properly represented in one single collection, giving you not just an array of games to play, but a history lesson in the process. Before the game is released, we got a chance to chat with two members of the Digital Eclipse team, as Head of Production Stephen Frost and Content Editor Dan Amrich discuss the work that went into making this collection a reality.
BC: Hey everyone, how have you been the past year?
Stephen Frost: It's been great. Overall, 2022 has been a very busy year for us given the previous release of TMNT: The Cowabunga Collection and, now, the upcoming release of Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration. Both of these releases are some of the biggest that our company has ever released, so we are excited to have them out in the world for fans to enjoy. The company has also been growing and expanding into new areas, which is great, and we have a lot of projects in the works that we can't wait to share with folks.
Dan Amrich: I just joined the DE team in February of this year, so its been fairly incredible to jump in just before so many huge projects shipped. I really enjoyed the studio's previous projects like Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection and the Blizzard Arcade Collection, so I am currently living the fan-to-dev experience — it's a dream.
What's it been like seeing some of your titles over the past year find major success?
SF: In a word, "amazing." The development teams at Digital Eclipse always put so much hard work and passion into everything we make, so it's such a great feeling to see both fans of the company and newcomers truly enjoy our releases. It's especially rewarding when they notice all the little details and extra polish put into certain areas and really get what we were trying to accomplish.
How did the opportunity to work with Atari come about?
SF: If I recall correctly, it was pretty much similar to past projects. We tend to know a lot of people at different companies, as we tend to constantly pitch ideas or potential partnerships, and our experience in doing these sorts of classic game releases is known throughout the industry. When the team at Atari started thinking about the things they wanted to accomplish for the 50th anniversary of the company, a potential collection came to mind. So, it just naturally made sense for the two companies to come together and collaborate on a release that would not only celebrate Atari's impact on the video game industry, but also take people on a historical journey from where the company started to where it is now.
What was the inspiration for doing a 50th Anniversary collection like this one?
SF: For me, personally, I just feel that Atari has had such a large impact on the industry that I work in and has done so many amazing things that inspired or influenced future generations. So, when discussions with Atari started happening in relation to what we could potentially do to help celebrate its 50th anniversary, I think we all just naturally jumped at the opportunity. It's not often that a company in this industry lasts for five decades, so it's truly something special that should be celebrated. With the entire development team being passionate fans, there was no shortage of ideas as far as what we should do, but we all agreed that it was important to take players through some sort of historical journey through Atari's history so that the importance and impact of the company could be understood and appreciated. That idea of providing "historical context" for both the company and its games became a major pillar of the project and helped to inspire the overall design and unique approach we came up with in the final product.
How did you go about deciding what to include in the collection from each era?
SF: The process for selecting the final games list in Atari 50 was a bit interesting and certainly not the typical approach we have when working on these projects. Normally, we establish and pretty much lock the games list near the start of development. However, given the larger focus on providing a narrative journey through Atari's past 50 years (and the time needed to figure out that narrative), we had to keep adjusting what games were needed throughout the length of development. Initially, though, we started with just 50 because we felt that a tighter and more curated games list would help to differentiate this release from other past collections. It also helped to reduce risk a bit, given our timelines. However, shortly into development, the idea of including just 50 games didn't seem feasible. There was simply just too much story to be told and it was important to have the games support that story.
Was it a challenge converting some of the games over and making them work properly?
SF: This release features not only the most emulators that we have ever included but also the most "new" emulators that had to be built from scratch for this celebration. Just from that perspective, it was a huge challenge to get everything done in time and to the quality level that we wanted. Along the way, a ton of time was spent testing game compatibility and adjusting aspects of both the emulators and the games in order to make sure that everything is accurate. Unfortunately, in some cases, the amount of time needed to get certain games up and running properly was just too much so we had to make some hard decisions on what had to be cut. Fortunately, though, in many of those cases, we were able to bring in an additional game for another platform to balance things out. I think Rich Whitehouse had the most challenges, overall, because Jaguar games are their own unique beast and tend to have very specific timing issues that can't be easily fixed. It's no lie when I say that having this many Jaguar games in the celebration is a small miracle in itself.
DA: I enjoyed hearing our engineers find something in the original games' programming code that they never knew was there, but suddenly could use in a new way. For instance, when Mike Mika dug into Star Raiders, he was able to leverage some aspects of Doug Neubauer's elegant original code to offer the player more information, such as an updated HUD that makes sense for modern console players. He also found a way to overclock the game to remove slowdown. But we knew some players wouldn't want it overclocked, so that's a toggle on the menu — folks who played it on Atari 800 or 5200 can experience the game very much as they remember it. Even when we add enhancements or improvements, we never want to change how the original game plays; we're always going to give you as many options as possible to play them the way you want to play them. But by the same token, now Star Raiders might be more approachable to a new generation of gamers who might fall in love with that game just like players did 45 years ago.
What was it like working with the Jaguar collection and deciding what to include there?
SF: The Jaguar emulation was an aspect of this project that was really challenging. Work on that emulator continued almost up until the last possible moment, but I am so glad that Rich Whitehouse, the person responsible for that emulator, managed to pull it off. As you can imagine, the console is not one of the easiest systems to emulate, which is probably why you haven't really seen any official emulation of it up until now. As far as the Jaguar games list goes, it was really limited in that we only had time to pursue titles that Atari or associated companies had the rights to. It was great to be able to include such staples as Cybermorph, though, as well as some of the titles that a lot of Atari fans might not have ever played, such as Ruiner Pinball or Evolution: Dino Dudes. We could always include more games, but I do feel that the variety of Jaguar games we have does a decent job of representing the system, as well as a variety of different genres.
What are your final thoughts on the set of games you have? Are you happy with what's here, or do you believe it could have been better?
SF: For any game developer, I think most will always feel that there is room for improvement or things that could have been handled better, etc. However, given our deadlines, the quantity of games and emulators, as well as the sheer scope of quality-of-life improvements we added in, I think this release is about as good as we could have possibly made it. Sure, if we had more time, we could have gone out and tried to get more third-party games or tracked down some additional prototypes or other cool additions, but I tend to feel that way all the time. However, I do feel that we accomplished what we set out to do.
DA: One of the first things our editorial director Chris Kohler advised me when we started discussing the project was to think about this project as if it were a physical museum. You walk in and approach glass displays with little placards explaining what you're seeing. You can see them in any order, you can wander and learn what you want to learn — but everything on display has been chosen with forethought of purpose. The objects and kiosks tell a larger story. So, just like a physical museum isn't designed to hold every historical object that exists, we approached Atari 50 as a curated collection of games and artifacts, ones that hopefully illustrate the company's choices and impact on its own fortunes, if not those of the entire industry. The games selected help us tell that narrative — very much like an interactive documentary. And even with being selective, we still wound up with more than 100 games to tell that story!
Are there any plans for additional updates or content for this collection down the road?
SF: No official plans as of now, but we are always open to potentially adding additional content or games in future updates to the celebration should it make sense. Obviously, that would all depend on the success of the celebration, as well, so please do go and support it if you can.
DA: I have already seen a lot of fans post their wish lists online, just in case we can add content down the road. A lot of their hopes and dreams match our own.
What do you hope gamers old and new take away from this title?
SF: I just hope that all gamers enjoy the experience and that they end up having fun while also learning something. The development team truly poured their hearts into this and I just hope that comes across once people boot it up and jump into that first interactive timeline.
DA: I hope that gamers who got into the hobby during the 16-bit era or later will come away with a deeper appreciation for and understanding of exactly why Atari is such an important part of gaming history. I think it's easy to dismiss older games as simple or basic. So in Adventure, I'm the heroic giant pixel—but those big blocky graphics are really the building blocks for everything that's come since. I really hope people come away understanding that the DNA of just about every game they enjoy today can be traced back to the games, ideas, and innovators they'll see in Atari 50.