Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration debuted earlier this month to thunderous applause.
At least I think that was applause – my hearing is knocked out and the leaf blowers have been dead lately.
That was an old joke. Because most of the people who are excited about Atari’s latest collection of titles have celebrated their own fiftieth birthday and then some. Atari’s heyday – 1972 onwards PONG, through its 2600 console and up until the 1983 crash – was the fertile ground in which today’s modern gaming industry was planted. And this new title, developed by Digital Eclipse, is a paean to that era when rules were written and broken and rewritten again, gems squeezed from insanely drastic restrictions. Atari embodied the laissez-faire attitude of an emerging tech company too young to know what they were doing was impossible.
With Atari50, Digital Eclipse intelligently focuses on creating a game that not only collects old titles, but tells the story of their creation. They do so through a cohesive mix of documentary-style interviews, high-resolution art made from obscure marketing material, and scathing text that breaks down context into digestible plot points that even a layman can follow.
While I enjoyed reliving an era I hardly missed (I was four years old when the Atari 7800 came out), I also couldn’t stop thinking about the legacy of another gaming company, one whose history has never been like this was fully told.
Lordy Lordy, almost 40
Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of Nintendo’s Famicom in its native Japan, marking the birth of Modern Gaming 2.0. Nintendo has been very selective in celebrating its history – only the biggest mascot franchises get any kind of recognition, and even then the outcome can be half-baked.
Even Mario himself only got one port of the SNES game for his 25th anniversary in 2010 Super Mario All Stars to the Wii. if Atari50‘s Celebration is a buffet of delicately seasoned meats, freshly harvested produce and homemade pastries on a lavishly decorated table, Mario’s 25th was a grilled cheese sandwich reheated in the microwave.
Obviously, the two companies are very different. One led the way for a decade and has since been shuffled, split and sold to so many separate groups that the 2022 Atari has almost no overlap with the 1972 Atari. The other is arguably after forty years of historic highs and lows, at the height of its commercial and cultural prominence, with a record-breaking console still popular and looming movie and theme park openings in the spring.
But what if? After the success of Digital Eclipse’s effort for Atari, it’s tempting to imagine what a fitting celebration of Nintendo’s legacy would be in software form. After all, the Nintendo Switch was purpose-built to host a sort of cross-generational suite of titles that ties together decades of controller innovation.
When they first showed off the Switch hardware in January 2017, Shinya Takahashi, producer and general manager of first-party software for Nintendo, specifically mentioned that the Switch “inherited the DNA from each of the many hardware systems that Nintendo has been releasing Has”. In fact, the switch between Joy-Con, touchscreen, and portability can replicate experiences from the NES to the Wii U – and almost everything in between.
And it has! We’ve seen NES, SNES, and N64 games showcased on the Nintendo Switch Online subscription plan. (Optional replica controllers can be purchased but are not required to play.) With The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD and Nintendo Switch SportsNintendo has ported or enhanced games from the Wii era that originally relied on motion controls.
The Wii U’s commercial failure was also the Switch’s win, with a slew of ports for games that absolutely deserved a bigger audience Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze to Pikmin 3 Deluxe and Captain Toad: Treasure Hunter. The Switch’s best-selling single game, Mario Kart 8 deluxeis an extended and improved port of a Wii U game.
“In general, it has become easier to implement an environment where software released for previous hardware can be played on new hardware,” Shigeru Miyamoto told investors during the latest Q&A on the financial results. “Nevertheless, Nintendo’s strength lies in creating new entertainment. So when we release new hardware in the future, we plan to continue offering new and unique gameplay that is not feasible on existing hardware.”
Miyamoto makes it clear that Nintendo’s focus is on tomorrow. Atari, as a game company, is all about yesterday.
You could say we’ve already received the “collectible” part of a Nintendo anniversary title; It’s just that you have to buy and/or subscribe to everything piece by piece. And that underscores perhaps the biggest difference between Atari and Nintendo: the latter price their games at an extremely high premium. We rarely see big discounts on first-party games from Nintendo. Therefore, eight years after its initial publication, Mario Kart 8 deluxe It’s still $59.99 – and it’s still a top seller every month. Nintendo holds its games in high esteem because they are of great value to its customer base.
Atari 50: An Anniversary Celebration collects more than 100 games in one bundle that sells for $39.99. If Nintendo were to collect 100 games of even its most rudimentary classics from the 8- and 16-bit era, you’d expect to pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars.
And we have! Remember the NES Classic and SNES Classic, where the $60 and $80 plug-and-play microconsole regularly sold for three or four times the asking price on the used market? So does Nintendo.
The magic of Atari50 lies in how all these games are packaged and recontextualized. More than the chance to play Yar’s revenge Again, you’re paying to see an early version design doc, see an interview with developer Howard Scott Warshaw, and jump into the game after sampling scores of other games, all of which lead to this original IP on the Atari 2600 its games were simplified versions of arcade titles. Digital Eclipse does not hide this material in a side menu with bonus features. The game’s main path is its interactive timeline, which is filled with all of this, one at a time. Atari50 is context: the game.
Nintendo likes to tell its own story. With a celebratory title similar Atari50, it could not only own that story, but sell it back to us. And, my goodness, people would buy it. The aforementioned Super Mario All Stars port on Wii sold 2.25 million copies as a limited edition; its similar to barebones Super Mario 3D All Stars on switch, collecting Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshineand Super Mario Galaxysold over 9 million copies in the six months of its availability as another limited release.
The biggest obstacle to an interactive, museum-worthy celebration of Nintendo’s legacy – its sheer breadth and length of success to curate – is just another opportunity to sell more versions. Imagine – Volume One: 1983-1995, Volume Two: 1996-2005, Volume Three: 2006-2017. Another for its 1975 arcade offerings that were little seen EVR race to killer instinct and F-Zero AX. Another for its pre-video game offerings, sort of Clubhouse Games-style collection of board and card games that have been digitized and made available to a modern audience.
The reason for doing it and not doing it is the same: there is so much! It’s just too much.
So don’t hold your breath Nintendo 40: Anniversary Celebration title in 2023. In the meantime, buy and play Atari50 from Digital Eclipse. And keep your fingers crossed for more playable stories from the past of our fascinating industry in the future.
Cult of Nintendo is a Vice versa Series that focuses on the weird, wild, and wonderful conversations surrounding the most venerable company in video games.