Developer: Stainless Games
Release Date: December 19, 2007
You suck at Pong.
No, seriously. I know, I know, you're pwning newbies on Halo 3 every night until the wee hours of the morning, nobody can match your crazy Tekken skills, and everyone on Xbox Live lives in fear of seeing your screen name as one of their opponents, going so far as to plead and offer their firstborn to avoid having to face off against you. But trust me on this: You suck at Pong … and Breakout, Warlord and any of a number of other games you've probably only heard of in news articles about arcades (places where people used to put quarters into machines to play games in a loud, crowded building — they really did exist once!). No matter how many frag grenades you pitch at unsuspecting opponents' feet, the simple act of bouncing a ball back and forth will almost certainly elude you if you're under the age of 21 (and wow, is that ever depressing).
Atari Classics Evolved is a new title from Atari, the folks who brought us such arcade classics as Centipede, Battlezone, and Tempest as well as the very first console system, the Atari 2600. You might even say that Atari is the grandfather of all console gaming, the progenitor that allows you to enjoy the lifestyle you so relish today, and you wouldn't be at all mistaken in that assessment. Props to the oldest video game company for creating the video game industry as we know it. Atari has brought 11 of their hottest arcade hits to this PSP disc for your enjoyment, and their execution is impressive, to say the least. Each game has been painstakingly recreated and moved to Sony's portable fun box with meticulous care and an eye toward historical accuracy to appease the old-school arcade buffs among us. More interestingly, each of the 11 titles has been given an "evolved" version, an updated adaptation with improved graphics, better sound, and, in many cases, improved gameplay and more options.
In terms of graphical capabilities, Atari Classics Evolved is a bit of Jekyll and Hyde. The original arcade titles are here in all of their visually primitive glory, with the visual limitations of the era occasionally making gameplay somewhat more difficult than it needs to be, although titles like Tempest and Millipede don't suffer at all from the age. These are eternal titles, well chosen for their ability to stand the test of time and their facility in working around, or even with, the technological handicaps of the era.
The evolved versions of the collection of games really stand out from the crowd; whether it's the various backgrounds for Pong, the sparkle effects on the ball for Breakout, or the detail on the cities in Missile Command, the evolved versions definitely add a visual edge to the gameplay that really enhances these old titles and brings out what the creators might have done if the technology had been available to them decades ago.
Sound is another area in which the evolved titles are allowed to shine. Make no mistake: If you're old enough to remember the sounds of the arcade titles and you crave the memories of soda-stained floors and pockets full of change that they bring, you'll definitely find what you're looking for in this game. Despite the nostalgia-evoking properties of the originals, I have to give the nod to the audio design for the evolved titles as the more impressive aspect of the game. Everything, from the sound of your enemy firing on you in Battlezone to the venting of fuel to slow your descent in Lunar Lander and the frantic soundtrack in Warlords, has been performed with accuracy and subtlety. The sound is never enough to overshadow the gameplay or otherwise distract the gamer, but it provides a subtle undertone to the entire affair that really adds to the experience. Even the menu screens have a soundtrack, a faintly foreboding beat that hints at the challenges to come.
What instantly attracted me to Atari Classics Evolved was the prospect of awards. Each of the 11 titles has four awards that can be obtained by playing through the evolved version, adding to gameplay and improving the replayability of the entire game by setting an additional goal above and beyond simply gaining a high score. The awards vary widely in difficulty, though most players with any degree of skill should be able to get at least some of them. For example, one of the awards for Warlords is to clear the third round. That's it. In contrast, one of the awards is to win an entire game without allowing your opponent to score at all. While this might seem like an easy enough task, you'll find that the game has a tendency to go into "no human could possibly do that!" mode, entering into a protracted volley with you until you inevitably miss. While some of these awards are intensely frustrating to achieve, and rare indeed is the player who likes all of the games enough to try to obtain all of them, they do add a layer of depth and complexity to gameplay that will keep the obsessive-compulsive, achievement-minded player coming back again and again.
Having reviewed multiple compilations, I find that Atari Classics Evolved definitely stands out as one of the best in quite some time. The care taken in presentation and adaptation to a portable format is impressive, with only minor flaws to hold it back. While I do understand the need to flip the PSP to a vertical stance for titles like Centipede and Breakout, the directional pad is situated in such a way as to make for somewhat awkward gameplay. This is not enough to hold back this title from being one of the more outstanding values for the PSP, and I would recommend it to old-school and new-school players alike. Who knows? With enough practice, you just might get good at Pong.
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