Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration debuted earlier this month to rapturous applause.
Or at least I think that was applause–my hearing’s going and the leaf-blowers have been out as of late.
That was an old-person joke. Because most people super-excited for Atari’s latest collection of titles have celebrated their own fiftieth anniversary and then some. Atari’s heyday —from 1972’s PONG, through its 2600 console and right until the crash of 1983 — was the fertile ground into which today’s modern gaming industry was planted. And this new title, developed by Digital Eclipse, is a paeon to that era, when rules were being written and broken and re-written again, gems squeezed from insanely drastic limitations. Atari epitomized the laissez-faire attitude of an upstart tech company, too young to know what they were doing was impossible.
With Atari 50, Digital Eclipse smartly focuses on making a game that, instead of just collecting old titles, tells the story of their making. They do this through a cohesive mix of documentary-style interviews, high-res art of obscure marketing material, and snappy text that boils down the context into digestible plot points even a layperson could follow.
As I savored re-experiencing an era that I barely missed (I was four when the Atari 7800 came out), I also couldn’t stop thinking about another game company’s legacy, one whose story has never quite been told in such a comprehensive fashion.
Lordy lordy, almost 40
Next year will be the 40th anniversary of Nintendo’s Famicom in its native Japan, and with it the birth of Modern Gaming 2.0. Nintendo has been very selective in celebrating its history — only the largest mascot franchises get any kind of acknowledgment, and even then the result can be half-baked.
Even Mario himself, for his 25th anniversary in 2010, only received a port of SNES game Super Mario All-Stars to the Wii. If Atari 50’s celebration is a buffet of finely seasoned meats, fresh-picked produce, and homemade pastries on a lavishly decorated table, Mario’s 25th was a grilled cheese sandwich reheated in the microwave.
Clearly the two companies are very different. One led the way for a decade and has since been shuffled, split up, and sold to so many separate groups that the Atari of 2022 has nearly zero overlap with the Atari of 1972. The other is arguably, after forty years of historic highs and lows, at the peak of its commercial and cultural relevance, with a still-popular console breaking records and looming film and theme park openings in the spring.
But what if? After the success of Digital Eclipse’s effort for Atari, it’s enticing to imagine what a proper celebration of Nintendo’s legacy would look like in software form. After all, the Nintendo Switch, is purpose-built to host some kind of cross-generational suite of titles that ties together decades of controller innovation.
The very first time they showed off the Switch hardware in January 2017, Shinya Takahashi, producer and general manager of first-party software for Nintendo, explicitly mentioned how the Switch “has inherited DNA from each of the many hardware systems Nintendo has released.” Indeed, between its Joy-con, touchscreen, and portability, the Switch can replicate experiences from the NES to the Wii U — and nearly everything in between.
And it has! We’ve seen NES, SNES, and N64 games showcased through the Nintendo Switch Online subscription plan. (Optional replica controllers are available to purchase, but aren’t necessary to play.) With The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD and Nintendo Switch Sports, Nintendo has ported or enhanced games from the Wii era that originally relied on motion controls.
The Wii U’s commercial failure has also been the Switch’s gain, with a pile of ports for games that absolutely deserved a bigger audience, from Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze to Pikmin 3 Deluxe and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. The Switch’s single best-selling game, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, is an expanded and enhanced port of a Wii U game.
“Generally speaking, it has become easier to implement an environment where software released for past hardware can be played on new hardware,” Shigeru Miyamoto told investors during the recent financial results Q+A session. “Having said so, Nintendo's strength is in our creation of new entertainment, so when we release new hardware going forward, we plan to continue to offer new and unique gameplay that cannot be realized on existing hardware.”
Miyamoto makes clear that Nintendo’s focus is on tomorrow. Atari, as a games company, is mostly about yesterday.
You could say we’ve already received the “collection” portion of a Nintendo anniversary title; it’s just that you have to buy and/or subscribe to everything piecemeal. And this highlights perhaps the biggest difference between Atari and Nintendo: the latter values their games at an extremely high premium. We rarely see large discounts of Nintendo’s first-party games. It’s why, eight years after its initial release, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe still commands $59.99 – yet it’s still a top seller every month. Nintendo values its games highly because they hold great value to its customer base.
Atari 50: An Anniversary Celebration collects more than 100 games into a package sold for $39.99. If Nintendo collected 100 games of even their most rudimentary classics, from the 8- and 16-bit era, you’d expect to pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars.
And we did! Remember the NES Classic and SNES Classic, where the $60 and $80 plug-and-play micro consoles regularly sold for three or four times the asking price on the secondhand market? So does Nintendo.
The magic of Atari 50 is in how all of those games are packaged and recontextualized. More than the chance to play Yar’s Revenge again, you are paying to see a design doc of an early version, watch an interview with developer Howard Scott Warshaw, and jump into the game after sampling scores of other games, all which lead to this original IP on the Atari 2600 when most of its games were simplified versions of arcade titles. Digital Eclipse doesn’t hide away this material in a Bonus Features side menu. The main path of the game is its interactive timeline stuffed with all of this, one after the other. Atari 50 is Context: The Game.
Nintendo likes to tell its own story. With a celebratory title akin to Atari 50, it could not only own that history, but sell it back to us. And, my goodness, the people would buy it. The aforementioned Super Mario All-Stars port on Wii sold 2.25 million copies as a limited release; its similarly barebones Super Mario 3D All-Stars on Switch, collecting Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy, sold over 9 million copies in its six months of availability as another limited release.
The largest obstacle to an interactive, museum-like celebration of Nintendo’s legacy — its sheer breadth and length of success to curate — is merely another opportunity to sell more versions. Imagine – Volume One: 1983-1995, Volume Two: 1996-2005, Volume Three: 2006-2017. Another for its arcade offerings, from 1975’s little-seen EVR Race to Killer Instinct and F-Zero AX. Another for its pre-videogame offerings, a kind of Clubhouse Games-style collection of board- and card-games that have been digitized and made available to modern audiences.
The reason to do it and not do it are the same: There’s so much! There’s just too much.
So don’t hold your breath for a Nintendo 40: Anniversary Celebration title in 2023. In the meantime, do buy and play Atari 50 by Digital Eclipse. And cross your fingers for more playable histories of our fascinating industry’s past in the future.
Cult of Nintendo is an Inverse series focusing on the weird, wild, and wonderful conversations surrounding the most venerable company in video games.