Even though I’m a 90’s kid growing up with the Sega Genesis, my favorite console is the Atari 2600 that my mom made herself. It’s the only one I connect to the TV in my bedroom, while the PlayStation is in the living room. Play a game like Trap! is a special experience. It was almost a ritual, as I sat on the floor in front of my CRT TV, plugged in a large cartridge and held the joystick controller like I was giving an Oscar acceptance speech.
That experience is not easily repeated decades later. I can go to any emulator site and play Trap!, but it’s not the same. It lacks the physicality of holding an old joystick or the mystery of studying the important art of the cartridge before I put it in. It’s easy to transfer a game; much harder to maintain the feeling of playing when it first came out.
For Atari, that challenge is paramount. This iconic game maker is in transition led by CEO Wade Rosen. With that pivot, Atari is returning to its roots by emphasizing its history. Classics like Small planet and Overate are getting a modern makeover, lost games are making a comeback and Atari is even producing new cartridges that actually work on the 2600 console.
This strategy is not a nostalgic play on the Hail Mary. Speaking to current Atari management, the company is trying to solve a complex conservation question that few game companies seem to care about: How do you preserve the legacy of video games? ?
When players talk about preserving the game, the conversational question mainly revolves around porting the game to other systems. It’s been a hot topic in recent years for many reasons, from Nintendo has shut down its old eShops so that Sony is having a hard time bringing original PS3 games to the PS5. Making old games playable is important, but that’s only half the battle.
Rosen takes the helm at Atari in April 2021. A millennial, Rosen grew up with consoles like the Super Nintendo more than the Atari 2600, but remembers playing console games in one package. PC. While he can still enjoy games like Tempest in that format, he believes preservation is more complicated than simply removing the gates of old titles.
“If you want to play an old PC game, chances are you can go in and have it,” Rosen told Digital Trends. “If you want to play older console versions, there’s really no equivalent. There is no central place that will not only allow you to view the game, but also look at the box and see all the manuals that come with it. In the same way that we have great stores and platforms for PC gaming, I think there needs to be something comparable to classic console gaming. I don’t think that means just porting it to modern consoles. “
“As we bring some of these titles back, we want to put them back the way you remember them.”
The physicality of older games creates challenges that are not easily solved. Anyone who has played a Nintendo 64 game via Switch Online knows how awkward a game is Winback could feel without the trident controller it was designed around. Similarly, pixel art images completely different on modern TV than it did on the old CRT. While my Atari 2600 ritual sounds totally iconic, play the Trap! on a 4K flat screen with the Xbox Wireless Controller is a fundamentally different experience.
“Does it feel the same to play Brilliant silver gun on Sega Saturn and on Xbox 360? ‘ asked Rosen. “There are pros and cons to both, but there’s something wonderful about sitting down with that little black box, playing with that particular Saturn controller, and watching it run on a CRT TV.”
Atari tried to solve that problem by keeping physical objects in its product line along with digital releases. For instance, the Atari XP initiative brings rare and unreleased Atari games like Yars ‘Revenge for players the way they were originally played: A fully functional 2600 cartridge that comes with an instruction manual. Is that realistic? Probably not for most players, which is probably why these bundles also include a digital download of the game. But that commitment to saving the experience goes beyond what companies like Nintendo are doing to bring classics to modern audiences.
Old is new, new is old
While physical products play an important role in Atari’s strategy, its approach to gameplay is equally important. In a conversation this year David Lowey, Senior Director of Marketing and Sales at Atari, explains that the company’s brand had previously been “out of balance”. Atari’s pop culture icon remains strong, but its relevance as a game publisher has waned. Rosen was instrumental in reviving the company’s focus, shifting from free-to-play mobile experiences back to premium PC and console gaming.
That strategy begins with Atari’s Recharged line, which acts as a bridge between old and new. The series takes the iconic Atari games and gives them light modern touches. In something like Breakthrough: Recharged, players get the classic blockbuster game with new features like leaderboards and power-ups. They’re new but still feel incredibly familiar – and it was a deliberate design decision.
“As we brought some of these titles back, we wanted to put them back the way you remember them,” Lowey told Digital Trends. “That means we’ll probably improve the controls and make it really playable without disturbing the core gameplay.”
It’s a tough needle to thread when it comes to video games. On the one hand, I want Trap! was brought to modern machinery completely intact, untouched, inlaid with amber. But that version of the game won’t have the same impact in 2022 as it did when it came out. If I tried to give it to a friend and explain how thrilling it was at the time, they would probably laugh at me. Atari is aware of that fundamental challenge to its legacy and has adapted its games to preserve the spirit of the old games, rather than every little nuance.
“Adventure, for me, was the first game I played that had a secret room,” Lowey said. “The feeling of discovery… for me, it’s a great game despite how simple it is. So if we’re going to work with someone about Adventure, it has to give that feeling. And we will release Adventure on cartridge 2600. It will be an original game, but we are looking for the right partner to work on that IP in such a way that it will be a whole new game, but it will give that feel. . ”
There’s a whole other layer to the conservation debate that tends to be on the horizon. Much of the conversation revolved around the games themselves, but Atari was focused solely on gathering information about how those games were actually made.
“There is a preservation issue when it comes to our brand,” says Lowey. “The company has gone through a few iterations. A lot of knowledge of the company’s history and what it did is not inside the brand. So when we bring the titles back, there will be an opportunity for us to chat. Reach out to the community, get their stories out. ”
“Right now, it’s hard to know where to go when you want to work with these things.”
Rosen is no stranger to hunting for information on old games. He was before worked at Ziggurat, a company built around preserving the game’s legacy. In that role, Rosen has found it difficult to figure out who holds the rights to the games, since things like credits are often lost over time. He noted that he had previously tried to star in the classic Backyard Sports series, but repeatedly hit a dead end when trying to track down the IP owner.
That disappointment is part of the reason Atari has been suffering lately MobyGamesa website famous for listing full details about the games and the teams that created them.
“People who want to work with classic titles often don’t know where to go,” says Rosen. “I went through this with Ziggurat. There are games we want to work with or companies we want to contact and we don’t know where to look. It starts and stops with MobyGames. As a central repository where everyone can access not only to learn about old games, but also have the ability to reach the IP owners… Currently, it is difficult to know where to go when you want to work with these. ”
If the game industry’s lack of historical knowledge sounds infuriating, there’s a plausible explanation for that. Video games have evolved rapidly over the past few decades, with developers constantly pushing the limits of technology. Now, that rapid change is part of what makes video games so exciting. It’s easy to get distracted by shiny new stuff and forget about last year’s model as it sinks into obscurity. Rosen understands better than some the current state of preservation, but sees opportunity for Atari as a result of it.
“With the industry in general, preservation doesn’t really matter. Now, we’re reaching a level of sentiment that makes it important,” said Rosen. “I am not saying the industry is failing, but the industry is constantly moving forward. When Super Nintendo came out, people didn’t like ‘We need to preserve the 2600 and the NES.’ They are natural repetitions. But what we are seeing today is a reflection of what people want out of their lives. We want simplicity, we want less noise. Where are we today when a society is recognizing that there is so much beauty in what existed before”.
Atari doesn’t just poke around in its past for nostalgia. It’s a purposeful, multi-pronged approach that keeps the game’s most basic building block from disappearing. Lowey says the company is thinking about the next 50 years as well as its first 50 years. While the company is investing in preserving its history, it wants to do so to spur the industry forward.
“When I talk about the past, it’s usually because I want to be clear about the future,” says Lowey.