Review by Retro

"An excellent substitution for a portable Atari 2600"

Rumors have been around for years about a ''portable system that plays Atari 2600 games.'' Being one whose favorite motto has always been ''I'll believe it when I see it,'' I never gave in to the rumors. Perhaps a portable 2600 was released somewhere, but never nationwide or I'd be one of the first to have my greedy hands on it. I was one of the first to get my hands on Activision Anthology, a collection of 55 Atari 2600 titles that were all made by what may be the best company that made games for the Atari 2600 back in its heyday. Until a portable 2600 is made, this will certainly do!

Before beginning, you're taken to a room consisting of an old fashioned television, a stereo, telephone with a cord, an Atari 2600 and two joysticks, and a turntable-style rack of 55 Atari 2600 games. All the while, one of a handful of new but 80s-sounding tunes is heard blaring in the background. Go to the rack of games to enter paradise.

Upon first experiencing Activision Anthology, I had already played several of the ones that are here in this fantastic collection. I've enjoyed collecting Pitfall!'s treasures, building igloos and getting frostbitten in Frostbite, wondering why the chicken crosses the road in Freeway, and knocking opponents on their white asses in Ice Hockey for many years. But I'd never played the majority of the titles in Activision Anthology.

Activision Anthology has shown me that I missed out on some truly great Atari 2600 games in past years. The ones that have made the greatest impressions on me are the games that are surprisingly deep. Three titles stand out right away in my mind. I was blown away the first time I played Robot Tank. You're looking through the eyes of a tank in first-person view as enemy tanks approach with murder on their minds. That's not the only revolutionary attribute of this all but overlooked gem; the weather and time of day changes constantly, and you can even move around as freely as you wish in any direction on the 3D landscapes! Pitfall II: Lost Caverns is an interesting (and surprisingly rare!) sequel to the blockbuster original. Rather than simply hopping over things and swinging across vines, you'll find yourself riding balloons to nauseating heights, swimming, and even performing rescues. Finally, H.E.R.O. is simply spectacular for an Atari 2600 game. Several miners are trapped helplessly underground. Technology allows you to play as a rescuer who shoots lasers out of his eyes and flies via a helicopter on his back. But you'll soon see why your comrades are so helpless, with hellish surroundings such as killer bats, stationary and moving beds of lava, and endless pits.

If there's one genre in Activision Anthology that aims high, it's the shooters. Space shooters were a dime a dozen back in the young years of video games. Activision realized that shooters didn't have to be set in space with the player simply shooting at things above them, though. Pop in Megamania and take the controls of a Starship Enterprise-looking ship and destroy everyday items like dice, diamonds, ants, and hamburgers (no aliens allowed!) that are threatening your life. Experience the greatness of one of the Atari 2600's most loved titles, River Raid, in which you simply fly an airplane and shoot as many enemies as you can while the screen scrolls vertically. Getting tired of staying on or above sea level? Venture to the deep parts of the world in Seaquest as you rescue divers from the bloody jaws of sharks and avoid the dangers of fellow submarines and oxygen deficiencies. Laser Blast features one of the biggest surprises. Rather than playing the role of the hero, you get to be the enemy! Three cannons are stationed on the ground shooting at your enemy spacecraft. You're only allowed to move horizontally and to shoot a laser down at the good guys; one blast kills a cannon. Once you take about five seconds to rid a screen of heroes, you scroll along to the next screen that features three more cannons. This is all there is to Laser Blast; it's the most repetitive video game in the history of mankind.

But we knew that with 55 games, not all of them could be great. Aspyr, the makers of Activision Anthology, may have aspired to make a flawless compilation, and they can proclaim that Activision Anthology is ''55 classic Atari 2600 games'' all they want, but it's not true. Several of them are good enough to be called classic, but certainly not all of them. Oink! is a mildly humorous take on The Three Little Pigs. The big bad wolf is at the bottom of the screen huffing, puffing, and blowing bricks out from under you., slowly but surely making his way toward your fat hide. Playing as the pig, you grab one of several bricks on the ceiling and drop them to the floor. Once the wolf has blown away enough bricks to create an opening, his breath can literally come up and grab you, taking you down to his watering mouth. Then it's on to the next of the three pigs. Boring! My least favorite of the 30 games in Activision Classics for the Playstation was always Dragster, and now that Activision Anthology is here with 55 games, it's still my least favorite. A game only lasts a few seconds and there's no variety at all. 0/10! Ice Hockey has always been one of my absolute favorite Atari 2600 games, but Tennis and Boxing aren't very good. There's no flare to them whether you play solo or with a friend. Meh!

There is an excellent reason to play nearly all of these games, however! Whether classic or smelly trash, each game is worth playing at least a few times in your life for two reasons: One, almost all of the games keep track of your high score, even after you turn the game off. Two, most games have a patch (some have more than one!) that you can earn if you reach a certain score. This was extremely thoughtful of Activision. When these games were new, if you did well enough in a game (like, say, score 50,000 points in the FAST game of Spider Fighter), you could take a picture of the screen for proof, mail (not e-mail) it to the maker(s) of the game, and then they would mail you a patch that you could sew onto your clothes or just keep for pride's sake. Of course, you can't do this anymore, but you can earn the right to see a scan of what each patch looked like back then. It'll make you feel like you're back in the '80s holding the patch in your hand.

That's not all, either! This makes Atari 2600 game collectors (such as myself) froth at the mouth. You can check out each and every game's cartridge scan, original box art (front and back), and instruction manual. I find it interesting, nostalgic, and funny to see the wildly colorful box art that Activision used. Reading the instructions for each game is even better. Some of the stories are incredibly lame, while others are well thought out, and it will never get old seeing things such as © 1982 Activision at the bottom. And you know these are the real, the original, instruction manuals because of lines like ''I'm expecting some really high scores. Feel free to drop me a line to let me know how you're doing. I'd like to hear from you.''

If you're observant, you'll notice that some of the games have dates such as 2002 printed on the cartridge and/or instruction manual. Most of the games are familiar favorites from yesteryear, but about 10 of them have never been seen or are relatively new. They're just like the well knowns in that most are enjoyable in one way or another, but some are rather drecky. Making a rough estimate, I believe (so far--some games I haven't read the instruction manual and given a fair chance to yet) I like 70% of the games in Activision Anthology and don't like or haven't really spent enough time on the other 30%.

Some say that a review can't be good if it doesn't mention graphics and sounds. Oh well. There's no reason to mention the ones seen and heard in Activision Anthology because they're all exactly the same as what you experience in the originals. They're unbelievably subpar for today's standard, but 20+ years after the fact, they still have a certain charm about them. The screen that shows what many bedrooms in the '80s looked like, with its TV, Atari 2600 system, etc., is very detailed though (;-)).

What does need mentioning is how the controls are and how well the emulation has been done. If you've ever played a real 2600, you know that most of the games are controlled using a joystick with one button, and a few utilize a paddle or keyboard controller. I'll admit that I've had quite a bit of practice using control pads in Atari 2600 games. The rumor that you can use Sega Genesis controllers for your Atari 2600 is TRUE! I know from experience. But I remember when I first started doing that about a year ago. It wasn't hard at all to get used to moving with the control pad and to jump, fire, etc. with the B button.

And it's not hard at all to control what goes on in Activision Anthology using the Game Boy Advance. The only game that is utterly uncontrollable when compared to how it controls on a real 2600 is Kaboom! The buckets just don't move left and right quickly enough and while moving, they seem a bit shaky. That's one patch in the game that you probably won't ever get. If you can, I'll be your slave for life. Emulation wise, I'm truly impressed. The characters move around in the same patterns that you've been seeing for years and everything; there's just one little quirk. If you've played some of these games through the years, you'll notice that a few of them, such as Frostbite and Ice Hockey, move around just a bit slower than they did on your Atari 2600. But this doesn't deter one bit from the enjoyment of these games that you love. Once the action goes on for a few minutes, you'll forget about it and it'll feel just like the old days. It's that small of a complaint.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention another thoughtful thing that Activision and Aspyr did with Activision Anthology. Remember how you could simply flip a switch on your Atari 2600 console to play your games in either color or black & white? Wasn't it awesome how you could make nearly any game easier or harder by just flipping the difficulty switch? You can do that in Activision Anthology, my friends. And it's easy. During gameplay, just hold L and press down to change the color, or hold L and press left or right to change the difficulty. The makers of Activision Anthology may not realize it, but they've shown a way that the times have changed. Back when the Atari 2600 was the hottest seller on the market, it was impossible to pause games. Transport yourself from the '80s to the present day and you can now pause any of the 55 that are included. I'm retro-minded in most ways when it comes to video games, but I like being able to pause my game!

Have you ever owned or played an Atari 2600 extensively in the past and want to relive your glory days? Do you see some of your favorite games for the system here in this collection? Are you a gaming enthusiast who's simply interested in seeing for yourself how games this ancient and this simplistic can be fun? If you answered yes to any of these questions, or if you can think up any reason of your own to have Activision Anthology in your collection, don't just ponder the idea of making the purchase or take my word that there's a lot of fun to be had, buy the game now! It's one of the best video game compilations you'll ever come across.

For all the prospective buyers of Activision Anthology, here's a list of all the games:*

Barnstorming
Baseball
Beamrider
Bloody Human Freeway
Boxing
Bridge
Checkers
Chopper Command
Climber 5
Cosmic Commuter
Crackpots
The Activision Decathlon
Dolphin
Dragster
Enduro
Fishing Derby
Freeway
Frostbite
Grand Prix
H.E.R.O.
Ice Hockey
Kabobber
Kaboom!
Keystone Kapers
Laser Blast
Megamania
Oink!
Okie
Oystron
Pitfall!
Pitfall II: Lost Caverns
Plaque Attack
Pressure Cooker
Private Eye
River Raid
River Raid II
Robot Tank
Seaquest
Skateboardin'
Skeleton+
Skiing
Sky Jinks
Space Shuttle: A Journey Into Space
Space Treat Deluxe
Spider Fighter
Stampede
Starmaster
Tennis
Thwocker
Title Match Pro Wrestling
Tomcat: The F-14 Fighter Simulator
Vault Assault
Venetian Blinds (technology demo)
Video Euchre
Unknown Activision Prototype #1
Unknown Activision Prototype #2

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*The titles in bold are my ten favorites. This wasn't easy; I had to leave out many of my new and old favorites. Activision just kicks ass.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 02/07/04


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