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You've probably guessed by now that I love retro games. I was lucky enough to be brought up in the early 80s when the fledgling computer games industry was finding its feet and was not afraid to try something new. Sure, games didn't look and sound as good as they do today but they were usually more innovative, imaginative and fun, with programmers still able to take risks rather than simply churning out sequel after sequel.
Atari were one of the leading lights of those early days creating some cracking games in both the arcades and home computers/consoles of the day. Just mention titles like Missile Command, Crystal Castles or Centipede to gamers of a certain age and they will go all misty eyed with nostalgia.
Which is where this little app comes in, a collection of 100 of Atari's early 80s arcade games as well as titles it produced for its own 2600 console. In theory, this should be heaven for an old gamer like myself; giving me a chance to play some of those classic games of yesteryear from the comfort of my own phone.
I say in theory because there are just too many issues that stop Atari's Greatest Hits being quite the killer app it should be. Let's deal with a couple of the biggies first.
The download price is free, which is a good thing, right. Except, of course, there's a catch. All your free download actually gets you is the basic emulator and a copy of Missile Command game. If you want any of the other titles, you have to pay 69p per game. Perhaps that's not so bad if you just want to download the odd title, but if you want the complete collection, you're looking at £7, which suddenly makes the app look pretty expensive.
As if this wasn't bad enough, Atari have decided to add insult to injury by including in-game ads - even for those titles you've paid for. I have no problem with adverts being used to support free titles, but I expect those to be removed when I've paid for something.
Cost is not the biggest issue, though - that lies with the controls. This is a problem with a lot of iPhone games, but here they are multiplied by about 1,000. Old games could be very, very challenging and often relied on incredibly fast reactions and a large dollop of luck to survive. Sad to report, the iPhone's touch screen is simply not up to this style of gameplay and the controls are frustratingly unresponsive. In Missile Command, for example, you move your cursor around the screen using a big red button (replicating the original trackball) to indicate where you want to fire your missile. Unlike the trackball, this is incredibly sluggish and by the time the game has responded and your missile launched, it's often too late; the base you are meant to be protecting is destroyed. The old Atari VCS joysticks were not exactly the greatest in the world (they were like a small black stick lodged in a chunk of concrete), but at least they gave you some degree of control. Sadly, the controls here render most of the titles I've tried unplayable.
It's not all bad news, though. As noted above, if you're prepared to pay, there are a lot of games available and they have been faithfully reproduced here in their original format. Collect all 100 titles and there's a serious amount of gameplay available. Of course, not all the titles are hidden gems and there's a fair few that are best described as "filler", but there are still plenty that are as addictive as they ever were. If you're prepared to pay, and can put up with the naff controls, there's a lot of long term playability and you could well find yourself losing hours of your life to this app. That's a couple of big "ifs", though.
Things improve on the presentation side, too. The game select screen shows an image of the old arcade cabinet for the particular game (if it originated as an arcade title) or the box art from the Atari 2600 console version. This is a nice little visual touch and adds to the air of nostalgia around the app. In-game graphics are also clear and look good on the iPhone's screen (although a few games can appear a little cramped).
The emulation behind the app is also good. There is no screen flicker and everything runs really smoothly. Unlike some emulators, the games fill the whole screen, making them easier to play. This also means that you can admire the old 8-bit graphics in all their glory. Of course, they look primitive by today's standards and there's no HD stuff here, but the simple graphical approach works well within the context of the app.
Sound mostly limited to occasional beeps and bleeps with little (if any) background music. Modern gamers will listen to it and just assume that their phone has malfunctioned! It is surprisingly atmospheric, however, and those simplistic beeps can really induce a sense of panic in some of the games. It's good that the developers have just opted for straight emulation and haven't tried to modernise the sound or graphics in any way because these were such an important part of the early gaming experience.
It's a real shame that this app doesn't live up to expectations. A more reasonable pricing policy and a much, much more responsive control system is desperately needed. As it is, the high asking price if you want all the games and the awful control system cripples it.
A nice idea in theory; it's just not come off in practice.
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012