It's hard to believe that video games, both as a medium and industry are only 50 years old. To go from monochrome pixels to a hyper-realistic Kratos in God of War: Ragnarök in just one lifetime is staggering, and yet the best is still yet to come. As far as who invented this favorite pastime, well, that's still a debate. While Magnavox and Ralph Baer may have patented an oscilloscope as the Odyssey, it was really Atari, Pong, and the 2600 home console which started what we all know and love as gamers today.
Atari created the video game industry, and then they almost collapsed it out of existence thanks to that one Steven Spielberg film. While Japanese companies (with Nintendo leading the charge) repaired the industry and made it among the biggest entertainment mediums ever, Atari somehow trickled along in the meantime.
After the company pulled the plug on its Jaguar console, it managed to keep its brand alive with sporadic and subpar new releases, as well as merchandise items for the tragic nostalgic. At the very least their various collections and compilations kept them in the hearts and minds of gamers all over, not to mention, those plug-and-play consoles you can still find in most supermarkets.
50 years later the Atari brand still exists in a substantial form, and while their attempts at marketing the prohibitively expensive VCS console may have attracted the ridicule of gamers and critics, there were still some wins. The Recharged lineup of games was a great way of modernizing classics, and there's a 50th anniversary collection just on the horizon too which, for the first time ever, will catalog games from their Jaguar library. In between all those releases is a quirky little experiment called Atari Mania.
Back in 2020, there was an attempt to create this adventure RPG based on Pong of all things, and it was called Pong Quest. Yes, the idea is just as bad as it sounds, and it ended up becoming one of the most panned releases of that year. Atari classics are all about short bursts of instant gaming gratification. No one wants to spend more than an hour playing Pong let alone as an RPG, at most they want a quick game lasting a few minutes. And so, with a "less is more" approach, Atari Mania takes several classics from the company's archives and repackages them into micro mini-games.
Think of it as Nintendo's WarioWare with an Atari twist, and it's honestly the best way to present old-school game design to both nostalgic and new players alike. The Recharged series games were fine, albeit cumbersome for players to purchase individually; the Pong RPG was a bad idea plain and simple, but packaging up several simple gameplay mechanics with a new twist in Atari Mania is exactly the right idea and direction.
Starting out as a single-player campaign, players take the role of a caretaker of the Atari Museum. The 50th anniversary is just around the corner, and what should be an ordinary day suddenly takes a strange turn with the emergence of dead pixels. Taking a page out of those Night at the Museum films, this is a living breathing venue where classic Atari characters come to life and roam about. These dead pixels are creating trouble, and it's up to our hero to fight these off while still keeping all the exhibits neat and tidy!
The story mode design essentially presents two different gameplay styles: the adventure and the micro minigames. The main adventure has you explore a museum where interacting with dead pixels or arcade machines will trigger the micro minigames. The adventure elements are thoughtfully put together, as various objects are used to solve environmental puzzles which are logically simple and yet strangely satisfying, like using a magnet to move metal obstacles or using cheese to distract mice. In the process of doing so, various collectibles can also be unearthed which take the form of posters of cover artworks (Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino is an essential pickup for fans by the way) and even old instruction manuals of these titles.
Getting to the actual micro minigames, these are generally bite-sized versions of existing classics like Millipede, Asteroids, and Combat. Most minigames are faithful to the original design and gameplay, albeit demanding players to finish them quickly. However, it gets more interesting as most sessions are presented as a combination of one or more of these gameplay designs. Imagine playing Millipede but battling the creature using the paddle from Breakout, or using the tank from Combat to... wait for it... protect the actual millipede itself!
The variations and combinations of these classics work really well, and the game constantly changes up things in a way that is topsy-turvy and yet somehow still intuitively appealing. It's really a wonder why it took so long for someone to come up with this concept in the first place, but at least they figured it out in time for the 50th anniversary.
During the story mode, the main objective is to quickly work through random minigames in succession before facing a dead pixel boss character. These boss battles are interesting too, most involving puzzle elements, such as finding a key to open the correct treasure chest to hopefully find the correct boss. The experience is generally easygoing and fun, but it can get a bit tricky and challenging at times. Thankfully, the micro nature of the tasks involved makes it both easy and fun to jump right back in and try again.
What brings it all together is the presentation, and while the graphics are deliberately on the simple side, there is plenty of charm in how the classics are celebrated. What's most surprising is how clever the writing of the storyline is, with dialogue often carrying a self-aware sense of humour. It will no doubt get a chuckle out of lifelong Atari fans and gamers alike.
It's a short and sweet experience, and thankfully the various minigames and their randomness add to the replay value. Still, one can't help and wish there was more to the package, and honestly, there should already be an Atari Mania 2 in pre-production. There are just too many great Atari games to mix and match, the possibilities are almost endless, and so it's a concept that should be explored further as the company and brand hope to trek further onward to a century of existence.
Atari Mania is quite simply a clever celebration of all things Atari, and an excellent companion game to Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration.
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