Atari’s Greatest Hits (iPad)

Before any of us had heard of Nintendo, we had Atari. If you were a kid in the late 1970s or early 1980s, you either owned an Atari 2600, were friends with someone who did, or were a weird booger-eater that nobody cared about anyway.

Those of us with fond memories of the Atari 2600 have multiple ways to keep enjoying those blocky classics. A few die hard dorks (myself included) still own real Atari consoles; those less dedicated (or dorky) can still enjoy the games through emulation on virtually any modern computer. Compilations of Atari 2600 games have also been released for essentially every video game console released in the past 15 years. The latest of these retro compilations is Atari’s Greatest Hits for the iPad.

Technically Atari’s Greatest Hits is available for free via an iTunes download, but the free version only comes with Pong — which, unless you rode/ride the short bus each morning, you’ll tire of in just a few minutes. After downloading the core program, an additional hundred games are available for purchase, divided into groups of four for 99 cents each. For hardcore old school gamers, the entire lot can be purchased for a one time $15 fee. While each game grouping technically has a “theme”, some of the pack groupings make little sense; if you buy the Missile Command Pack (which comes with both the arcade and the Atari 2600 versions of the game), you’ll also be the proud owner of a prime example of false advertising, “Fun With Numbers”.

Of the 100 available games, 18 are arcade games and 82 are ports of Atari 2600 games. Most of the four-title game packs contains a sampling from each group. The Asteroids pack, for example, contains the arcade versions of Asteroids and Asteroids Deluxe along with the Atari 2600 versions of Asteroids and Canyon Bomber. The Centipede pack contains both the arcade and Atari 2600 ports of Centipede and Millipede. The only games available to purchase are official Atari titles, so you’ll find no Activision or Imagic games here, boy. A small subset of the games support multiplayer gaming over Bluetooth. While this feature makes sense in head-to-head games like Warlords and Combat, going through the hassle of talking one of your friends into also buying this compilation and configuring Bluetooth just to take turns watching each other play Yars’ Revenge and Tempest seems somewhat pointless.

Each digital game purchased contains scans of the owner’s manual, box cover, and in the case of the arcade games, original artwork. None of them are a replacement for holding or touching the real thing, but when you’re paying for digital content (especially when we’re talking about 30-35 year old games), more content is better. As for the quality of the games themselves, the conversions are passable. The games look and sound relatively authentic, although nitpickers will spot slight differences here and there.

The obvious elephant in the room is, “How well do the controls translate to a touch screen interface?”, with the answer being a resounding, “Meh”. Listen, moving my finger around on top of a picture of a joystick will never feel realistic. The controls on the iPad are spaced so far apart that it’s almost impossible to hold the iPad up and play the games at the same time. Playing on a smaller screen makes the device easier to hold, but shrinks the virtual controls at the same time. From Crystal Castle’s trackball to Tempest’s spinner (replaced with a “sliding dial”), the lack of tactile feedback is both noticed and missed (don’t get me started on Battlezone or Major Havok). Atari’s Greatest Hits is compatible with the about-to-be-released iCade, a device that turns your iPad into a mini arcade cabinet (complete with a Bluetooth joystick). With an MSRP of $99 there are far cheaper ways to enjoy old Atari games, but if you already planned on picking up the iCade, your Atari’s Greatest Hits experience no doubt would be improved.

For mobile gamers, compilations of Atari games already exist for Sony’s PSP and the Nintendo DS. And, as previously mentioned, both Atari 2600 emulators and MAME have been ported to nearly every platform under the sun by now (there’s even a port of MAME for the iPhone). If you’re an iPad owner and you either enjoy touch-screen controls or enjoy being frustrated by them, you could do worse than picking up “Atari’s Greatest Hits” for the iPad.