First announced in December of last year, Retro Atari Classics for the Nintendo DS is, in case you haven't guessed, a compilation of classic Atari games. We recently received an almost-finished build of the collection and have spent the past few hours checking out all 10 of the games on offer.
The 10 games included in Retro Atari Classics are Pong, Missile Command, Lunar Lander, Gravitar, Centipede, Break Out, Asteroids, Warlords, Tempest, and Sprint. In addition to the regular versions of the games, which are pretty faithful to the arcade originals, you'll find a "remix" version of each with all-new visuals. The gameplay in the remix versions is identical, unfortunately (some new dual-screen- or touch-screen-friendly ideas would have been good), and while their visuals certainly have a slightly less-dated look about them, they're not necessarily better. And in some cases, we found that we'd much rather stick to the originals.
The original version of Asteroids, for example, is as much fun now as it ever was in the arcades, particularly if you ditch the new stylus controls (the game is played exclusively on the top screen) and stick with the directional pad and fire button. The remix version, however, boasts some pretty flashy isometric graphics for the background and for the titular floating space rocks. It then transforms your ship into a barely visible, flat, red triangle. In both versions of Asteroids (as well as five other games), the lower screen is transformed into a control pad of sorts, complete with graphics of various buttons, steering wheels, and close-up images of your craft, as is appropriate to the game in question. None of it you'll ever need (or want) to even look at.
The games that use the lower screen for something other than a superfluous stylus-interface graphic invariably just use it as an extension of the top screen. So if you're playing Break Out, for example, your horizontal bat will appear at the bottom of the lower screen, and the wall of colored bricks that you're attempting to destroy using a ball will appear at the top of the upper screen. The game actually plays pretty well, although the fact that the ball's trajectory fails to take the huge chunk of silver plastic in between the two screens into account can take some getting used to. The same can also be said for Pong, incidentally, which is played vertically rather than horizontally on the Nintendo DS...as if to justify the second screen's existence.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Retro Atari Classics at this point is that although the compilation's menu screens can only be navigated via the touch screen, only one of the 10 games (Tempest) actually forces you to use it. Do we have something against the DS's touch screen? Of course not. It's just that none of these games were designed with it in mind, and it shows. Trying to drive a racecar around increasingly demanding circuits from a top-down perspective in Sprint is tricky enough using the directional pad. So trying to use the steering wheel depicted on the lower screen is just asking for trouble.
Missile Command and Centipede are certainly the two games that most readily lend themselves to being played with a touch screen, and both are actually much easier to play using the stylus than they are with the directional pad. Both also feature remix visuals that enhance rather than detract from the gameplay experience, which more or less makes them the pick of the bunch here.
One of our favorite games in the Retro Atari Classics compilation is Warlords, despite the fact that it doesn't benefit from the touch screen or the second screen in any way (touch-screen play is optional but not great) and would definitely be easier to play on a larger screen. Warlords is a four-player game in which you'll each assume control of a shield that can be moved around the perimeter of a square "castle" constructed of Break Out-style blocks. A fireball is unleashed by a dragon at the start of the game, and your goal is to protect your own castle while attempting to deflect the fireball toward your enemies. Even playing against three CPU players in Warlords is pretty challenging, which is just as well, since anyone that you want to play the game (or any of the other multiplayer games in the collection) against will need to have their own Retro Atari Classics DS cartridge.
Lunar Lander and Gravitar are similar games that challenge you to maneuver a small Asteroids-style craft that's constantly being pulled by gravity. Playing either of these with the touch screen amounts to little more than an exercise in frustration, and while they're a lot more fun when played with the directional pad, they're both made less enjoyable than they might have been by the diminutive screen on which you'll be playing them.
Retro Atari Classics, then, is a real mixed bag as far as the quality of its 10 games is concerned. These are all classics that can provide as much enjoyment now as they did in arcades back in the day, but we're not sure that the Nintendo DS is necessarily the correct platform on which to play them. The remix versions are an acquired taste at best, and we can't help thinking that overhauling the visuals and making no changes whatsoever to the gameplay is something of a missed opportunity, particularly since the remix games appear alongside the originals here. Expect a full review of Retro Arcade Classics as its March 15 release date closes in.