Activision Anthology Review

While the comprehensiveness of this collection is its greatest selling point, there's an exceptional amount of replay value here as well.

These days, Activision is just one of a number of third-party publishers putting out games for the personal computer and home console platforms. However, there was a time long ago when the company was the only third-party producer of home video game software. Way back in 1980, a group of employees unhappy with the working conditions at Atari left to form their own company. They named the new company Activision and ultimately went on to publish more than 50 games for the Atari 2600 console between 1980 and 1988. Now, the majority of these games are playable on a single Game Boy Advance cartridge, called Activision Anthology. While the comprehensiveness of this collection is its greatest selling point, there's an exceptional amount of replay value here as well.

Classic Atari 2600 games like Pitfall, Kaboom!, and H.E.R.O. are now playable on the GBA.
Classic Atari 2600 games like Pitfall, Kaboom!, and H.E.R.O. are now playable on the GBA.

The compilation includes every game that was developed and produced internally by Activision for the Atari 2600, as well as a few homebrew games that have been published in the intervening years by a number of programming enthusiasts. The only titles you won't find in the collection are those that the company licensed from movie studios or from other publishers. While that means you won't be able to play the Atari 2600 versions of Double Dragon, Ghostbusters, or Kung Fu Master on your GBA, that still leaves 55 games to tickle your fancy with. Here is a list of all 55 games included in the collection: Barnstorming, Baseball, Beamrider, Bloody Human Freeway, Boxing, Bridge, Checkers, Chopper Command, Climber 5, Cosmic Commuter, Crackpots, 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, Plaque Attack, Pressure Cooker, Private Eye, River Raid, River Raid II, Robot Tank, Seaquest, Skate Boardin', Skeleton+, Skiing, Sky Jinks, Space Shuttle, Space Treat Deluxe, Spider Fighter, Stampede, Starmaster, Tennis, Thwocker, Titlematch, Tomcat, Vault Assault, Venetian Blinds, Video Euchre, and an unnamed prototype that's like a cross between Frogger and Space Invaders.

As you can see from some of the titles alone, the selection of games included with Activision Anthology reflects a wide range of genres and styles. What's most impressive, though, is that many of these games from 20 years ago feature the same concepts that make today's games so worthwhile. Pitfall! and its sequel, Pitfall II, are platform-jumping games that give you the opportunity to avoid enemies by swinging across vines and swimming through piranha-infested swamps. Not bad for two games that were actually released a couple of years prior to Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. Racing fans will get a kick out of Enduro, which, aside from not being all that different from games like Pole Position or Rad Racer, has weather and daylight conditions that change as the race goes on. If you enjoy space or military-themed aircraft shooters, you'll appreciate Beamrider and River Raid. Some games in the collection remain unique even to this day. A good example is H.E.R.O., which puts you in control of a rescue worker equipped with a pistol, dynamite, and a personal helicopter apparatus that allows you to fly safely down a series of mazelike tunnels. The goal of H.E.R.O. is to rescue the miners trapped at the bottom of the mine. Along the way, you'll use the pistol and dynamite to eliminate hungry creatures and blast away at the walls blocking your path. Aside from these examples, there are dozens of other games at your disposal, ranging from popular classics like Chopper Command and Kaboom! to lesser-known but awesome rarities such as Private Eye and Pressure Cooker.

For the most part, the majority of games in the collection look, sound, and feel exactly as they did on the Atari 2600 nearly 20 years ago. Aspyr Media recruited Bradford W. Mott, the creator of the personal computer Stella Atari emulator, to write the underlying code for the compilation. His expertise really shows through in the final product. Approximately 20 lines or so of horizontal resolution had to be shaved off in order to fit these games onto the GBA's smaller screen, but this rarely has an effect on playability since in most cases all that was cut away was the Activision logo from the bottom of the screen. Unlike the recent PS2 version of Activision Anthology, the GBA version includes a save feature that maintains a list of your high scores for each game. Many retro compilations, like Namco Museum and Konami's Arcade Advanced, don't keep track of high scores, so it's nice that Aspyr Media went that extra step and included this feature with its game.

Just going through the menus on the cartridge will be enough to generate a sense of nostalgia in some people. The main interface is set up like a rack full of Atari game cartridges. By pressing various directions on the control pad, you can view box scans, label artwork, and the complete text of the original manuals that came with each game. Activision had a mail-in program during the 1980s, where you could receive an embroidered patch in exchange for sending in a photograph as proof that you'd achieved a specific high score in any of its games. That program is long gone, but if you reach one of these high scores in Activision Anthology, you can view a picture of the patch you earned.

You can view the label artwork, box artwork, and manual text for every game in the anthology.
You can view the label artwork, box artwork, and manual text for every game in the anthology.

Roughly half of the games in the collection include link cable support for a second player, but the implementation is probably different from what you're accustomed to. Friends can connect their GBA to yours to act as a second controller, and they don't need their own copy of the game to do it, but they also won't be able to see anything on their own screen. The only screen that updates during a two-player game is the one attached to the system that has the cartridge plugged into it. While this setup is peculiar, it's a small price to pay for multiplayer capability. If you play the game on a Game Boy Player and plug another GBA into that, it doesn't feel much different than if you were sitting on the couch with a friend playing an actual Atari 2600.

Even though the games included with Activision Anthology don't look or sound all that great by today's standards--in fact, some are downright on par with Pong in those aspects--many of them are still just as much fun to play now as they were when they were originally released. Activision Anthology is worth picking up just for the sheer number of games it comes with, but the additional historical extras make it a must-have for anyone with an interest in classic video games.

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The Bad

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