The phrase "you had to be there" is an appropriate remark when talking about the good old days of arcade gaming. Big-haired teens would crowd around game cabinets and plunk quarter after quarter into them, spending hours reaching for those elusive high scores and the chance to plaster their initials at the top of the screen. If you're looking to relive the past--or simply wondering what all the fuss was about--Atari Classics Evolved isn't the best time-traveling portal at your disposal. In some cases, classic gameplay has been hampered by mediocre controls, while few of the visually updated "evolved" versions are worth the space they take up on the disc.
You might be taken in by the box's promise to let you unlock more than 50 Atari 2600 games in addition to the 11 arcade ports included, which makes this $19 collection sound like a fantastic deal. However, unless you're a power gamer who intends to master every graphically enhanced game in the collection, you will be sorely disappointed. Each game comes with four different awards to unlock, such as gaining a bonus life without losing a life in Battlezone, or winning a game of Pong without allowing your opponent to score. You have to unlock every single one of these awards to gain access to the Atari 2600 extras. Considering the inherent difficulty in achieving them (Asteroids Deluxe, we're looking squarely at you)--and the fact that you have to suffer through the usually inferior version to do so--most casual players will never gain access to many of these landmark titles. It's too bad Atari didn't take the less punishing and more logical approach of letting players gradually unlock these extras; after all, shouldn't everyone play Yar's Revenge at least once in their lifetime?
Assuming you are interested only in the arcade emulations on the disc, you will probably get some nostalgic fun out of Atari Classics Evolved. Many of these titles are still appealing in their original form. Centipede and Millipede are still enjoyable to play, as are Asteroids (and its sequel, Asteroids Deluxe), Warlords, and Lunar Lander. Others, like the simple Pong and the ploddingly paced Battlezone, are nice to see from a historical perspective but aren't a lot of fun by today's standards. Tempest, Super Breakout, and Missile Command round out the package, and they're fine on their own, but sadly, even the better games are hampered by control difficulties. Some of these games originally used trackballs, while others used paddles or dials. The analog nub on the PSP can't approximate the quick movement of those controls, so activities like flipping your ship around the Tempest board and moving the Pong and Warlords paddles feel too unresponsive. And in the case of Missile Command, the poor analog controls make the game practically unplayable.
The emulations are generally good, though you should be aware that some of the games require you to flip the PSP vertically to play them. It feels a little odd, but it's a compromise that makes better sense than trying to squeeze the tiny insects of Centipede into an even smaller viewing area. Sadly, the evolved versions of some of these titles are travesties. In fact, you may have already played some of them (Tempest, Missile Command, and Centipede) on Xbox Live Arcade. In many cases, extreme particle effects and overwrought geometrics make it almost impossible to see what's going on (with particular shame on the designers of Tempest, Asteroids Deluxe, and Millipede), and the annoying background music in most of them is incredibly grating. The best evolved versions are those made specifically for the PSP, such as the nice Warlords update and the three Pong variations.
Some of the evolved versions also let two players with two discs duke it out in ad hoc play, though why Atari didn't think to let four players compete in Warlords is anyone's guess. But it's just another example of what makes this package so uneven, and as with the other version of some of these games, Atari continues to punish gamers by offering rewards only to those who play through the mostly inferior "improved" versions. With more content available off the bat, this disc may almost have been worth the price, but with so much chaff to dig through, only the hardcore are likely to find this compilation worthwhile. "You had to be there," indeed.