For Atari, preservation isn’t just about backing up old games

Although I was a 90s kid growing up with a Sega Genesis, my favorite console was my mom’s Atari 2600. It was the only console I kept hooked up to the TV in my bedroom, while my PlayStation was in the living room. Play a game like Trap! was a special experience. It was almost a ritual, as I sat on the floor right in front of my CRT television, inserted a huge cartridge, and held the joystick as if giving an acceptance speech for an Oscar.

This experience is not easily replicated decades later. I can go to any emulation site and play Trap!, but it is not the same. It lacks the physics of holding an old joystick or the mystique of carefully studying the cartridge’s key art before inserting it. It is easy to carry a game; it’s much harder to preserve what it felt like to play it when it first came out.

For Atari, this challenge is essential. The iconic game creator is in the midst of a transformation led by CEO Wade Rosen. With this pivot, Atari goes back to its roots by emphasizing its history. Classics like Asteroids and To burst receive modern makeovers, lost games make a comeback, and Atari even produces new cartridges that actually work on a 2600 console.

Strategy is not a game of Hail Mary nostalgia. By talking to current Atari executives, the company is trying to tackle a complicated preservation question that seems to concern few game companies: how do you preserve the legacy of video games?

physical history

When gamers talk about game preservation, much of the conversation is about porting games to other systems. It’s been a hot topic for the past few years for a variety of reasons, from Nintendo shutting down its old eShops to Sony struggling to bring native ports of PS3 games to PS5. Making old games playable is important, but that’s only half the battle.

Rosen took over as CEO of Atari in April 2021. A millennial, Rosen grew up on consoles like the Super Nintendo more than the Atari 2600, but remembers playing the console’s games in a PC bundle . While he was still able to enjoy games like Storm in this format, he believes preservation is more complicated than simply producing ports of older titles.

“If you want to play an old PC game, chances are you can access it and have it,” Rosen told Digital Trends. “If you want to play older console versions, there’s really no equivalent. There’s no central place that won’t just let you see the game, but watch the box artwork and looking at all the manuals that come with it the same way we have outlets and rigs that are great for PC gaming I think there must be something which is the equivalent for retro console games. I don’t think that means just porting it to modern consoles.

“When we bring back some of these titles, we want to bring them back the way you remember them.”

The physicality of older games creates challenges that aren’t easy to solve. Anyone who has played a Nintendo 64 game through Switch Online knows how much a game like Reclaim can feel without the trident controller it was designed around. Likewise, pixel art looks totally different on a modern TV than on an old CRT. While my Atari 2600 ritual may seem purely symbolic, playing Pitfall! on a 4K flat screen with an Xbox Wireless Controller is a fundamentally different experience.

“Does it feel the same to play Radiant Silver Pistol on Sega Saturn and Xbox 360? Rosen asks. “There are pros and cons to both, but there’s something beautiful about sitting down with that little black box, playing around with that specific Saturn controller, and seeing it run on a CRT TV.”

A Saboteur AtariXP cartridge sits in a clean room.

Atari attempted to solve this problem by keeping physical items in its product line alongside digital versions. The Atari XP initiative, for example, brings rare and unreleased Atari games like Yars Revenge to gamers as they were originally meant to be played: as fully functional 2600 cartridges that come with instruction manuals. Is it practical? Probably not for most gamers, which is probably why the bundles also include a digital download of the games. But this commitment to saving the experience goes beyond what companies like Nintendo do to bring classics to modern audiences.

Old is new, new is old

While physical products play an important role in Atari’s strategy, its approach to the games themselves is equally important. During a discussion at this year’s Game Developers Conference, David Lowey, Atari’s senior director of marketing and sales, explained that the company’s brand had previously been “unbalanced”. Atari’s pop culture symbol remained strong, but its relevance as a games publisher had waned. Rosen was instrumental in restoring the direction of the company, shifting from free mobile experiences to premium games on console and PC.

This strategy begins with Atari’s Recharged line, which acts as a bridge between the old and the new. The series takes iconic Atari games and gives them light modern touches. In something like Evasion: Recharged, players get the classic hit game with new features like leaderboards and bonuses. They’re new, but still feel incredibly familiar – and that’s an intentional design decision.

“When we bring back some of these titles, we want to bring them back the way you remember them,” Lowey told Digital Trends. “Which means we’ll probably soften the controls and make it really playable without disrupting the core gameplay.”

The blocks form a skull in Breakout: Recharged.

It’s a tough needle to thread when it comes to video games. On the one hand, I want Trap! to bring to modern machines purely intact, trapped in amber. But this version of the game wouldn’t have the same impact in 2022 as when it launched. If I tried to show it to a friend and explain how exciting it was at that time, he would probably laugh at me. Atari is aware of this fundamental challenge to its legacy and has tweaked its games accordingly to preserve the spirit of old games, rather than every little nuance.

Adventure, for me, was the first thing I played that had a secret room,” Lowey said. “The sense of exploration…for me it was an amazing game despite its simplicity. So if we’re going to work with someone on Adventure, he has to bring back that feeling. And we will free Adventure on a 2600 cartridge. It will be an original game, but we are looking for the right partner to work on this IP so that it will be a completely new game, but one that will bring back that feeling.

Access to the past

There is a whole other layer to the preservation debate that tends to fly under the radar. Much of the conversation revolves around the games themselves, but Atari is equally focused on retrieving information about how these games were made.

“There’s a preservation issue when it comes to our brand,” says Lowey. “The company has gone through a few iterations. Much of the historical knowledge of the company and what it has done is not inside the brand. So when we bring back titles, we have the opportunity to have that conversation. Reach out to the community, share their stories.

“Right now, it’s even hard to know where to go when you want to work with these things.”

Rosen is no stranger to finding information on old games. He previously worked at Ziggurat, a company founded on preserving the legacy of games. In this role, Rosen saw how difficult it can be to determine who owns the rights to games, as things like credits are often lost over time. He notes that he once tried to get his hands on the classic Backyard Sports series, but continued to hit dead ends trying to track down the IP holder.

That frustration is part of the reason Atari recently acquired MobyGames, a site known for exhaustively cataloging details about games and the teams that made them.

“People who want to work with retro titles often don’t know where to go,” Rosen says. “I experienced that with Ziggurat. There were games we wanted to work with or companies we wanted to contact and we didn’t know where to look. It started and stopped with MobyGames. As a central repository where people could not only learn about old games, but also potentially contact the IP owners… Right now it’s hard to even know where to go when you want to work with these things.

The MobyGames page for Pitfall shows details about the game.

If the gaming industry’s lack of historical knowledge seems infuriating, there’s a pretty reasonable explanation for it. Video games have evolved rapidly over the past few decades, with developers constantly pushing the boundaries of technology. For now, this rapid change is part of what makes video games exciting. It’s easy to get distracted by the shiny new thing and forget about last year’s model as it fades into obscurity. Rosen is more understanding than some about the current state of preservation, but sees an opportunity for Atari as a result.

“With the industry as a whole, preservation hasn’t really been important. Now we’re reaching a level of sentimentality around it that makes it important,” Rosen says. “I wouldn’t say the industry is failing, but the industry was constantly looking to the future. When the Super Nintendo came out, people weren’t like, “We have to preserve the 2600 and the NES.” It was these natural iterations. But what we see today reflects what people want in their lives. We want simplicity, we want less noise. Where we are today as a society is recognizing that there was a lot of beauty in what came before.

Atari is not content to dive back into its past out of nostalgia. It’s a focused, multi-pronged approach that seeks to prevent the game’s most fundamental core element from disappearing. Lowey says the company is thinking about its next 50 years just as much as its 50 raw. While the company is invested in preserving its history, it wants to do so as a way to move the industry forward.

“When I talk about the past, it’s usually because I want to make a point about the future,” says Lowey.

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