Activision Anthology and the Decline of Retro Compilations

Not only did Activision Anthology serve as a time capsule for video gaming’s “second generation” (1976-1984) when it was released for the PlayStation 2 in 2002, but it now also serves as a time capsule for the very different way that retro gaming was delivered to us then versus now. A select few late 70’s-to-early 80’s classics were able to be sold as brand new, full-priced games for over a decade after their original release; Ms. Pac-Man, for instance, was still passing as a stand-alone release as late as the 1996 SNES version, fifteen years after its original arcade debut. Most gaming relics of the pre-8-bit era, however, simply didn’t have the depth or complexity to get away with being sold as-is on any consoles from the NES on (handhelds notwithstanding). The progression to CD-ROMs and higher-capacity cartridges not only translated to cutting edge new video game experiences, but it also meant that the space and technology was now available to start collecting classic games together into packages that were substantial enough to sell as full-priced retail releases. Some of the earliest examples of this saw companies sparing no expense in presenting these collections. The original batch of Namco Museum titles on PlayStation had you wandering around a fully 3D museum complete with separate themed rooms for each game. Sonic Jam – a Saturn collection of the Genesis Sonic titles – also had a 3D hub to explore, but took the extra step of making that hub into a game of its own featuring items to collect and missions to complete. These games also featured bonus material like concept art, ads for the original games, and other historical documents and videos.

Eventually, developers began to get lazy with their compilations, and before long they devolved into bare-bones collections where you simply choose the game from a list and hit start, and maybe there was a drawing or two to unlock or a paragraph about the game’s history if you were lucky. Even Namco’s own “Museum” series – which helped to set the early high standard for how to do a definitive classic collection – fell victim to this fate in subsequent releases, which is especially unfortunate when you consider just how much more impressive a 3D museum could’ve been on platforms more capable of 3D worlds than the PS1. Even when a developer would do a little bit extra, like video interviews, they were done with as little effort and expense as possible, resulting in brief and uninteresting anecdotes with abysmal audio and video quality. The only thing that has gotten better is the sheer volume of games offered on newer compilations, and the fact that they are often released at a budget price (which was only fair given the correspondingly low production costs).

Whether the high-volume, low-frills collections like Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection are a step up or down from those older fancy, all-out compilations showcasing a smaller number of titles is a matter of personal taste, I suppose. I certainly appreciate getting a lot of game for a little money, to be sure. Still, I do have a soft spot for those collections that go that extra mile and serve as love letters and ultimate resources for the games they are featuring, rather than just being a collection of emulated ROMs slapped onto a disc. One of the best examples of the former, and what I consider as one of the last of the great retro compilations, is Activision Anthology.

Usually credited as being the first-ever third-party video game company, Activision was a major force in gaming’s early years, and in particular on the Atari 2600. The games they created during that era run the gamut from simple, single-screen affairs to games that were considered “epic” for their time (despite the obvious, which is Pitfall!, you might be surprised at the complexity and depth to be found in Space Shuttle, Private Eye, and Tomcat: F14). With the exception of a few titles based on licenses that they no longer hold or franchises that belong to other companies – Ghostbusters 1 & 2, Rampage, Double Dragon, and Kung Fu MasterActivision Anthology is essentially a complete history of their presence on the Atari 2600 which spans nearly 50 titles, even including a few games that were never released. I won’t put the full list of games here, but like I said, the games vary in quality, many of them featuring all of the depth and longevity of one of Wario’s microgames. Some are fun for awhile, but most of them, even meatier games like Pitfall and Commando, aren’t the kind of games you can play for hours on end. The ones built for two players can be a blast, but only if you are playing with someone else – A.I. had some issues in those days, putting it kindly. The CPU can take up to 30 full seconds to make a move in Checkers on the higher difficulty levels, and while it is “thinking”, the screen is completely blank. Exciting! There are also the requisite copycat titles that were all the rage in those days: Freeway is Frogger with a chicken (and no lateral movement), and Chopper Command is Defender with a – you guess it – helicopter. The sports games are charming but play fast and loose with rules and often barely resemble the sports they are based on; how long would it take someone to identify what Boxing is supposed to be if they didn’t already know? And of course, anyone who was actually gaming during that time will remember those games that were almost impossible to figure out, let alone even start, and there’s a few of those here, too.

To take the individual games, or even the entire collection, at face value and dismiss it would be missing the point. Sure, unlike many other compilations, these games barely held up a few years after they were released, let alone a few decades. And if you weren’t actually around to experience any of these games when they were new, you’ll be left scratching your head as to who in their right mind would’ve ever paid money to have any of these games on individual cartridges. For those that remember the era, though, or at least those that are curious enough about it to give this compilation a shot, you’ll find one of the most loving monuments to a single gaming era ever released, not to mention a number of games that are still surprisingly playable and addictive – standouts for me are Pitfall!, Commando, Stampede, River Raid, and Plaque Attack. Aside from an awkward CG intro featuring various characters and logos flying around, every thing in this game is “of the era”. The menu screen is a faithful recreation of what a gaming rig looked like in 1983, from the TV adorned with knobs and rabbit ears to the cassette tape deck to the tacky wallpaper with cork bulletin board to the carousel-style cartridge rack, and of course, the Atari 2600 and two joysticks hooked up and sitting front and center.

As you navigate this menu, the various components of the room are highlighted, with sound effects straight from the included games accompanying your every move. The only non-gaming sound you hear in this game is the music coming from the tape deck. As a neat little bonus, a number of actual pop hits from the 80s are included and can be played not only during menu navigation, but also in the games themselves. Since most of the games have almost no in-gaming music to speak of, it’s nice to have the little extra aural accompaniment, especially since it wasn’t uncommon to play games with the radio on during those days. The song selection is actually a lot better than you might assume, including some seminal 80s hits:  “Take On Me” by a-Ha, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister, “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell, “Cum On Feel The Noize” by Quiet Riot, and “The Tide is High” by Blondie, along with seven others. It’s a lineup that would make for a decent 80s pop compilation CD, and there is just enough songs and song variety for the limited amount of time you’ll likely be playing during any single session – but you can turn it off if you so choose. Another cool little superficial twist are the various filters you can unlock that produce cool effects while you play, from simple distractions like a disco-style color strobe to an effect that is akin to your TV needing a V-Hold adjustment. If the words “V-Hold adjustment” are completely foreign to you, that’s one indication that this game is definitely way before your time and wasn’t designed with you in mind. Oh, and you can also toggle between color and black-and-white for most of the games at the touch of a button, another nice little touch.

Where the extras really shine, however, are in the supplemental materials. Beyond the token artwork and instruction sheets, you can also unlock full television commercials for many of the games (look for a few early appearances by famous people, including Phil Hartman and a very young Jack Black) and a few internal promo videos meant for media and retailers. You can also earn patches and badges for high scores and achievements, which back in those days you could actually have mailed to you upon submission of proof of your feat. While we all waste weeks and months earning ultimately meaningless achievement points and trophies today, you used to actually get a tangible reward for your efforts to display and show off to your friends. I would imagine that most of this stuff wasn’t easily accessible and required a lot of archive digging, and it really demonstrates the care and love that went into this collection all the time and effort that it must’ve taken to find all this stuff and put it into the game.

With the various game download services now available on PC and all of the major console platforms, game companies – with no significant expense or effort on their part – can simply upload their classics onto these virtual stores and sell them to us one at a time with nothing “extra” to speak of. The few retro collections that still trickle out each year are of the bare-bones, list-based variety with sparse and uninteresting extras, many of which are simply carried over from previous collections; Midway and Sega  in particular have both re-used video footage for several subsequent compilation releases. The Xbox 360’s Game Room was a baby step in the right direction as far as being more than a collection of classic games and being a fully realized tribute to gaming history, but as well all know it was quickly abandoned before it ever lived up to its potential.

It’s a shame that the ease and convenience afforded to both gaming companies and consumers in the new model of buying and distributing classic games hasn’t spelled the end of collections like Activision Anthology. Because many gamers, like myself, are just as interested in the history and culture surrounding gaming’s past as in the games themselves, and the interactive history lesson that comes along with a carefully-crafted retro game collection offers a way to experience a place and time in video gaming’s past that just isn’t possible with watching a YouTube video or reading a Wikipedia entry. Of course, if video games could get the proper real-life, full-on museum treatment that they deserve, we wouldn’t need to rely on those rare, lovingly-produced classic compilations to learn about and experience gaming history. Yes, one is supposedly being built in Texas, but given the history of things like that you’ll have to pardon my skepticism.