Even if you weren't clutching plastic joysticks and rocking out to ELO in the slammin' 1970s, chances are good you're familiar with the logo for Atari, the purveyors of Pong and the legendary Atari 2600. It's become one of those iconic symbols of the prehistoric videogame era, like Pac-Man and the space invaders. The company's bold triple swoops are supposed to represent a vectorized version of Japan's Mount Fuji, a towering and permanent natural wonder. When I look at the logo today, the swoops on either side seem like the front wheels of a car that have just popped off and are spinning crazily across the neighbor's front lawn.
Last week, Atari (which, almost 40 years after its formation, is now an afterthought subsidiary owned by a French-based publisher) shocked Apple's app store by rolling out Atari's Greatest Hits, an app platform that gives you the opportunity, for the low, low price of $15, to own iOS versions of -- hold onto your iPads, kids -- 100 Atari 2600 and arcade games. (NOW how much would you pay?)
To touchscreen nation, it probably sounds like an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime deal. The actual app is free, and comes with an iOS version of Pong, the game that, believe it or not, once riveted the nation's gaming attention -- at least the part of the nation that hung out in bars and shopped at Sears. After you download it, you can either shell out $14.99 for the complete 100-game package, or buy four-packs of games fronted by Atari's arcade classics (Centipede, Tempest, Missile Command, etc.) for 99 cents each. Seems like a fair price, and certainly in line with the gazillion other apps in Apple's warehouse of sometimes dubious quality.
There are a couple of problems, however. The first is that most of these games have been available online as free MAMEs for years now, so charging for them, even given the portable nature of the new apps, seems off. Then there's the issue of quality. Some of Atari's arcade games continue to stand the test of time but frankly, some ought to be left as historical artifacts. That's even more true of the Atari 2600 titles, some of which -- okay many of which -- weren't even all that amazing in their day. Anyone out there dying for a portable version of Atari's video checkers and 3D Tic-Tac-Toe? Bueller?
The biggest problem is the controls, to the surprise of exactly no one, are horrific. I fired up the iOS version of Tempest, hoping, as I have with at least three previous updates of the game, to recapture some of the white-knuckle joy of trying to avoid those nasty spikes as my pincher-crab ship warped down the blue-tinted columns to the next level. Nope. The slider the app uses to replace the game's original dial is slow and unresponsive. Even an Atari 2600 game like Outlaw, which, you may recall, was like Combat with 10 gallon hats, controls about as deftly as a whiskey-drenched cowboy.
All this constant recycling has become a tired dance: Every time a new game platform comes out, all the old-school publishers that are still in business (Namco, Williams, etc.) rush to port and repackage their old material to capture a new audience, like digital Willy Lomans creaking open their ancient suitcases as customers shift uncomfortably and hunt for the exit. I'm a huge proponent of ensuring that every generation, old and new, has access to the gaming's Citizen Kanes and Godfathers, but it's like Atari is continuing to suck madly on the straw of the their 64-ounce nostalgia-flavored Icee, even though the cup's been completely empty for years.
Actually, the real reason Atari is trooping its musty case of 8-bit goodness out for yet another go-round likely has a lot to do with the iCade, an iPad stand designed to look like a desk-sized arcade cabinet, complete with mini-joystick and "fire" buttons. It's retailing for around $100, and it's supposed to come out later this year. Geeks with tons of disposable income may be lured by it -- there's no denying it looks awfully cool -- but it won't solve the control issues on worthwhile Atari classics like Missile Command and Millipede, which weren't meant to be controlled with joysticks. It'll just be yet another modern wrapper that doesn't fit the package, like an antique couch covered in ripped cellophane.
Atari's founder, the enigmatic Nolan Bushnell, picked the company's name because of his fascination with the Japanese board game Go. In the game's context, "Atari" describes a situation in which your stones are in grave peril of being captured. I can't escape the feeling that modern Atari execs are still hunched over the game board -- even if nobody else is still playing.