"Activision was kind enough to include scans of original instruction manuals, and it's fun to see the lame covers that decorated these early classics, if you're not lucky enough to own them yourself. Not only that, but I guess back in the day there were patches you could earn for good gameplay. Those are included here, too, and you can unlock them the same as always: by kicking butt and taking names."
Until last night, I was an Activision virgin. Well, in a sense. Like most people, I've played Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and Spider-Man and even some of the games the company has published that others developed, such as Lost Kingdoms. But that's a different publisher than the one that first jumped into the business as the first second-party developer for the Atari 2600. And with Activision Anthology, the company isn't looking at recent successes; it's looking at the games that put it on the map when innovation was changing dots from red to green. These are games you just can't appreciate unless they were your pride and joy back in the day. Or... can you?
Yes, you can. I know it goes against the rules to answer the question right away. I'm supposed to drag things out, give a few examples, and reach the end of the review with you thinking I'm a pretty smart guy who did a good job of proving my point. But that's for 'classy' reviews, the kind you read in glossy magazines. Rather than go that route, I thought I'd take a different approach and just be blunt. After all, you don't always need polish to be good. The collection of classics in Activision Anthology proves it.
When the game first begins, you'll see some cool logos that belong to the game's developers. Then there's an opening FMV sequence. Intentionally, the designers portrayed the characters in an extremely blocky fashion. The hero (let's call him Harry) looks around square trees, then behind him to see a giant boulder bearing down. This is bad, he decides, so it's a race along the trail. Oh, goodness! There's a pool of crocodiles! Things look bad for the hero, but then he sees a blocky line. He's saved! Quickly, Harry grabs onto the line and swings over the pool of water. The crocodiles snap at him but miss as square droplets of water splash out of the water. Then they look back and the boulder is still coming, and they're flattened. Harry runs to the side, and the logo flashes across the screen. You're to the end of the intro, and it's time to leave baggage like visual flash at the door.
Well, mostly. If I said we'd entirely reached the end of the extra touches that make this compilation worth the $10 I paid for it, I'd be lying. When you get to the menu, you'll find that it's a somewhat confusing but mostly cool replication of a desk, television, and clutter. This is what many rooms looked like in the 80s, and I should know. Of course, my room had an NES and this one has an Atari 2600. There's also a cool rack of games that would have had me drooling with envy as a child. Not surprisingly, all the games on the rack are Activision-published titles (if you're startled by this revelation, stop reading this review and go bang your head against a brick wall a few times, please). To choose which game you wish to play, you must spin the rack until you find the game you want to play, then select the cartridge, confirm your choice, and finally you'll be taken to the title screen. A cool idea in theory, the navigation is ultimately sabotaged by the fact that some of the games don't appear to be arranged in an order I would consider intuitive. They're mostly alphabetical, but at times not. Make sense? Didn't to me, either.
Assuming you find the game you want--and there are over 40 to choose from--and get that game in the 'system,' you'll then encounter another of the compilation's oddities: the 'select' button. Now, I know this button has been on controllers for years, but I really was stumped on how to begin some games. I pressed 'X' and got nothing, pressed 'triangle' and changed my television to an old black-and-white model... I pressed pretty much every button on the controller but the 'select' button. After all, I was trying to start the game, not make menu selections. Well, as you may have guessed (and I'm assuming you did, since the dumb ones in the crowd are likely taking my advice and banging their heads on brick walls right now), it's the 'select' button that gets the ball rolling. This just stinks, to be honest. No matter how many games I play, I constantly find myself pressing 'start' before I make my selection with the 'select' button.
So, you know the negative bits of the interface, but what about the positives? Well, there are some of those too. The most obvious one is the music. There are somewhere around ten songs on this disc, all from the 80s. They're good selections, too, the kind of songs that topped charts back in the day. While a lot of music from that decade annoys the snot out of me, what's here really is a good representation of what I would have found enjoyable, if I were three or four years older. Twisted Sister is there, and A-ha, and a few other big names. Their music just loops indefinitely, and if you do tire of it, you can always tone it down through the 'options' screen.
Music isn't the only flashback, though. If you do particularly well playing the games, you get to unlock special goodies. While my wife chewed me out for watching the commercial when she wanted to hog the television another ten hours, I laughed at how Mega Mania was presented to gamers back in the day. I had thought the Nintendo commercials from that era were stupid, but they really didn't hold a candle to what Activision managed. If you didn't see them when they originally aired, you'll have to wonder (like me) how these stupid things ever convinced gamers to make purchases. However, it is interesting to see that the roots of lengthy commercials that show almost no gameplay started back with Activision. And hey, guitar freaks are always a joy, right?
There are a few other treats, too. Activision was kind enough to include scans of original instruction manuals, and it's fun to see the lame covers that decorated these early classics, if you're not lucky enough to own them yourself. Not only that, but I guess back in the day there were patches you could earn for good gameplay. Those are included here, too, and you can unlock them the same as always: by kicking butt and taking names. Many of the numerous games on this title have score challenges, and you can beat those to find cool rewards (such as that cheesy commercial I mentioned). Depending on your skill at the various games, some stuff is unlocked quite easily, while other goodies may take more effort.
And so we come down to the real reason to play this compilation: the games. There are a lot of them, and Activision remains a successful company, so surely there's more gold than crap here, right? Well, not so much. I'd say we're looking at a ratio of fifty to fifty. While half the stuff is really cool and still manages to entertain, the rest is just so pathetic that you'll laugh at yourself for playing it. I'm not going to run through a list of all the games--other reviewers have done that and additional ones will do it in the future--but I would like to share some impressions on a few of my favorites.
The first of these is Mega Mania. Yes, there's a reason I managed to unlock its commercial. That would be this: the game is simply a blast. When I was younger, I played a game on the computer called Sneakers. Well, I now know that game was a total rip-off of Mega Mania. In the Activision title, you are positioned in a box, along the bottom. You move back and forth, blasting opponents that come raining down on you. Each set marks a phase, and you move from one phase to the next, scoring points as you tackle new enemy formations and patterns of movement. Back in the day, this must have been extremely complicated stuff. There are several different patterns to learn, and things grow difficult rather quickly. Graphics are better here than in most titles in the collection, too. I also discovered it's by the guy that created Barnstorming.
And of course, Barnstorming is another you may wish to play. You take control of an airplane and avoid windmills and geese while swooping down to fly through barns. Not a good game to try and enact in real life, but an interesting diversion just the same. The attention paid to rendering the generic red barns, towering windmills, geese, and distant skyline is really quite impressive.
Another title worth mentioning is Enduro, which gives a person a good idea of the sort of innovations programmers had to resort to for the sake of variety. You're driving in a race with 299 other drivers, and it's a long one. Your drive takes you through changing weather conditions, and you'll drive all night to do it. The way they communicate this (palette changes, disappearing lines, blocks that represent headlights) is quite clever, and gives me an idea of how relieved the people at Activision must have been when the NES came out and allowed them new hardware limitations.
Then we have Atlantis, a game where you man three guns that try to destroy an incoming fleet of enemy vessels. Or something. Not sure on the entire concept, but I do know it's a lot of fun. The central gun can fire straight up, while you can fire at angles if you hold 'left' or 'right' when pressing the 'X' button to fire. As is the case with all games on the collection, controls are simple and intuitive. This title inspired its share of clones, too, and variants. The game Sabotage comes to mind.
Another personal favorite of mine is Beamrider, a game that puts you on a beam of light as you race toward the distant horizon. You'll have to dodge rock formations while shooting down enemy crafts. Any given phase has a set number of opponents, then a chance to take out a bonus vessel, and it's on to the next. You can select later stages right from the start if you like, but for me the real fun came from starting at the beginning and seeing how far I could get. This is one title that I really enjoyed, one I'd like to see remade with today's visuals. Things get frantic quickly, but you always feel like you're in control of what's happening. It rapidly becomes a good test of reflexes and strategy.
And there are others. Many others, classics you may have already played such as Keystone Capers and Pitfall, others that are odd but too hard to resist, games like Plaque Attack. While I can't imagine any of these games keeping gamers glued to their televisions for more than a day or two back when I was learning to add one and one, there's a certain appeal to a good number of them that remains tangible to this day. These are the titles that made everything we experience today possible, the ones that have been played thousands upon thousands of hours by many of the people still involved in the industry. If you dismiss this lovingly crafted collection the next time you see it in the bargain bin, I hope it's because you're busy banging your head against a brick wall.
Staff review by Jason Venter (January 31, 2004)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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