All Together Then: Activision Anthology
Soft Cell! Blondie! A-ha! Also some games
In this new column the enormous, English and enormously English Stuart Gipp takes a fortnightly look at retro compilations of the past, examining how old-school videogames have been presented in their many re-releases over the years. Rejected names for the column include "Retrouroborous, Retro Retro and Retrograded".
We seem to entering a bit of a renaissance period for retro compilations. SNK Anniversary Collection has presented Switch owners with a thoughtful, considered selection of SNK's early work alongside a comprehensive and thoroughly researched assemblage of bonus material to contextualise the games offered. Sega Genesis Classics offers over 50 titles from Sega's celebrated 16-bit era, including fan favourites, cult classics and underrated gems.
But do any of these compilations have Safety Dance? No, they do not.
Yes! Activision Anthology (on PS2 and Xbox) features Men Without Hats' biggest hit, Safety Dance, along with eleven other excellent 80s tunes – from Talk Talk to Twisted Sister. This inclusion is a genius move as the songs really amplify the sensation the game seems to be going for, which is an 80s kid playing Atari in their bedroom. Indeed the whole menu setup reflects this.
The most important thing about any compilation is the games and Activision Anthology doesn't disappoint, with a brace of Atari 2600 classics that are sorely missed from modern systems. Chopper Command, Pitfall, Freeway, Frostbite, Megamania, Kaboom – it really is a long list (over fifty!) and the hits don't stop. A lot of Atari 2600 offerings, it's fair to say, don't really hold up; with these Activision games you can really get your teeth into them. They're simple, obviously, but compelling, difficult and often downright mesmerising. I poured hours in Barnstorming, desperately trying to shave seconds off my score. I thrilled to Keystone Kapers, a surprisingly fast-paced and exciting multi-screen platformer in which your policeman character humorously chases down a stereotypical zebra-clad robber. Game of the pack, however, goes to River Raid. While it remains a very basic vertical shmup, the constant choice of whether to pick up fuel or blow it up for points is a brilliant risk-reward system and the gradual increase in speed and difficulty is tense to this day. It's definitely my favourite thing on this set, but far from the only stand-out. I could keep going. Crackpots, Plaque Attack, H.E.R.O... all great fun.
Even more brilliantly, there are high score targets for the games that grant unlockable extras for achieving them, including bizarre filters such as Disco Mode (which fills the screen with flashing lights) and the original incredibly cheesy TV commercials.
My favourite bonus are the scanned in patches – Activision had a program back in the day where upon reaching certain high scores and sending a polaroid to the publisher, you'd receive a sew-on patch commemorating your achievement. It's super cool to see them represented here and a fascinating piece of history.
I'd love to see Activision's Atari library re-released on contemporary formats; these games just aren't available outside of dedicated hardware like the Atari Flashback range (except a not-good-enough iOS app) and they deserve a wider audience. As for the Anthology itself, I feel as though a lot of modern efforts could learn from its loving approach to framing these games in the context in which you'd have originally played them, rather than the context of their development.