Best of 2017: The retro game anthology lives!

And, say, isn't it Mega Man's birthday soon?

The advent of digitial distribution appeared to drive a final, decisive nail into the coffin of the classic game anthology concept. When publishers could sell a dozen old games individually for five bucks apiece, why would they ever sell those dozen games in a collection for half that? Hmm, $60 or $30… which seems more profitable to you?

And, in fairness, the piecemeal approach isn't necessarily bad; it means fans can pick and choose only the games they really want. If only three games out of those theoretical dozen are worthwhile, would you rather pay $15 to own only them rather than $30 to own them and a bunch of trash you'll never touch?

Still, something was lost when the anthology concept faded away. If nothing else, having a single compilation on your console's game download list creates a lot less clutter than having a dozen individual arcade titles. It's therefore been quite nice to see the return of the retro anthology in the past couple of years. I'd credit Capcom's Mega Man Legacy Collection for kicking things off again in earnest. That release didn't precisely open the floodgates, but it dropped six NES classics onto a fairly priced disc with tons of display options, a bonus museum of archival content, and solid emulation of the games. It was a pretty good test run for the viability of anthology releases, really. Who on earth is going to buy just one NES Mega Man game rather than all of them? Clearly, the compilation did well enough for Capcom that they've decided to go… well, not quite all-in, but they're definitely having a go of it. Just a few days ago, they announced a ridiculously comprehensive Street Fighter Collection that spans the mediocre original 1987 Street Fighter to 1999's sublime Street Fighter III: Third Strike. This follows on the heels of two other anthologies to surface over the past year, as well as the news that both Mega Man Legacy Collection compilations will be arriving on Switch next year along with a multiplatform Mega Man X Legacy Collection.

In short: The retro anthology is back. Pet the kitty.

Disney Afternoon Collection

I reviewed this back when it first debuted, The Disney collection ran on the same tech that appeared under the hood of the Mega Man Legacy Collection, and Digital Eclipse's love of archivism and preservation really came through. From great new features like the ability to rewind action at any time — a godsend in some of the moments of cheap NES game difficulty spikes — to fascinating archival discoveries (I'm still in love with the unused Keiji Inafune-illustrated Famicom Duck Tales box art), the Disney Afternoon Collection brought together some great games… and had even greater value for the simple fact that collections based on licensed properties are extraordinarily rare in this or any age. Hopefully it did well enough for Capcom to pursue some of its other vintage licensed titles. We heard the Noid has made a recent comeback…

Namco Museum

I've also reviewed this compilation, and I loved it. It perfectly represents everything that makes Nintendo Switch such a perfect platform for classic games: The ability to play with online support, to pick and go mobile, and yes, even to turn the system sideways for vertically oriented games like Tower of Druaga and Galaga. Well, probably mostly Galaga. If you're reading this, I have to assume you grew up in the wrong country to love Druaga (e.g. 1980s Japan). Namco Museum basically does everything right: Great emulation, tons of display and control options, some perfect selections to take advantage of Switch's impromptu multiplayer functions, online leaderboards… and best of all, it gets to that essential strength of retro compilations mentioned above. Several of the game included in Namco's latest collection have never been republished before, and they probably don't hold enough interest to merit a standalone release. But while you might not be willing to pay money for Tank Force on its own, surely you'll muck around with it a bit when it's included in a set with a bunch of other games, right? Namco Museum is everything I love about retro compilations. Here's to many more.

Mega Man Legacy Collection 2

Things changed a lot with Capcom's second big Mega Man collection. These games don't all hail from the same system, spanning Super NES to Wii, whereas the original collection crammed six NES games together. Curiously, Capcom also shifted development gears with the second collection, putting together the release as an in-house project rather than letting Digital Eclipse manage it as they did with its predecessor and the Disney set. This anthology offered fewer options than either Digital Eclipse release, with more anemic museum features, a lack of rewind options, and a few other minor quality-of-life details. Legacy Collection 2 also felt decidedly lacking in terms of game selection: It contained a paltry four titles (Mega Man 7-10) versus the original's six. It lacked spinoffs (e.g. Mega Man & Bass for Super Famicom/GBA) and alternate releases (e.g. the Saturn version of Mega Man 8, which included some bonus boss battles)

Despite these shortcomings, though, Legacy Collection 2 earns its keep. For one, it does a great job of reproducing the few games that do appear here. Compromises seen in previous Mega Man anthologies — such as the lack of proper Super NES Mode 7 effects in Mega Man 7's ending — have been rectified. And all the extra bells and whistles that Capcom appended to both Mega Man 10 and 11 post-launch show up here, making for two totally complete games (well, minus some PS3/PS4 trophy discrepancies, but who freaking cares?). It's a great set, all told, and a fine way to mark the series' 30th anniversary.

Really, though, I think the best thing about MMLC2 might be the fact that it's inspired me to reconsider my feelings on Mega Man 8. Mega Man 7 was and always will be a borderline disaster, but Mega Man 8 turns out to be a lot better than I remembered. Yeah, the soccer ball special weapon and the JUMP JUMP SLIDE SLIDE bits are the worst, but everything else about the game is absolutely born of love. It's pretty crazy that a company as big as Capcom would create an entirely hand-drawn pastel 2D platformer for one of its primary franchises in 1997, when the rest of the industry was going dark, angry, and polygonal but bless 'em for it. Mega Man 8 remains the high water mark for traditional artistry in the franchise, and it's worth the price of admission here all on its own. Especially now that the game has save states and a half-damage option, which makes the frustratingly unfair final battle a lot more tolerable…

Seiken Densetsu Collection

Oh yeah, and I did want to mention one other compilation. One that didn't come to the U.S. for some stupid reason: Square Enix's Seiken Densetsu Collection for Switch. That's Final Fantasy Adventure, Secret of Mana, and… their Japan-only sequel. Sure, we got Mana on the Super NES Classic Edition, and a remake of that same game is due out early next year for PlayStation 4 and Vita, but neither of those (1) are on Switch or (2) include Seiken Densetsu 3. Come on, Square Enix. Get it together.

Here's to buying even more huge sets of old games in 2018.