Atari’s upcoming slate of games makes old favorites new again
Posted on September 8, 2023 by Nicholas Serpa in Features, Switch
Gaming preferences develop from many different origins – the games you played at your neighbor’s house growing up, the ones you received at Christmas and on birthdays – but being born in the late nineties, Atari games were never in my rotation. That’s probably because for what felt like years, the company’s output was relatively minimal compared to the early days of the storied company. Their franchises remain iconic, though; I’d wager just about everyone knows what Pong at least is, even if they’ve never played it. That inherent familiarity is powerful, and Atari’s upcoming slate of games capitalizes on it; they’re taking old favorites and finding ways to refresh them into something exciting for modern audiences.
Some of Atari’s more notable recent releases have been through its “Recharged” series, in which indie developers work on reimagined and highly stylish versions of classic Atari games. They’ve hit on a lot of the big names already, like Breakout and Missile Command; while that series continues, Atari’s other projects take this idea of “making old things new” with what I feel are more interesting directions. I got to sample a few of their upcoming games at at PAX West 2023, and I really loved what I played.
Back in 2021, Atari published a small indie project called qomp, which asked the question: what if the ball from Pong escaped the confines of its single-screen court? What followed was a short but well-received precision platformer that controlled with a single button. In qomp, players would navigate a digital world that, apparently, extends deep into the circuitry of a Pong-inspired arcade game, attempting to control the trajectory of the ball as it ricochets through increasingly challenging stages.
Now, an expanded version of that game – qomp2 – is in development by Graphite Lab, a small studio that has worked closely with Atari on other projects like the recently released Mr. Run & Jump. This sequel adds new levels, of course, but also a new mechanic – in addition to controlling the trajectory of the ball, players also have a sort of air-dash ability that gives the ball a burst of speed and lets it interact with obstacles. It’s all fundamentally quite simple on paper – fitting, for a game with love for Pong – but don’t let the straightforward premise fool you into thinking this will be a breezy experience. Even in the early stages of the game, I found I needed to be quite precise with the angle at which I approached a wall, for example, otherwise risking bouncing myself back in the other direction and having to renavigate the section, or perhaps incinerating myself in a laser beam. Fortunately, checkpoints are frequent enough that the trial and error elements of the gameplay loop never felts so frustrating that I wanted to put the game down.
The presentation of the package feels very faithful to what I imagine an expanded, inspired take on Pong might look like if it was in an arcade today – there’s even a subtle curve to the image as if it were being displayed on an old CRT. The music is ephemeral and vague at first, but seems to slowly ramp up as players progress through the game. There are little effects scattered about – like the trail of blue light the ball leaves behind as it dashes across the screen – that add pops of color and flair to this otherwise simple looking world. While I’d be surprised if there were a significant amount of surprising mechanics or innovation packed into this title (though I’d love to be proven wrong!), this seems like a solid pick-up-and-play experience for folks looking for a challenge. qomp 2 doesn’t have a release date, but is planned to arrive on Switch at some point in the future.
The original Haunted House released in 1982 on the Atari 2600, and while rudimentary by today’s standards, at the time it was one of the earliest attempts at crafting a horror-themed adventure game during that era. Set in a dark mansion (which, in the original, were merely blocky walls against a black screen), the player’s goal was to navigate the various floors and rooms of the building and collect pieces of an urn while avoiding supernatural beings that would pursue the player. Locked doors required players to seek out keys to progress, and randomization ensured that objects would appear in different locations between playthroughs. The game has had a few reimagining over the years, but a new upcoming entry in the franchise – simply titled Haunted House – is perhaps the most complete interpretation of the original game’s ideas we’ve seen to date.
This new version of Haunted House is stealth-focused; as players explore the sprawling mansion they’ll encounter astutely observant ghosts and monsters that are patrolling the area. The goal of escaping the mansion is complicated by needing to navigate the mazelike environment without attracting too much attention. Running too quickly, leaving your lantern lit in close proximity to foes, and accidentally knocking over fragile objects will all cause foes to come after you. Some of the creatures can be dispatched quietly be sneaking up from behind them, but many can only be temporarily distracted. This emphasizes the importance of thorough exploration, as valuable consumable tools may be tucked away in chests that could make the difference between a smooth escape or a death. The game isn’t a full rougelike, I was told, but its rougelike elements seem to make the experience fairly dynamic. Protagonist Lyn also has opportunities to upgrade some of her skills to make further attempts a bit simpler.
The game plays from an isometric point of view, and it looks beautiful in motion. The art design has elements of whimsy to it, which when combined with the game’s subdued but colorful palette results in a world that feels a little spooky, but never going so far as to being an outright horror game. There is a story that sets some context for why Lyn is in the haunted house and what her stake in the situation is, but it seems light and breezy from what I’ve played so far, and I don’t get the sense it’s going to be the driving force of the experience. It’s all a nice counterpart to the mild tension that comes with sneaking through an unfamiliar environment. Haunted House is scheduled to launch on Switch; a release date has not yet been announced.
Atari had other projects at PAX that I saw but didn’t get the chance to play, namely RollerCoaster Tycoon Adventures Deluxe and an intriguing new tactical RPG called Days of Doom – both planned for Switch. As someone with little nostalgia for Atari games, I’m really intrigued by their approach to working with indie developers and transforming some of their older gaming brands with new concepts and styles. We’ll be sure to provide updates on these titles as we learn more closer to release.