The Atari 2600 was the first video game system that I actually “owned” and that was “mine.” Sure, my family owned a video-pong system, but it sat collecting dust on the top of the mammoth RCA all-in-one television/tape/record-player/radio/speakers monstrosity that was our home entertainment system of the era. Horribly sick with the chicken-pox during my kindergarten year in the 80′s, I received the best Christmas present ever – my Atari 2600. This gift changed my life and ignited my lifelong passion for video games. I am proud to say that I am still a gamer to this very day, and I still own that original Atari, and a massive collection of games to go with it. I have had to replace the power-adapter a couple times, and change out the cable that connects the system to the monitor – but the old beast still works! That’s more than I can say for the current generation consoles I have bought and already had to completely replace in the last few years. I love that faithful old Atari, with its oh so futuristic faux wood trim, metal switches instead of buttons, cartridge games that can survive everything short of a hammer, and those iconic joystick controllers with their orange buttons. So how do the games themselves hold up to modern scrutiny? Are they even worth going back to play? Here, in no particular order, are (in my opinion) some of the best and most worthwhile Atari 2600 video games.
Why not start off with a great title that also just happened to be the game that came bundled with the system? Combat offered gamers the thrill of 27 different single or 2-player games in which they battled the cpu or another player with tanks, biplanes, bombers, jets, gunboats, and the like. The variety of gameplay was pretty impressive at the time. Perhaps the most memorable mode involved tank warfare on level with walls that could be used for cover, but ordnance fired from the tanks could bounce off of the walls and keep going. In this manner players could use simple angles and geometry to destroy other tanks in surprising bank-shots. Players could never really be sure that their position was safe. This was only one of the fun modes in Combat – a game that is still entertaining today.
The premise of Yar’s Revenge was simple; yet the game was frantic, addicting, and became Atari’s best selling original title for the 2600. Talk to anyone who owned an Atari back in the day, and at some point they will inevitably bring up Yar’s Revenge. Players take control of a flying insect-like creature and dodge incoming cannon fire, in an effort to destroy the cannon that is protected behind three rotating fortress walls. All the action takes place on a single screen, but this doesn’t detract from the games enjoyment factor one iota. Yar’s Revenge was designed by Howard Scott Warsaw, who would later go on to design the E.T. the Extraterestrial video game that is infamously said to have wound up packing a New Mexico landfill with several million returned and unsold game cartridges; but we’ll get to that fiasco in a future article.
My favorite Atari game would probably have to be Activision’s Pitfall. At a time when cavalier, treasure-hunting video game adventurers like Lara Croft and Nathan Drake were still far off, Pitfall managed to provide that first Indiana Jones-type of gaming experience. You take control of a character dubbed “Pitfall Harry” on a quest for riches in the jungle. Swinging from vines (which was accompanied by a great sound effect), jumping over scorpions, timing runs over tar pits that opened and closed, and hopping on the heads of crocodiles when their jaws shut were a few of the obstacles that players faced. Pitfall required skilled timing, patience, and a good memory to choose the best past. You navigate your avatar horizontally across each screen; with a path above ground, and a diverging path below ground that can be entered or exited at set points along the way. Choose the wrong path and you might miss treasure, or hit a dead-end and have to backtrack. Pitfall was an awesome game which spawned the Pitfall Harry Saturday morning cartoon series on CBS. Pitfall also had notable TV commercial starring a very young man that would go on to become a well-known comedian, actor, and star in a video game of his own (Brutal Legend), Mr. Jack Black!
Even though many people seem to speak poorly of it now, another game I liked was Berzerk. Players enter a maze with walls that will electrocute and kill their character if touched (really, touching anything will result in death). This death-maze is filled with laser-shooting robots that are somewhat reminiscent of Cylons from old Battlestar Galactica, and likely to destroy themselves, other robots, or the player’s character. You control a humanoid with a blaster who must eliminate the robot hordes without being shot, touched, or touching a wall. Upon elimination of all the robots on a screen, an opening in a wall will appear to let you enter the next room. To make matters even more challenging, a bouncing smiley face named “Evil Otto” (yes, if he touches your avatar it results in death) shows up out of the walls to make its way across the screen and send you scrambling for safety. Berzerk, indeed! This game has 64,000 different maze levels, but I know I never got even remotely far enough to confirm that number because this game is quite a challenge.
Defender was a super-fun, fast-paced, side-scrolling, spaceship shoot-em-up that was memorable enough to score a shout-out in a Beastie Boys song (Body-Movin’) many years after its heyday. Developed by Williams Electronics and notable gaming industry innovator Eugene Jarvis (who also worked on Space Invaders and Asteroids) who were known for their successful pinball machines, Defender was a popular arcade game that was ported to the 2600. Players pilot a spacecraft and blast alien ships, while scanning for humanoids being abducted by the alien invaders. When a humanoid is being abducted, the player is alerted by a neat little sound reminiscent of a high-pitched R2-D2 chirp. In fact, I like the sound of the blasters in Defender as well! Race to the rescue, blast the abductor’s ship, then catch the falling humans by flying your ship to intersect with their descent. Defender is a very notable game for two reasons. The game uses a mini-map to aid the player in navigating the landscape. This wasn’t the first game to utilize a mini-map, but it was the first game to do it well. The second and biggest advancement made by Defender was to use side-scrolling in a game. This allowed for a sense of exploring an area much larger than just a single screen and would become an industry standard. The arcade version of Defender was notoriously difficult, but the streamlined controls required for the port made the game more accessible to beginners. That and the fact that being able to play it at home without a roll of quarters was a development very welcomed by young people and noobs without an excess of disposable income. In the immortal words of the Beastie Boys, “And if ya play Defender I’ll could be your hyper-space!”
No list would be complete without Nintendo’s Donkey Kong. Like Defender, DK was also a popular arcade game. [Yes, kids of the era used to go out to wonderful establishments filled with arcade video games cabinets. These establishments were referred to as “video arcades” in the popular vernacular of the day. Gamers of all ages could come together to socialize and test their skills against other gamers for 25 cents per game. A vestige of this tradition remains somewhat intact in the western world at places like Gameworks, or even more so at a few scattered arcades that carry on the proud tradition. Popular Korean “PC bangs” are in some ways much closer to what US arcade culture once was.] If you have read this far, you likely know what Donkey Kong is all about. A carpenter named Jumpman mistreats his pet ape, Donkey Kong. In turn the ape breaks free, grabs Jumpman’s lady friend, and climbs to the top of a structure. It is up to Jumpman to make his way to the top while avoiding rolling and thrown barrels, and save the damsel in distress. Donkey Kong is a very important video game, because it is believed to the first game to tell a complete narrative using cut-scenes and character animations. Not to mention the fact that Donkey Kong would go on to become an even more recognizable character that would be featured in other Nintendo games as the company rose to prominence and became a video game innovator and power-house. As for Jumpman himself, he was clearly an early prototype for what would later become Nintendo’s most popular character, Mario. People still love DK to this very day and take it very seriously, as can be seen in the awesome documentary film, The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters. Would DK be as well known and beloved without having saturated our consciousnesses by being played in our own homes?
There are so many great games for the Atari 2600 that I could easily make this article twice as long. Space Invaders, Missile Command, Kaboom, Enduro, Asteroids, Frogger… If you get a chance, go back and play some of these games from the beginning of the home gaming revolution. Most of these early games are based on very simple yet fun concepts and mechanics. There are always old systems to be purchased online if you get the urge to go retro. You don’t even have to own an original console that’s three decades old to get in on the action (though it does enhance the experience to an extent). There are a variety of inexpensive peripheral plug and play devices available to experience Atari 2600 games, as well as emulators to play these games on smartphones and computers. In a future article we will take a look at the other side of the spectrum and explore some of the worst games for the 2600. Feel free to share some of your favorite Atari 2600 games in the comment section below. Until next time, happy gaming (retro, current gen., and everything in between)!