Atari showed that young people could start big companies. Without that example it would have been harder for Jobs and Bill Gates, and people who came after them, to do what they did.
Welcome to day 2 of our Console Challenge, NPCs!
Okay, so today we’ve got a legitimate home console (what we usually mean when we hear the word “console”). Atari dominated the video gaming scene prior to Nintendo and since I have few kind things to say about them, we’ve enlisted the aid of a legitimate retro gamer to elucidate and educate.
The Badly Backlogged Mage is a self-proclaimed completionist and wanton purchaser of games, a combination best reconciled by owning and operating his blog, Mr. Backlog. This combination of attributes does, however, make him an expert in many things gaming, not the least of which is the golden age of games, the pre-Nintendo era when the word was Atari. Hop into this time capsule with us and let’s take a walk back to the era of the golden classics with the Badly Backlogged Mage.
For more work by this retro champ, check out his most historically honest Final Fantasy review for the NES.
If you have some favorite Atari 2600 games, we’d love to hear about them!
-The Well-Red Mage
It is a sad indictment on the fickle nature of nostalgia that the venerable Atari 2600 does not receive more fan love than it does. Yes, it was about as powerful as a calculator. Yes, about 30% of its library was shovelware. Yes, many of those shovelware titles could be unfavourably compared to trying to play with said calculator.
But fact is that not only did the once-mighty Atari 2600 firmly earn its place in gaming history for being the first majorly successful modern-style home console,* but it produced some damn fine games that really have stood the test of time. Moreso than typing “80085” on your friend’s calculator in any event.
Enough of this! On to the best 7 games that were written, designed and released for the Atari 2600. Even better – if you want to play these games you can! Links to online emulators are below.
You know how much fun Breakout is? Well, imagine that with four players.
Each player controls a paddle and a little “castle” in the corner of the screen. If your “warlord” inside the castle is hit then you are out of the game. Winner is the last man standing.
It’s a great concept, occasionally let down by the usual Breakout quirks – unfair deaths (because the ball unexpectedly flew in a direction you couldn’t anticipate and can’t get to in time) and games that go on too long (because accuracy is not that easy).
(NB – Technically this is an exception to the “developed for 2600” rule, because it was originally an arcade game).
Play it here!
#6: Yars Revenge
I’m going to cop some flak here for not putting the famous Yars Revenge higher up in the list, but such is life.
Yars Revenge is an immensely clever game that graphically made the most of the 2600’s hardware, and was pretty fun to boot. You play “Yars”, an insect that can fly and shoot in all four directions. Your goal is to kill the creature on the far right of the screen (the “Quotile”) by first shooting through its shield and then trying to hit it with a special “zolton cannon” that can only be fired from the far left of the screen. The middle section is the “neutral zone” where you can’t shoot, but are safe from some (but not all) of the Quotile’s attacks.
For a shooter it’s surprisingly methodical. The Atari 2600 couldn’t have too many projectiles on the screen at once, so instead this game works with a small number of projectiles (three) – one slow and constant, one fast and infrequent and one that you fire (but has a high risk of friendly fire). Its fun lies in juggling the three different threats at all times.
It’s regarded as a classic, although personally I found it too repetitive to rank higher than #6. But well worth a place on the list!
Is it overrated? Underrated? Find out for yourself!
Kaboom is a game that does what the 2600 did best.
A very simple (and hardly original) concept; catch the bombs falling from the sky. But an expertly executed one, with the bombs falling in lots of 10, which gives the game a nice rhythm. Still oddly addictive to this day.
#4: Tomcat: The F14 Fighter Simulation
Another controversial choice – Tomcat was hated by many people.
Tomcat is a surprisingly detailed flight simulator for the 2600. If you’ve never played a 2600, you don’t appreciate what an epic achievement that is. The game covers take off routine, multiple types of missiles/defensive maneuvers, landing and even day/night missions.
If you read the manual and figured out how to play the game, then you would find yourself enjoying probably the deepest game that the 2600 had to offer. But therein lies the problem – “if you read the manual”.
2600 games were very simple. Practically, no-one read the manuals. They expected to be able to pick up the game and figure it out (see Kaboom above). This is not possible with Tomcat – the usual reaction to this game was “turn it on, try to take off, fail, turn it off”.
Which is a shame, because once you realised what the game was doing it was a surprisingly good flight simulator for a system that had a one-button joystick. Try it here, but you’ll need to read the manual.
Adventure is, as the name suggests, an adventure game. You are on a quest to find the Holy Grail, sorry “enchanted chalice”, and return it to its rightful place. You’ll do this by moving your dot, sorry “avatar”, around the screen to pick up items such as keys, magnets, bridges and swords to open doors, navigate mazes and fight dragons.
The catch is that you can only carry one item at a time, which you’ll hold out in front of you. Combat can only occur if you are carrying a sword, and works by you avoiding the dragon and running it through with the sword. But because you can only carry one item at a time, you often have to trade off protection (the sword) with advancing the game (a key, or whatever).
#2: River Raid
A hot contender for game #1, and a game that made our “franchises that died” list.
River Raid is a vertical shooter. You control a plane flying along an endless river with various helicopters, ships and bridges to shoot. Periodically you must refuel by flying over (and not shooting) fuel canisters.
A highly addictive shooter with great pacing – starting off fairly simple before moving you into twitch gaming hell. A classic.
There was a sequel, River Raid II, which I’ve now played thanks to an emulator, and which arguably is better than the original thanks to numerous aspects that deepen the gameplay (particularly, adding a low/high altitude mechanic). But I think you just can’t go past the simplicity of the original.
#1: Pitfall II: Lost Caverns
Also “best game that nobody played”.
The first game, Pitfall!, is a classic, and really deserves its own place in this top 7 list. But Pitfall II pips it at the post for its numerous expansions – underwater sections, greatly improved sound and a vastly expanded world to explore.
It came so late in the Atari 2600’s lifecycle though that few people played it. Still, I think it was the best game produced for the system, and a fitting swan song for the console that really started it all.* If you enjoyed Pitfall! but never played Pitfall II, now’s your chance.
[* Yes I know about the Magnavox Odyssey, Fairchild and army of dedicated Pong machines. I stand by this assessment. Feel free to violently disagree in the comments.]
(All images via http://www.atariage.com/)
The Badly Backlogged Mage courageously fights a rearguard action against his unfortunate spending habits. You can follow his crusade at https://mrbacklog.wordpress.com