Games That Defined the Atari 2600


Presented by Racketboy, Rob/AtariSpot, Golgo 14, BoneSnapDeez, and Anapan

Feel free to read up more on our Defining Games Series or our Atari 2600 101 Beginner’s Guide for more information on Atari’s pioneering console.

The Atari 2600 (originally known as the Atari VCS) is the first popular home video game console, starting a gradual transition from the arcades. With arcade machines being so popular in the late 1970s and 80s, it was natural for the 2600 to have a lot of arcade adaptations in its library. In fact, many gamers in the Atari era would make the case that one of the main draws of the 2600 was to play home version of arcade classics.

While we will indeed cover many arcade-inspired titles in this lineup, we want to dedicate our time to the games that really made the largest impact on Atari, the rise of companies like Activision, and the video game industry as a whole. In the backstories, you’ll pick up on some come threads to work together to the rise and fall of Atari as a company and coinciding boom and bust of the first big home video game trend (before Nintendo revitalized it with the NES.)

There are a lot of noteworthy games in the Atari 2600 library from both a historical and gameplay perspective. It was quite difficult to narrow this list down (even the Honorable Mentions) but I feel that the result is a list and retrospective that captures the personality of the Atari 2600’s personality and historical impact. However, I do welcome you to respectfully mention a game or two that I excluded that you think should be considered — but please include a sentence or two making the game’s case.

For a newer generation of gamers, the Atari 2600 is often unloved compared to something like the NES, but there’s no denying Atari’s prominence in the culture of the US in the early 80s, and its importance to video game history overall.

Space Invaders

“The ‘Killer App’ of the VCS”

Already a popular and profitable force in global arcades, Space Invaders was the spark that helped propel the 2600 to its greatest heights. Getting the global arcade phenomenon onto home television screens was instrumental in elevating video games to become a mainstream entertainment medium alongside TV, movies, and music.

The success of Space Invaders in the arcade motivated Atari executives to secure the official home rights for the game from Taito. Prior to Space Invaders, all arcade ports were either knock-off clones or existing Atari properties. The Atari + Taito/Space Invaders partnership was actually a landmark moment in the industry of licensing a popular game property for a home console port.

Despite the official partnership, the programmer behind Atari’s version of Space Invaders, Rick Maurer, did not receive any additional code or documentation to reference to help develop the home version. He had to study the arcade version on his own to effectively replicate it.

Along the way, Maurer also developed game variations while he worked on Space Invaders. Providing these offered players different things to try after mastering the standard game in addition to options that catered to two players. The retail release of Space Invaders ended up coming with 112 game variations in total. Some technical compromises and adjustments had to be made to bring the arcade game to life on the 2600; reducing the number of sprites on the screen and re-designing the sprites to correspond with the console’s lower-resolution screen output.

Despite limitations, Space Invaders for the Atari 2600 was not only one of the era’s premier programming masterpieces, but was also a pretty solid home port. The extra game modes and two-player support took the arcade experience to a whole new level.

Sales for the Atari VCS quadrupled after the release of Space Invaders, and the port sold over 2 million copies its first year, becoming the first video game to sell over a million cartridges.

Even though its sales records were eventually surpassed, the higher sales of some subsequent 2600 games probably wouldn’t be as high if Space Invaders didn’t first build up an impressive system install base.

Of all the “big name” Arcade-to-2600 ports, Space Invaders might be one of the best experiences from a gameplay perspective. The graphical presentation nicely captures the essence of the arcade. In fact, it’s also enjoyable having the B&W TV mode toggled on the 2600 console, lending it a pretty cool extra-retro vibe. With a decent joystick, a player on top of their game feels like they’re in total control.

To this day, the Atari 2600 port of Space Invaders holds up quite well and is a cornerstone of any 2600 (or even the 8-bit or earlier era) collection.

Later, the Atari 2600 saw titles like Gorf, Galaxian, Demon Attack, Phoenix, Carnival, and Megamania. All of them have some of their genesis rooted in the gameplay mechanic that Space Invaders helped to popularize.

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Adventure

“The Predecessors to Open-World Adventure Games”

Without much information, starting up Adventure begins as a very stark scene. Your “character” is nothing but a small, basic square that you can move around. No attempts are making you resemble a person or creature. It seems that this was a very conscious decision. There are some recognizable items and structures such as a castle and keys, but there are other rather interesting items along the way that take a bit more decoding.

As a result, a single screenshot will not lure in any gamer, but is, instead like a minimalist piece of art that is just one segment of a larger piece of work.

Without a manual, it can be a very intriguing experience of trial and error — drawn in by the curiosity of exploring between the screens. There is a certain excitement that’s felt after digging through the first labyrinth and the excitement of finding a key.

However, the manual doesn’t spoil too much of the experience. In fact, in addition to being very helpful, the manual is an absolute pleasure reading — especially with kids. It reads like a short fairytale that contains the information that most players will need for their journey such as using a sword to slay a dragon and to capture a chalice. It will also inform you about your respawn ability. I was personally impressed that the game remembered certain things about your journey and progress after hitting the “Game Reset” switch while respawning you at the beginning. I didn’t realize the 2600 was capable of that.

Adventure has three different difficulty levels built into it, using the Atari’s hardware switches. Without the manual, I was able to complete the basic level in a relatively short amount of time, but it was a great way to share the game with my kids and cheer at the success. You could also view this setting as a bit of a tutorial level to get familiar with the mechanics. The second difficulty level is essentially the “real game” as it is far more fleshed out. The third setting randomizes the items and changes up other things to make the game much more replayable.

Even though Adventure was the more iconic Atari 2600 game, the Superman game, also developed by Atari, was also another game that was a major predecessor to the open-world adventure games. Internally at Atari, Warren Robinett had a difficult time getting the executives to sign off on his Adventure prototype. They wanted him to turn it into a Superman game. As an eventual compromise, Robinett was allowed to further develop his project while John Dunn used the Adventure prototype engine to serve as a foundation for what would eventually become the Superman game.

Adventure and Superman were similar games in that they both allowed players to envision a world larger than a single screen. While computer gamers already had such experiences, these were some of the first video games to provide expansive, traversable settings for the game mechanics to overlay. Adventure is the title that nostalgic pop culture has remembered and has some unique features, but Superman is in numerous ways a superior game. Superman also technically was released just a bit earlier as well.

One other noteworthy thing about Adventure is that it had the first major Easter Egg in a game that requires players to find a dot item that could help them enter a hidden room that housed a display that gave Robinett credit as the game’s author.

In retrospect, Adventure is an incredibly impressive piece of work to make use of what the Atari 2600 could do and thinking far outside what many of the other developers were considering for the platform and for what the future of the video game medium could provide.

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Also, look into the book, Adventure: The Atari 2600 at the Dawn of Console Gaming at Amazon

Pitfall

“The Proto-Platformer”

Innovative and industry-shifting in many ways, Activision’s Pitfall immediately raised the bar for Atari VCS game quality. An ancestor, in ways, of Super Mario Bros, Pitfall featured horizontal multi-screen adventuring by a distinctly human player character in relatively lifelike environments.

Exploring these digital terrains as Pitfall Harry, your goal in Pitfall is to grab 32 treasures within a 20 minute time limit. You loop through 255 screens (that circle back if you miss treasures) while avoiding obstacles such as scorpions, snakes, fire, alligators pits, and walls. To this day, the game holds up quite well despite having some rather cheap deaths.

Before Pitfall’s origin, however, there was a great deal of internal drama at Atari. Pitfall ended up being the result of a major shift internally at Atari and the genesis of powerhouse third-party developers. In the first could (?) years of the Atari 2600’s retail existence, four developers (Steve Cartwright, David Crane, Bob Whitehead, and Larry Kaplan) created the games responsible for 60% of Atari’s overall sales. They proposed being paid some share of game royalties and have named credit on their work.

The Atari CEO at the time, Ray Cassar was quoted in response, “Anybody can program a cartridge. You are no more important than the guy putting the boxes together on the assembly line”. This helped motivate this all-star crew to form Activision in 1979, of the earliest and best third-party software developers.

After Activision’s founding, David Crane started brainstorming his next creation. He knew he wanted to develop a fully-articulated man that was running on the 2600. Once he had that sketched out, he worked on a path for the man to run on, added some things for him to chase, and then a background. Once he added some additional obstacles, he had the initial template of his new game completed. He said it took 1,000 programming hours from there to knock out the core game. Sounds simple, but it launched an iconic game and set the prototype for an important new genre in the video game industry.

The development of the Pitfall opened up a new era of programmers using new tricks and techniques to accomplish new things on the Atari 2600’s limited hardware. If you look at games before Pitfall, you will see a much different visual and gameplay approach.

Activision innovated with gamer incentives as well. If you sent a picture of your TV screen with your score being 20,000 points or higher, you could mail it in to receive an Explorer’s badge. Was the very first Achievement in video games.

The enthusiasm for Pitfall was strong enough that fans would often draw out maps of the Pitfall adventure and mail them into Activision’s staff to share. The game and franchise was also popular enough to spawn plenty of merchandising, a Saturday morning cartoon, and even a board game version to entice those that weren’t into video games. You could even argue that Pitfall Harry was the closest thing to the “mascot” of the Atari 2600, which is ironic considering it was built by former Atari developers that went out on their own.

Within its initial retail run, Pitfall sold over 4 million units and it stayed at the #1 bestseller in video games sales for 64 weeks. It ended up being possibly the most recognizable Activision game for the console, though River Raid may garner a similar level of recognition.

Pitfall II kept much of the same styling, but took the expansiveness and world-building to a whole new level. It was completely revolutionary in this early era of video games. It added things such as fluid in-water movement, gradual screen scrolling, climbing through multiple layers of rooms, and even checkpoints.

Granted, Pitfall II added a special DPC (Display Processor Chip) to the game cartridge (could be thought of as the predecessor to the likes of Nintendo’s SuperFX and Sega’s SVP chips for their 16-bit systems) to allow their cartridges to increase the memory by 25%.

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Combat

(and Video Olympics)
“Early Home Versions of Atari Arcade Games”

Those of us that grew up in the 80s know how impactful the arcade experience was — especially in a multiplayer setup. Atari aimed to replicate that experience early on with the VCS. The solution was Combat: a multiplayer-only vehicular combat game that features a bunch of game modes and came packed with two joysticks.

Combat was advertised as 27 different “games” on the cartridge, each representing different forms of vehicular combat — utilizing tanks, jets, or biplanes with weapons capability. In reality, there are only three major game types utilizing the different vehicles and the others are variations with different rules and map setups. One top of that, there are different difficulty options with the console’s difficulty switch that determine how far tank shots will travel or slow down aircraft (this could be used to handicap a better player against a weaker opponent).

If you are familiar with Tank or Jet Fighter you will find Combat is heavily influenced by these classics. In fact, Tank (from Kee Games in 1974) was directly used as a model to create an initial game prototype for developing Atari’s home console system. Atari’s initial goal for the VCS/2600 was to play a home version of both Tank and Pong (which eventually was replicated in Video Olympics). Once hardware designer Joe Decuir completed the initial proof-of-concept, getting the basic Tank game engine up and running on the VCS prototype hardware, his software framework was handed off to Larry Wagner, Atari’s Head of Game Development, to get more gameplay elements added.

At this phase, Wagner developed other variations of Tank were built, such as adding walls of different complexities, bouncing shots (Tank Pong), and invisible tanks (only seeing the tanks on-screen when firing a short, are hit by a shot, or bump into a wall). Later on in the development process, the additional aircraft vehicles were added — essentially different speeds, control schemes and map layouts with the sprite designs being a simple way to signify the themes.

It is worth noting that multiplayer home games were also very common in the mid/late 70s as programmers were still dealing with tight hardware limitations and figuring out how to make the most of the system resources. Having extra code for “CPU” logic would not only take extra development time and experience, but also require more cartridge storage space. However, Atari made the most of their resources and limitations, delivering Combat as an early killer app in the industry.

Combat might not have the visual complexity of some of the later Atari 2600 games, but it remains one of the best multiplayer experiences on the console and is quite synonymous with the console.

Whether it was intentional or coincidental, having the pack-in game be multiplayer-only meant that owners of the system would keep introducing the Atari to people they knew — built-in word-of-mouth marketing system that built awareness of these home games systems. With the help of this word-of-mouth, 250,000 units of the Atari VCS (and Combat) were sold in the first year alone.

While most of Combat’s distribution was as a pack-in, it was later sold separately as “Tank Plus” for vendors like Sears that later included different pack-in titles with their Atari 2600 hardware.

Soon after Combat’s initial launch, Atari followed with loose interpretations of their other popular arcade titles, such as Air-Sea Battle, Basic Math, Blackjack, Indy 500, Star Ship, Street Racer, Surround, and Video Olympics (which was Atari’s replication of Pong). These were still rather basic experiences compared to the games from the mid-1980s, but they served as a good indication of what was to come from Atari and the other developers that would thrive on the system.

In its more mature years, the Atari 2600 became home to MANY arcade ports of high-profile names. Some could have used more work, some were adapted to a slightly different experience to make up for control limitations and somewhere downright impressive recreations. We will cover a lot of them as we progress through this retrospective, but Combat and Video Olympics were some of the early entries that defined the arcade-like experience for Atari owners.

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Yars’ Revenge

“The Fan Favorite”

A solid shooter is always a welcome addition to any retro console, but having a fresh perspective can often lead to innovative results. Yars Revenge, in particular, is a sideways shooter that is like one large boss fight that mixes elements of Breakout with unique tactics, timing and subtle defense to accomplish your mission.

Yars also has a unique, colorful and almost trippy presentation that instantly draws gamers of all ages in and almost feels like an abstract piece of art-in-motion to this day.

The programmer behind Yars Revenge, Howard Scott Warshaw was a fresh recruit at Atari, previously a coder at Hewlett Packard. He was looking for a career change out of the doldrums and saw video game development as a more artistic endeavor that could not only utilize his problem-solving skills but create something that people could enjoy and appreciate for years to come.

There are a handful of elements of Yars Revenge that lend itself well to both the creative presentation and compose the interesting gameplay structure.

The boss, known as the Qotile, is initially guarded behind a barrier that the player most gradually chip away at. The remaining pieces of the barrier circulate through the structure, creating a mesmerizing display.

The kaleidoscopic area in the middle of the screen is the “neutral zone” in which the boss’s slow homing missiles cannot hurt the player but the player cant shoot either. However, the Qotile can briefly morph into a Swirl that will be launched as a projective that can still do damage in the neutral zone. The neutral zone’s pulsing rainbow display was actually a visual representation of the game’s source code to serve as a way to create randomized visuals without taking up more cartridge space.

To defeat the Qotile after there is enough of the shield eroded, you must arm, aim, and fire the Zotile Cannon at the far left of the screen. Since it’s at a far distance you must time the shot just right to succeed. But upon contact, you are congratulated with a colorful screen-filling explosion.

While Yars Revenge is essentially a single strategical shooting battle, the game does have 7 different variations to give you some variety and replay value.

Interestingly, Yars Revenge was initially conceived as a port of the arcade game Star Castle, but as Warsaw evolved its design to work on the limited hardware. Yars took a more unique form that was never really replicated elsewhere on the 2600, eventually becoming one of the best-selling non-licensed games for the Atari 2600.

Memorable for all the right reasons, Yars Revenge was an iconic game for the console.

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Pac-Man

“The Best-Seller”

Pac-Man is definitely one of those video game icons that literally the majority of modern society is aware of. Mario might be the only single game property that has more worldwide brand awareness. Of course, Pac-Man didn’t originate on the Atari 2600, but was one of the major drivers of the arcade boom in the early 80s.

After Space Invaders paved the way for licensing hot arcade titles onto the home console, Atari knew that Pac-Man was an essential addition to their library and they wanted to capitalize on it quickly before the trend passed.

Atari programmer Tod Frye was tasked with the project of making the 2600 version, beginning in September of 1981 and was given only six months to complete the code. To make it more challenging, Atari’s marketing department demanded the feature two-player functionality as well. This meant the challenge at hand was to swiftly fit two full mazes in 128 bytes of memory (that’s bytes, not K). To his credit, Frye did a respectable job making it all work with the limited space he was allotted. You can read more about the techniques he used in Wikipedia’s development notes. Frye knew there were significant compromises made, but Atari management were not concerned and dismissed those warning that fans may be dismayed by the release. In fact, Atari management was supposedly even considering releasing a prototype to cash in on the 1981 holiday shopping season, but thought better of it. When it came to sell it at retail, Atari marketed it as differing “slightly from the original”.

But in reality, there were a lot of little things that just made it feel awkward and “wrong” when compared to the original. Things such as the maze’s horizontal layout, the Pac-Man sprite design and the flickering that irritated so many contributed to so many gamer’s eventual disappointment. If it was just pitched as a new maze game, it might have been received ok. But instead, it went down as one of the worst arcade conversions in history.

However, that didn’t keep the 2600 Pac-Man from being a hot seller. Enough stores and buyers were hyped to buy this promising home conversion of the hottest arcade game. Atari initially produced over 1 million copies for its launch and held a “National Pac-Man Day” on April 3, 1982 to help promote its release. However, stores quickly pre-ordered between 3 or 4 million units based on anticipated demand. The buzz of a home version of Pac-Man was enough for stores that previously didn’t sell video games, such as drugstores, to join the party.

Sales ended up reaching 7.2 million that first year and it became the best-selling Atari 2600 game of all time (with an estimate of 7.8 million units sold by 1983). By the summer of 1982, sales started to really slow down (possibly with word-of-mouth spreading about it not being great) and there were large quantities of unsold copies being left on store shelves.

Even though video game reviews, media, and word of mouth wasn’t as strong then as it is in the 21st century, the poor replication of the arcade classic truly hurt Atari’s reputation of putting out quality games and helped lead to the video game crash of 1983.
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Ms. Pac-Man

“The Outsourced Arcade Ports”

Around the time the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man was hitting the shelves, the much-improved follow-up to the legend was making its debut in the arcade.

And when it came time for a home version of Ms. Pac Man, Atari learned some lessons from their poor experience with the original. Instead of working on this version internally, it turned to Mike Horowitz & Josh Littlefield at an upstart company by the name of General Computer Corporation. The group founded by MIT dropouts also eventually contributed arcade ports of Centipede, Pole Position, Dig Dug, Joust, Battlezone, Galaxian, Jungle Hunt, Moon Patrol, Phoenix, Kangaroo, Vanguard, and Track and Field to the 2600 library.

While working on the home version of Ms. Pac-Man, GCC also had far more cartridge ROM space (a whole 8K) than Tod Frye at Atari did for the original Pac-Man. This allowed them to use bank-switching techniques for greater visuals.
This did increase the cartridge cost for Atari, but it was worth the expense to bring an actual quality port to the system.

Unlike the original Pac-Man on the 2600, Ms. Pac-Man featured all four ghosts, bouncing fruit, four different mazes, an animated title screen, and Ms. Pac-Man actually looks like Ms. Pac-Man. There’s still the more horizontal screen layout and a bit of flicker, but still much improved and reasonable on the 2600.

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Dragster

“The Birth of eSports and Video Game Achievements”

Even though it was one of Activision’s earliest and simplest 2600 releases, Dragster, in a rather timeless piece of code that essentially started the e-sports movement and had a significant competitive scoring controversy in the process.

Dragster is a relatively simple game on its surface. It replicates the concept of nitro-burning funny cars striving to efficiently accelerate down a straight track and get the best completion time possible.

Activision’s David Crane had a real talent for spotting interesting gameplay scenarios and solving the programming problems in making them a reality on limited hardware. Crane drew heavy inspiration for Atari’s own Drag Race arcade game from 1977 (Atari actually filed a lawsuit against Activision in 1980 with Dragster being specifically called out, before the case was thrown out a year and a half later).

Crane’s skill was justified with tricky conversion work to deal with the 2600’s limited hardware and controls. Combining the controls for the accelerator, steering wheel and gear shift all into the console’s joystick was his most significant challenge.

The button functions as the accelerator, for shifting gears, the player has to shift the joystick left to clutch and letting it go back to neutral to shift up a gear. If you’re still accelerating while shifting your gear, you will blow the engine. Same goes for letting the red and green bars fill too far on the tachometer. Crane worked on the powertrain simulator to make this feel as realistic as possible, resulting in a technically sound piece of code that has held up well over the decades.

A second game type in Dragster offers additional steering controls to bring it closer to the Drag Race arcade experience. This element adds one more thing for a skilled driver to manage while optimizing their time.

The longer-term fun of the game is refining your feel for the cars and trying to constantly beat your best times. Dragster was the first to offer a winnable patch to anyone that got a time under 6.5 seconds and was able to prove it with a photo sent to Activision. This, of course, led to players sharing their even better times, with Activision periodically showcasing new records in their print newsletter.

The competition of high scores eventually heated up to the point where Todd Rogers (who built a reputation of holding multiple solid records in the era) had a best time that even the game creators did not think was possible. Not only did David Crane break down why the time should be impossible (although Rodgers claimed he used a method of starting in second gear), but for years to come, community members eventually broke down the game possibilities frame-by-frame to figure out what is feasible. Over 30 years later, Twin Galaxies finally invalidated the record and banned Rodgers from leaderboards going forward. The controversy renewed interest in Dragster and since then, the classic game has become one of the most-run games on speedrun.com.

On top of all this technical and success in player competitiveness, Activision also sold more than 500,000 units of Dragster in the first year. This also accounted for half of Activision’s overall sales for 1980.

Even though, in this modern age, the game seems like something you might find in a mobile game, it holds up pretty well in the grand scheme of the 8bit gaming.

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River Raid

“The Shooter”

Arcade classics like Asteroids and Space Invaders popularized the idea of rapidly shooting a lot of enemies or projectiles to survive and progress, but out of the 80s bloomed the trend of scrolling shooters — eventually known as shoot-em-ups or shmups. There are many other arcade games that received much of the attention, but Activision’s River Raid is one of the under-appreciated granddaddys of the shmup genre in addition to being one of the 2600’s biggest sellers.

There are a handful of arcade shooters that receive credit for pioneering the genre. Games like Namco’s Xevious (in late 1982/early 1982 depending on region) and Capcom’s 1942 (from 1984) are often touted as pioneers of the modern scrolling shoot-em-up, but River Raid actually has them beat and did it on a home console in 1982.

In hindsight, it’s a shame we didn’t give River Raid proper mention in our “Games That Defined The Shmup Genre”, but perhaps that’s the point. Even though it was a groundbreaking achievement, and an excellent gaming experience, and innovated strongly on its given hardware platform, River Raid was often forgotten in gaming history — other than by those that were more than casual fans of the Atari 2600. (However, we did right this injustice with a mention of River Raid as one of the “Founding Fathers” of the Shmup genre in our Shmups 101 guide.

River Raid’s designer and programer, Carol Shaw apparently was inspired by Konami’s 1981 arcade game Scramble, but River Raid has many differences and innovations that bring us closer to the typical shmup genre that we all grew to love.

The game has players piloting an aircraft down a river with the ability to shoot everything in its path. The sides of the river (or little parts of land in the middle of the river) act as walls that you can crash into. In addition to survival of obstacles, monitoring your fuel is important. Similar to some arcade racers, you can pick up fuel items. And as an interesting risk vs reward scoring mechanic, you can boost your score heavily by shooting the fuel chargers instead of absorbing them. River Raid was also one of the first games to procedurally generate the placement of enemies and other objects, making it near impossible to try and memorize a set path.

In addition to being the first female game designer, Carol Shaw also did an excellent job making great use of the Atari 2600’s limited resources. The 2600 didn’t previously have a good way of creating the scrolling effect that was needed for this type of game. To help fit the game in the limited amount of ROM, the landscape in River Raid is mirrored — also used for creating islands in the middle of the river. Shaw also used a pseudo-randomization function or algorithm to generate the objects on the screen. Because the so-called “random” function would always have the same initial result, all the levels were consistent every time the game was played. Shaw also decided to have the game scroll vertically to allow for more pixel resolution thus smoother scrolling. All these innovative techniques helped River Raid feel even more like an NES game from a visual standpoint (while the NES was still 2 years away at the time of River Raid’s release)

River Raid was definitely a big title in its day. Activision said it sold a million copies in six months. It was great fun in its day, and is still worth playing now, something I admit can’t be said for all of the 2600’s hits. For example, the 2600 Ms. Pac-Man was great in 1983 and felt like an apology for the original Pac-Man cart a year earlier, but with all the later ports and emulation of the arcade original, there’s no real need to play it today.

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Warlords

“The Party Game” (alternatively, “the Game That Used Non-Standard Controllers”)

Based on the 1980 arcade game of the same name, Warlords replicated the tremendous 4-player experience in a setup that is often likened to a mix between Pong and Breakout. Warlords was developed specifically with the Paddle controller (which has a spinning dial to control your avatar) and puts the player in the place of one of four “Knights” that battle it out against each other to defend their castles. The Atari Paddle controllers were sold in pairs as they were often used in multiplayer games. Warlords is one of the very best to make use of them.

With the paddle controllers, you can rebound the “fireballs” (slower setting) or “lightening balls” (faster setting) toward one of your opponents (similar to Pong) while simultaneously defending your castle behind you. Fireballs that don’t get deflected erode at the castles in a fashion similar to Breakout. In a fun little twist, a fallen Warlord’s ghost can haunt the battlefield to change the ball’s direction. The battle continues until one Warlord’s kingdom remains. The player that wins 5 battles wins the war.

Warlords has 23 game variations that configure the number of players, determine how the shields react and also offer some easier modes for children. There is a single player mode available if you just want to play against the computer and there’s a Doubles mode that lets two players control two shields each.

The Atari 2600 version of Warlords was written by Carla Meninsky, one of the two female game designers to work for Atari in the early 1980s. According to Meninsky, the development of the 2600 version preceded development of the arcade version, which explains why there’s a noticeable difference in the visual presentation.

Warlords is possibly the most popular early game that allowed for 3 or 4 players. Arguably the best paddle game for the 2600 as well, though many would probably argue for Kaboom! (which we get to next….)

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Kaboom!

“Zen Master Training”

Atari 2600 titles were usually simple by necessity, but that simplicity often created a unique kind of game that demands a singular focus. There’s no better example of this than Activision’s 1981 title Kaboom! Using the paddle controllers, the player moves buckets of water horizontally to catch bombs as they fall from the top of the screen. And that’s it. The straight-forward gameplay creates the ultimate twitch game that demands complete concentration. A successful game of Kaboom! requires the player to shut out all external stimuli and all thoughts of anything other than reacting to the blur of bombs on the screen. Played well, Kaboom! could almost be seen as a training exercise for aspiring Zen masters.

Game designer Larry Kaplan set out to make an unauthorized adaption of Atari’s 1978 game Avalanche, a game in which the player catches falling rocks. Kaplan’s update shows how a few changes can sometimes turn a good concept into a classic. In fact, the limitations of the 2600 forced changes that improved the game. Unable to display multiple rows of falling items, Kaplan decided to use a single figure dropping bombs. Pitfall! creator David Crane designed the cartoonish Mad Bomber who wears a black and white striped prison uniform and a mask, as well as the buckets of water at the bottom of the screen representing the player. The Mad Bomber character instantly gave the game some personality, with some subtle graphics giving players a glimpse into the psyche of the game’s villain. The Mad Bomber displays a determined frown when the player is successfully catching the falling bombs, a smile of delight when the player misses, and then finally, an awed expression of shock when a player achieves a score of 10,000 or higher.

However, few players will ever see that expression of the Mad Bomber’s respect because Kaboom! is challenging. The game consists of eight levels, starting very slowly and ramping up in both difficulty and points awarded if the player finishes the level successfully. Completing the first six waves without missing a bomb gives the player a score of 1000. This is where the speed really picks up, and this threshold introduces the option for a bit of strategy in a game that is otherwise all about hand-eye coordination. An extra bucket is awarded at every 1000 points, however, it’s not possible to have more than three buckets, and buckets can’t be held in reserve, so some players purposely miss bombs right before the 1000 points levels. This slows the pace by reverting to the speed of an earlier level. This is helpful, but keeping an eye on the score can be dangerous when trying to keep up with the frenetic pace of dropping bombs in the later levels.

Kaboom! was a great success for Activision, selling over a million copies, but the game has not had an official rerelease outside of a few ports in the early 1980s. This is probably due in part to the game’s need for a specific type of rotary controller, but it also speaks to the perfection achieved by the original. Perhaps the best possible update to the original is a respectful hack called Kaboom! Deluxe! by Darrell Spice Jr. This hack features a 2-player game variation which was originally offered in the Atari 5200 port, giving one player control of the Mad Bomber, while the other player controls the buckets of water. But other than this variation and a few very minor changes, the game remains the same because they got it right the first time.

Check for Kaboom! on eBay

Raiders of the Lost Ark

“The Movie Tie-In Video Game”

As Atari entered the early 80s under the banner of WarnerMedia the leadership saw the prospects in linking more established media such as movies and TV with this newer video game medium. And as the industry became more competitive, they knew that a big brand name tied into a new game release would give it a huge edge on the marketplace. After all, toys based on movie properties like Star Wars were already a growing force.

After securing the rights to the video game rights to Indiana Jones & The Raiders of the Lost Ark, Atari assigned one of their newer programmers stars, Howard Scott Warshaw was assigned the project. Washaw showed off his creativity with his first game project, Yars Revenge (mentioned above) and was eager to not only work on this exciting property, but wanted to make an interesting gameplay experience to do it justice. Actually, his first choice was to do a Yars sequel, but he was talked into the project and eventually considered personally demonstrating the game to Steven Spielberg, a personal highlight. After watching the preview at 1982’s CES, Spielberg said, ““Boy, that looks just like a movie.”

Raiders of the Lost Ark was not only the first game based on a movie license that paved the way for IPs for movie+game tie-ins, but it was a rather groundbreaking, multi-screen adventure.

The game itself is essentially a puzzle-solving adventure, but there weren’t many existing templates of those types of game until the likes of the early King’s Quest games in the mid 80s. The simple Atari joysticks were also very limiting to what could be done, so Warshaw required the player to use two different controllers: one to control Indy and use items and the other to select and drop items. Warshaw saw both the strengths and weaknesses in earlier Atari 2600 games like Adventure and Pitfall, but wanted to take things further. He felt being limited to a single item in Adventure was disappointing, and he didn’t want to have a bunch of slightly different screens like in Pitfall. He mentioned in detail, “I wanted it to be a different screen every time and you go whoa… and every screen is a different experience. And the two controller interface was the best way to do it, it added a physical aspect to the game if that makes any sense. I could have done it with the console switches but I don’t think that you should have to be next to the system to play, I didn’t like the idea of that at all.”

Granted, in hindsight, Warshaw’s goals for the Raiders of the Lost Ark game were perhaps a bit overly ambitious given the hardware constraints of the game. (let alone the tight time schedule). However, while there were many gamers that ended up lost and confused (especially if they didn’t have a manual to read), the game ended up being a personal favorite of many in the Atari generation.

To put it into perspective, I will share some comments from AtariAge members that remember the game well from their experiences in the early 80s: “Raiders is on my top 5 list of 2600 games. Much like your favorite movies of all-time where you go back and visit at least once a year; Raiders has the same ritual. Looking at Youtube vids, it’s always interesting how people traverse through the game, items they pick up or don’t and what tasks they do first. I guess that’s why (at least to me) the game has a nice replay factor to it. ” Raiders of the Lost Ark ended up selling 1 million copies for the Atari 2600, a true blockbuster in its day. As some that are familiar with the Atari story may know that this success quickly led to a stronger shift in Atari’s focus and the eventual downfall of Atari’s success and jeopardizing the video game industry as a whole. This leads us to…

Check for Raiders of the Lost Ark on eBay

E.T.

“The Face of the Home Video Game Crash”

After Howard Scott Warshaw’s success at Atari with both Yar’s Revenge and a relatively tight schedule success in creatively adapting Raiders of the Lost to a gameplay experience that the 2600 could handle, the executives at Atari leaned on Warshaw a bit more to cash in on the next big Hollywood property. Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial debuted in the summer of 1982 and Atari wanted to be able to get a game out into the retail market in time for that Christmas Holiday season.

As Warshaw recalled, “It took Atari until late July to get the rights and the game had to be done by September 1st to make it in time for the Christmas market. So with only five weeks to make a game it was a tight squeeze, particularly since no one had ever done a game in less than five or six months before.”

If that didn’t seem intimidating enough, Warhaw had to develop a game concept to pitch directly to Spielberg within 36 hours of getting the call from Atari CEO, Ray Kassar. To his credit, Warshaw tried to create something that was modestly ambitious that he thought he could knock out relatively quickly. E.T. on the 2600 a top-down adventure game in which E.T. had to find three pieces of an interplanetary telephone while avoiding pesky FBI agents. E.T.’s action used up his energy bar, which could also be replenished by collecting Reese’s Pieces. Once he gets the phone back together and calls his home planet, E.T. needs to get to a designated area in time to return back home.

The premise and overall design is quite commendable for something on the Atari 2600. When one learns the details and context, you can tell more thought was put into E.T. than many other licensed movie and TV-based video games of the 8-bit and 16-bit generations. The poor reputation that E.T. received was mostly based on the level of frustration experienced by most of the people that played the game.

To collect all the item’s E.T. must navigate through areas with wells. Items can be found in the wells, but falling into the wells can be disorienting and levitating back out of the wells can feel like a chore.

Warshaw admitted that due to the limited timeframe, he did not have time to fine-tune the gameplay, and as a result it committed the “fundamental sins” of video game design: it was rather disorienting to the player, ““A video game needs some level of frustration, or else there is no satisfaction in the win,” said Warshaw. “But there’s a difference between frustration (‘I know what I’m trying to do, I’m just falling short’) and disorientation (‘I’m suddenly in a world I don’t understand, and I don’t know how I got there’).”

Looking back when questions about what he would do differently on E.T., Warshaw responded, “I think it would be the wells, I would make it so that there were less wells and if you got out of a well you couldn’t fall into another as soon as you got out of one.”

Regardless of quality, Atari was going to publish E.T. to make their holiday rush money. They had it initially priced at $38 a pop and sold 2.6 million copies by the end of 1982. However, later in 1983, over 669,000 copies were later returned and the remaining units were quickly slashed to a $7.99 retail price. In the end, between 2.5 and 3.5 million copies remained unsold. Atari apparently expected E.T. to become one of the very largest selling games on the platform as only Pac-Man and Space Invaders even exceeded 5 million units sold. (Although, E.T. did end up ranking as the #8 best-selling 2600 game of all time).

What followed was the infamous urban legend of Atari sending 20 truckloads of left-over E.T. games to a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The legend was eventually confirmed 31 years later when a crew dug these copies up as illustrated in the documentary, Atari Game Over. However, the burial included more Atari items than simple E.T. cartridges.

E.T., however, did contribute heavily to the video game crash that was on its way. The distrust of the lackluster Pac-Man port for the 2600 was possibly the first domino with E.T. helping build the momentum before additional third-party shovelware and all sorts or retail outlets overstocking their shelves helped dig the temporary grave for the industry.

Even though E.T. for the Atari 2600 is often cited as one of the worst games in video game history, this reputation was really exacerbated by the money grab by Atari, the subsequent retail returns from customers, the video game crash that followed and the landfill legends.

Sure, the game did need more time for refinement, but it was an admirable concept and foundation by Howard Scott Warshaw. In fact, in the last couple of decades, Atari enthusiast programers have worked together to build a hacked version of E.T. that fixes most of the issues to make it a far more enjoyable game.

Check for E.T. on eBay
Check for E.T. on Amazon.com

Related Media:

Swordquest: Earthworld

“Failure of Dreams”

There’s one other important category that I’d say defines the Atari 2600: failure. Jawdropping, what-were-you-thinking failure. For this, I’d pick Swordquest: Earthworld, the first in a mercifully uncompleted series that was shockingly ill-conceived.

The Swordquest series of games was an ambitious project started in the peak of the Atari boom of 1982. Internally, at Atari, the project was actually viewed as a spiritual sequel to Adventure (mentioned above). Seeing how gamers enjoyed the Easter egg element in Adventure, the Atari crew thought it would be fun to take the next adventure to the next level by having players look for clues in both the game itself and accompanying physical materials. Each game in the series would come with a comic book to explain the plot and would also be some of the earliest examples of combining narrative with twitch gameplay.

The Swordquest series was also surrounded by a grand promotion and prizes valued at $150,000 to the winner of the games’ contest of solving puzzles contained in the four installments: Earthworld, Fireworld, Waterworld, and Airworld (which ended up being unreleased). Their prizes aren’t what you might think of from an 80s video game company. This wasn’t cash, a sports car, or a massive entertainment center. Nope, for the Swordquest series, the prizes were classical treasures such as a diamond-encrusted chalice, a large gem in a golden box or a jewel-studded crown of gold.

Much of this ambition came from the WarnerMedia ecosystem in which Atari now found itself. Warner also owned DC Comics and the Franklin Mint. So it only seemed natural for DC Comics to help with the game’s comics and the Franklin Mint being commissioned for the elaborate treasures to tempt the players. (For more information, there is a solid article about the background of the games and the the awarded and hidden treasures)

Earthworld got off to a great commercial start, selling around 500,000 copies, 5,000 players ended up submitting answers, and only 8 players had all the correct answers to grant them access to the tournament.

Fireworld sold well, but had a much better turnout of correct answers, so there was an essay phase to narrow down to 50 tournament participants. Instead of being sold in wide retail distribution at launch, the third installment, Waterworld, was only available to Atari Club members who purchased via mail order, starting in February of 1984. The contest for Waterworld was abruptly ended in the middle of 1984 by request of Tramel CEO, Jack Tramiel, after his company bought out Atari during their financial troubles. Due to the rather small print run and interesting story around Waterworld, it now resides in our list of Rare and Valuable Atari 2600 games.

A friend of mine used to work with someone who was a programmer at Atari in the early 80s. He said Atari was always doomed because you can’t let coke fiends run a company. When I heard this story, Swordquest finally made sense to me. Check for Swordquest: Earthworld on eBay

The Mail In-Games

Crazy Climber, Kool-Aid Man, Chase the Chuckwagon, etc.

In this early gold-rush of the video game industry, there were many different marketing and distribution experiments that took place. One of the most mainstream experiments was the mail-order distribution method.

Atari Club

Atari essentially pioneered the technique with their Atari Club. Crazy Climber was a conversion of a popular arcade game that served as the very first of the Atari Club-exclusive games. It was later followed by Gravitar, Quadrun, and SwordQuest: Waterworld (mentioned above). And while these all were pitched as mail-in exclusives, they eventually did show up in toy store clearance bins later on.

Kool-Aid Man

Most kids in the 80s will remember saving up Kool-Aid Points from the packaging of the iconic sweetened drink mix for all sorts of goodies. In 1983, Mattel partnered up with Kraft Foods to create a game to feature their Kool-Aid Man and be an exciting new redemption option for those Kool-Aid Points. It was a rather simple game in which Kool-Aid Man had to quench the thirst of “Thirsties” who were attempting to drink up all the water in a swimming pool. Power-ups in the form of letters that signified Kool-Aid Power, Sugar, Water made the player invincible for a little while and refilled the pool a bit.

Chase the Chuckwagon

This mail-order release by Ralston-Purina (a popular dog food brand) is often viewed as the poster child for what went wrong with the home video game market during the Golden Age. The game itself is a maze game that is loosely aiming to replicate the experience of a dog chasing a chuckwagon like that portrayed in the brand’s 70’s and 80’s era commercial. However, even the developer of the game admitted that he only was given a weekend to develop the game and apologizes for its poor quality.

There were many unshipped copies of Chase the Chuckwagon that were eventually destroyed and, for a decade or two, the game was viewed as one of the “Holy Grails” of Atari 2600 collecting. As Atari collecting matured, experienced collectors pointed out that there were many more games out there that were far more rare (many of which were also mail order games). Of course, a complete copy is still quite hard to find, so it is still worth looking out for.

Check out this AtariAge thread about 2600 Mail-Order games for a more thorough list and some discussion of the topic.

Solaris

“The Late 80s Resurgence”

By 1986, a lot had changed in the video game industry. The dust from the Video Game Crash had settled. Nintendo had revitalized the industry with the Nintendo Entertainment System. Atari was also now just a shell of its former self, but under new ownership by Jack Tramel, the founder of Commodore International. To compete with both Nintendo and Sega, Atari released both the budget Atari Jr. (the last leg of the 2600 generation) and the new Atari 7800 systems.

With the Atari Jr being out on the market, Tramel was open to new development efforts for the system. In fact, in the prior year of 1985, there had been no Atari 2600 games published (and even 1984 only had 5 Atari or Sears-published games). Doug Neubauer, the programmer behind 1979’s Star Raiders (which was originally published on Atari’s 8-bit computers and then ported to the 2600 and 5200 in 1983) wanted to develop a sequel for his game that was already known for its relatively deep gameplay. Star Raiders was popular with high-score chasers, but also benefited from multiple strategies for success. Neubauer was eager to take his extra years of experience and see what he could really do with the limited 2600 hardware. The result was Solaris, a game that still is often viewed as the game that accomplished the goal of maximizing the hardware for both visuals and gameplay depth on the Atari 2600.

Solaris took advantage of smooth scrolling and sprites that scale into the background, creating 3D-like environments. Although the game played much like a first-person space shooter, you can always see your ship at the bottom of the screen. The graphics for Solaris were first-rate as the multi-colored aliens are flicker-free and glide along smoothly, even when attacking in groups. Solaris even had some high quality audio to round out the experience.

Of course, Neubauer was not content with Solaris being an audio/visual showcase, he included a handful of features that would make it a rather deep game — even compared to some of its NES contemporaries. Solaris featured a complex warping system allowing you to jump around between the 15 different quadrants (with 48 sectors each) on your journey to find the planet Solaris before the Zylons beat you to it. Along the way, you must manage your fuel, engage in high-speed combat with enemies and try to rescue stranded space cadets. In the end, there is quite a bit of a real-time-strategy element to Solaris that takes some reading of the manual or guide to fully understand and appreciate.

It is safe to say that Solaris essentially rebooted Atari 2600 development in 1986, breaking the over-a-year drought. A couple other titles were released later on in 1986 and 2600 Atari’s internal game development continued on until 1990. Third-party production picked up again as well, in ’87. Of all the “late era” games I can’t think of one that’s as competent, popular, or as flat-out good as Solaris.

Solaris is definitely one game that comes up quite frequently in terms of innovative 2600 games. Considering the 2600 wasn’t originally intended to do much more than play Pong variants, Solaris is a technical masterpiece with its sophisticated gameplay and relatively high resolution graphics.

Check for Solaris on eBay

Halo 2600

“The Modern-Day Homebrew Titles Extending the Console’s Legacy”

The Atari 2600 finally saw production end in 1992 (quite a lifespan!) but as a beloved piece of hardware with many hardware limitations, hobbyist developers saw the 2600 has an interesting challenge.

Ed Fries is the former Head of Microsoft Game Studios, is known as the man that talked Bill Gates into making a console, and was instrumental in Microsoft acquiring Bungie (and the Halo franchise). He had previously tinkered with game development as a teenager on his Atari 800, but after reading the influential book, Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, he decided to take on the challenge of creating his own 2600 game.

At first, he simply set out to have the system draw Halo’s iconic Master Chief character on the screen. However, between enjoying the process of learning and getting feedback and support from existing Atari 2600 homebrew developers, he continued to flesh out the project into a full game of Master Chief fighting through 64 screens with varied enemies. The Halo 2600 experience was heavily inspired by Atari titles like Adventure and Berzerk.

The game was eventually published on actual cartridges by Atari Age — making its debut at the Classic Gaming Expo 2010 With a bit of an official backing of the Halo branding and imagery, it was one of the biggest homebrew success stories in all of retro gaming and inspired many more enthusiasts to tinker with homebrew and share their own creations.
Check for Halo 2600 on eBay

Arcade Ports

As mentioned above, the Atari 2600 initial goal was to replicate a few arcade experiences at home. As Atari built their internal library and also expanded their relationships with other publishers, the system saw an increased amount of arcade ports — all memorable and most being beloved.

If you aren’t familiar with the arcade scene of the late 70s / early 80s, there might even be a couple quality games here that you didn’t actually know originated in the arcade. Even if they aren’t arcade-accurate ports, the 2600 is a fun way to discover some arcade classic gameplay.

Even though we featured a few high-profile arcade titles above, we still felt bad leaving out so many of the other big arcade hitters from the main “Games That Defined” lineup.

In addition to some of our favorites listed below, arcade ports developed in-house, like Asteroids, Defender and Missile Command were strong contenders. Out of those three Asteroids, was perhaps the most noteworthy as it was the first one to make use of a newly developed bank-switching scheme that extended the ROM space that the 2600 could address, from 4K to 8K and more.

Defender was probably the least well-received of the three I mentioned but I had it as a kid and loved it just fine. The shortcomings of 2600 Defender when juxtaposed with the arcade game certainly exist, no doubt, but the arcade game was so difficult to play well that only “hardcore” arcade players ever really spent much time with it. 2600 Defender was far, far more accessible. And that made sense, since trying to wring quarters out of people’s pockets with home ports of arcade games wasn’t necessary. The home gamers have already spent their money, so… let them play.

Anyway, here’s our additional top picks for 2600 games that originated in the arcades (we’d also love to hear your favorites in the comments below):

Additional Atari 2600 Games That Made A Significant Impact

There’s so many games in the Atari 2600 library that held a special place in gamers library. It was actually quite difficult to decide what all to include above and even in this section of honorable mentions. But I welcome you to leave a comment below with a game or two that you think really should have been included here. But please include a sentence or two for each that makes the case for why it deserves to be included.

  • Superman – mentioned above alongside Adventure, but a reminder that Atari’s Superman game was also a big step towards the open-world adventure games that we appreciated in years to come They were both some of the first video games to provide expansive, traversable settings for the game mechanics to overlay with Superman being a superior game in numerous ways. (eBay)
  • Pitfall II – As mentioned in the original Pitfall’s section, Pitfall II kept true to the style of the original but greatly expanded the world-building and interactions. It was completely revolutionary in this early era of video games. It added things such as fluid in-water movement, gradual screen scrolling, climbing through multiple layers of rooms, and even checkpoints. In addition to more programming experience, Pitfall II also benefited from a special DPC (Display Processor Chip) to allow the cartridge to increase the memory by 25%. (eBay)
  • Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – one of the best movie tie-in games in which you take on an Imperial AT-AT walker while piloting a snowspeeder. Sting them on the nose enough and they’ll change colors, eventually exploding. Or you can hit their flashing sweet spot, causing instant destruction. Unfortunately the other Star Wars games that followed on the 2600 aren’t quite as solid. (eBay)
  • Demon Attack – of all the bottom-up shooters in the post-Space Invaders world, Demon Attack is the best-looking and most popular. The colorful alien sprites, great audio, and tight control turned Demon Attack into a major hit, selling over 2 million units –estimated to be the tenth-best selling Atari 2600 game. It is also the best-selling 2600 game that wasn’t either from Atari, Activision or a home version of a popular arcade game. (eBay)
  • Enduro – Enduro, though simple, was another quality example of Activision’s work. As one of the 2600’s best racers, the goal in Enduro is to pass a certain number of cars each day to progress. Adding to the challenge and the visual presentation, there’s the different elements that change as you drive: sun, snow, dusk, night, and fog. The rendering, third-person view, and concept are executed so much more beautifully than other racing titles like Night Driver or Pole Position. (eBay)
  • Indy 500 – The first great competitive racing game you could play at home, Indy 500 invented the basic formula used by RC Pro-Am, Super Off-Road, Rock ‘n Roll Racing, etc. Though simple, Indy 500 is still worth playing today due to the pinpoint control offered by the Driving Controllers which were included with every copy of the game in an enormous orange box. Sadly, these controllers were never used by any other games during the 2600’s official lifespan. (eBay)
  • Starpath Supercharger games – expanded on the console hardware to offer higher-quality games such as The ‘Official’ Frogger and Dragonstomper (eBay)
  • Air Raid – The impossibly rare curiosity with an odd T-shaped handle. Once thought to be a pirate cart from South America, it was just a game that was sold by salesmen to retail outlets like drugstores that didn’t typically sell video games. Now one of the leading examples of Rare & Valuable Atari 2600 games.
  • Custer’s Revenge – possibly the most infamous of the “adult” shovelware games, Custer’s Revenge sparked the first real protests against video games. The publisher, Mystique seemed to use the controversy to their advantage as it sold more copies than it’s other adult-only games. It was originally sold in typical retail outlets with a warning message, but eventually were liquidated into adult stores. In addition to this more pornographical content, there were also more violent “adult” games on the 2600 like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. These types of content also contributed to Nintendo’s Seal of Quality when they revitalized the home video game console market. Yes, it may have seemed like they were heavy-handed and wanted to get the most licensing revenue they could, but it was really to curb the low quality and content that wasn’t family friendly.

Additional Resources:

If you’re looking to brush up on more Atari console history, here are some hard-copy materials for you to check out.  All links to Amazon are affiliate links, so they help support the production of Racketboy content.  Also, if you’d like to support directly, check out our Patreon page.   Thanks for your support!

Once Upon Atari: How I Made History By Killing An Industry by Howard Scott Warshaw (developed Yars Revenge, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.)  – from publisher:

“An intimate view into the dramatic rise and fall of the early video game industry, and how it shaped the life of one of its key players. This book offers eye-opening details and insights, delivered in a creative style that mirrors the industry it reveals. An innovative work from one of the industry’s original innovators. This is a detailed look behind the scenes of the early days of video games, with particular attention to the causative factors leading up to the video game crash of the early 1980s. It is also the journey of one industry pioneer, and how his experience creating some of the world’s most noted pieces of interactive entertainment reverberates throughout his life. It is a compelling tale of innocence, joy, greed, devastation and ultimately redemption, told in a fresh voice and unorthodox style.”  (Find Book on Amazon)

Atari 2600/7800: A Visual Compendium by Bitmap Books – from publisher:

“This book aims to cover the highs and lows of what was a truly tumultuous period in video game history, an era which laid down the foundations for what has today become one of the world’s most popular forms of entertainment.

Atari 2600/7800: a visual compendium aims to showcase the very best pixel art, cover art and product design on each system. Spread over 528 pages, it features over 200 classic games, with articles on the leading third-party developers, interviews with key figures in the industry and features on subjects such as cover art, prototypes and homebrew releases.” (Find Book on Amazon)

Racing The Beam: The Atari Video Computer System
by Nick Montfort
– from publisher:

“A study of the relationship between platform and creative expression in the Atari VCS…. The Atari VCS was affordable and offered the flexibility of changeable cartridges. Nearly a thousand of these were created, the most significant of which established new techniques, mechanics, and even entire genres. This book offers a detailed and accessible study of this influential video game console from both computational and cultural perspectives.

Studies of digital media have rarely investigated platforms—the systems underlying computing. This book (the first in a series of Platform Studies) does so, developing a critical approach that examines the relationship between platforms and creative expression. Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost discuss the Atari VCS itself and examine in detail six game cartridges: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars’ Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. They describe the technical constraints and affordances of the system and track developments in programming, gameplay, interface, and aesthetics. Adventure, for example, was the first game to represent a virtual space larger than the screen (anticipating the boundless virtual spaces of such later games as World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto), by allowing the player to walk off one side into another space; and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was an early instance of interaction between media properties and video games.” (Find Book on Amazon)

Atari: Game Over (Documentary)

“This enthralling documentary chronicles the fall of the Atari Corporation and investigates one of the biggest mysteries of all time, dubbed “The Great Video Game Burial of 1983.” In the early 1980s, Atari supposedly buried nearly a million copies of “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial” — one of the company’s biggest commercial failures and often cited as one of the worst games ever released — in a New Mexican desert landfill. Over time, reports of this strange mass burial became a sort of urban legend. Decades later, a crew attempts to separate fact from fiction by digging up all of the old game cartridges and shedding light on this fascinating mystery” (Find Blu-Ray/DVD on Amazon)

Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino

“Art of Atari is the first official collection of such artwork. Sourced from museums and private collections worldwide, this book spans over 40 years of the company’s unique illustrations used in packaging, advertisements, catalogs, and more!

Art of Atari includes behind-the-scenes details on how dozens of games featured within were conceived of, illustrated, approved (or rejected), and brought to life. Whether you’re a fan, collector, enthusiast, or new to the world of video games, this book offers the most complete collection of ATARI artwork ever produced!” (Find Book on Amazon)

Atari Inc: Business is Fun by Curt Vendel & Marty Goldberg – from publisher:

“An amazing 800 pages (including nearly 300 pages of rare, never before seen photos, memos and court documents), this book details Atari’s genesis from an idea between an engineer and a visionary in 1969 to a nearly $2 billion dollar juggernaut, and ending with a $538 million death spiral during 1984. A testament to the people that worked at this beloved company, the book is full of their personal stories and insights.

Learn about topics like all the behind the scenes stories surrounding the creation of the company’s now iconic games and products, The amazing story of Atari’s very own “Xerox PARC” research facility up in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains.   [Also includes]… The full recounting of Steve Jobs’s time at Atari, with comments from the people he worked with on projects and the detailed story of the creation of Atari Breakout, including input by Steve Wozniak on his development of the prototype, and how it couldn’t be used and another Atari engineer would have to make the final production Breakout arcade game instead.” (Find Book on Amazon)


8 Comments

Goatlll says:

Great work as usual! The 2600 was the first system I owned, at a time when people were throwing them away by the thousands after the crash. We couldn’t afford to own a NES for a few years, and very young me was happy to have a black and white tv with stacks upon stacks of tiny black bricks

I would also like to mention two other games. Boxing from Activision, which could be considered the first 3rd party game, and Moon Patrol, which is one of the earliest games with a full backing track. I would also like to mention Cosmic Ark, not because it’s significant, but because it is a lot of fun and the cover is…. something.

racketboy says:

Thank you! It was a real pleasure to work on this one. I could have spent way more time on it, but I figured it was getting rather lengthy and I also wanted to actually publish it 🙂 Perhaps someday, I will expand it further.

Great to hear your story. My first exposure was the one belonging to my older cousin. I’m not sure what year it was. I’m not even sure if the NES was around then, or just kinda getting going. I got the impression they had owned the Atari for a while, but it was great playing Space Invaders, Pole Position and others. I was still rather young and really only had the arcades at that point otherwise.

And thanks for the recommendations. I will have to research Boxing more — now I’m curious why that one was Activision’s first 🙂 And love Moon Patrol, but should read up on that more. And I’ll admit, I have a couple copies of Cosmic Ark around, but I really haven’t give it much time. Need to dig in more. Thanks again!

Shelf says:

The 2600 had the first FPS game – Mogul Maniac – a first-person skiing game. You can use a special tilt controller with it. Actually, though some special controller games are mentioned (namely paddle), there are numerous other weird or one-shot controllers for the 2600.

racketboy says:

Oooh — I’m going to have to look into that one. I’ve never even heard of it — thank so much!

Golgo 14 says:

Yeah, I had a Joyboard lol. Still have it somewhere. It’s… not great, but a nice Atari oddity. Now that I think of it, it’s the granddaddy of the Wii Fit Balance Board.

Another tidbit is that Mogul Maniac and its huge controller were put out by the Amiga Corporation before they were acquired by Commodore and put out the Amiga line of PCs.

Mozgus says:

Well at least 5 of these I owned, or my grandma owned and I was playing as a young kiddo. I still dont think my gaming addiction began until a well worn NES landed in my grasp, once my dad got tired of Duck Hunt. Atari was a fine device but the NES unlocked my imagination.

Mozgus says:

And I gotta be honest, only really Combat holds up. Everything else really aged terribly, but as long as your 1 button stick functions, Combat is truly the best 1-on-1 the 2600 still offers today. Shame my paddles need complete electrical rebuilds. They are very mis-calibrated now. They’re really nothing more than a variable resistor which dont age well, but I dunno if I will ever fix them.

racketboy says:

For some of them, I think a lot of it depends on your goals/expectations are for the game.

My kids and I all really enjoy River Raid a lot — even with other shooters in our library.
Yars Revenge is cool — especially when you’re trying to figure it out.
And a lot of these games if one strikes a chord with you — even if you’ve figured it all out, replay can be as simple as trying to beat your top score or get through it quicker.
Everyone is different.

Are all of these games highly recommended for modern gamers? No. But at the same time, that wasn’t the goal of this particular guide. Even my young kids appreciate ones like Adventure, Pitfall, Enduro, etc to see the roots of modern games, how game creators worked with limitations, and appreciating the craft of them.

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