The Atari VCS/2600 was the first games console I was introduced to and would help lead to years of time spent playing on other Atari systems before I moved into the wider world of games. It’s also a case where there was a thirty year gap between my time with the system as I had originally played only a handful of titles when I was young but was exposed to a lot more when I grew up and started to collect.
So this list is a mix of games I’ve played over both time periods and are the ones that have made the biggest impact on me. I still like that I can switch on the old 2600 and be happily playing away and that’s a credit to the people behind these games. The majority of these come from Activision too who really made the most of their opportunity to establish themselves in the early years. I’m sure my thoughts will continue to change over time but this is a good place to start. 🙂
Anyway, in no particular order…
For me it’s the original vertically scrolling shooter and also one of the best games ever. In River Raid, players must fly down the “River of No Return” shooting down anything that gets in the way of them destroying the bridge that signals the end of each stage. A depleting fuel gauge adds to the tension forcing players to seek out fuel tanks for a quick top up. Later versions added more enemies but the core game remains unchanged and still very challenging. I played the Atari 8bit version A LOT so it may get mentioned again in the future…
The Atari 2600 version of Space Invaders may not look like the arcade version at all but was packed in with a huge number of game variations that meant you were never short of a challenge and that’s where it’s long term value would be. From moving projectiles to invisible invaders (and more) if you wanted to spice up the game a little it was all packed in that cartridge.
People nowadays would look at the 2600 paddle controllers and wonder “what the hell?” but for a few games on the system they were integral to the experience. Games like Breakout would take advantage of the paddle’s analogue spinners to allow a degree of control not possible with a joystick. But if there’s one game in my collection that justifies the paddle more than any other it’s Kaboom! where you’re tasked with catching bombs dropped by the “Mad Bomber” before they hit the ground. Being a game that lets you play with either a joystick or paddle it’s stunning how much of a difference the paddle makes in terms of speed and precision. Keeping the bomber unhappy has never been easier or more enjoyable this way and it turns a game I’ve always enjoyed into something I can play A LOT.
Air Sea Battle
Though Space Invaders had modes that supported multiplayer it was Air Sea Battle that got the most play time in our home because of that feature. Basically a shooting gallery the game had a variety of modes that allowed players to shoot at themed targets or even try to shoot each other. Variations allowed various degrees of control over the character and weapons but it was basically just a case of timing your shots well enough to hit your targets and score more points than your opponent.
The nature of many Atari games at the time was that they played to a time limit, in this case two minutes sixteen seconds according to Wikipedia, which really allowed it excel as a party game where to joysticks could be passed from person to person.
This game is a great example of using clever tricks to make the most of the platform. Enduro tasked you with taking part in along distance road race where your goal was to pass a set number of cars each day to progress. Though the road car graphics were fairly simple what was really remarkable was what was done with those as some really clever tricks that went a long way to setting the right atmosphere. For example when day turned to night the car graphics would be replaced by blocky tail lights which you had to use instead to judge your passing and even foggy conditions were included too.
One of the original platform games… but not with a lot of platforms! In Pitfall! you are Pitfall Harry in pursuit of fortune but there’s plenty of obstacles between you so you’re going to have to jump and swing your way past deadly pits and monsters to achieve that. The game gives you three lives and twenty minutes (whichever depletes first) so you’re quickly on your way.
It’s another of those games I think is pretty amazing and was a great demonstration of developer David Crane’s talent in making the most from Atari’s machine.
There really shouldn’t have been any chance that Asteroids would work on the 2600. The arcade game’s display was way beyond what the home console could do for starters but it turns out this is a pretty great version. There are a few limitations such as the more predictable asteroid movement but the core game is completely intact and it plays extremely well on a joystick.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Despite the higher than usual difficulty (for me anyway) it’s hard not to like The Empire Strikes Back which was a wholly original game for the 2600 that tasked players with stopping a stream of Imperial Walkers from reaching the rebel base. The great thing about it is that idea translates incredibly well from the film. The player’s Snow Speeder needs to navigate around the walkers to shoot at the weak spots to quickly take them down. If you’re a Star Wars fan it’s an easy game to pick up and play.
I have reason to believe that my addiction to fishing in Sea of Thieves may be related to how much I played Fishing Derby. Another of David Crane’s games, it would task players to get to 99 points before their opponent by catching fish from various depths of the water (the lower fish earn more) while avoiding the shark. Though competitive there was still something chill about the experience that made it easy to pick up and play just for the hell of it and sometimes that’s all you really want from a game.
Tomcat: The F-14 Fighter Simulator
This was a game that was completely unexpected for the 2600 but somehow it works and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. Intended to play as a flight simulator Tomcat uses every button and switch available on the console to provide an experience that isn’t too far removed from the early flight sims on the 8bit personal computers.
Your task is to launch your F-14 Tomcat from a carrier, fly a sortie where you need to take down a number of enemy planes then return to the carrier for a night landing. It might not be too advanced but that it even exists on the console is quite incredible. Like the also mentioned Enduro there’s clever use of colours and effects too that do wonders in setting the right atmosphere, especially for the landings, and that it all hangs together so well makes for a unique and challenging game.
What do you think of my choices? Needs work? Please feel free to comment!