Month: January 2014

Computer buying hassles

Thursday night, tragedy struck the Wandering Nerd househould. Our cat accidentally spilled a glass of water onto my fiancee’s laptop, shorting it out. While we did manage to salvage it by putting it in a pan full of rice, it wasn’t the same afterwards. It went really slowly and kept crashing. This is normal behavior for her eight-year-old laptop, but my fiancee assures me it’s doing it more than usual now. So now we’re looking for a new laptop for her… and boy is it complicated. It used to be that you could just walk into a computer store and buy the one with the biggest numbers that you could afford. Or if you were a Mac user, like I was for years, you could just walk into an Apple Store and buy the shiniest one you could afford. But nowadays it’s gotten so complicated. I mean, how is the average computer shopper supposed to know about:

  • All the different processor types there are now. Currently, Intel sells CPUs with Atom, Celeron, Pentium, i3, i5, and i7 branding. Then they’re split even further into dual-core, quad-core, Haswell, Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge, Pentium B, Pentium G, Hyperthreading, Vpro… all these terms… It used to be that you knew that a 486 was better than a 386 because it had the bigger number. But how do you compare a Pentium G2020 with a i5-2300? Is an i5 running at 2.5 GHz faster than an i7 running at 1.7 GHz? 
  • And if you shop for an AMD processor, sure they’re all sorted by numbers, but they’ve also gone the Intel route of breaking their product into multiple types. And how do they compare against Intel chips of the same price? Unless you spend your whole life researching these things, you won’t know just by looking at the box.
  • Graphics cards. Everyone knows that Intel integrated graphics are crap for games, but how good is that AMD Radeon or NVIDIA chip in that laptop? Usually the box or ad will only list the RAM it has. But what about clock speeds, number of cores, Vsync, antialiasing, frame buffers? Which version of DirectX does it support? Does it support CUDA, OpenGL, OpenCL, or WebGL? You could buy something that looks great on paper, but when you take it home, it won’t play your favorite game or it might not have any driver support for your operating system of choice.
  • Operating system. It used to be that whichever Windows came with your machine was normally your best (and in most cases, only) choice. But my fiancee is really worried about adapting to Windows 8. We’ve all heard the horror stories. Do we buy a Windows 8 laptop off the shelf, or do we hunt for something still running Windows 7? And do we want to run the 32-bit or 64-bit version of the latter? Do we want Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, Business, or Ultimate? Or should we scrap the OS and build a Hackintosh? If neither of those are an option, which of the thousand different varieties of Linux or the dozen different varieties of BSD do we want to go with instead? 
  • Brands. Well, there aren’t nearly as many companies selling PCs as there were during the tech boom of the late 90’s, but even today, you’ve got HP, Dell, Toshiba, Lenovo, Asus, Acer, Gateway, Samsung, and many others. And they’ve got very little to distinguish them from all the others. If all they’re competing on is price, pretty soon you get into a situation where it’s a “race to the bottom” and you get a lot of products that differ from each other only in how crappily they are constructed.

Choice is normally a good thing, but when there’s too much choice, it can be confusing to the consumer. I think this is why a lot of consumers are leaving the PC market in droves and going towards things like Chromebooks, gimped laptops that only run a web browser, and Android tablets and iPads, devices that lock you into a particular app store, but at least maintain enough compatibility amongst models so that you know you can run whatever new game or program comes out. There’s less freedom in those, but they are a lot simpler to deal with. However, that’s not an option for my fiancee. She still wants a laptop with a full travel keyboard and the ability to play her old Windows games like Cave Story, and Windows-only writing software like yWriter. Maybe anything made in the last five years will do, but I still want to get her the best laptop we can afford. I just wish it wasn’t so gosh darn hard to choose.

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The late, lamentable Atari 7800

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Back in the late 80’s, I desperately wanted an Atari 7800. I loved the Atari 2600 to death and thought that a 7800 would be three times as awesome. I remember poring over the all the video game catalogs and ads I could get my little hands on, reading over and over about how the 7800 could play all existing 2600 titles as well as how it had a bunch of “pro” titles that closely duplicated the arcade experience! Yeah, there was a couple of things in there about a Nintendo, and a Sega, but I didn’t care about those. Mario and Zelda looked like boring Japanese cartoon characters. I wanted to race around the world in Pole Position II, save the galaxy in Galaga, and play an arcade-perfect version of Ms. Pac-Man.

And also, because the Atari 7800 was considerably cheaper than both the NES and the Master System, it would be easier to convince my parents or aunt and uncle to buy it for me for Christmas. So I begged and pleaded and sent subtle hints to the grownups in my life, and when Christmas morning finally arrived, what to my wondering eyes should appear but… not a 7800. Instead, I got a box of about 20 loose Atari 2600 cartridges my dad found at a yard sale. It wasn’t bad; there were even a few awesome games in there, like Frogger II and Berzerk. It just wasn’t what I wanted. It kept me going until the following Christmas, however, when I got… a Nintendo. It was a hand-me-down from my cousin who had just moved on to the Sega Genesis. But as soon as I saw and played Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, and Metroid for the first time, everything Atari had made up to that point suddenly seemed rather childish. You could play games on Atari… but Nintendo transported you to brand-new worlds.  I had moved on.

I never got to experience the Atari 7800 “in the flesh,” so to speak. I ran across Atari 7800 cartridges mixed in with 2600 games at flea markets and yard sales, but never came across an actual system. The 7800 just seemed to disappear, along with Atari’s other major flops, the Lynx and the Jaguar, relegated to the dustbin of history. I never played a 7800 game until this weekend, when I discovered that the Internet Archive had a full collection of 7800 games available for download completely legally (seriously, check it out here.) So I downloaded it (it was only 4.6 MB in size!), found a decent emulator (ProSystem) for Windows, and decided to see what I had missed out on when I was a kid.

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The truth is… I wasn’t missing out on much. While the Atari 7800 had superior graphics to the 2600, its graphics did not look very good at all when put up against the NES. The 7800’s MARIA graphics chip had a native 320 x 240 graphics mode (much sharper than the NES’s 256 x 240), but since it was so hard to program for it, developers mostly used the chip’s 160 x 256 pixel graphics mode, which had rectangular, not square, pixels. This made the games look like blocky last-generation titles from the Atari 5200 or earlier 8-bit computers.

Thanks to the MARIA chip, which could handle over 100 sprites on screen without flicker or slowdown, the Atari 7800 excelled at single-screen arcade games like Asteroids, which came to life on the ProSystem with colorful sprites and fluid animation not before seen on a home console.

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(
Seriously, static screenshots don’t do the game any justice. Check out this YouTube video for a review of 7800 Asteroids from one of my favorite online game reviewers, Classic Game Room.)

However, it was not very good at the side-scrolling platform games, like Super Mario Bros., that were the NES’s bread and butter. Few games of that genre appeared on the 7800, and those that did, such as Scrapyard Dog and Kung-Fu Master, were choppy, slow, and clunky compared to their NES and Sega counterparts.

kungfumaster
(
But at least the 7800 version of Kung-Fu Master has zombies… that’s something, right?)

Another thing that set the 7800 back compared to its competition was that it used the same sound chip, the TIA, as the Atari 2600. While you could create a neat variety of sound effects with it, creating memorable background music like the classic Mario theme, the Zelda theme, and the Ducktales “Moon” Theme was not the TIA’s forte. Most 7800 games didn’t have any background music at all, and only a few bleeps and bloops for sound effects. And many 7800 games with 2600 counterparts used the same sound effects for both versions! I did discover some awesome music playing Ballblazer and Commando, however… but it turns out those cartridges had a special sound chip, POKEY, in them to deliver quality sound effects. Why couldn’t Atari have built POKEY into the unit? They probably thought that games didn’t need music. It was far from a common feature in games in 1984 when the system was first designed.

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So what was the Atari 7800 good for? As I said before, it had a lot of great early-80’s arcade game conversions. Asteroids, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Joust, Dig Dug, Centipede, Xevious… they all look great and play great on the 7800. If you are into those types of games, the Atari 7800 is a great system to collect for. But you could also play most of those games on the NES… or for that matter, the Atari 2600, or the Atari home computers, Commodore 64, IBM PC, Apple IIe, or whatever other system prospective buyers of the 1980’s had lying around. And these days, you can just download the original arcade ROMs or purchase any number of arcade game compilations. So it not only was not giving anyone anything new, it was also giving the game-buying public stuff they pretty much already had.

What else did the Atari 7800 bring to the table? Well, it had several ports of late-80’s arcade games: Kung-Fu Master, Double Dragon, Commando, and Ikari Warriors, to name a few. However, as I mentioned before, any game that required complex horizontal scrolling was crippled from the start on the 7800, and all those games had much better NES counterparts. There were a few good flight simulators that beat anything the NES had at the time, such as Ace of Aces, F-14 Tomcat, and F-18 Hornet, but your flight simulator enthusiast would probably be playing those on his or her home computer, which would have more processing power and a greater selection of joysticks.  There were a few mediocre sports games, but Hat Trick was no Blades of Steel, and Pete Rose would quickly prove to be an embarrassing choice for a sports game spokesperson (but then again, so would Mike Tyson.)

ninjagolf1There are a few hidden gems in the Atari 7800 library that you can’t get anywhere else, however. Ninja Golf has a random yet completely unforgettable premise: you’re a ninja, playing golf, and to get from the teeing ground from the putting green, you must jog through a dangerous course of enemy ninjas, frogs, snakes, dragons, and other inexplicable golf course hazards. Bizarre concept aside, the game plays like a poor clone of Kung-Fu Master, and the novelty wears out quickly. There’s also Midnight Mutants, a Zelda-like adventure game with a horror theme, where you wander through a New England village in autumn fighting zombies and bats in order to rescue Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis from the clutches of an undead warlock, who you see being burned at the stake in the game’s opening sequence:

midnightmutants2(You’d never see anything like this in any Nintendo game… not until Mortal Kombat II for the SNES, anyway.)

Sadly, they weren’t enough to save the Atari 7800 from being relegated to the dustbin of video game obscurity. Looking over the ROMs I downloaded, I saw that there were less than 100 games total released in the US, and a lot of genres are completely missing from the 7800 library. There are no RPGs, no strategy games, no puzzle games except for an unreleased prototype of Klax. There are no ports of contemporary Atari arcade games, like Paperboy, 720, or Gauntlet, that would have been hits on the system. And there are only a handful of third-party games from a handful of third-party developers. It’s like they didn’t even try to compete with the NES, or maybe they thought its backwards compatibility with the Atari 2600 would fill in the gaps.

But by sticking to the past, Atari was sacrificing their own future. The backwards compatibility of the Atari 7800 meant that the new advanced 7800 games were competing, not just with Nintendo and Sega games, but with the 700+ games in the Atari 2600 library, many of which were being liquidated for pennies due to the video game crash of 1983. And Atari was selling, simultaneously with the 7800, a remodeled, cheaper version of the Atari 2600 which was “under fifty bucks!”, their remaining stock of Atari 5200 cartridges and games, and a brand new system, the Atari XEGS, which was an Atari home computer reconfigured into a game console that played most existing Atari 8-bit cartridges as well as new enhanced games made just for it.  With all of these systems to support, it’s no wonder Atari was failing to put their best foot forward in the cutthroat market of the late 1980’s. The technology and the design were moving forward… and Atari just seemed more and more like the old man sitting in the corner dreaming of the good old days when he was in charge. He occasionally tries to be “hip” to get the kids to notice him, but really he’s only just embarrassing himself.

That’s what I see when I peer into the Atari 7800 catalog… Atari’s midlife crisis writ large on the pages of history. Trying to capture the spotlight again, trying to regain lost ground and re-win old victories, trying to win the future with the same old playbook. There was so much potential left… but by the time Atari discovered it, the world had moved on.

And we all know what had happened after that… after a mediocre showing of their Lynx handheld in 1990 and the complete flop that was the Jaguar in 1993, Atari was sold off to JTS, who sold it to Hasbro, who finally sold it to Infogrames before they themselves went bankrupt. Now, the gutted corpse of Atari’s intellectual properties is up for sale to the highest bidder. The rest… is silence.

But hey, at least Grandpa Munster can still be saved!

grandpaI certainly hope so, Grandpa… I certainly hope so…

Could this be the suckiest video game contest ever?

 

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I was just poking around AtariAge today (since I seem to be on a huge Atari kick lately) and found a scan of this catalog for Atari 7800 games. When I was collecting Atari 2600 games I loved looking at all the catalogs, as they were filled with awesome artwork and descriptions of games I hoped to own someday. This catalog… well, it didn’t exactly inspire the same amount of awe. It is merely a single-sheet flyer with some very amateurish, weird-looking art on the front (I mean, the gangster and football player have no eyes! NO EYES!!!) and two-sentence descriptions and tiny screenshots of 7800 games on the back.

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(Images courtesy AtariAge. Click on the pictures to enlarge)

However, something caught my eye on the bottom, a mention of an essay contest for a chance to win a trip to San Francisco to watch Atari programmers “design games.” In 1987, as an eight-year-old, I would have flipped for that. I think by then I had already wrote about twelve volumes in my diary on how much I loved Atari. I stalwartly defended Atari when all my classmates had moved on to other consoles. But… there was just one catch…

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In order to participate in the essay contest, you have to buy 25 Atari 7800 cartridges. Yeah, kid, fork over the cash, or we won’t even look at your labor of love. I am so glad I never saw this ad when I was 8. I would have just died from the disappointment. My parents couldn’t afford to buy me a Nintendo, or a computer, or even shoes that didn’t come from Payless. When you consider that Atari 7800 cartridges were running about $20 each at the time, 25 of them would be, well, $500! That was a month’s wages on minimum wage at the time. I mean, you could almost buy your own trip to San Francisco for that.

And not only that… when that flyer came out, the games listed on that flyer were the only Atari 7800 games there were at the time. And most of the games are listed as “Coming Soon.” Only about 15 games were actually available to buy at the time that flyer came out. You heard me. There weren’t even 25 Atari 7800 games in existence during the run of the contest.

I could just imagine what my mom (and moms across America) would say: “So Jackie, let me get this straight. You need the equivalent of a month of your dad’s wages by October 1, 1988 to buy video games, many of which only currently exist as a small, blurry screen shot in a flyer, just so you can tell Atari how much you love them, so maybe, just maybe, they’ll fly you out to San Francisco to watch nerds stare at computer screens all day? I think we need to up your Ritalin.”

It makes me wonder if anyone even won this contest. It’s impossible to know. The Tramiels were pretty much running Atari into the ground by this point. Meanwhile, their competition just up the coast in Redmond, Washington knew how to run some good contests that didn’t require you to purchase their entire game library to participate in:

thewizard

Need I say more?

 

 

Games that were hard for you as a kid, but easy now?

Growing up, I always loved the Atari 2600 version of Asteroids. The colorful graphics, the nifty sound effects, the “Jaws”-esque music ratcheting up the tension–it was a thrilling arcade experience. It was also an incredibly difficult experience. I would always get my butt kicked before I reached even 5,000 points, even sooner if I dared to flip the left difficulty switch to A, enabling the flying saucer enemies. I spent a lot of time playing the “kiddie” mode, game #33, which only has four asteroids per wave, and the big asteroids only turn into one medium asteroid when hit, instead of 2. Even still, I would be lucky to get 10,000 points.

So it was quite a surprise to me when I started playing Asteroids on my Atari 2600 emulator while waiting for my spaghetti water to boil, and before I knew it, started exceeding 20,000 points. I was playing it on the default difficulty, game #1. I hadn’t played it in years. But I managed to grasp something that my younger self couldn’t quite get. Unlike the arcade version of Asteroids, which has rocks coming at you from all directions, every wave of Atari 2600 asteroids starts on the left and right side of the screen, going up and down in two orderly rows, and only very gradually move horizontally towards you. Furthermore, hitting the asteroids with your gun makes them smaller, but doesn’t affect their velocity in any significant way. They just continue on the same trajectory. So if you just stay in the center of the screen and blast whichever of those two rows is closest to you, you can destroy most of the asteroids before they even get close to your ship.

This simplistic but effective strategy got me past 40,000 points…

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To 60,000 points…

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And beyond. The asteroids didn’t even speed up until about after 80,000 points or so, but by then I had so many extra lives (and getting more every 5,000 points) that it didn’t really phase me at all. Here’s me just about to roll over the score counter at 99,950 points:

asteroids-just-before-point-rollover

As you can see, I still had plenty of lives left. By that point, the novelty of my accomplishment had worn away and I was getting pretty bored. So after the score had flipped back to 0, I flipped the left difficulty switch to A and turned on the flying saucers. This did not increase the difficulty at first. If there were a lot of asteroids left in the level, it would almost invariably crash into one of them, as the saucers always start on either the left or the right and move horizontally to the other side. It was only after most of the asteroids were clear that the saucer would present any sort of challenge. There, my strategy of staying in the center of the screen was pretty much useless, and the saucers finally whittled down my extra lives at 147,970 points… a new Asteroids record for me. No save states or cheats… just me blowing up a whole bunch of space rocks.

asteroids-game-over(Not surprisingly, my death finally came at the hands of a flying saucer in a wave with only two little asteroids left.)

So, my question to those reading this article is, which games that you struggled with endlessly as a child are easy to you now?

As a corollary, are there any games that were easy for you as a kid that you suck at now? I can think of a few: mostly those early, clunky RPGs for the NES and early home computers. As a kid, you have a lot more time on your hands to memorize the spell system in Wizardry, map the towns and dungeons of The Bards Tale on graph paper, and trial-and-error yourself through the Marsh Cave in Final Fantasy without just dropping it and being distracted by work, or your spouse, or your social life, or whatever. What I wouldn’t give to have that level of attention to a video game anymore, or for that matter, anything else.

So, what do you all think?

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(Werdna, I’m coming back for you… just as soon as I can pencil it into my schedule…)

 

 

Original NES Advantage Controller Stuffed with Clone NES

Original NES Advantage Controller Stuffed with Clone NES

Now this is a good idea! The NES Advantage is nearly as wide as the actual NES, and is, from what I recall, an extremely quality arcade-style joystick. I bet you could even throw a whole Raspberry Pi computer into one of these and run all sorts of emulators. Or even better, throw a Famiclone board in there along with cut out space for a cartridge slot, and you have a self-contained NES in a joystick!

A date with dinosaurs

Today after work, I went to the post office to check the mail, and discovered that my fiancee had a large box from Amazon waiting for her. I picked it up, and brought it to her at the employee cafeteria, where we usually spend our dinners together (since she has to work evenings). She opened the box, and revealed that she had ordered… a big tub of dinosaurs. Specifically, Animal Planet’s Big Tub of Dinosaurs. She then squealed with joy and said that we should take them out and play with them. She took them out of their plastic tub, and we set the dinosaurs along with the palm trees, rocks and volcanoes that came with them (because naturally, dinosaurs all live in Hawaii) up on the plastic  prehistoric playmat.

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I started snarking it up about the scientific inaccuracies present in the toys. For example, the brachiosaurus was depicted as having its huge neck perpendicular to its body, like a giraffe. However, most modern paleontologists believe that brachiosaurs would have been unable to do that due to the sheer difficulty in pumping blood up a 30-foot neck. I distinctly remember the sauropods in Walking With Dinosaurs holding their necks close to the ground and rearing up on their hind legs in order to grab leaves from tall branches. I suppose the jury’s still out on this one, as well as the theory about velociraptors and other late Cretaceous dinosaurs having feathers. None of the dinosaurs in this set had feathers of any sort, not even the velociraptor, who was depicted, strangely enough, as being only slightly smaller than the T-rex.

But my fiancee, undeterred by this glaring oversight, as well as the presence of Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous dinosaurs in the same box and the fact that the triceratops was very unnaturally orange, actually started playing with the toys. She held the dinosaurs up and made funny voices and started acting out short skits. And even though I was a little confused, soon enough I joined her. We had a little war going on between the herbivores and the carnivores, and then my fiancee discovered that the ankylosaurus would kick T-rex’s butt because of its heavy armor and mace-like tail, and then we used them to re-enact the thrilling fight between Godzilla and Anguirus in Godzilla Raids Again.

Meanwhile, all the other employees in the employee cafeteria were looking at us like we had some kind of disease or something. But we didn’t care; we were having a good old time. And then my fiancee had to go back to work, so we packed up the dinosaurs and promised we’d get them out again when she got home that evening. Yeah, so maybe you don’t always see two grown adults playing with toys in a public venue, but you know, it was just what we needed at that time. And I’m so happy that I’ve found a woman who hasn’t lost her child-like sense of play. She’s a keeper, all right.

fiancee-with-dinosaur

Top 10 Games That Pushed the Atari 2600 to its Limits, Part 2

This is the conclusion to Top 10 Games That Pushed the Atari 2600 to its Limits. Read Part 1 here.

5. Tunnel Runner (1983, CBS Electronics)

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Tunnel Runner was one of the only 2600 games to attempt a fully three-dimensional first-person perspective, and unlike some of the others, did not require an expensive cassette addon to play. With the help of a then-massive 12-kilobyte ROM cartridge, and CBS’s RAM PLUS chip that added 256 bytes of extra RAM, Tunnel Runner transported Atari gamers into a fully-realized 3D dungeon. You could see similar 3D level design in home computer RPGs of the era such as the Wizardry series, but unlike those, this was an action game. Your character speeds through the maze-like labyrinth, in search of a key that will open the door to the next level. However, the key is guarded by monsters called Zots which will eat you if they catch you. The levels can be either pre-determined or random, depending on which game you select, and you can check your location (and the location of any monsters) by pressing the action button to view the map screen. You get points by passing levels, but also by walking through different parts of the maze, which distinguish themselves with an innovative use of color. The gameplay, then, is kind of a cross between Pac-Man and Wolfenstein 3D, with a little bit of Atari’s own Maze Craze thrown in for good measure.

The 3D graphics are definitely dated by today’s standards, and the controls are a little clunky, but this was 1983, and there was little else like this. It has its own special charms, however, that put a smile even on this old gamer’s face. The mazes use the Atari’s ability to put brilliant color on the screen to full effect. The Zots are large sprites that have quite a few frames of animation, and unlike some of the enemies in Wolfenstein 3D, can be viewed from the sides and back as well if you sneak up on them just right. Also, unlike Wolfenstein 3D and all those frustrating 3D RPGs of the time, the game had a map system. Tunnel Runner was an amazing technical achievement for its day, but also a reminder of just how far we’ve come in 3D gaming in the last 30 years.

4. Kung Fu Master (1987, Activision and IREM)

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In the waning years of the Atari 2600’s life, Activision tried to make the aging console relevant again by porting more modern arcade games to the system. Many of these, such as Double Dragon and Commando, were indeed graphical and technical achievements for the time–but they really weren’t all that fun, because so much of the experience had to be cut out or changed to fit the limitations of a system that was designed in 1977 to play Pong and Tank games, with a joystick with only one button.

However Activision made a hit in 1987 with a port of IREM’s Kung Fu Master. While lacking the advanced graphics and the two button controls of the arcade and NES ports, the Atari 2600 version of Kung Fu Master kept pretty much all the gameplay and had large sprites that outdid anything else up to that point for the console. By combining button presses with joystick movement, you could make your kung-fu master punch, kick and jump his way through all five levels from the arcade game. This is one of the very few side-scrolling beat-em-ups available for the Atari 2600 (due to the hardware limitations of the system, programmers could get vertical scrolling practically for free, but horizontal scrolling required an act of God.) The graphics were pretty darn amazing for the time and nearly match the NES version running on far superior hardware. This is a must for any Atari collection, and for anyone who wants to see what the big old wood-grained box is capable of.

3. Space Shuttle: A Journey Into Space (1983, Activision)

spaceshuttle

As I mentioned when I talked about Ghostbusters, Activision was no stranger to making complex computer-style simulations just work on the Atari 2600. Space Shuttle is quite possibly the most advanced simulation ever put onto any home console prior to the Nintendo era, and even then, I can’t think of any NES games that put you in command of an entire realistic NASA space shuttle. This is not a button-mashing spaceship shooter. This is the real deal. The game remaps every single control on the VCS console to a function of the space shuttle: the Color/B&W switch activates your primary engines, the left difficulty switch activates your backup engines, the right difficulty switch activates your cargo doors and landing gear, the Select button shows you the status screen, and Reset starts the countdown. The joystick and button are context-sensitive, based on whether you’re taking off, landing, flying through space, or docking with an orbital satellite. Activision makes this easier to remember by including overlays for both the six-switch and four-switch 2600 consoles and a large 32-page manual that breaks down every single step you need to take to complete your mission, along with information about the real NASA space shuttle program and helpful hints from programmer Steve Kitchen.

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(And this is just the cheat sheet for flying the space shuttle! Image courtesy of AtariAge.)

I’ve spent some time with the easiest setting of this game (which essentially autopilots you into space and does the more complicated things itself so you can concentrate on flying) and I’ve found it quite amazing. The outer space graphics are colorful and detailed, the instrument panel and readouts are easy to read if not readily understandable, and there’s probably more in-game text on the screen than any other Atari game of this time. At the higher difficulties, which demand you know all the simulator commands, I, not surprisingly, crash and burn. I really wish I had had or had heard of this game when I was eight years old. I was that kind of kid that was completely in love with all things space, ravenously absorbing any and all information on the NASA space program I could get in those pre-internet days, writing fan letters to Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, and weeping over the Challenger disaster months after it was appropriate. I would have taken it upon myself to learn every nuance of the controls and practice without end until I could put in my NASA astronaut application. Instead, I wasted my childhood playing Jr. Pac-Man.

You just don’t get these kinds of games anymore, not on home consoles, not on PC. Heck, NASA doesn’t even have a real space shuttle program any more, and are forced to beg for pennies from Congress to study asteroids while China launches missions to the moon. Space Shuttle: A Journey into Space is a relic of a time when the sky wasn’t the limit for the human race. And it’s also one of those games that pushes the Atari 2600 to its own limit.

2. Xenophobe (1990, Atari)

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Bally-Midway’s Xenophobe came out to arcades in 1987. It combined a rather humorous take on the Alien franchise with three-player split-screen action and amazing (for the time) graphics and sound. The Atari 2600 version of Xenophobe, which came out in 1990, had to cut the simultaneous co-op play, but retained the fast shooting action with some amazing (for the Atari 2600) graphics and sound. Instead of trying to ape the original’s cartoony graphics, which would have been too much for the 2600, the game’s programmers went for a more somber tone. Your gritty space marine is lost, completely alone, in a maze of darkened corridors from the most horrific of eldritch abominations. Your only weapon, a tiny pistol. Your vision, a claustrophobic slit on the screen. You must destroy all the aliens in the base in order to proceed. Prepare to spend the beginning of the game running for your life to get a better weapon… the larger aliens take forever to subdue with that pistol.

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And they are relentless… huge xenomorphs will appear out of nowhere and charge with deadly alacrity, others will drop tentacles down from the ceilings to snare your hapless hero. Others will roll into an impenetrable ball the instant you attack them, and only patience and finesse (or a well-timed grenade) can coax them from their shells. The quality and variety of the enemies that made it into this port are quite impressive. They are all well-animated, and what they lack in color they make up for in sheer terror. It’s seriously like they managed to cram an NES game onto an Atari cartridge. The dark, atmospheric theme music that opens up the game (one of the best tunes on the Atari 2600, in my opinion) adds even more to the sense of foreboding and imminent danger.

Atari 2600’s Xenophobe kind of reminds me of Metroid in its dark science-fiction setting, adventuring aspect, and connection to the Alien movies. Perhaps this could be also considered a prototypical entry into the genre of survival horror. Either way, Atari couldn’t have asked for a better swan song.

1. Solaris (1986, Atari)

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(Photo courtesy of AtariAge)

I found Solaris long after the Atari had faded into obsolescence, in the mid 1990s. I was a young adult in college. I had over 100 Atari 2600 games in my collection, and thought I had seen it all. One day, I stumbled upon a loose Solaris cartridge at a thrift store for $10.00. This was way more than I was willing to pay for an Atari 2600 game, but then the shopkeeper offered it to me for $5.00. This was still more than I thought it was worth; previously I was finding whole boxes of Atari, Intellivision, Colecovision, and other early 80’s systems’ games at flea markets and yard sales for pennies a game. But then eBay happened, and with people suddenly discovering that they had a world market for the junk in their attics, the price of even the most common carts went way way up. So I bought the game, and took it home, dusted off my old Atari 2600 and turned it on.

It was then I realized that I got an incredible deal. Solaris was worth every penny I spent on it. It was even worth ten bucks. Heck, if I had known of its existence when it first came out, I would have saved all my Christmas and birthday money in 1986 to pay full retail price for it new. It was that good.

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The first thing that struck me about Solaris is that the title screen not only credited programmer Douglas Neubauer, the game was copyrighted by him too. This was indeed a rarity. I had grown up with the story that Atari didn’t want to give its programmers credit for their games for fear that other companies would snap them up. This led to Warren Robinett hiding his name in the game Adventure, and the creation of Activision by ex-Atari programmers who wanted more recognition for their work. So I knew that even before I hit the Reset button to begin play, I was in for an experience.

Solaris was originally intended to be a licensed adaptation of the movie The Last Starfighter, but most likely due to the Video Game Crash of 1984, Atari lost the rights, and so released Solaris in 1986 as a generic space shooter. But there’s nothing generic about this game. The game just screams quality. While nothing in Solaris hadn’t been done before, none of them had ever been done so well–or put all together.

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As soon as you press the action button, your spaceship streaks down a dazzling, crater-pocked alien landscape as it blasts off into space. When you enter space, you are hurtled past planets and asteroids at an alarming rate, before your ship settles down and shows you the scanner view. The scanner displays your ship’s location, the location of enemy ships, Federation planets (the good guys), and Zylon planets (the bad guys.) You move your ship’s cursor to one of the other objects on the screen, hit the button again, and you are now warped off to another adventure.

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Space combat is presented in a similar view to Atari’s Tempest arcade game or Activision’s Beamrider. You see your ship from above and you can move left or right on the screen as objects come towards you. Everything–from the planets that zoom by to the alien ships and mines–is highly detailed, very colorful, scales very smoothly, and moves very fast with no noticeable flicker. I couldn’t believe I was playing an Atari 2600 game at first. I thought I was looking at a NES or maybe even a Sega Genesis game. You track your enemies using the radar screen, which tells you where everything is–even the planets. Which is good, because the enemies in this game have a tendency to sneak up on you, and then peek in to your main viewer just long enough to lob a succession of missiles right at your ship.

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Planet-side missions are no less impressive. You hover just over the planet’s surface in a way similar to Imagic’s Moonsweeper or Sega’s Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom, but the planet in Solaris looks a whole lot nicer. A starry sky in the background, mountains in the horizon, and craters dotting the landscape make it look like an actual place and not just a bunch of lines and dots coming your way. While the planets mostly look alike (except for the dastardly corridor levels, which trap you in a tiny tunnel on the planet’s surface and throw enemies at you like there’s no tomorrow) nothing on the Atari 2600 looked or moved quite like them.

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Your mission in this game is to get back home to the planet Solaris, which is hidden somewhere in a vast galaxy. The galaxy is divided into a grid of 4 x 4 sectors, each of those sectors having a grid of 6 x 8, or 48 areas where enemy ships and alien planets might be lurking. The map of this game almost resembles The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy in its complexity, but in space. Quite a feat for a video game company who, just four years before, choked on a port of the relatively simple game of Pac-Man, and made a total mess of an adventure game starring a loveable spaceman also just trying to get home. In Solaris, E.T. is back, and this time, he’s kicking ass.

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Really, I can’t say enough good things about Solaris. The graphics, the sound, the gameplay–all were light-years ahead of anything else anyone had attempted to do with the Atari 2600… before or since. And static screenshots from an emulator can’t tell the whole story. If you doubt Solaris’ awesomeness, just check out this video:

Solaris, and all of the games I discussed in this article, truly pushed the Atari 2600 to limits nobody knew it had. And the best part is, that limit is still being pushed farther and farther back. A new generation of Atari homebrew programmers are finding new and exciting ways to get the venerable VCS to do six impossible things before breakfast. You can even buy brand-new Atari 2600 games and many of the old games are still commercially available. 37 years after the first Atari systems rolled off the assembly line, people are still discovering new things to love about this console… and that’s the most awesome thing of all.