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)

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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.

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