Atari 2600

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:

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Need I say more?

 

 

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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:

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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…)

 

 

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.

Top 10 Games That Pushed the Atari 2600 to its Limits, Part 1

The Atari 2600 is by far the longest-lasting console in video game history. Arriving on the market in 1977, it was not discontinued until fifteen years later, in 1992. It survived competition from more powerful game consoles, home computers, and even the Great Video Game Crash of 1984. The NES juggernaut may have finally taken the 2600 down, but it still went out with a bang.

Near the end of its run, Atari programmers with a decade of experience under their belts used every software trick and hardware tweak in the book to put out games that truly showed off the awesome potential of the Video Computer System. Looking at these games, you would think they were running on much more powerful hardware. While there’s nothing on the 2600 that matches the complexity of Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda, they came pretty damn close to Nintendo-quality with these 10 exciting, innovative titles that showed that you didn’t need more than a one-button joystick or 128 bytes of RAM to have a good time.

This list of 10 games represents the state of the art of Atari 2600 programming in the late 1980s. While there are many homebrews that do amazing things with the system, I won’t be covering them in this article. I also won’t be covering any Starpath Supercharger games, even they many of them were incredibly advanced for their time. The Supercharger was a hardware addon to the Atari 2600 that loaded games from cassette tape and had its own RAM and CPU. It’s a completely different thing altogether. It also completely disappeared from the market after the 1984 crash. These ten games run entirely on the stock console, with only the chips the developers could stuff into their cartridges to propel them to video game excellence.

I cover the first five games on my list in this post. The conclusion to the article will be posted in a few days. Enjoy!

10. Ghostbusters (1985, Activision)

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“But,” you say, “Doesn’t the ‘Ghostbusters’ video game really suck? I mean, the Angry Video Game Nerd ripped it a new one about fifteen times.” True, it’s repetitive and clunky, and the gameplay hasn’t aged very well. But when you’re six years old, and Ghostbusters is your most favorite film of all time, and all your friends are playing the video game version on their Tandy 1000s and Commodore 64s, and all you have is an Atari 2600, you’d kill to have a piece of that action, even if it was only a piece. The Atari 2600 wasn’t exactly known for very good ports of complex computer games, so I was extremely skeptical when my young self found this cartridge at a swap meet for $1.00. But I would find Ghostbusters on the Atari 2600 to be a surprisingly faithful recreation of the home computer experience. Sure, some details were necessarily left out (like some graphical details, the voice samples, and being able to choose different cars), but the important parts were there, and they blew away my expectations of what the old console could do. You could buy ghost hunting equipment in a menu screen (possibly a first for the 2600!), drive around on a map screen running down ghosts like an 8-bit Tommy Vercetti, and catch Slimers with your ghost traps and proton packs. Graphics (at least in the ghost catching sections) are detailed and well-animated, from the ghosts to the busters to the Ectomobile to the ever-threatening Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. This is also one of the first and only Atari 2600 games with background music–the Ghostbusters theme plays throughout and is quite listenable. This would set the tone for more high-quality games for the Atari as the competition from Nintendo, Sega, and home computers began to heat up.

9. Jr. Pac-Man (1984, released 1987, Atari)

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I first played Jr. Pac-Man in 1987 when my parents bought it for me for Christmas. I had played Pac-Man on my cousin’s 2600 and I desperately wanted my own copy to play. (Hey, I didn’t know it was a crappy game back then, I was like 8 at the time.) But instead of the original Pac-Man, my parents got me Jr. Pac-Man. I was skeptical at first (I mean, come on, it has “Junior” right in the title, so it must be one of those dumb “little kids” games, right?) But when I plugged it into my Atari 2600, my love for Junior’s clunky Pac-papa faded like the desert wind. This was a sequel that completely exceeded the original, with eight huge scrolling mazes, fast-moving, smoothly-animated characters, and sound effects and music that were almost just like those in the arcade! This is the only version of Pac-Man for the 2600 that had the background “wacka-wacka” noise playing throughout, and the dot eating, ghost munching, and death sounds were pleasantly distinctive compared to the dull beeps of 2600 Pac-Man or the grating high-pitched noises of 2600 Ms. Pac-Man.

Jr. Pac-Man and the ghosts looked just like their arcade counterparts and were animated very smoothly. And even though the mazes were blocky and the dots were dashes (like the previous Atari 2600 Pac-Man games), there were eight different ones to roam around in, each with its own theme music that played before the level started. Also each level had its own “fruit,” in this game shaped like toys and other kid-friendly objects like root beer and kittens. These bonus items have an additional property not found in the previous Pac-Man games. The toys will pass over the dots as they travel, turning normal 10-point dots into 50-point dots. However, if they collide with an energizer, both the toy and the energizer will explode (with a nice graphical flourish, I may add.) Eating 50-point dots also makes Jr. Pac-Man slower than eating regular dots, thus making him more vulnerable to the ghosts. This adds a new “risk vs. reward” element to the Pac-Man series: do I hang out and let the toy turn all the dots, and collect all the points? Or do I eat it as soon as possible so it doesn’t destroy my defenses against the ghosts? The choice depends purely on you, and your skill with the Joystick Controller.

The gameplay is extremely challenging, especially with all four ghosts enabled. Since the maze is three times as high as the screen, the ghosts have the ability to hide and sneak up on you if you don’t mentally track every move they make. That, along with the energizer-destroying bonus fruit, make this a uniquely challenging and compelling experience. Even today, this is still one of my favorite games, and I pull it out whenever I need to relive some childhood memories… or start finding other games too easy.

8. Pitfall 2: Lost Caverns (1984, Activision)

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Released as it was in the height of the Video Game Crash, not very many people got to experience this awesome game when it was new, but thankfully it has received new life on various Activision compilations and the Internet. Hot off the heels of the amazing success of the first Pitfall, one of the highest-selling video games of all time, programmer David Crane pulled out all the stops on this sequel. Not only did Pitfall 2 use a 10 KB ROM, making it more than twice as large as it predecessor, it also included a special Display Processor Chip inside the cartridge, that Crane designed himself, that allowed for greatly improved graphics and sound. (It also made it extremely difficult to emulate Pitfall 2 on PCs for several years, but that’s another story.)

The familiar jungle setting of the original Pitfall opens up onto a gigantic underground labyrinth, the Lost Caverns, that’s 8 screens wide and 27 platforms deep. In other words, if you fall off the stairs in the first part of the game, it’s a long way down to the bottom. In addition to gathering treasure, Pitfall Harry must rescue his niece Rhonda and pet cat Quickclaw, hidden somewhere in the caverns. Unlike the procedurally generated levels of the first game, where you’d see the same six or seven screens over and over again, each part of the caverns is different and has its own challenges you must discover in order to pass them. Pitfall Harry can now swim as well as soar through the air with the help of a balloon.

The graphics and sound are where Pitfall II really soars. Everything is bright and colorful. Pitfall Harry runs and jumps with fluid motion. The water he swims through sloshes around realistically. The various bats, birds, scorpions and frogs that block Harry’s path have their own distinctive animation styles and attack patterns. If you weren’t looking carefully, you might confuse this for a Commodore 64 or an early NES game. The DPC chip not only boosted this game’s graphics, it enabled a four-voice background theme song that’s quite possibly one of the most catchy and memorable video game tunes this side of Nobuo Uematsu. The music even changed subtly as you were playing. When you started playing, the theme music would start out a fast, peppy “heroic” version of the song which would then slow to a more atmospheric tune. If you picked up a treasure, the music would speed up again, but if you got hit by an enemy, the song would turn into a slow, minor key “funeral dirge” until you picked up another treasure.

Pitfall II was also one of the first games to do away with the concept of “lives” and “game overs,” replacing them with a checkpoint system that was ahead of its time. In the caverns Pitfall Harry will run over red crosses on the ground. When Pitfall Harry collides with an enemy, he is dragged back, as if by some unseen hand, to the last cross he touched, losing points based on how far the checkpoint is from where he “died.” You can continue playing indefinitely without having to start from scratch each time you fall. This goes a long way towards reducing the frustration of the game, even if it doesn’t do much for the game’s difficulty (grrr bats!)

This innovative game showed what platform games were capable of and paved the way for an entirely new genre. Our favorite Japanese-Italian plumber Mario wouldn’t be running, jumping, and floating through massive multi-screen levels for at least another year. Who knows, if the crash hadn’t happened, maybe Pitfall Harry would be as big a star in the video game world.

7. Battlezone (1983, Atari)

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Arcade-goers around the world were amazed by the original Battlezone in 1980. One of the very first “first-person shooters,” this vector-based arcade game transported players into a fully-realized 3-D world where they could pilot a tank and defend themselves against enemy tanks and other dangers. The programmers of the Atari 2600 port had to by necessity leave out a lot of the stuff that made the arcade game so unique, but what they left in impressed the heck out of Atari 2600 fans back in 1983. Gone were the polygonal objects that dotted the arcade landscape, but the 2600 version used alternating lines of brilliant color to give the playfield an illusion of depth and movement. No erupting volcano in the background; instead, you got a beautiful sunset peeking out of a horizon of gray mountains in the distance. It’s kind of like the sunset effect in Activision’s Barnstorming. You almost wish you could just sit there and enjoy a pleasant evening. But no, you can’t do that, there’s an infinite amount of enemy tanks, flying saucers, and cruise missiles popping out of nowhere to kick your ass. And unlike the arcade game, they come after you two at a time. The enemies are likewise highly detailed (for their time) and unlike earlier attempts at 3D on the VCS like Star Ship and Air Raiders, you can actually tell what direction they’re coming at by how they’re pointed on the screen. This actually makes Battlezone feel like a game where you’re actually moving in free space, rather than in some kind of shooting gallery. The combination of great graphics and innovative gameplay made Battlezone one of the top games in the 2600 library and made gamers anticipate the new 3D worlds that would follow in the decades to come.

6. California Games (1988, Epyx)

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California Games is essentially a minigame collection, with four games based on what we now call “Extreme Sports”: Footbag, Half Pipe, BMX, and Surfing. The home computer and NES versions of California Games had six games, but by cutting out Flying Disk and Skating, the developers were able to cram every last bit of detail and fun into the remaining four. Each of these games would have probably received their own cartridges back in the early 1980s, as they are that good.

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Footbag (or “hackeysack” as it is more commonly known) is set in a verdant forest in San Francisco with fluffy white clouds moving through an azure sky. Your player character is a multi-colored and huge sprite with fully articulated arms and legs. The graphics in this part of the game could easily pass for a Atari 7800 or even a Commodore 64 title. The controls are quick and fluid, and you can do a number of different tricks just with the joystick and one button.

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The Half Pipe section is in my opinion the weakest of the four games, but it’s got a neat Hollywood sign in the background, and you can do a wide variety of skateboarding moves to boost your score, a whole decade before Tony Hawk made skateboarding games into a genre.

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The BMX racing section is a multi-screen descent down a Mojave Desert mountain that has you jumping over pine trees and cartwheeling over cow skulls. The action is fast and furious and almost resembles a NES-era platform game, or a prototype version of Line Rider.

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And the surfing section had you hangin’ ten on an amazing wave effect I haven’t seen on any surfing game before or since.

Another neat feature of the game is that up to eight players can play, by passing the joystick around. So this is also one of the first party games. And nothing puts a party in your Atari 2600 quite like Epyx California Games.

Read Part 2 of this article here.

This Guy Made an Atari Version of Super Mario Bros. — And It’s Pretty Fun

This Guy Made an Atari Version of Super Mario Bros. — And It’s Pretty Fun

All my childhood, I had heard rumors on the schoolyard about Super Mario Bros. coming to the Atari 2600. Tired of waiting, some guy actually went and did it. And it’s surprisingly faithful to the original. You can do some pretty amazing things with the Atari, you betcha.

The fun is back, oh yessiree… it’s the 2600 from Atari!

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December has been an exciting month for the memory of the long-beloved Atari 2600 console. First, a popular Atari 2600 homebrew game, Halo 2600, was added, along with Playstation 3’s Flower, to the Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibit, “The Art of Video Games.” Then, Microsoft announced that they were funding a documentary on the excavation of the lost Atari E.T. cartridges purportedly buried in the fabled New Mexico landfill, to be released on Xbox Live next year.

And then, today I learned that the Internet Archive, the nonprofit project busily attempting to store the history of the Web along with thousands of public domain books, songs, and videos, has opened up a website where you can play hundreds of classic Atari 2600 games, as well as games from other consoles of the early 1980s, appropriately titled the Console Living Room. The site has hundreds of games from the Atari 2600, Atari 7800, ColecoVision, Bally Astrocade, and Odyssey 2 systems, emulated in the browser via a Javascript-based emulator called JSMESS.

The Atari 2600 collection is surprisingly complete. There are hundreds of games for it alone. You have everything from Atari hits such as Asteroids, Centipede, and Defender, to the amazing Activision library of games (before Call of Duty, Activision programmers were making the Atari sing — case in point, the near-NES-quality Pitfall II and Kung Fu Master, which you would never be able to tell ran on a horrendously-crippled 1977 game console with only 128 bytes of RAM and which used two-thirds of its processor power just drawing the screen). They even have… let’s just say the bottom of the bargain bin (like the famously awful E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and the awfully famous Custer’s Revenge.) There are even homebrews (like the Smithsonian-approved work of art, Halo 2600), unreleased prototypes that never made it off the drawing board (such as Miss Piggy’s Wedding and Donald Duck’s Speedboat), and even the diagnostic cartridges used by Atari service technicians to fix broken consoles. You can even read scans of the original manuals (necessary to look at in the case of convoluted adventure games like Raiders of the Lost Ark, and pretty awesome to look at if you’re a fan of trippy late-seventies early-eighties commercial art.)

Even though this is the Internet Archive and not some flash-in-the-pan emu site hosted in Russia or China, I’m surprised the current owners of the Atari trademarks haven’t hit them with a cease and desist yet. Then again, even if they did, most of the companies that put these games out in the 1980’s no longer exist or care or (in the case of, say, Custer’s Revenge, have disavowed all knowledge of making these games.) So enjoy this while you can.

As informative and as exciting as this collection is, however, it’s not without its flaws. Sound isn’t implemented in the JSMESS emulator yet, unfortunately, but they say they’re working on it. And the emulator is rather slow and clunky, at least on my five-year-old Core 2 Duo laptop. But, if you want to witness for yourself a fascinating bit of video game history from the time before 3-d polygons, grim space marines, and hyperrealistic ultraviolence, or if you’re a nerdy Gen-Xer with a nostalgia for Yars Revenge like myself, the Console Living Room is worth spending some time in.