I don’t like to do Top N lists, because it’s always arbitrary. For whatever value of N you select, there’s always a game that doesn’t make the list that’s just as good as some of the others that did. Why limit yourself?
Released in 1977, the Atari VCS turned 40 this year. So there’s no better time to look back at the games that are still worth playing today. The VCS catalog is vast, and there were so many bad games released on it, particularly in ’82-’83, but despite its primitive, minimal hardware specs, there were many outstanding games released on the platform over its life.
These aren’t in any particular order. I considered ranking them in terms of greatness, alphabetically, and in order of release, or grouping them by categories such as arcade ports, shooters, etc. but there’s no one way to do that. It’s also hard to separate games that were historically significant, or first innovators, or important evolutionary steps, or have high nostalgia value, from games that are worth playing today purely for their own merits. I guess there’s a little bit of all of that wrapped up in these recommendations.
I took a look at Wikipedia’s List of Atari 2600 Games and skimmed through it, and picked the games that in my opinion are good plays, and on that first pass, I came up with over 50 titles. But don’t take this to be “The Top 50 Atari VCS Games”. I’ve decided to list them alphabetically, because it’s the laziest way to do it.
This list excludes homebrews, which I really shouldn’t because some of the best games ever produced for the VCS are homebrews. But they weren’t on the wikipedia page, and this is already taking too long. But seriously, check out the homebrew scene. Some of the games that have been published in the last few years will blow away the games that we had in 1977-83.
There’s surely a few titles that didn’t make this cut that are still good plays — either games I am not familiar with, or games that I underrated.
I’m not going to try to do justice to reviewing these games in full in this article. And I think a brief description isn’t of much value, either — just go play them. But what I will do is state why I think they’re worth playing.
- Adventure: The “first” (famous) easter egg. My vote for best original game on the system. I spent endless hours investigating and experimenting with the various objects in the game. See my article on Adventure for more details.
- Asteroids: An arcade classic, free flight screen-wrapping shooter with acceleration and inertia. Blast big space rocks into littler space rocks, while watching out for unfriendly UFOs. A solid arcade port of a classic, great game, with 66 variations.
- Astroblast: Basically a mashup of Asteroids and Space Invaders; a vertical shooter where you blast space rocks falling towards you from above. In Asteroids, space wraps toroidally around the edges of the screen; rocks that drift off the edge appear on the other side. In Astroblast, you lose points for rocks you fail to shoot, which can result in a negative score. In a weird way, you can think of this as analogous to the spatial wrapping in Asteroids; in Astroblast space doesn’t wrap — the score does.
- Berzerk: A fantastic, faithful port of the arcade game. Run around an endless maze, fighting mindless robots programmed to kill you, and fleeing from the invincible Evil Otto. The only thing missing is the digitized speech. (And there’s a homebrew for that!)
- Boxing: A basic, competent sports simulation which shines in 2P. More so than most consoles, the Atari 2600 offered a lot of very good 2-player vs. games, which made it a more social console than the NES, which tended to feature long-form 1P action-adventure games.
- California Games: Featuring a chiptune cover of “Louie, Louie”, that and the surfing event are more than enough to make this worth playing. But the hackey sack mini game is pretty good too. The other events include half-pipe skateboarding, and a BMX downhill run.
- Combat: Going all the way back to the beginning. The original pack-in title, and a very worthy 2P vs. game. Battle a friend for a two minute round with a variety of dueling tanks, bi-planes, and jets.
- Crystal Castles: One of the more interesting games influenced by the dot-munching Pac-Man, you control a bear as he gathers gems in a 2.5D map while avoiding a variety of whimsical baddies such as skulls, a witch, a swarm of bees, animated trees, and giant gem-eating caterpillars. The 3D-looking levels are particularly well done, considering the hardware capabilities. Elevators and tunnels are present which give the game a true 3D feel. A fantastic port of the arcade classic.
- Dig Dug: Dig Dug was another popular game influenced by Pac-Man, but was one of he more original designs to take direct influence from the popular maze game. In Dig Dug, the “maze” is created by the player as they dig through the dirt. Instead of energizer pills, Dig Dug is armed with an air pump that he can use to defend himself against monsters, or he can undermine a rock which can fall, crushing his enemies.
- Frogger: Yet another great arcade port. Hop your frog across a road and river, avoiding cars, snakes, alligators, and drowning, because for some reason frogs aren’t able to swim in this game.
- Frostbite: Similar to the more well known Q*Bert, in that you hop around on things, changing their color. In Frostbite, you jump on ice flows to collect material to build an igloo. The mechanics are quite different from Q*Bert, however. In a way, it reminds me of another Activision game, SeaQuest. If SeaQuest and Frogger had a baby, it might be Frostbite.
- Galaxian: Another arcade port, what it lacks in graphics it more than makes up for with gameplay. Galaxian was a spiritual successor to Space Invaders, and followed its vertical shooter, no scrolling, waves of enemies in rows and columns formula, but added dive bombing (and, in the arcade, full color graphics). I enjoy this version of Galaxian more than the arcade, by a wide margin. Full review.
- Gravitar: A free-flight shooter similar to Asteroids, but with more complex game play involving destroying bunkers on planets. The planetary gravity adds a dimension of difficulty to the game. Watch your fuel, and take care with your inertia. It’s really challenging.
- Gyruss: Another arcade port, Gyruss is a twist on the Space Invaders formula that has you shooting into a faux-3D field where sprites shrink and disappear into the distance, a bit like Tempest but without the wireframe tunnels. Like Galaga, enemy ships fly into the screen from the side/behind the player, doing acrobatics before taking up formation in the center of the screen. And like Galaga, there’s a double-shot power-up. The arcade game had an awesome soundtrack, based on Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. The VCS can’t quite replicate this, but it does have a (for the technology, decent) musical soundtrack, one of the few Atari VCS games to do so. Graphically it also lags behind the arcade original, but that’s to be expected — it’s an Atari 2600.
- H.E.R.O.: Fly through caves wearing a helicopter backpack, blasting through walls and killing cave denizens with a laser in order to clear a path to rescue people who didn’t have enough sense to stay out of caves.
- Haunted House: I never played this game as a kid, because I never knew anyone who had it. But even if I did, I probably would have been too scared to play it. I’ve tried to play it recently, and couldn’t figure it out. This is one of those games where you have to read the manual in order to understand the cryptic messages the graphics and sounds are trying to convey.
- Joust: The original “flappy bird” game! One of the best two player games of the early arcade era, and a fantastic arcade port. Jockeys mounted on flying ostriches compete in an arena by “jousting”. The higher lance wins the contest – the loser is a rotten egg. The 2P mode is a cooperative affair, or you can compete against each other by PVP kills.
- Keystone Kapers: A proto-platformer by Activision. You play as a keystone kop, chasing a burglar through a multi-story department store full of obstacles. Jump and duck and gradually gain on the thief, hopefully catching him before he escapes.
- Kool-Aid Man: Originally, to get a copy of this game, you had to drink a huge amount of kool-aid, and send in proofs of purchases. I think it must have been available in stores as well, because this game is not as rare as it would have been otherwise. It’s a decent game to play. You play as a pitcher of kool-aid, who is guarding a swimming pool full of water which is under assault by swarms of “Thirsties” who slowly drink it up. If you collide with a “Thirsty” who isn’t drinking, it will bounce you around the screen out of control. But if you collide with a “Thirsty” that is in the act of drinking, you eliminate it, getting points and protecting that water. You can gain a few seconds of invulnerability by grabbing symbols of the ingredients for kool-aid (icons representing Water, Kool-Aid mix, and Sugar). When the swimming pool runs out of water, the game is over. Seriously, it’s better than it sounds.
- Mario Bros.: A very well done arcade port. After Donkey Kong, Mario made a career shift from carpentry to plumbing, and started battling sewer turtles and collecting coins. The direct sequel to this game, Super Mario Bros. would set the industry on fire and change the world forever.
- Megamania: One of the most finely tuned shooters on the system. I’ve written extensively about it already.
- Missile Command: Near perfect arcade port. Although the arcade game featured track ball controls, this version of Missile Command plays every well with a joystick.
- Montezuma’s Revenge: A brutally unforgiving platformer with greater dimensionality than Pitfall, but not as well remembered today.
- Mountain King: An exploration quest platformer with interesting audio mechanics, not to mention what’s probably the best use of music in a game of its era. Gather diamonds, find the Flame Spirit, offer it to the Skull Spirit who guards the temple, steal the crown, and escape to the top of the mountain to become the Mountain King. Beware the terrifying giant spider in the basement. There is a glitch world hidden in the upper reaches of the sky, accessible by an impossible leap.
- Ms. Pac Man: A far better port than Pac Man was. Homebrewers have been working on worthy Pac Man ports for the VCS for years, with extremely impressive results, but in 1982 this was as good as it got (unless you had an Atar 5200).
- Pete Rose Baseball: Another game to come very late in the life of the console, Pete Rose Baseball is easily the most graphically impressive baseball game on the VCS. However, looks aren’t everything. RealSports Baseball actually plays better, with better fielding and baserunning controls. But this is still worth playing just to see that it was possible to make a game on the Atari that looked like this.
- Phoenix: One of the better successors to Space Invaders, featuring one of the earliest boss battles. The other innovation present here is shields, which make you immobile but invulnerable for a few seconds. Very handy for when you were trapped in a corner by a divebombing bird, or under heavy fire from the mothership.
- Pitfall:A run and jump action game, and a proto-platformer, Pitfall was remarkable for its time. Exploring the procedurally generated screens of a pixellated jungle in search of treasure such as bags of money, diamonds, and silver and gold ingots. A lot of the fun of this game was in seeing how far you could go, but also in discovering through repeated play that the screens in the game weren’t random, and that as you played more and more, you could map your way through the game, taking shortcuts through the underground tunnels.
- Pitfall II: Lost Caverns: The sequel to Pitfall!, this game went beyond the side-scrolling adventure, and introduced a huge, cavernous world with vertical scrolling sections as well as horizontal. The game featured swimming and balloon-assisted flight, and new hazards such as condors, poisonous frogs, and bats. It had a musical soundtrack, and if that wasn’t advanced enough for the Atari 2600, the music was dynamically linked to the in-game action, turning sad when you got hurt, and jubilant when you grabbed a treasure. It was also one of the first video games to feature save points and instead of having “lives”, when Pitfall Harry “died” he returned to the last save point he touched, loosing points for his trouble. Full Review.
- Pressure Cooker:You’re a short order cook building hamburgers by catching ingredients flying out of boxes on the right side and adding them to burgers on the assembly line. Get the order right and drop it into the bin. Memory, concentration, and quick thinking are needed to succeed.
- Private Eye: I never played this title back in the day, but discovered it recently, decades later. It’s confusing to play, reading the manual is necessary in order to understand what’s going on, but you’re a private eye driving around a city in a car trying to solve a crime by finding clues. The mechanics of the game are weird, you can jump your car, which is a convertible, and when your car jumps, you jump much higher, and fall back down into the car. This is required to dodge obstacles and enemies and to collect clues and other items. Figuring out how to navigate the map and understand the clues in the manual are the keys to fun in this game.
- Q*Bert: A remarkably good port of the arcade action-puzzle game. Hop on blocks arranged in a pyramid shape to change their color to the correct color to complete the level and advance, while dodging an assortment of weird enemies. To play this game correctly, you need to hold the joystick at an angle, so that the fire button is at 12 o’clock, and you’re essentially using the diagonals as up/down/left/right.
- Radar Lock: Released late in the life of the console, in 1989, this sophisticated jet fighter simulation game takes you from the runway takeoff, to dogfighting, and even features mid-air refueling. Multiple weapons systems are activated with the 2P controller. The graphics are pretty good considering the hardware. Compared to Top Gun on the NES, or Sega’s Afterburner, this game isn’t all that impressive, but on the Atari 2600 it more than holds its own.
- RealSports Baseball: An impressive simulation of the game of baseball, the first baseball game on the Atari that was a full implementation of baseball’s rules, rather than an impressionistic “interpretation” of a “baseball-like” game. Even the infield fly rule is implemented. You can only fully appreciate this game with two players; the CPU controlled opponent in a 1-player game is nearly unbeatable.
- Riddle of the Sphinx: An early questing puzzle game that demands you read the manual, loosely based on ancient Egyptian mythology. To pass various points in the vertically scrolling world, you must find and offer the correct treasure at one of the various temples. Clues found in the instruction booklet make this a bit easier to do. Along the way, you must fend off marauding thieves and scorpions and thirst. There were numerous items to be found, through trading with merchants or by digging in the desert sand, and these gave you various abilities.
- River Raid: One of the best scrolling shooters of its day. Continuously scrolling, procedurally-generated stages.
- SeaQuest: A great action game from Activision. You control a submarine, trying to rescue divers who are being chased by sharks you can destroy with torpedoes. Fill up your sub with 6 divers and return to the surface before you run out of oxygen. It’s very simple, but a lot of fun as the speed increases with each time you return to the surface.
- Secret Quest:Another late title for the system, this one was designed by Nolan Bushnell himself. I never knew about this game when it was released because by the time it came out the NES was ruling the world. Walk around a space station infested with aliens, looking for a self destruct mechanism. Your main armament is a Energy Sword, but there are other weapons as well. I’ve only played this one a little bit, but it’s clear this is a sophisticated quest game for the Atari.
- Solar Fox: Another great arcade port. Solar Fox is like Pac Man, in that you have to pick up dots (“solar cells”) on the screen in order to advance to the next screen. But there’s no maze. You just fly around on an invisible grid, at slow or fast speed, avoiding stuff that shoots at you from the edges of the screen. And you can’t shoot back, only dodge. The challenge is to collect all the cells in the shortest amount of time possible, and there are optimal flight paths to take in order to have the best chance at doing that.
- Solaris:A first person space shooter published late in the life of the console, at a point when the obsolete Atari VCS was competing against the NES. There were a lot of similar games for the Atari, but this was perhaps the best of them, with more variety and better graphics. Check out Star Raiders, Star Voyager, and Star Master if you’re a fan of the genre.
- Space Invaders: A fantastic arcade port with over 100 variations. Clear wave after wave of invading aliens who march across the sky in lock-step formation, speeding up as their numbers dwindle. Hit their mothership for bonus points.
- Spider Fighter: Extremely fast-paced shooter with extremely smooth motion that will make you twitch.
- Star Master:Another cockpit shooter, like Star Raiders and Star Voyager. Which one is my favorite? Which one is which?
- Star Raiders: One of several first-person cockpit shooters, it came out the same year as Star Master, and is very similar.
- Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator:An unusual multi-view shooter with a 3D first person view combined with a top down view. The graphics are fantastic, with recognizable depictions of the USS Enterprise and Klingon Bird of Prey spacecraft, and even music from the TV show is represented. Warp from sector to sector, fighting Klingons and protecting Federation bases. This is an outstanding shooter with depth.
- Star Voyager: A cockpit simulator 3D space shooter. This was about as real as it got in 1982. See Star Raiders, Solaris, and Star Master for more of the same.
- Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back:A very well done scrolling shooter, re-creating the battle on the ice planet of Hoth. You pilot Luke Skywalker’s snow speeder, and try to give the Rebels enough time to escape by battling Imperial AT-AT walkers. It’s a repetitive game that has an inevitable doom at the end, but the controls and sound effects are excellent, making this a worthy shooter if you like games like Defender and Stargate, definitely a must play if you’re a Star Wars fan.
- Stargate: An especially faithful port of the arcade sequel to Defender, it’s one of the best rendered arcade ports on the Atari. Uses dual joystick controls, one for flight and shooting, the other for the special weapons.
- Superman: I’ve written extensively on Superman elsewhere, and this remains one of my favorite games on the system, and of all time.
- Surround: Another solid 2P vs. game with numerous variations. It’s basically a “snakes” game, where you control a pixel that draws a path that both players must avoid. Think the light cycle scene in Disney’s classic, Tron. Surround offers a number of variations to keep the action fresh.
- Tac-Scan: In most space shooters, you get to control one ship at a time, and a couple of reserve ships that represent your extra lives. In Tac-Scan, you control a formation of up to 5 ships, essentially putting all of your lives in play at once. This is an arcade port, and a pretty good one, although it’s a bit simplified with fewer types of enemies.
- Threshold: A vertical shooter often compared with Megamania as the best of the genre on the console. The enemy motion in this game is especially frustrating. Enemies will dance just out of reach of your bullets, and then kill you after embarrassing you and frustrating you with your futile attempts to connect a shot with them. Whoever programmed it is a real bastard.
- Warlords: The evolutionary zenith of the pong/breakout type games. Defend your crown by bouncing a ball away from your castle walls and into your enemy’s. Four player is the best way to play.
- Word Zapper: One of the more novel game concepts, based on spelling. Shoot letters in a scrolling marquee to spell a word. Reflexes, spelling, and memorization are all important, particularly on the difficult random letter sequence levels. It’s more fun and more challenging than it sounds.
- Yar’s Revenge: A remix of the basic concepts of Star Castle, and somewhat overrated in my opinion, but still a solid, innovative game, with outstanding audio and good graphics.