In a move that endears me to the new gaming console not the slightest bit, Atari has announced that they are re-naming their upcoming AtariBox console to the already-taken name, “Atari VCS”. Henceforth, people who want to search for the 1977 Atari VCS, later renamed the Atari 2600, will have to wade through hits for the modern AtariBox-Atari VCS that will be released sometime in 2018 (maybe). And vice versa.
That won’t be completely annoying to fans of either console.
Atari gamer Marc Gallo has found a secret hidden Null Room in the game Superman (Atari, 1979). Accessed via direct manipulation of memory addresses in emulation, the room does not appear to be accessible through normal gameplay.
I believe this “room” is really just a memory location intended to store objects when they are off-screen, which can be displayed as a “room” in the game, but isn’t meant to be.
It’s interesting to me since I spent considerable time playing this game, and wrote an article some time ago, about the central role that the map and movement plays in the design of the game.
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.
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. And another for good measure.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
One of the more interesting games influenced by the dot-munching Pac-Man, you control Bentley 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the most finely tuned shooters on the system. I’ve written extensively about it already. A must have.
Moon Patrol: Moon Patrol featured a number of innovations. This arcade port isn’t as good the original, but it’s still fun. The arcade version featured a great (for its time) soundtrack, reminiscent of the hit song Axel F from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack. The background parallax scrolling is perhaps a videogame first. But I also recognize Moon Patrol as the great grand-daddy of the infinite runner genre: a horizontally scrolling game where you have to jump over obstacles, but can’t stop, so jump timing becomes critical. In addition to jumping over holes, there are rocks in your path (which you can shoot or jump), and occasionally alien ships will fly overhead, which you can shoot for points.
A brutally unforgiving platformer with greater dimensionality than Pitfall, but not as well remembered today.
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. Check out my full review of the game.
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.
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 invulnerable for a few seconds, but immobile. Very handy for when you were trapped in a corner by a divebombing bird, or under heavy fire from the mothership.
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. The game does actually have an “ending” — if you can collect all 32 treasures in under 20 minutes, it just stops.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the best scrolling shooters of its day. Continuously scrolling, procedurally-generated stages. Avoid colliding with objects and walls, shooting destructible targets for points and to eliminate them so you don’t have to evade them, and be sure to pick up fuel frequently to top-off your ever thirsty engines.
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.
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, and few people were still paying attention to Atari by that point. 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.
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.
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.
A fantastic arcade port with over 100 variations. The variations affect things such as the speed of the Invaders shots, and whether they fall straight or zigzag, whether the Invaders are visible or not, whether the bunkers are stationary or moving, and various two player modes that provide cooperative play options as well as alternating play. 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.
Extremely fast-paced shooter with extremely smooth motion that will make you twitch.
Another cockpit shooter, like Star Raiders and Star Voyager. Which one is my favorite? Which one is which?
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.
A cockpit simulator 3D space shooter. This was about as real as it got in 1982. See Star Raiders, Solaris, Star Master, and Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator 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.
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.
I’ve written extensively on Superman elsewhere, and this remains one of my favorite games on the system, and of all time.
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 virtual reality fantasy classic, Tron. Surround offers a number of variations to keep the action fresh. There’s even a free-form drawing mode, where there are no collisons, and no forced movement.
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.
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 and frustrating you with your futile attempts to connect a shot with them. Whoever programmed it is a real bastard.
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.
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.
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.
In the past few days, I’ve become aware of chatter about two potentially exciting new bits of hardware for Atari 2600 fans: Atari’s AtariBox, and Hyperkin’s RetroN 77.
Atari (well, the company who now owns Atari’s trademarks) has scant information about the AtariBox. Beyond the name, we know basically nothing about it so far.
RetroN 77 is a new console from Hyperkin, which is designed to play real Atari 2600 carts, apparently through emulation via the excellent open source Stella emulator, with real controllers, using the same ports as the original, so compatible with 3rd party Atari controllers, and outputting 1080p over HDMI.
Since I know nothing about the AtariBox yet, my early excitement is for the RetroN 77, but that could easily change. Hopefully Hyperkin will do the venerable VCS justice for the HDTV Age.
My hope for the AtariBox is that it will be a retro-inspired platform that caters to indie developers who want to make games in an old school style, that look like they could have been at home in the late 70’s/early80’s, albeit not strictly constrained by the hardware limits of that time. Think what Shovel Knight was to the NES; I’d love it if AtariBox were a platform for the equivalent of such games for the Atari 2600/5200/7800/400/800/Intellivision/Colecovision era of home videogames.
As a child of the 1970’s, I’ve been attracted to arcade video games since I was tall enough to reach the controls. This was 1981-84, during the heyday of the arcade’s Golden Age, a time when games like Pac Man, Dig Dug, and Galaga were new, hot, and everywhere. Grocery stores, gas stations, seemingly anyplace people might spend time, you’d find a couple of arcade games, ready to suck the quarters out of anyone who passed by.
Just slightly older than these games were the ever-popular Space Invaders, and its evolutionary next step, Galaxian. Although these titles were top shelf games in their day, I found that I didn’t enjoy them very much.
Space Invaders was just frustratingly slow at first, but then sped up to an unfair pace by the end, and I could never manage to destroy that last invader on the first wave. You had to have perfect aim to hit it, and it moved so fast it was seemingly impossible to track, so you had to be lucky. If you missed, the slow-moving missile took forever to disappear at the top of the screen, and you couldn’t fire again until it did. Usually this delay meant your death, as the hyper-paced final invader would reach the ground, ending your game. Plus, it was black and white. It felt old. I respected it — even then I could tell that it was a important game — but grudgingly, I had to say that I just didn’t enjoy it that much, although I wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone back then.
Galaxian, too, was a game I found too slow and frustrating to play at arcades. It seemed like the next step in the vertical space shooter. Graphics were now in color. A formation of aliens marched back and forth across the screen, but this time instead of descending toward the earth, they stayed at the top of the screen, while one by one, or in pairs, individuals would peel off from their formation and dive bomb you. Their bullet patterns and flight paths seemed to make it all but certain that they would hit you if you didn’t hit them first. I could usually survive for a while, maybe clear a screen, but it never failed that if I happened to miss a dive bombing enemy, it would corner me in the side of the screen and crash into me, or hit me with too many bullets to dodge. You could always dodge one, but there’d always be another one following up, and your first dodge would put you right in its path. It seemed unfair, and so, not very fun. I always gravitated toward the games that I could last a bit longer on, so I could get my money’s worth out of my quarters.
I had a cousin who owned an Atari 5200, and played Galaxian on it once or twice while visiting them. The 5200 port was a very faithful reproduction of the arcade experience, not exactly arcade-perfect, but nearly so. I still didn’t care much for it, because it suffered from the same shortcomings. It wasn’t as bad to lose at home, since it cost nothing, but I still preferred to play games that felt fair.
It never entered into my mind that maybe I just wasn’t very good at Space Invaders or Galaxian. But probably, I was. Ok, not probably. I sucked. But in my defense, I was like 6, and just tall enough to reach the stick and see the screen. But back then, I blamed arcade games for being “greedy” in contrast to home consoles, which seemed to reward players with longer games that were still challenging, but more fun because they weren’t so brutally ass-kicking hard.
I never played Galaxian on the Atari 2600 back in the day. I’d played the 5200 version and was impressed with its arcade-quality graphics, and I remember seeing the pictures on the back of the box on the 2600 version, and being unimpressed. Since I never particularly enjoyed the game, I didn’t have any interest in owning it on the 2600, never knew any kids who had it in their collection, and so never played it. At some point, we had an Atari 7800, which had Galaga, the sequel to Galaxian, and one of my very favorite games, so I played a lot of that.
I’m not sure when exactly, but at some point I picked up a copy of the 2600 port of Galaxian, probably a few years ago. I recognized it was a significant title in videogame history, and so I wanted it for my collection, despite not having favorable memories of it from its heyday.
I finally got around to playing it today, and came away very impressed. Here’s a video review so you can see what it’s like:
The 2600 port plays much better than I remember the arcade. The motion is extremely fluid, which, considering the limitations of the Atari 2600 hardware, is nothing short of amazing. Maybe I’m just better at videogames than I was at ages 5-8, but I found that the game felt very fair, with divebombing enemies that are actually dodge-able. I’m sure, the horizontal aspect ratio of the screen plays into this somewhat, as you have more room to dodge, and also your shots that miss take less time to leave the screen, meaning that you can fire follow-up shots that much faster.
I was always a fan of vertical shooters of the Atari 2600, my favorites being Megamania, Phoenix, Threshold, and Tac-Scan, and Space Invaders. Galaxian is every bit as good as the best of these, and is still fun to play even now.
Playing Galaxian tonight, I found that my strategy was different from how I played the arcade original some 35 years ago. My old strategy was to try to shoot the enemies still in formation. They were easier to hit, since they didn’t swoop or shoot at you, and it seemed to me safer to eliminate them before they could turn into a threat. I’d try to shoot the divebombing aliens as they flew over me, and dodge out of the way of them and their shots, but mostly I concentrated on blowing away he ranks of Galaxians in formation, much as I approached Space Invaders.
My new strategy was much more successful, and rewarding: I ignored the galaxians in formation, since they don’t do anything that can hurt me, and focused on the divebombing aliens. It turns out, this has many advantages. First, by focusing on the divebombers, you are focusing on the only thing in the game that can threaten you. Shooting them is a much more reliable way to avoid them than dodging. You will need to dodge sometimes, but if you focus on developing skill in shooting the moving enemies, it gets pretty easy to pick them off before they can collide with you. The green Galaxians are simple, slow moving, and easy to hit. The purple ones are harder to hit, but with a little bit of practice the timing becomes easily mastered.
Hitting divebombing enemies in mid-flight makes you safer in two ways: enemies are destroyed before they’re low enough to collide with you, and they can’y get all their shots off. Typically, you’ll hit them as they cross ahead of you, and so you’ll be moving in the same direction, to track them, and the shots they do get off will fall harmlessly behind you, and by destroying the alien as it passes directly above you, you prevent it from getting ahead of you where it can drop bombs that would be dangerous to you.
Additionally, by hitting them as they’re diving toward you, your shot has less distance to travel, which means that you can get off more shots — since you can have only one shot on the screen at a time, when they hit something low on the screen, the shots don’t have as far to travel, meaning they hit the target sooner, meaning that your bullet is consumed and you can then fire another shot more quickly. If you miss one of the bombers, you might still end up hitting one of the galaxians still in formation, especially early in the stage, which isn’t so bad either. But the lower your shots are when they connect with an enemy, the faster you can shoot.
This in turn sets up a rapid flow of firing, hitting a dive bomber, then hitting the next dive bomber with a rapid follow-up shot. Once mastered, you can mow through the entire formation in quick succession in this manner. This turns out to be very enjoyable. You feel more skillful, since you’re targeting the fast-moving enemies, getting more points for them, and it looks more risky, since you’re often hitting the enemies pretty low on the screen, when it looks like they’re most dangerous — but at the same time you’re actually playing the least risky style of play. Of course, that’s what skill is — finding the right pattern of actions to minimize your risk, while doing what looks the most daring.
It’s clever, because the more intuitive way to avoid risk would be to try to avoid the dangerous enemies and attack the enemies that aren’t a threat. But counter-intuitively, when you focus on the dangerous enemies, and take the aggressive approach of destroying them rather than running from them, it minimizes the risk they pose to you, while the enemies that aren’t a threat remain a non-threat.
At this point, I recognized what a truly well-designed game Galaxian for the Atari 2600 is. I’m curious to see whether this strategy applies to arcade Galaxian. Since I don’t have ready access to an arcade with Galaxian in it, the next best thing is to watch a YouTube video of a skilled player.
And it looks like this is indeed the strategy to employ, although this player also has enough time to target plenty of enemies still in formation. I think the 2600 and arcade versions are different enough in their game play that they feel like different enough that while the basic strategies are more or less the same, the specifics are different. In the arcade, there’s much more space between the bottom of the screen, where you are, and the top of the screen, where the enemy formation is. But ultimately, I think the Atari port gives you less time to target the enemies in formation, forcing you to spend most of your time focusing on the swooping divebombing enemies.
In any case, Atari 2600 Galaxian is a fantastic game, and if you’re into vertical shooters is a must have, being one of the finest examples of the genre on the Atari, as well as an outstanding port of a historic and classic game.
One of the most popular and successful games on the Atari 2600 was Activision’s Pitfall!, designed and programmed by David Crane. A proto-platformer, it featured running and jumping adventure in a jungle setting. Coinciding with the iconic blockbuster movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, released one year previously, it was arguably better at capturing the fun and spirit of an Indiana Jones adventure than the official Raiders videogame released by Atari.
As Pitfall Harry, you explore a jungle and found treasures such as gold, silver and diamonds, while avoiding obstacles and deadly animals drawing inspiration from Tarzan and Indiana Jones, such as snakes, scorpions, and crocodiles. Due to its brilliant technical execution which pushed the limits of the 2600 hardware, Pitfall! was one of the top titles of its era, and is still remembered fondly by retro gamers today.
Pitfall! gave us running and jumping, and swinging on vines, but didn’t really have platforms per se. There’s just two elevations to run along: a flat ground level, sometimes with holes to jump over, or vines to swing on, and an underground level, sometimes with ladders and holes connecting the two. The jump mechanic was a bit primitive, and limiting, compared to later platformers — Harry can only jump up or forward, and once you press the jump button, he always jumps the exact same height and distance, and he cannot change course in midair. While this limits the type of platforming action the game can offer, it was nevertheless enough to create an enjoyable, challenging game. A bit monotonous, perhaps, compared with later Super Mario platformers that would follow a few years later, but if we look to Mario in 1981, his jumping physics were also limited in much the same way.
The way the underground level relates to the above world is strange and mysterious. Pitfall! doesn’t scroll, so when Harry runs past the edge of a screen, the game advances one screen and we find him in a new “room”. But when he crosses the edge of the screen while underground, he advances several screens. Thus, the underground is a potential shortcut, allowing Harry to skip over screens and bypass the challenges there, hopefully to pop up closer to the next treasure. This isn’t really explained to the player, who has to discover it and puzzle through it on their own.
As well, Harry can run both left and right, and it’s not entirely clear which direction he should run — due to the direction of rolling log obstacles, it seems to be the intent that you should run to the right, jumping the logs as they approach you. But it’s a bit easier to run left, going with the flow of the logs — and there are treasures to be found either way. These ambiguous choices of this helped give Pitfall! a depth and replayability it would not otherwise have had.
The sequel, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, released in 1984, was equally well-received, and in a number of ways was an even greater technical feat. In this installment, we to get see Pitfall Harry swim, and catch a ride on a balloon, and a larger variety of dangerous animals that Harry must evade. There’s even dynamic background music that plays throughout the game, changing situationally — pick up a treasure and the music becomes happier and more adventuresome; get injured and the music turns sad. Go for a balloon ride and hear a bit of circus trapeze music. By 1984, games were starting to come with soundtracks, but this sort of dynamic music was still years ahead of its time.
The game also features an innovative waypoint system that replaces “lives” — you can fail as much as you need to, but the game won’t end; instead you’ll be returned to the last checkpoint you touched, and resume from there. In virtually all games up to this point, games granted the player a number of lives, typically three, and allowed extra lives to be earned somehow. Pitfall II was one of the earliest, if not the first, to do away with this, and allow the player to explore and take risks without the threat of a “Game Over” ending the fun. Decades later, this checkpoints without lives system has became a preferred method for making difficult platformer games that aren’t excessively punishing or unnecessarily frustrating.
There were a number of other games released in the Pitfall series on other consoles, but after the disastrous 1986 NES port, Super Pitfall, I had lost interest in the franchise and moved on to other things, so I never played any of the other games.
Of the two VCS titles, most fans seem to prefer the second. But while I do find it to be the more technically impressive of the two, I find that I prefer the original. I feel that Pitfall II suffers a bit from repetitive sequences where you have to pass the same enemies an excessive number times. Toward the end of the game, you have to climb upward while evading level after level of condors, bats, and scorpions — and each enemy requires near-perfect precision. Make a single mistake and you go all the way back down to the last checkpoint. There’s something like 20 creatures in a row that you have to run under, and it’s frustrating and tedious. There’s no other way to get past them — no ducking, no shooting, just time your run perfectly and get under them, or jump over them, and if you screw up even once, it’s back to the last checkpoint to start over. This has always struck me as poor design, rather than a fun challenge, so I’ve always felt like the original had the superior design, even if the sequel may have had a lot of cool, innovative features.
Still, both games are among the best made for the VCS, and are historically significant innovators that established and advanced the platformer genre
One of my earliest videogaming experiences was with the classic Atari 2600 game, Adventure. A favorite of many who played on the system, this game has attained legendary status for it’s brilliant design, a technical accomplishment that pushed the Atari well beyond what its designers had intended it to be capable of, fun and replayability, inspiring a genre of adventure games, including the Legend of Zelda series, and of course becoming as known as the game to feature the first “easter egg”.
The game is still fun to play today, and remains one of my favorites to revisit. It is extremely replayable, and much of the fun that I had playing it was with investigating and experimenting. In 1981, I played this game with my brother all the time. We learned the basics in Level 1, which was a truncated version of the full game, with a smaller map and only two of the three dragons, and no bat. I moved on to Level 2, which introduced an expanded world with one more castle, a dragon, and the bat, and had all the items in prescribed locations so that the quest was the same every time, but you had to go to every castle and defeat every dragon in order to win. The new dragon, Rhindle, was so fast and aggressive that he scared my brother, who was about 4 at the time, so much that he could only watch me play. After winning Level 2 a few times, I proceeded to Level 3, wherein the item placement was randomized, making each re-play a unique experience.
One time, my older cousin came over and we were playing Adventure, and she showed me a secret room in the Black Castle, accessible only by using the Bridge, where she found a mysterious, invisible Dot, which she used to reveal the most amazing thing: the first Easter Egg: a hidden secret that revealed a message from the game’s creator!
This was how I came to know the name of Warren Robinett, who designed and programmed Adventure and became famous for being one of the first game developers to have their name known publicly.
Even before being shown the easter egg, I had spent many hours exploring and experimenting in the world of Adventure. I played not just to win the game, but to do crazy things with the objects in the game to see what might happen.
I put the Bridge in walls and used it to exit the screen and appear on another screen, where normally you couldn’t get to.
I tested putting all of the objects in one room to see if anything special would happen. I discovered that when there were too many objects in one room, the Magnet would stop working. Or the Sword would not be able to slay a live dragon. Or keys would fail to unlock the castle gate. Somehow, if there were too many objects in one place, the Atari couldn’t handle it. But I could always move, I could always pick up objects and carry them, and walls always worked (with the exception of the wall involved in revealing the Easter Egg room.)
I learned how to “break” the game in other ways. I discovered that if you dropped a key in the doorway of a castle while you were closing the gate, the gate would close in front of the key, which would disappear inside the castle, forever sealing it. I learned that if a castle’s gate was closed, if there was a dragon or the bat inside, it couldn’t get out. And I learned that unlocking a castle would release any creatures inside, and that if a dragon did not have an item to guard, it would leave and roam around, hunting me down.
I learned that while I couldn’t carry or move a dead dragon, the bat could, and I could catch and carry the bat, which allowed me to use it to move dead dragons (or live ones, which was always a risky proposition!) So then I took to using the bat to grab dragon carcasses and move them to an otherwise-empty castle, and lock everyone in there so that in the event that I got stuck and had to reset the game to get unstuck (an action which resurrects every dead character in the game, you and the dragons) the dragons would be safely contained, leaving me free to continue exploring and experimenting without interruption, for hours.
I took time to carefully explore the mazes and learn how to move through them quickly, and to get to any area in the maze that I needed to. I learned places to put the Bridge to take shortcuts. I puzzled over three empty rooms in the vicinity of the White castle, wondering what their purpose was, if they contained any hidden secrets, and how to unlock them.
Despite being pretty sure that I knew everything there was to know about Adventure, I never could say for certain that there wasn’t something that I didn’t know, and this (as well as the fun of speedrunning the game) gave me the incentive to play the game endlessly, for years. While I figured that I’d found all of its secrets, I still had questions.
Recently, I was thinking about Adventure again, and played it a few times, and did some reading about it on various websites, and stumbled upon Warren Robinett’s website. There, I learned that he is writing a book on Adventure that will be coming out in 2015! I am so excited about this. His webpage mentions that to receive updates about the book project to send him an email with the word “annotated” in the subject line, so I did. I wrote him a short note thanking him for creating such a wonderful game that I have enjoyed these many years. And I wasn’t sure if he would read it, or if he merely set up a listserve bot that would automatically subscribe me to his mail list, and maybe he’d never read my message. But a day later I had a response from Mr. Robinett in my inbox!
Holy shit! Granted, it’s a sentence long, but he read and replied! So, not wanting to be too intrusive, but curious about some of the questions I’d had about his game since forever, I wrote back and politely asked. And he responded again, short and sweet, but I’m thrilled to have corresponded with a true legend of the industry.
At any rate, here’s the excerpt from our correspondence where he answers my questions:
csanyk: I have always wondered about the empty rooms in the area outside the labyrinth near the White Castle. Apart from occasionally holding random objects, I always thought that those rooms felt like they should have had some more purpose than they did. After learning about the easter egg with the dot, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if there wasn’t some kind of hidden secret in those rooms, and as it turned out, there wasn’t. But boy did I try everything I could think of just to make sure!
Warren Robinett:Well, you are probably aware that the game world was bigger for levels 2 and 3 than for level 1. Level 1 was for beginners, and some of the difficult stuff was intentionally left out of the game world. I regarded level 1 as being “truncated”, because I changed the room-to-room links to leave out more than half the rooms. So the two rooms you asked about had different functions in level 1 — one was the interior of the Black Castle (just a single room in level 1), and the other was where the Catacombs are in levels 2 and 3 (again, just a single dead-end room).
In level 3, the random positioning of object was supposed to put stuff in those rooms sometimes, but I made some mistakes in the random number generator, and it seems they were nearly always empty.
csanyk: If you could have had more time or more computing resources to put something in those rooms, to make a Level 4 game, what would you have populated them with? Another castle and dragon? Some type of new item? Was there something that was meant to be there, that never made it in to the game due to constraints? Or were these rooms always intended to be empty spaces?
Warren Robinett:I talk about that in my book The Annotated Adventure, which I hope to be finished with this fall.
csanyk: I discovered that if you press select until you have the option for game 3, and then pull down on controller 1, the player spawns into the game select screen and can walk about the room. Was this something that was put into the game deliberately, and if so why? How did it come about?
Warren Robinett:The game-select screen was a room. I re-purposed a room as the meta-game UI screen to save memory. I put the Man down in the corner (I thought he was totally trapped) so he wouldn’t be there to distract you. You found a way to break him free.
csanyk: As a kid, after killing the dragons, I spent hours trying to put the Bridge everywhere I could think to and see what would happen. In a few screens, there are places where you can put the bridge off the top or bottom of the screen, and use it to “break through” the bottom wall of a room that you shouldn’t be able to pass through, and end up somewhere else, only to become stuck. To me, a huge part of the game’s lasting appeal and replayability was that it seemed to invite this kind of experimentation. For example, if you go one room down and left from the Yellow Castle, and stick the bridge in the bottom wall of the screen and pass through it, you end up in the White Castle screen, stuck between the towers:
or in the room one screen down from the Gold Castle, putting the bridge in the bottom wall will warp you to the Gold Castle, again between the towers:
or from this room in the labyrinth, you can travel to the room next to where the secret is hidden — only you appear at the bottom of the room, and can’t quite break free into the room, and have to retreat back up through the bridge to get back to the labyrinth.
Warren Robinett:Every room had a link to four other rooms. No exceptions. If you could get through the wall, you could find out which room that was.
Since the Bat and Dragons could move around in different directions, there had to be a new room off each edge.
csanyk: I loved the fact that when you are eaten by a Dragon, you can still move, confined within its stomach. Also, when two dragons are on the screen, and one eats you, the second dragon will come up and eat you again, while you’re in the first dragon’s stomach. And most fun of all was if you left the game run, and the Bat would come by and pick up the dragon whose stomach you were in, and fly around with you, giving you a bizarre tour of the kingdom. The idea that the game world continued after you died was very novel.
Was that a design choice or an accident?
Warren Robinett:The thing you need to understand was that developing the game was incremental. You add some code, you fix a bug (or try). And see how it plays.
I didn’t plan for the Man to be able to wiggle after he was eaten. But when I saw, I liked it. I could have eliminated that by re-ordering some subroutine calls. But it didn’t do that.
I didn’t plan for the Bat to be able to pick up a Dragon that had eaten the Man. But I had coded each piece separately. So it just fell out of the simulation with no effort required. I liked it — it was hilarious. No way would I “fix” that.
csanyk: How did you ensure that the randomization in Game 3 would not result in the game sometimes becoming unwinnable, such as by locking the Black Key in the Gold Castle and the Gold Key in the Black Castle?
Warren Robinett: I tried to make sure each random positioning was winnable, by choosing from certain ranges of rooms for each object. But I botched it, and it DID sometimes generate unwinnable configurations.
csanyk: I think I’ve played the game enough to have seen everything you can expect to happen. I’ve seen the Bat, carrying the Sword, accidentally kill a Dragon. I’ve closed the castle gates and dropped the key inside as it was closing, locking it in forever. I’ve seen so many objects on one screen that the Sword or Magnet wouldn’t work any more. I’ve seen the Bat fly by the castle gate with a Key, opening it. I’ve worried ever since that I could get locked inside of the castle by the Bat if I left the key outside where it could grab it, but this has never happened. It doesn’t seem like objects can interact with each other unless they’re on the current screen, with the notable exception that if you hold the Magnet off the edge of a screen, you can attract objects in the next screen. And also the above-mentioned trick with the Bridge going off the top or bottom of certain screens. The amount of exploration and experimentation that I’ve done in this game, for as small as it really is, is pretty breathtaking, when I think about it. Were you ever surprised to hear from fans just how much they replayed your game? What things have players done in Adventure that surprised you?
Warren Robinett:The stuff you mention above is correct. The Bat could also pick up objects off-screen.
I am now eagerly awaiting the publication of his book later this year. So stoked!
One of my favorite games on the Atari 2600 is Superman (1979), designed by John Dunn, and based on the program code from Adventure by Warren Robinett. This game has stayed with me to this day as one of my favorite games. I started playing it again recently, and began thinking about the different aspects of it that make it such an enjoyable game to play again, even 35 years after its release.
While it might appear to be a very basic game to a modern eye, in its day Superman had many innovative features. I won’t give it a full review here, but the one that I find most interesting is the game map. The world of Superman is much larger than most contemporary games of the era, most of which took place on a single, non-scrolling screen. The way the Superman’s map is laid out is confusing and non-intuitive, making the game very difficult for a new player, but once you start to gain a sense of how the different screens that make up the city are variously interconnected, it becomes possible to navigate very quickly through a number of methods which can be memorized with some effort and repetition. First-time players can take 15, even 30 minutes and up to win, while an experienced player who is familiar with navigation can often beat the game in under 2 minutes.
One of the more memorable and innovative titles on consoles and home computers in the early 80’s was Mountain King by CBS Electronics. I knew it on the Atari 2600, but it existed on other platforms also, including Atari 5200, Commodore 64, Vic20, and Colecovision. It was atmospheric and spooky and mysterious and inspiring, and one of my favorite games of all time.
There were a number of things that made Mountain King special, and examining them in detail is worthwhile.
Non-violent, Yet Scary As Hell
There was very little death or injury in Mountain King. It had a theme of exploring, not violence. The biggest threat in the game was the clock running out. Things that would hurt or kill you in another game imposed a time penalty on you in Mountain King. Fall too far, and rather than die or take damage, you’re stunned for a length of time proportionate to the height of your fall, and slo-o-o-o-wly get back on your feet. The wait could be agonizing, making seconds seem like hours. On certain difficulty levels, there are time limits for accomplishing certain objectives, and in any case your remaining time rolls over and is added to bonus time which dwindles with each re-claiming of the crown, so you are always under significant time pressure and there’s a feeling of speedrunning when you’re playing for a high score.
There is one deadly threat in the game, a giant man-eating spider that inhabits the lowest levels of the mountain. You can’t fight it, only run from it, but it is not normally necessary to descend to this level, so it is mainly in the game to provide a sense of fear of the depths. If you accidentally fell to the spider level, the scuttling sound of the approaching spider would fill you with panic and dread, and make you scramble toward safety with new urgency.
Most home videogames of the day did not feature music at all, or if they did, it was little beyond an introduction jingle that lasted a few bars, or a repetitive loop that quickly became annoying. Mountain King not only used music, but integrated it into the game in a novel way. A special theme plays when it is time to find the Flame Spirit, and the music gets louder as you come nearer to its location. A mostly-invisible entity which blinks sporadically, can can only be seen in full in the beam of your flashlight, using the music volume to triangulate and home in on the location of the Flame Spirit was one of the more novel mechanics in a videogame, and holds up well to this day.
Upon taking the Crown, a well-done TIA chip rendition of Grieg’s In The Hall Of The Mountain King plays, signaling your time-limited escape run to reach the Perpetual Flame at the top of the highest mountain peak in order to advance to the next level. The music created a sense of frenetic pace and urgency as you raced to the mountaintop. During the ascent, bats appear, which (similar to the Bat in Adventure) would rob you of the Crown. To avoid them, you sometimes had to hurry, and sometimes it was better to wait. This heightened the tension and anxiety you felt as you tried to make it out without losing the Crown, a setback which normally left you with insufficient time for a re-attempt, and meant an inevitable game over. More than any other feature, possibly rivaled only by the scare factor of the Spider, this made the game memorable.
Mountain King used silence to great effect, as well, for most of the time you are exploring the depths of the diamond mine in pitch dark and in complete silence, apart from the sound effects of picking up diamonds and the squeaking of bats. And if you fell, the sound effect — a simple descending tone — effectively conveyed not just that you had fallen, but how far. When you fell so long that part of the drop was in silence, you just knew you were going to be in for a long recovery time.
Each of these audio elements combined superbly to create a great mood, one of the best on the Atari 2600.
Mountain King’s themes of mystery and exploration are enhanced in a number of ways. First, the instructions don’t tell you exactly what you need to do — rather, they hint and allow you to figure things out for yourself. Enough information is there to figure the game out, but enough is left out that it leaves the player with a sense of mystery and discovery. The Flame Spirit and the Skull Guardian and who placed the Crown in the mountain are never explained, leaving the player to wonder and speculate.
The game reinforces the mystery and discovery directly in game play, by making a number of things invisible — black sprites on black background, discoverable only by shining your flashlight everywhere. Treasure Chests, which are worth a lot of diamonds, are not essential to find, but are common enough that you are likely to encounter a few of them as you collect diamonds. The Flame Spirit is unique and critical to the game, and normally invisible, but the combination of the musical theme and its occasional flickering into visibility make it findable even without the flashlight, but by learning to use the flashlight to find Treasure Chests to boost your diamond score enough to find the Flame Spirit sooner, the game leads you to use it in discovering the Flame Spirit as well.
These mysteries are fine enough, yet pale in comparison to the Glitch World that hangs high above the mountain itself. It seems that not much is known for certain about the Glitch World, whether it is truly a bug in the game, or whether it might have been placed there by the programmers deliberately for unknown reasons. But there are platforms high above the mountain which are just barely reachable if you make a super jump from a specific place on the mountain.
I discovered this all on my own quite accidentally by jumping around aimlessly, and it was one of the most exciting things I had run into in a game before. In an era that predated the internet, there was little chance of learning anything about this but by discovering it yourself, and the excitement of this, and the intimacy of learning a secret that, for all you could know, was known only to you and (maybe) the programmers of the game, was very special.
In the early pre-Nintendo 80’s, kids would talk at school about accomplishments and discoveries they had made in video games, often times to incredulous schoolmates who would demand proof, or claim to have seen the same thing on their Atari. There were a few books and magazines out there, even then, but we didn’t have access to information the way we do today, and it gave us the opportunity to discover things ourselves. There were of course some kids who became notorious for lying and making up something in an effort to seem cool and special, as well, but the fact that you couldn’t 100% disprove a claim, and everyone would insist that they were not making stuff up. The only way one could verify extraordinary claims (in a still mostly pre-VCR-era) was if you witnessed it firsthand, so this made the rumors and secrets surrounding videogames something extra special, and if you were a witness, it made you special. I fear that era is gone forever, changed irrevocably by the Internet Age.
And for me, Mountain King might have been the most mysterious. Warren Robinett’s Adventure Eater Egg might have been cooler, but because it gave you a message, it seemed to have a purpose, and however cool it was, it just didn’t have the same mystery that the Glitch World in Mountain King had. We never found anything up there, no matter how high we climbed, but we never doubted that if we could only find some way past the impossible point, and get just a little bit higher, some great secret would be waiting for us, and all would be revealed.