Opinion page by Duane Alan Hahn.
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Below is a list of my favorite Atari 2600 games. Some are current favorites and others I liked better when they were new back in the 1980s. There are many games I haven't had a chance to play, so this list will probably change as I discover new favorites. Each game is linked to the appropriate AtariAge.com page in case you want instruction manuals, screenshots, scans, or ROMs.
Colorful arcade-like graphics and great sound effects. It's not the best game in the world, but it's fun for a while (whenever you are in the mood for that kind of game).
This game is pretty good, but the screen flashes red every time you shoot an enemy, so if that kind of thing bothers you like it does me, you'll probably only play this game once every 10,000 years. Or we can play the hacked version that gets rid of the flashing.
This is another game that I like better than the arcade version. I get sick of it pretty fast, but it's great for a short amount of time.
Seems like just about everyone on the planet with an Atari 2600 likes this game. It would have been nice if Atari made Circus Atari 2 with better Imagic or Activision type graphics. The game is still fun as it is, even if it is a little ugly.
I'm not sure if I like this Supercharger game as much as Demon Attack, but it is better than games such as Phoenix, Galaxian, and Megamania.
This game felt kind of 'scary' when it was new. It was bold in the way the enemies reverse ripped onto the screen and how the sounds blew you out of your seat. It was amazing. My favorite Imagic games have a crisp, clear, colorful, arcade look (similar to the look of Defender at the arcades) and they usually have cool sound effects that seem totally original. Many games by Atari and other companies have characters that seem kind of stiff and look like they are made out of heavy cement blocks, but Imagic characters are usually looser, lighter, more colorful, more detailed, and more arcade-like. Even most homebrews with all of the tricks and tools available to programmers today seem to have a clunky look and feel. It seems that when Imagic died, so did the magic. Maybe it won't be that way forever. There still might be hope.
Below is what Rob Fulop, the programmer of Demon Attack, said about my comments on the Imagic look and sound effects:
The particular magic trick you are referring to was achieved by a less than remarkable solution ... basically Imagic was the first videogame company to bring in actual artists to do graphics for games. At Atari, we did our graphics by taking a piece of graph paper, and filling in the squares with pencil, and then coding each row of eight squares as a two digit hex value. Combine this primitive method, with the fact that most programmers sense of style is so gawd awful that many have a hard time figuring out which shoe goes with which shoe when they get dressed in the afternoon when they finally wake up, and it's no shock that game graphics looked like cement blocks.
After leaving Atari, Bob Smith and myself wrote a few simple editors that ran on the Atari 800. These tools enabled a graphic artist to author actual game graphics, changing both the graphics, and color, on each scan line. When they were happy with the way it all looked, the programmer ran some utility tool to add the appropriate hex codes to their program. Michael Becker was the first artist to use these tools, and he did such a great job on the set of demons that appear in Demon Attack that he became Imagic's first resident artist devoted exclusively to video game graphics. I think it took other companies awhile to catch on to this, which is why Imagic games were known for the distinct look they have. The sound effects were created by the programmers themselves, both Bob Smith and Dennis Koble, as well as myself had done several games on the 2600 at Atari .. so we had generated enough sound effects at that point that we knew our way around the primitive Stella sound system.
Wow! An Activision game where objects seem to be in random positions. Stop the presses! When something so rare happens, the whole world must be alerted! Thank God David Crane didn't make this game or the cars would have been in the same place every time you played. Enduro is the best driving game ever made for the Atari 2600 and it's also more fun than many driving games on other systems.
The interplanetary telephone pieces and zones are in different places every time you start a new game. Controlled Randomness gives E.T. replayability, and that means the game will be fun no matter how many times you play it. It's always fresh. And unlike Adventure and Superman, there is no flicker. In case you don't already know, I have a 5 page section that is devoted to this game. I attempt to explain why E.T. is better than most people say.
It doesn't have the beauty and pleasing sound effects of an Imagic game, but it is different every time you play and that's a good thing. When I bought the game around 1984, it didn't seem as polished as other games I played. It wasn't bad, it just felt kind of homemade. After playing the game for a day or two, I discovered that you could sometimes push your way outside of the artery when it gets smaller. It was a mistake the first time it happened. I thought it was kind of cool, but it also made me lose a little respect for the game and put in a lower class in my mind than it should be.
Another David Crane game where things start off in the same position every time. The best little fishy always starts out on the bottom right of the screen, so if you're on the left side, you'll rarely get a chance to catch it. The only reason why I have this game on my list is that it's still kind of fun to catch the fish, for a short time anyway. I also believe that this was the second game that I saw playing on an Atari VCS at Woolco. Breakout was the first, but this fishing game means a little more to me since I used to like to go fishing back then. It was a holdover from my grandfather. I imagined buying the game and an Atari and fishing in the comfort of my own home. It never happened. I didn't get an Atari until 1982 and by then I had a desire for other more exciting games. I finally got Fishing Derby in the mid 1990s.
Everything is detailed and colorful. The frog looks cool jumping horizontally, but it looks about as stupid as the Parker Brothers version going vertically. That's not such a big deal though with the whole game being so much better overall. If you have played the Parker Brothers game, you probably remember the constant flicker. There doesn't seem to be any flicker in this game. The music and sound effects are very much like the arcade game. Speaking of music, this Starpath version doesn't make you wait for the beginning tune to finish before you can start playing. If you like Frogger, and you want to play it on the Atari 2600, this is the version to play.
Although the obstacles are always in the same place, this game is still worth playing once in a while. People talk about liking Atari bowling, but swinging the golf club in this game is more fun to me.
This side scroller is different every time you play. It's still fun, but I liked it more when I was younger.
Some say that the Atari 2600 version of Lock 'N' Chase is ugly, but I can't stand the graphics of the arcade version and I don't like the gameplay as much as the Atari 2600 version either.
It's hard to get sick of this game. Trapping a cop for 2000 points never gets old. There are two treasures to get and you need to get them every time if you want their worth to double. You never know where the cops are going to go, so danger is around every corner. If you close a door to block one cop, you could find that you blocked your only way to escape from the next cop. On top of all that, there is no flicker. It's the best dot eater 'maze' game ever made for the Atari 2600.
I like to pretend you're grabbing treasure in a futuristic place patrolled by robots. Maybe it's a deadly game show or an evil genius trapped you in a maze and you have to clear a certain number of screens before he'll let you out.
Lock 'N' Chase Tips
After playing for a couple of minutes, you'll notice that the cops will freeze for a short amount of time after you grab a treasure. They'll also freeze when you trap a cop for 2000 points (that can only happen once on each screen, so wait until the next screen before you trap a cop again).
Something that may not be clear to a newbie is that the Upper Treasure will appear based on the number of Gold Bars collected. So you can plan on collecting Gold Bars closer to the Upper Treasure area when you feel you've collected almost enough to make the Upper Treasure appear.
Understanding that I could have counted wrong and I might be off by a bit, the first Upper Treasure seems to appear after you collect 16 Gold Bars. The second Upper Treasure seems to appear after you collect another 34 Gold Bars. The third Upper Treasure seems to appear after you collect 28 more Gold Bars. And the fourth Upper Treasure seems to appear after you collect an additional 16 Gold Bars. Here are the numbers again:
The Lower Treasure doesn't seem to be affected by the number of Gold Bars collected. It comes up at what seems like regular intervals.
The doors do not close at random. A door will close at the last place you moved through where a door could be closed. It's like you have remote control power over the last door location you moved through.
Be sure to play the game with the difficulty settings on B. The cops will start out slow on the first screen, but if you pay attention, you'll see that they are a bit faster on the next screen. Not A faster, but faster than the first screen. The first screen on B may make you think the game is boring, but if you play more than one screen set to B, the cops will get faster and you won't have time to be bored, especially if you try to get both treasures and trap a cop on each screen.
More replayable goodness. If you think this game is easy, try it on level 4. The only flaw this game has is that you can start out in the room you are supposed to be looking for. Seems like it would have been fairly easy to leave that room out of the list of possible starting positions. Oh well, if you play on level 4 you may not mind starting out in that room sometimes.
I used to love this game. I don't play it as much as I used to. I think I kind of got sick of it because I played it so much, but it still belongs on this list.
Othello is always fun no matter what game system you play it on.
This is another game that I don't love. It's fun enough to add to the list though. If I could have owned it when it was new, I would have more of an attachment to it. I didn't get to play the Atari 2600 version of the game until after the year 2000.
I tried the arcade version of Solar Fox with MAME and besides not liking the gameplay any better, I don't even like the graphics. Thank God for the limitations that the Atari 2600 had. I like the compromises some game designers had to make. In this case, it improved the game.
Here's something Jess Ragan said at AtariAge that I agree with:
We've had this conversation before, but what the heck... I never pass up a chance to heap praise onto the 2600 version of Solar Fox! The original arcade game was unfocused and filled to overflowing with unnecessary play mechanics, but the 2600 version streamlines the experience, cranking up the speed and intensity. There's no firing; only frantic dodging, and the game is better off for it.
Solar Fox is an addictive, colorful classic game and it's more fun if you choose the difficulty setting that is right for you. The manual says:
Your Starships travel at a preset cruise speed throughout each game. Set the DIFFICULTY switches to A for a fast cruise speed. Set the switches to B for a slow cruise speed.
At fast cruise speed, hold down the red button of your Joystick Controller to slow your Starship down. At slow cruise speed, hold down the red button to speed your Starship up. To return your Starship to its cruise speed, lift up on the red button.
I play with the left difficulty switch set to A so I can move fast and use the fire button like brakes when I need to.
A simple classic game with a ton of variations. I think I have played a hack or two that improved on the game, but most attempts (whether they are hacks or homebrews) usually stink.
I love how you climb buildings in this game. Of course, Spider-Man games made in the 21st century and beyond will usually be more fun, but this Atari 2600 game gave you something that was rare at the time. You could climb and swing on a web line. I could be wrong, but I think this was the only Atari 2600 game that gave you that ability.
This is how I thought Defender was going to be. This game is about as close as you can get to arcade quality on an Atari 2600. I think I bought Stargate about a year after it was released and I remember being impressed, but that was around the time I was more interested in the Commodore 64, so it wasn't the jaw-dropping experience that it should have been. It's still a good game and I'd rather play this on the Atari 2600 than Defender or Chopper Command.
This game is always fun. I sometimes think that I like it better than the arcade version. As with most games that I like, it's different every time you play. Having the first person view and the overhead view is great. You can play any way you want. Do you only like the overhead view? No problem. Just ignore the first-person view.
I don't like this game as much as I did in the 1980s. I used to love it. I think I have been spoiled by the side-scrolling shooters I played on more advanced systems over the years. I also don't like learning 'dance steps,' so I dislike the Electro-Gates.
The best tennis game ever made for the Atari 2600. It's better than some tennis games made for later consoles.
This was one of my favorite games when it was new. I played the crap out of it. It's a little too blocky looking after playing some of my favorite Imagic games, though.
Below are some of the games that were a disappointment to me back when they were new.
Raiders of the Lost Ark's Influence
First, David Crane made some high-quality, pretty-looking Atari 2600 games. He also created amazing, innovative code. That doesn't mean I have to like the games he made that seemed to lack controlled randomness.
Besides having a cool vine to swing on, the game was kind of boring. I thought the treasure would be in different places every time you played, but it was just one more Activision game where everything was always in the same place. Most enemies in the game had no intelligence to them. Pretty much everything was a mindless obstacle. I believe that the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark was the reason why Pitfall! was so popular. Pitfall Harry didn't seem to have a personality in Pitfall! or Pitfall II. All he ever had was stolen from Indiana Jones by way of children's imaginations.
Some people say that kids weren't aware of the connection between Indiana Jones and Pitfall Harry back then, but In September of 1982, the Indiana Jones buzz was still strong and it looked to most kids I knew like Activision was trying to cash in on that buzz just like everybody else. It seemed most of us were aware of the direct connection. Back then Indiana Jones was adventure guy no matter what happened in the movie, especially since many of us never even got to see the movie until years later. All we had were commercials and hype to go on. Any kid that was even slightly paying attention knew that Pitfall! was a Raiders of the Lost Ark 'wannabe' with a dash of Tarzan thrown in (vine swinging and Tarzan yell) and a lot of the kids that didn't know it consciously, knew it subconsciously.
It seemed everyone was trying to ride the coattails of Raiders of the Lost Ark back then, just like everyone tried to ride the coattails of Star Wars. Pitfall! was released in September of 1982 and do you know what else came out that month on TV? Tales of the Gold Monkey and Bring 'Em Back Alive. Two shows that constantly reminded us of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Those of us who saw the video for Africa by Toto were also reminded of Raiders of the Lost Ark which got fed back into Pitfall! and the official Raiders of the Lost Ark game that was soon to be released. As we went around the bend into the new year, any kid that had access to music videos got another Raiders of the Lost Ark infusion from Duran Duran's Hungry Like the Wolf video.
It's possible that Activision wasn't trying to ride the coattails of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the effect was the same. Millions of kids saw the connection and bought the game to feel like they were Indiana Jones in a new jungle adventure. [Many years after I wrote this and had arguments with people about it, David Crane said that he was "inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark and such" in the video above. Now the Raiders of the Lost Ark connection is not just my opinion.]
I had high hopes for this game. I read about how much better it was supposed to be than Pitfall!, so I bought it for the Atari 2600 when the game was new (with my own money that I earned mowing yards). I thought at the time that since Pitfall II: Lost Caverns was supposedly the most advanced 'adventure game' ever made for the Atari 2600 that it would at least have randomly placed treasure using controlled randomness like real adventure games did. Pitfall II: Lost Caverns had better graphics and sophisticated music, but just like original Pitfall!, things were in the same place and you still had to jump over or evade mindless enemies that just bounced up and down or moved back and forth and usually didn't even know you were there. From treasure to enemies, it's the same game every time. Zero replayability with the bonus of frustrating gameplay and no vine swinging. What a huge disappointment! Activision managed to take a fairly boring game like Pitfall!, remove the one thing that was really fun (swinging on vines) and inject one of the worst gameplay ideas ever invented: losing ground by going back to a save point. I liked the idea of not dying and having no time limit, but I'd rather be punished by having an Incan ghost come and take away some of my treasure instead of making me lose ground for one tiny mistake.
So, although Pitfall II: Lost Caverns had some cool things in it, the game was mostly just another lame exercise in perfect timing with nothing else to offer except the frustration of going back many screens to do it all over again if you messed up. At least the original Pitfall! let you skip or retry the screen you were on (your choice depending on whether you went left or right). The idiotically frustrating idea of making you go back multiple screens was not an advance in gameplay, it was a giant step backwards. Pitfall II: Lost Caverns started a horrible trend. We got decades of stupid perfect-timing platform games where everything was in the same place every time you played and you had to replay many levels until you memorized all of the 'dance steps'. That model is still used today by misguided game designers. Randomness and replayability weren't just shown the door, they were thrown through a plate-glass window.
Back in early 1982, my family and I thought Atari 2600 Pac-Man was going to look like a more blocky version of the Atari computer version that we saw at Woolco and we thought it might have similar sound effects too. For those who weren't alive or weren't paying attention back then, Pac-Man was released for the Atari computers before the Atari 2600 version. Here's a video showing Atari computer Pac-Man:
We thought the game would look and sound pretty much like this version by DINTAR816:
Instead of what we thought, we got that weird maze with the weird colors, a grating little opening tune, and a horrible rubber band sound effect:
Although the date on the box, cart, manual, and copyright screen say 1981, Atari 2600 Pac-Man wasn't released until March/April of 1982.
The main reason my family bought an Atari 2600 was for Pac-Man and we brought that first Atari 2600 home on March 27, 1982. We had pre-ordered Pac-Man and got it as soon as it hit the store (Woolco at Tanglewood Mall in Roanoke, Virginia). The official release date was March, and although people in other cities across the country could buy it in March, it didn't get to our store until April. I was stuck playing Combat for at least a week until Pac-Man arrived at the store.
My family still played the game since it was the only version of Pac-Man that we had, but that didn't mean it didn't suck. (It was also the only game we had besides combat for a while.) Some might ask why we didn't return the game. It didn't really occur to us that we could. I don't even know if it was allowed at the time. The only game I returned was Pitfall II: Lost Caverns a couple of years later because I was more confident then and knew more of my ‘video game rights.’
To be clear, we hated the grating un-Pac-Man sounds, the un-Pac-Man maze, the un-Pac-Man maze colors, and the horrible flicker at the time, when the game was new. I was 17, so I was less forgiving than a nose-picking 6 year old who never played the arcade game and would be satisfied with anything that moved on the screen.
Some say that if Atari 2600 Pac-Man had a different name and there were no expectations for it to be similar to arcade Pac-Man, most people wouldn't think it's a bad game. If most people like irritating sound effects and annoying flicker, that might be true. I'd rather play Lock 'N' Chase.
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Play these games at your own risk. If you become addicted, forget to eat, then die; do no haunt me. It's not my fault that you died.