Nowadays we’ve become accustomed to the notion of relatively equal, competing video game consoles vying for gamer dollars.
But back in the day, between approximately 1977 and 1983, the Atari VCS — better known as the 2600, was the uncontested ruler of the video gaming universe. Its contemporaries, like the Intellivision or Colecovision, may have been technically superior in some ways — but they couldn’t match the 2600’s popularity and selection of games.
We all know about the E.T. debacle, and how Atari nearly killed the fledgling videogame industry until Nintendo stepped in. But
Atari didn’t just throw in the towel, however. They, and the few game manufacturers who survived the collapse, continued to make games for the 2600 all the way up to 1992. A campaign to revitalize the system was also launched, remodeling the system along the lines of their new 7800 system — and releasing a new generation of games. Many of these were truly exceptional, and were it not for the fact that it was up against a number of clearly superior systems, these games might have saved the 2600. Here’s a selection of the 10 best of these cartridges, all released post-crash — between 1985 and 1990.
10) Double Dragon
The very fact that this game exists warrants its inclusion on this list. There’s something strangely courageous about releasing a port of Double Dragon, the ridiculously popular game that more or less invented the side-scroll beat ’em up genre for what had become a reviled and woefully underpowered system in 1989. Sadly, it’s actually a pretty cool-looking game by Atari standards, and might have been something had it been released six years earlier.
One of the last 2600 ports to be produced in 1990, Xenophobe is worth mentioning as one of the first split-screen games (though 2600 only offered two screens, rather than the three available in the arcade version). Beyond that, it’s an entertaining shoot’em up based vaguely on the Alien movies with fairly impressive graphics.
8) Secret Quest
One could look at 1989’s Secret Quest as Atari’s attempt to improve upon its earlier attempts at dungeon crawl-type games, like Adventure.
At least you’re vaguely human shaped in this one, and you fight enemies with what passes for a sword.
No relation to the Schwarzenegger film, 1988’s Commando has an impressive pedigree for a 2600 game. Developed by Capcom and published by Activision, Commando‘s a forward-scrolling shooter similar to Ikari Warriors. The graphics are as good as can be expected, and the action is pretty smooth and fast-paced.
6) Off the Wall
Take the guys who designed Breakout, give them a bag of ‘shrooms and all the Chinese takeout they can eat, and Off the Wall is what you’d get. Breakout‘s simple oscillating rectangle is replaced by what seems to be a small martial artist bearing a lunch tray he uses to smack a brick-blasting pixel across the screen, a Chinese dragon does “The Worm” at the top of the screen, and a few Arkanoid-style power ups and power downs are thrown in for good measure.
Admittedly, we never had the opportunity to play this game when it came out in ’89. which accounts for the rather low ranking, but it looks like more fun than should be legally allowed.
5) RealSports Boxing
RealSports Boxing more than makes up for Atari’s previous weak attempt at a boxing title for the 2600. The characters have a full range of motion in the ring, react to punches, and can actually be knocked out rather than winning simply by points. Made in 1987, it’s probably the best game in Atari’s RealSports line.
4) Jr. Pac-Man
The only Atari game that was remotely as bad as E.T. was their rushed, lackluster port of the most popular video game in history — Pac-Man. The blow was cushioned somewhat by the release of the far-superior Ms. Pac-Man in ’83, and then with this game in ’86. Not only is it superior in graphics and game play, it added a few innovative touches to the franchise, such as a much larger, scrolling maze and mobile bonus prizes.
Arguably the best movie-based game for the 2600, it’s also one of the very few Atari titles that’s actually superior to the NES port. The graphics are quite good, and it’s pretty simple once you figure it out. The music’s a little repetitive, but that was something of an occupational hazard for the 2600.
2) Midnight Magic
Here is a thing of sheer beauty. 1988’s Midnight Magic is not only the best pinball game made for the 2600, it’s one of their best games period. It’s fast-paced, beautifully designed, and utterly addictive. Not much else to say, just watch the clip, and think of simpler days…
It’s doubtful that Atari’s announced reboot of the 2600 classic Star Raiders will be half as cool as this semi-sequel from 1986 (an actual Star Raiders II was released, but only for the 7800 and Home Computer). Solaris buries practically every other 2600 title in the realm of graphics, the game play is complex and engrossing–and best of all, Atari had the good sense not to hook it to that expensive paperweight they called a “touch pad”. Solaris had the chops to be Atari’s next big franchise title, and if any game from the 2600’s past deserves to be revitalized for this generation, this would be the one.
Fun Fact: Solaris was originally conceived as a 2600 version of The Last Starfighter, but they were unable to secure rights to the name (at the same time, a Last Starfighter game made for the Atari 800 Computer had to be re-named Star Raiders II).