FROM JASON’S FAVORITE WOOD-PANELED CONSOLE — Forget Pitfall. Screw Ms. Pacman. To hell with Pole Position, Joust, and Asteroids.
I want to talk about the games that I played so much as a kid that I still dream about them sometimes at night.
My uncle had an Atari 2600 when I was three, and he introduced me to low-skill, low-learning curve classic Outlaw. Over the next two years, I obsessed over the machine whenever I was at his house. Finally, my parents caved to my whining when they found a used Atari set for a few bucks.
I didn’t give that sucker up until well into high school.
Households back then tended to only have one television. With some spare birthday money, I managed to grab a second one for $15 at a yard sale when I was seven — it was black and white only and even had a UHF dial. It was the Atari TV, and it went in my bedroom.
I pillaged flea markets. I raked through bins at the Salvation Army. I obsessed over electronics tables at yard sales. Pretty soon, $1 or $2 or $3 at a time, the old TV was swimming up to its rabbit ears in piles of cartridges. My room started to smell of the dust that burnt on the tapes’ contacts.
The Atari never went out of use during the Nintendo revolution, or even when the Genesis came out. It was, even back then, hardcore. Old school. It was where you built your vidjagame street cred.
Sadly, my mother sold it when I went to college, and I’ve cursed her blasted name down through the years. Luckily, there emulators, and you can download Stella to play any of the following games. Grab the ROMs here.
Now, I’ve shied away for the past year on posting any “top 10” lists, but here I just can’t resist. These are my favorites; I know them inside and out. And I’m sure I have the order correct:
#10 — Berzerk
There wasn’t much in the way of fragging when it came to four-bit graphics, but Berzerk gave us a primitive shooter experience in eight degrees of freedom. Like James Cameron’s Terminator, this evil robot epic was also the result of a dream. Designer Alan McNeil said the idea came to him in his sleep.
But even though Jack Thompson was nowhere to be found, the real nightmare started in 1981 when a 19-year-old boy died of a heart attack while playing. Another boy, 18, died the following year after playing Berzerk.
Personally, the great thing for me about so many low-res Atari games was bringing your imagination to the screen. The cartridge cover showed a Luke Skywalker-type figure in white blasting away at rotund robots, and back in those days you kind of had to overlay that over the screen in your mind. In a series of technological dungeons with electrifed walls, flying laser beams, and a malevolent smiley face named “Evil Otto” on your tail….
#9 — Enduro
Activision usually had top-rate games, and Enduro, though simple, was no exception. This is a speed and reflexes test — an early no-shooting twitcher. The goal isn’t to wreck other cars or fire machine guns. Instead, you just have to take a queue from Ricky Bobby and go fast.
Through sun, snow, dusk, night, and fog, you’ve got to pass 200 cars with the odometer going.
There’s not much else to say, just that the rendering, third-person view, and concept are executed so much more beautifully than other racing titles like Night Driver or Pole Position. There’s also after-game content; after hitting the magic 200, you can keep going as long as you want.
#8 — Warlords
First there was Pong. Then there was Breakout. When Warlords was released in 1980, it combined the best of all the other bouncing-ball titles by using the 2600’s paddles, allowing up to four players at a time, letting players hold and aim the ball, and adding kill targets inside the “castles.”
Warlords got a lot of play in my house because it was one of few 2600 games to let many players in on the action at the same time, rather than taking turns. Rounds were quick and fun, and rarely ended without a jaded loser swinging a paddle at their oppressor like nunchucks.
#7 — Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
There were some real loser Star Wars titles for early consoles (Jedi Arena for the 2600 being among the mind-blowingly bad ones). But watching the movies, there were a few scenes that any sane 8-year-old boy wanted to play, and I’ve always had a big chubby for the Battle of Hoth.
Face it: AT-AT walkers are pretty much the coolest sci-fi transports ever. They’re like giant dogs or horses with the ability to crush groundlings and the firepower to zap snowspeeders out of the sky. So when they tromped across the cover of an Atari cartridge, I knew I had to own it.
As the pilot of a snowspeeder (you had to believe you were Luke Skywalker and not some lame cannon-fodder Rebel), you fly against hordes of AT-ATs marching toward your power generators. Sting them on the nose enough and they’ll change colors, eventually exploding. Or you can hit their flashing sweet spot, causing instant destruction.
My only gripe was the lack of tow cable trip-wires — at least until the Nintendo 64 gave me Shadows of the Empire. But that’s another story.
#6 — Solaris
Space Harrier gets a lot of credit for its semi-3D rail-shooter asthetic. But Solaris (and Battlezone, too — which just barely got edged off the list) proved that even the Atari with its limited memory could fake 3D first-person views.
Solaris, in many ways, is just a graphically superior version of the earlier Star Raiders (both are written by Douglas Neubauer). It lets you choose outer space battlegrounds from a grid and jump there through hyperspace, as well as allowing players to skim the surfaces of planets to refuel and pick up passengers.
The rendering was super-smooth and the backdrops (for Atari, at least) were jaw-dropping. It was obvous from launch that Neubauer cared about providing a simulation experience that cheap 2600 fliers didn’t. He gave me a nice combination between Star Trek strategy and Star Wars trigger-happiness.
#5 — Cosmic Ark
They must be cows. That’s it. After years of thinking about it, they must be cows that I am trying to abduct with my UFO in Cosmic Ark.
Space cows. Possibly robot cows. You can never really tell with Atari games.
Look, this one ranks pretty high for being such an unsophisticated game. There are only two stages, repeating and increasing in velocity. In the first, the player fires in four fixed directions to ward off a meteor shower. In the second, you get to flying down a mini-saucer from the mother ship to pick up (what must be) cows from a planet’s surface while avoiding a laser field.
What really makes this work, for me at least, is the UFO mythology, four-bit though it might be.
#4 — Demon Attack
There were a lot of bottom-up shooters in the post-Space Invaders era, but Demon Attack had by far the best-looking baddies. This was altogether different than Galaxian or Phoenix (Atari sued Imagic because of Demon Attack‘s “similiarities” to Phoenix). Instead of small enemies and fixed formations, Demon Attack presented bigger aliens in swarms of three.
The monsters, portrayed on the cartridge cover as MechaGodzillas, materialize from both sides of the screen — a novelty — and they fly in unpredictable patterns. Early in the game, they start to split into multiple aliens, and what begin as clusters of falling bullets turn into lasers.
The game would have benefited from a scrolling background or at least a starfield or planetscape. But the gameplay itself was ace compared to its competitors.
#3 — Yars’ Revenge
What could have been mistaken for a lame house fly was perceived instead as a ferocious insectoid warrior, thanks to the cover art on the Yars’ Revenge cartridge.
Inane buzzing aside, piloting Yar around is fun. The player has to use Yars’ firepower to shoot through protective blocks, get to a target, get a special missile, and then time it just right to hit the target from across the screen. A later level surrounds the target in a rotating shield of blocks (a nifty trick by programmer Howard Scott Warshaw).
That Warshaw came up with a game as clever and enduring as Yars’ Revenge is something, considering he was responsible for the uber-stinker E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Looking back on both games, it might be fair to say he was good at coming up with pioneering game mechanics, such as using Yars’ jaws to eat through blocks, or E.T.’s neck-stretching flight.
Those mechanics kept me hooked despite the limited number of levels (the most common and tragic flaw of 2600 games, in my opinion).
#2 — Vanguard
There would be no R-Type without Vanguard.
For years, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Maybe because it was such a good game, there didn’t seem to be any free copies floating around the used electronics circuit, so it became somewhat of a holy grail. But rarity wasn’t all. This was a truly great game to play, and offered so much in the way of variety that Yars’ Revenge never could.
There were the hordes of ever-changing varieties of enemies flying at you. There were the cave walls to watch out for, and the gas guage to keep your eyes on. There were the energy blocks that would grant temporary invinsibility (they not only made you invulnerable to enemies and lasers, but let you fly through walls, too). There was the ability to shoot in the four cardinal directions instead of straight ahead. The ship’s navigation was sluggish to add challenge.
And best of all, the screens changed from side-scrolling to top-down perspectives on varying stages to add a bit of a switch-up. There were traps and puzzles to get past.
Truth to tell, Vanguard could easily be #1 on this list, if it weren’t for…
#1 — River Raid
Maybe my obsession with River Raid had something to do with seeing Iron Eagle and Top Gun. The 80s were all about flyboys and speed. And, you know, lots of bullets and explosions.
But Activision also gave us a title that had excellent level design and gameplay gimicks to compliment the jet-jockey theme. The long river gave us non-repeating levels with increasing challenge and zero load times. Fuel was a factor, but a lot of the fun was in seeing how many fuel tanks you could destroy while keeping the needle off empty.
You could throttle up and down. There were helicopters and aircraft carriers and enemy planes and bridges to destroy. But the big problem, even though it was thematically accurate, was the Atari 2600 joystick. It was too stiff, which made flying hard. What changed the entire name of the game was the Sega Genesis.
Sega designed a D-pad to keep up with Nintendo, but the geniuses made it a nine-pin jack that was backward-compatible with the 2600. Even better, a third party made a touch-sensitive Genesis pad that made thumb-jamb a problem of the past. It also made flight through narrow river cliffs much more convenient.