Remember these? The 10 best Atari 2600 games

December 17, 2008

atari26002FROM 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.


YesterGames #6: Quadnet

March 18, 2008

FROM JASON’S DESIRE TO BE HAN SOLO — This game has nothing at all to do with Star Wars except for the pareidolia effect. But if I’m to be childishly honest, the reason I played this game longer than 3 minutes the first time was because the grid triggered something deep in my memory: It looked and acted like the one on the Millennium Falcon’s laser cannon targeting computer.

Then I was hooked.

Quadnet is a lot like the old Atari 2600 classic Vanguard in that you can fire in four directions while moving independently. You’re gridlocked and have to take out hi-tech bouncing balls. Think Asteroids on a giant, tilting tic-tac-toe board.

It’s easy at first but with 14 or so targets in later stages things can get pretty hairy. Quadnet starts off with strategy — stay in the middle or hit the edges — and quickly devolves into six-finger twitching as you jam the controls with both hands. By the time you pass that 50,000 mark, you’re thinking in multiple dimensions and calculating trajectories 5 or 6 seconds in advance.

I strongly recommend re-assigning the controls to arrow keys for movement and WASD for firing. It’s very natural that way.

Made by Brain Child Design in 1999, Quadnet (download) packs a lot of fun into 281k. If you’re running XP or later, you’ll need DosBox to make it run, but it’s worth the effort. Honestly, I would kill for a well-done Flash version to avoid all the hassle.

‘Rise of the Videogames’ documentary shows how old-school hackers changed the world

November 22, 2007

nolan.jpgFROM JASON’S CABLE BOX — The debut of Discovery Channel’s five-hour Rise of the Videogame documentary had me hooked Wednesday, giving me a brand new respect for my old Atari 2600 and its peers.

It seems that I inadvertently blogged about clips from the miniseries earlier this month before it aired — at least in the U.S. It was originally a BBC production, from what I can tell, and the clips that made it to YouTube appear to have Dutch subtitles. I didn’t mind seeing it twice. It’s scheduled to repeat regularly through Christmas.

The documentary intercuts Cold War and war games footage with modern game sequences, pop culture commentary, and interviews of the fathers of the video game industry.

One shot even shows Spacewar! inventor Steve “Slug” Russell bragging to the camera, “Something that I sometimes say is that I unleashed the curse of video games upon the world.”

The shows producers hypothesize that video games are a natural extension of America’s obsession with the space race and its fears about mutual assured destruction. It was Army analyst Willy Higginbotham who started the craze by tweaking his oscilloscope — a refrigerator-sized cathode tube contraption used by programmers to calibrate hardware.

Hacking his military hardware to relieve boredom, Higginbotham programmed the machine so that two people could play a crude game of “Tennis For Two” in glowing green waveforms.

His ideas and methods spread everywhere there were computers — which in the 1950s and 1960s was mainly restricted to military and research applications. In universities across the nation, researchers passed along line code instructions for hijacking primitive computational machinery. They taught the machines to play games.

But it was inventor Ralph Baer who saw the commercial possibilities of games in the home and invented the Magnavox Odyssey in 1968. In Rise of the Videogame, he tells the camera about his 1960s vision of making 40 million U.S. television sets do more than just receive two or three channels

The Odyssey was the world’s first console system when it was released to the masses in 1972 and featured 28 games and a light gun. Nintendo was born as an Odyssey distributor, but Atari quickly killed the platform.

Nolan Bushnell (pictured above) got his start hawking a clone of Russell’s Spacewar!. In 1972, he teamed with Ted Dabney to create Atari (a term from the Japanese board game Go, Atari is kind of like check in chess). Two years later, the duo combined to put Pong in homes rather than just in arcades.

Ironically, Bushnell made far more money in the late 1970s and early 80s as founder of Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater.

For the rest of the story and speculation on the future of video game technology, tune in to Discovery. It’s well worth five hours of your time.

Quick facts

Video games in the U.S. are a $7.1 billion per year industry.

More than 40 percent of gamers are women.

For every arcade game released in the U.S., nine are released in Japan.

Pokemon Red, Blue, and Green is the best-selling video game of all time (that wasn’t bundled with a console), with about 40 million copies worldwide. Super Mario Brothers, which came with the original NES, sold about the same number of copies.

Nintendo’s iconic plumber (and sometime carpenter), Mario, has appeared in more than 200 games.

The Sims is the best-selling PC game of all-time, with 16 million copies.

YouTube Cinema: Cloak & Dagger (1984)

November 14, 2007

Jack Flack always escapes.

FROM JASON’S IMAGINARY COMMANDO FRIEND — What’s better than Dabney Coleman‘s razor-blade wrist-watch, self-retracting parachute, and a collapsible blow gun?

The answer: Elliott from E.T. and an Atari 5200 cartridge laden with top-secret schematics.

Randomly clicking around YouTube last night, I started stumbling across full-length movies that wonderful, blessed people had uploaded. Just a little more mouse action later, and I knew I’d hit the big time — and had to share. Look for YouTube Cinema to be a recurring feature on Quaedam.

The 11-part title that made me stop in my tracks and hunker down for an early morning watching was Cloak & Dagger, the 1984 Richard Franklin film from Universal Pictures.

It’s more than just another 80s adventure movie: It’s a learning experience. In 101 minutes, kids can learn how to solicit rides from strangers late at night, commit grand theft auto, shoot in self-defense, steal video games, and accuse people of child abandonment in an airport concourse.

When I first saw it at age 7, I didn’t quite care about the point of the movie. Instead, I converted parts of my basement and woods behind my house into an obstacle course, and darted around behind trees carrying out my own secret missions. It was the same collateral damage wreaked on parents who let their kids watch The Goonies, Labyrinth, Home Alone, War Games, and Explorers.


Davey Osborne, a.k.a. Henry Thomas — yes, Elliott from E.T. — is obsessed with Jack Flack, U.S. spy of video game and role-playing fame. Flack takes on a life of his own as Davey’s imaginary friend, and is played by Dabney Coleman, who also plays Davey’s father.

While fetching some Twinkies (I’m not making this up) for uber-geeky video game store clerk Morris (whom Andrew likened to Pedobear), Davey witnesses a murder and the victim hands him an Atari 5200 cartridge of the titular game Cloak & Dagger. Nobody believes Davey, though, because the victim’s body mysteriously disappears.

There’s an early question of Davey’s sanity. We learn he’s recently lost his mother and his father wants him to see a psychiatrist. It’s also clear that his obsession with war and espionage is making him cuckoo-bananas.

But it turns out the cartridge — which people constantly and infuriatingly refer to as a disc — holds classified information for the “invisible bomber.” Of course, the plane is easily identified as an SR-71 Blackbird by anybody who grew up in the 80s, but the point is that spies are willing to kill Davey and his whiny gal Friday sidekick to get it back.

From there, the rest of the film is a chase through Houston, which is transformed into a maze of stone bridges, tunnels, and canals and includes plot stop-offs at Japanese gardens, a riverboat tour, and the Alamo.

Just when you think everything might be sorted, missing digits come into play.

Is Jack real?

There is a legitimate question of whether Jack Flack might have some profound metaphysical property.

In several instances, he manipulates his environment — closing a car trunk, changing gears for Davey during a car chase, dragging Davey backward out of the car, then yanking him from a phone booth just before it’s leveled by a charging van. It would be interesting to see what is really happening from an impartial observer, like the surveillance camera footage of Tyler Durden beating himself in Fight Club.

There’s also ambiguity later in the film when Davey begins to decide to grow up: “I don’t want to play anymore!” he yells at Jack.

“Why do you kids always say that? You’re father said the same thing. After all those games of cowboys and Indians, you get tired of make-believe and break your toys,” Jack says.

I’m not sure if this is supposed to hint that Jack is a ghost or spirit of some type; if it was around before Davey was born (as his father’s imaginary friend), then maybe it is an extant entity and not a figment. Or maybe it’s the spirit of childhood imagination. Later in the same scene, as he lies dying on the pavement, Jack tells Davey, “You’re the best playmate I ever had.” It almost slips into It territory.

You can’t miss:

  • The longest walkie-talkie antennas in history.
  • Also, the biggest silencer ever attached to a gun.
  • The E.T. theme subtly worked into the score at touching moments.
  • Screens from the arcade version of C&D, which was never actually released on the 5200 (which was rare enough anyway. I never saw one in the wild, though I hunted for one at the Salvation Army and yard sales for years).
  • Norman Bates’ mom from Psycho (uncredited, but linked on IMDB).

A final word of comfort

Christina Nigra, who played Kim, left the acting business shortly after C&D, sparing the world some of the worst child acting ever to hit the screen. She starred only in a few episodes of Mr. Belvedere, Top of the Heap, and Out of This World before calling it quits in 1991.

The man who put the ping in our Pong

November 10, 2007

FROM JASON’S GAPING MAW OF ADMIRATION — It seems crazy, but people who study the Earth’s ancient past — historiticians, we call them — have discovered that once upon a time there were no vidjagames.

It was a dark and unenlightened time. We can only tell from fossil remains how primitive Man survived with flint and twigs, herding the wild mammoths and fending off sabre-toothed tigers. Yes, the 1960s were a dangerous era, and pastologists continue to puzzle out how Cro-Nixon man weathered Nature’s harsh kill-or-be-killed contest.

Then Ralph Baer emerged to give his tribe the greatest invention since fire: Pong.

This documentary shows Baer’s story: How a veteran dreamed of using vacuum tubes and laughable “micro”chips to make the world’s simplest electronic game in 1972.


Step 1: Insert quarter.

Step 2: Ball will serve automatically.

Step 3: Avoid missing ball for high score.