Happy 35th Atari 2600!

A look back at what we think were the 10 best games from the Granddaddy of all game consoles.

The Atari 2600 was the first mainstream videogame console, released into the world in 1977 (the same year, some of you might recall, as a little flick known as “Star Wars”).  Long before Nintendo and xBox and Wii and THE INTERNET, Atari sold over 30 million units.  For those of you who weren’t born back then, it was pretty much revolutionary to have your own, personal arcade game, IN YOUR HOUSE.  We know this sounds absurd now to a generation of geeks who can pretty much do every thing computer/video/game/internet on a device that fits into the back pocket of your jeans.  Back in the day Atari was known for both its newness and extensive video game library.  The Atari 2600 had both the a top selling video game of its time (Pac-Man at 7 million copies – a number most modern day best sellers can’t hit) and two of the most high profile flops ever in videogame history.  Ironically, Pac-Man counts as a success and a failure in the world of videogames and that’ because Atari created 12 million game cartridges in 1982, even though they had only sold 10 million Atari 2600 consoles.  So, when you crunch the numbers, selling 7 out of 12 million Pac-Man games comes out to be not such a financially viable “plan.”  Pac-Man also apparently was given low ratings by users and critics (uh, we personally do not remember the low ratings – Dude, it was PAC-MAN).

The Atari 2600 was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame (YES!  It exists) in Rochester, New York in 2007.  If you’ve never been to the National Toy Hall of Fame (or to Rochester), take this opportunity to plan your road trip.  If you live in this great country you must engage in the road trip and road tripping across the State of New York is a good time.  Far more beautiful and much better food than it is given credit for.  While in Rochester hit the Hall of Fame and then have dinner at the Dinosaur BBQ, because it ROCKS (www.dinosaurbarbque.com).

1. Pitfall

Pitfall! was a video game released by Activision for the Atari 2600 in 1982 and was the second best-selling game made for the Atari 2600 (after Pac-Man), with over 4 million copies sold.

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Your goal was to maneuver Pitfall Harry through a maze-like jungle while collecting as many of the 32 treasures as possible in a 20-minute time period.

Created by David Crane, Pitfall! was much respected and is still fondly remembered for its technical achievements which, despite the fact that they now have an air of the original, styrofoam Starship Enterprise, were well ahead of all previous 2600 efforts.

2. Defender

Defender was an arcade style shooting game developed and released by Williams Electronics in 1980. It featured two-dimensional (2D) graphics and was set on a fictional planet where your goal was to defeat waves of invading aliens while protecting astronauts (at the time this had not been as done to death as you are thinking right now).

Defender saw commercial success as an arcade game, selling over 55,000 units to become the Williams Electronics best selling arcade game. It was universally praised for audio-visuals, gameplay and high level of difficulty.

3. Adventure

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Atari’s Adventure is widely considered to be the first action-adventure game.  Adventure sold over one million units, making it one of the 2600’s earliest successes. Designed by Warren Robinett, in Adventure the player roams mazes to seeking a chalice while avoiding three dragons (again, this was pretty new stuff for those of us who were on the frontlines during the birth of the World of Videogaming). Granted, the dragons looked like ducks, but hey, no one had heard of CGI back then, we were watching “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters” on TV.  (Google it.)

Designer Robinett hid his name in the game because Atari did not allow designers to claim credit for their games. Atari’s “no credit” policy led to the creation of competitors like Activision and Imagic by exiled programmers who wanted creative credit.

4. Berzerk

Berzerk was a 1980 arcade classic developed by Stern and released as an Atari 2600 game in 1982. In Berzerk, the year is 3200 and the player must destroy auto-mazeons controlled by Evil Otto, a bouncing smiley face (we would just like to point out, again, that this was long before Forrest Gump invented said smiley face). Players had to shoot their way out of dark mazes and dodge enemy laser fire.

Berzerk is remembered both for awesome game play and for its talking robots. It was basically ground breaking at the time to use speech synthesis in a videogame.  (Seriously, if you are conversing right now with Siri and you think that’s like “normal,” you have NO IDEA how amazing this was.)

In 1980 computer voice compression was extremely expensive, it could cost a game developer $1,000 per word (that’s almost $3,000 per word in today’s dollars). Berzerk had a thirty-word vocabulary.  CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE THAT TODAY???  Today when we wish the gas pump would just SHUT UP while we’re filling our tanks, when we’d give a lot to get things to STOP TALKING TO US 24/7.

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5. Robotron

Robotron was an arcade game developed by Vid Kidz and released by Williams Electronics in 1982. A shooting game that featured two-dimensional (2D) graphics, Robotron was set in the year 2084, in a fictional world where robots have turned against humans (ironically Robotron was released the same year as “Blade Runner” . . . ). In the game, player must defeat endless waves of robots, rescue surviving humans and earn as many points as possible (is anyone else getting the feeling that most of the movies made post-1982 were based on Atari 2600 games??).

Robotron was critically and commercially successful. Critics particularly loved the game’s intense action and control scheme.

6. Space Invaders

Space Invaders does not need an explanation. It is the arcade classic that caused a yen shortage in Japan, built the arcade business in US, drove arcade traffic in US and jump started the Atari 2600 popularity in the US. In 1980, Space Invaders sold one million games.  This doesn’t sound like such a huge number these days.  But remember, in 1980 there were only 225 million people in the United States (in 2010 we were up to almost 309 million).

We’re betting that even those of you who were not yet born in 1980 know about Space Invaders.  Because not only was it a watershed videogame, it became a cultural touchstone.  Space Invaders show up in popular culture even today.

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7. Pac Man

In 1982, Atari released Namco’s hit arcade game Pac-Man for its 2600 video game console. Much like the original arcade version, the player controls Pac Man with a joy stick to traverse a maze, consuming all the wafers within it while avoiding four floating ghosts.

Pac-Man was programmed by Tod Frye and, as mentioned above, Atari anticipated huge sales based on the game’s arcade popularity. Atari sold 7 million copies making it the best-selling Atari 2600 title, as well as the best-selling home video game of its time.

Pac-Man was universally panned by critics for its lack gameplay and audio-visual differences from the arcade version. Dissatisfied customers returned the game in droves and the game has been cited as the contributing factor to the 1983 North American video game crash. Therefore, Pac-Man has the dubious honor of both boosting the Atari 2600 and video game sales while also being a driving force in the industry’s crash. 

8. Asteroids

The video arcade game Asteroids was released in November 1979 by Atari Inc. and remains one of the most popular and influential games in arcade history.  Asteroids sold 70,000 units.

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In Asteroids, the player controls a spaceship as it travels through an asteroid field, which is also periodically traversed by flying saucers. The object of the game is to shoot and destroy asteroids and saucers while not colliding with either or being hit by the saucers’ counter-fire.  We’re going to give the geniuses behind “Galaxy Quest” some snaps here for working in what basically amounted to an awesome “live action” Asteroids sequence during which Sir Alexander Dane (the fantabulous Alan Rickman’s character for those who are not familiar with the full cast and crew of this CLASSIC and of whom we are now officially ashamed) says to poor Tommy Webber trying to fly the ship, “Could you possibly try NOT to hit EVERY SINGLE ONE?”  Brilliant.

The objective of Asteroids is to score as many points as possible by destroying asteroids and flying saucers. On November 13, 1982, 15 year old Scott Safran of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, set a world record of 41,336,440 points on the arcade game Asteroids. Twin Galaxies, an organization that tracks video game records, searched for Safran for four years until 2002 to commemorate his record. In 2002, it was discovered that Safran had died in an accident in 1989 and Twin Galaxies held a ceremony on April 27, 2002, to present an award to Safran’s surviving family members.

On April 6, 2010, John McAllister scored 41,338,740 after playing Asteroids for 58 hours, setting a new world record. McAllister’s attempt to break Scott Safran’s 27year old record was streamed live online.

9. Missile Command

Missile Command was originally released in arcades in 1980, where it captured the attention of gamers with its zeitgeist gameplay — protecting cities from incoming barrages of ballistic missiles (yeah, yeah, yeah we know – you’ve seen that movie.  BUT THIS IS WHERE THE IDEA CAME FROM!). Rob Fulop led the design on the Atari 2600 adaption of the game. Missile Command remains a sterling example of THE successful translation of the arcade hit to home video game. The game sold over 2.5 Million units during Cold War Era. Reagan apparently was a Missile Command fan, given the whole SDI thing . . . 

10. Combat

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Combat was one of Atari’s early video games. It was one of the nine launch titles for the Atari 2600 system in October 1977 and was included in the box with the system from its introduction until 1982.

Combat was 27 games in one, all variations on tank, biplane and jet gameplay.  We don’t know, looking at those “Age of the Dinosaurs” graphics is kind of soothing nowadays.