June 6, 2004

An Atari VCS Curriculum

by Nick Montfort · , 3:19 pm

Prompted in part by the all-encompassing “game canon” lists that were provided a while ago (specifically, the ones by Greg Costikyan and by Jesper Juul and Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen), I’ve listed a dozen games for one specific early console – the Atari VCS (a.k.a. the Atari 2600) – which I think would be extremely useful for modern-day scholars of console games to play and study. Without giving anything like a full review of these cartridges, I’ve tried to briefly explain why each is worth considering.

About the List · The 12 Cartridges

Two Appealing but Problematic Ways to Study Atari VCS Games

  1. Playing them in emulation. The Stella emulator is great as a source for sound samples and screenshots and getting a basic idea of what games were like. It may even suit nostalgic gamers and scholars of new media and the history of computing. People who study video games specifically should seek some experience on a real VCS, however: Unless one has a very elaborate emulator setup, an emulator won’t provide the original TV display or anything like the original controllers.
  2. Playing them on a JAKKS system-in-a-joystick. Great gadgets as these are, and while they offer an authentic-looking controller and a connection to a TV, they only allow you to play a small set of one-player games that used a joystick. Many important games were of this sort, but not all: experiencing the Atari VCS through one of these will provide a distorted sense of what the system was like. You will also be limited to the (literal) handful of games that are built in, and will not have the difficulty switches that were present on the original Atari VCS.

I only chose games that are worth examining for the ways in which they succeed. Thus, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is missing, even though people interested in film-to-game conversions and the demise of Atari might want to study it. I tried to focus on games that either do a particularly good job of capturing the spirit of early home video gaming, or that had an especially strong influence on later games, or both. Thus, I left out some good Atari 2600 games that were developed in the late 1980s, after the Atari 2600 Jr. was released, and those that have been developed even more recently. Also missing are rare curiosities – for instance, Custer’s Revenge, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Kool-Aid Man, although since the first two weren’t any good they could have been omitted for the previous reason, too. These might provide some critical fodder for those interested in special topics, but didn’t make the list below.

Several of the cartridges listed here are ports of coin-op arcade games, but I did try to discriminate in favor of original games, and ports are only included if the VCS versions are themselves of importance. Of course, these should be considered in light of the arcade originals, at least by considering the arcade games in emulation and looking at documentation of what the cabinets were like.

This is not meant to be a canon for the platform (either in the sense of “the standards by which all Atari VCS games should be measured” or “the only things you have to play”) but rather a sampling of cartridges that is particularly useful for study, which I would maintain isn’t quite the same thing. There’s no way I could compete, in a short document or otherwise, with the slew of sites offering lengthy reviews of all these cartridges and more. People who are just looking for the games that are “the best” should check out some of the many review sites that are around, particularly the VCS/2600 sections of The Atari Times and The Video Game Critic. There are many other good review sites linked from AtariAge, the site I’ve linked to so as to provide bibliographic information (and links to reviews) for the cartridges below.

Here, I’ve tried to pick a list that gives a pretty good idea of the range of cartridges on the Atari 2600. However, it’s worth noting that a few of the less compelling Atari VCS cartridge categories remain unrepresented here: sports games (see the Intellivision for early influential games in that category), board and card games, and educational games are all missing.

For something like a second opinion: Brian C. Rittmeyer offers 17 “Essential 2600 Games”; there’s also the results of a Usenet poll and the 2600 Connection‘s “Hall of Fame.”

Twelve VCS Cartridges for Study

[Cartridges by Atari]

A well-loved puzzle-based/object-discovery game that created a large virtual space by allowing travel between screens, forgoing constant challenges to reaction time but requiring the ability to navigate in a large and mostly unseen space. Worth looking at in comparison to Crowther & Woods’ earlier PDP-10 Adventure, the later Haunted House and Superman for the VCS, and rest of the adventure game genre.

A very popular port of a very popular vector-display coin-op, with a different control configuration than was available for the Atari VCS. Worth study because of its wide popularity, in light of the early critical discussion of the arcade Asteroids in Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen, and to see how programmer Brad Stewart colorized Asteroids, changed the physics of the game, added variations, and dealt with the conversion to a low-res raster display and the Atari VCS joystick.

This first VCS cartridge was bundled with early systems and is for two players only. It is a modification of the coin-op Tank (adding the airplane games) and illustrates 2600 programming limitations and conventions as well as how “variations” within a cartridge could be substantially different games. Worth comparing to the second Atari VCS cartridge, Air-Sea Battle, which has almost entirely 2-player games that also each last 2 minutes and 16 seconds.

A denigrated but wildly popular example of a coin-op-to-console port. Many writers have enumerated how it differs from the coin-op, and have complained about the differences. While some claim Pac-Man almost singlehandedly caused Atari’s demise, others find it to be quite a decent game, ported appropriately, given the nature of the platform. Good to compare to the Atari VCS ports of Ms. Pac-Man and Jr. Pac-Man, to see how fidelity to the coin-op version became more and more valued over the years.

Space Invaders
“The only Space Invaders!” proclaimed one of Atari’s TV commercials, boasting of the company’s exclusive port of the Japanese hit arcade game. This lucrative cartridge, while differing from the arcade game, suits the console well and even manages to innovate with two-player modes. There are a staggering 112 variations, which can leave you holding down the “Select” button for a long time.

A Breakout-style game, based on an arcade game (one that was much less popular and less important), this cartridge allows up to four (simultaneous) players to compete. Besides offering an opportunity for four-person play using paddle controllers, this cartridge shows one extreme variation on the Pongish theme also seen in Video Olympics (called Pong Sports in the Sears Telegames version and simply Pong on the JAKKS joystick) and many other cartridges, as well as the pre-VCS system Home Pong.

Yar’s Revenge
A great example of how, in the space of five years, new visual and sound capabilities of the VCS were being developed by programmers – without changing the original hardware, of course – and more complex systems of rules and game workings were coming about as well. It’s great fun, though, and not overly complicated once you read the manual.

[Cartridges by Activision]

While it didn’t actually scroll from side to side, and it did borrow a few moves from Donkey Kong, the running, leaping Pitfall Harry is clearly the daddy of Mario and Luigi as they appear in Super Mario Bros. and later games. This cartridge, the first major platform game, established that third-party cartridge makers could be successful. It also introduced a new play style that combined some virtual spaces, of the sort seen in Adventure, with frequent trials of dexterity. Some call it the first action/adventure game. The Atari VCS sequel, Pitfall II, is also excellent.

River Raid
A vertical-scrolling shooter (the first in this genre) that was a big hit and inspired many other games, including the coin-ops Xevious and 1942. The graphics are, as with most of the early Activision games, a cut above the Atari standard of the time, and the gameplay is excellent, requiring the player to refuel, dodge or shoot at sometimes-moving obstacles, and navigate through a river channel.

Robot Tank
Although clearly inspired by the coin-op Battlezone and never very popular, this cartridge offers decent gameplay and excellent graphics. Visually better and more intricate than Atari’s arcade port of Battlezone, it includes changing weather and the different visibility that accompanies day and night (also seen in Activision’s Enduro) as well as the possibility of different types of damage, so that different capabilities of the tank are lost. Perhaps the best first-person shooter for the Atari VCS, this was an extreme achivement of the first wave of console gaming.

[Cartridge by Imagic]

Demon Attack
Shows how far the “slide-and-shoot” format had evolved from Space Invaders on the Atari VCS – in only about two years. It’s hard to locate any new game elements, yet lessons and pieces from earlier shooters have been engineered, tuned, and integrated to provide interesting game variations, brilliant color, fluid movement, and excellent gameplay. The Intellivision version of the cartridge was even more reminiscent of Atari’s Phoenix, and Atari thought so too, suing Imagic for this reason in 1982.

[Cartridge by Parker Brothers]

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
This visually and aurally pleasing, smooth-scrolling game shows that even in the early 1980s, video game spinoffs from movies didn’t have to take the grim path that E.T. stumbled along. Some might find this Defender-style cartridge repetitive and the inevitable end a downer, but the gameplay is good and the unwinnable nature of the game is actually consistent with the film. This may be the best Atari cartridge based on a film. Worth comparing to Activision’s Chopper Command.