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.

29 Responses to “An Atari VCS Curriculum”

  1. Jesper Juul Says:

    Perhaps it’s an odd suggestion, but how about including E.T.?

    -It’s famous.

    -It’s a brilliant example of a game gone wrong.

    -It’s instructional for the sometimes problematic relation between the movie and the game industry.

    Shouldn’t we study the really bad games as well as the good ones?

  2. nick Says:

    Not that odd of a suggestion – E.T. was included in 1Up’s “Essential 50,” and do I see that there’s an argument for its importance, as I mentioned up above in my original post.

    Lots of famous games (and books, and movies, and plays) aren’t very interesting to study from the standpoint of poetics and aesthetics, whether they are flops or not. (Presumably they might all be interesting from a cultural standpoint.)

    Raiders of the Lost Ark, also by E.T. programmer Howard Scott Warshaw, is pretty bad, from what I remember, but at least it’s playable, so that might be a better cartridge to look at. It’d be possible to look at both how it succeeded and how it failed. Or, if we’re going to embrace purely bad games, why not include the obscure Texas Chainsaw Massacre instead, which was horrible, but at least somewhat innovative? It had you play a bad guy (and was unwinnable).

    I guess my main feeling about E.T. is that playing it for a while doesn’t add too much to the scholar’s understanding of how games based on movies can turn out really bad – plenty of recent examples and the general business of licensing and merchandising make this not much of a surprise. I’d prefer cartridges that challenge people’s assumptions in some interesting way. Playing Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back would be a bit surprising in this way, showing that a movie spin-off can be somewhat original and can work well, even if it isn’t as good a game as the similar Chopper Command. The colors in The Empire Strikes Back are beautiful, showing what the VCS could do that you wouldn’t otherwise see on your TV, and the music and gameplay are good, too. Anyway, that’s why the movie tie-in that I picked was a positive example gamecraft.

  3. Eric Tilton Says:

    It’s worth noting that Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was the first game in a long line to endlessly revisit the snowspeeder/AT-AT Hoth Battle. In this particular case, quite literally endlessly.

    Also, I had totally forgotten about Combat, which is now revealed to me as my ur-game of infinite time wasting.

    All in all, an excellent list for representing the breadth of the system.

  4. Diane Says:

    Wow, talk about a blast from the Reagan era. But what is this, no Centipede?! :) That was coin-op but also playable, as I recall, on my 8-bit Atari 800. Also the first arcade game designed by a woman, Dona Bailey, if I’m not mistaken.

  5. nick Says:

    Yes, indeed. Centipede would also be a good one to play and study – it was a port that some liked and some didn’t, somewhat like Pac-Man, although opinion was more favorable, despite the rarity of trackballs for the VCS. I believe that cartridge was bundled with the Atari 2600 for a while, too, replacing Combat. I left it out since I was trying to keep the list from being too full of arcade ports – Missile Command also didn’t make it. Lots of important carts are ports, but there are also many interesting original cartridges that deserve a look.

    One of these being River Raid, which I think is the first VCS hit programmed by a woman, Carol Shaw. She had earlier programmed 3D Tic-Tac-Toe and Video Checkers for the VCS, while at Atari.

  6. Bryan-Mitchell Young Says:

    I think that your criteria, “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” is interesting. A different set of criteria certainly would select different games. For example, if we were to look at the games that most people had, it might be quite different. Everyone I knew had a pong game, for example (I think it was Olymics or something). Or games that were played by certain groups of people. My father played the Atari version of Othello for years, for example, while I had ET and never knew it was a “Bad” game untill the 90’s when it started getting bashed on the internet.

    Basically, I’m trying to say that the criteria for selection and why we selected that criteria might be just as inteesting as the games that are included in the criteria.

  7. B. Rickman Says:

    I dislike these kinds of lists because they are falsely didactic — here’s a list of something you should be familiar in order to qualify as some sort of scholar. On the one hand, it is overly simplistic: all you have to do is study these things here to earn a certificate. Imagine how dreadful the lectures would be when given by someone who has “played all the games in the list” and is therefore a qualified scholar.

    On the other hand, given that time machines have not yet been invented, creating a canonical list of obscure and difficult to find games invalidates the experiences of people who didn’t happen to play those particular games. Even if you play and study them now, you simply cannot play these games in historical context. A better way to establish context would be to force people to play one of the hundreds of VCS games that really sucked, and charge them $30. And you’d have to choose between playing the game or watching a rerun of Three’s Company.

  8. nick Says:

    Bryan-Mitchell, different criteria would indeed produce different lists, such as the other ones that I linked to. I’m not sure why it would be helpful to study games based on volume of sales, however, since the most popular games (or artworks, or books) usually aren’t the ones that reward study the most.

    Brandon, sorry if you’ve had bad experiences with academic study of these topics, but those doesn’t invalidate what I and other people have learned about video games by studying them and reading scholarship about them. Really, you shouldn’t let that imaginary lecture of yours get to you.

    I’m more interested in the idea that E.T. might actually be a good game than I am in the discussion of list-making or in anti-academic venting. Perhaps it will end up either convincing me that E.T. is decent or that Pac-Man sucks. I always thought it was unjustly slighted because it didn’t exactly represent the arcade game, visually or in terms of gameplay – at a time when that wasn’t really an essential value in an arcade port. But maybe I’m just trying to defend those 300 hours of my youth, and my aesthetic was not properly cultivated back then.

  9. Dennis G. Jerz Says:

    Brandon, I see your point… but I wouldn’t equate Nick’s act of publishing a list with an attempt to close down a discussion. Why would he post something like this on a blog if he wasn’t interested in feedback?

    Nick is a compulsive categorizer and list-maker. This is good. He’s confident enough in his work that he doesn’t write obviously self-effacing disclaimers. He carefully explains his criteria. This is good. I’ve never once gotten the idea Nick isn’t interested in listening to anyone who might have a better idea. (Speaking of which… Nick, what are your reasons for excluding Pole Position or the space battle simulation whose name escapes me at the moment… Star Command? I’m probably more interested in a list that represents various genres, in order to trace the pedigree of modern games. Okay, with the vertical attack of Space Invaders and the horizontal attack of side-scrollers and the 2-d play of a bunch of other games, a pseudo 3-d game is an evolution, not a revolution. But car racing games seem to me an important genre, and Pole Position was an important part of my childhood… )

    Brandon, you’re right — we can’t play the original games in their true historical context, but that’s the nature of human civilization. The road leads ever, ever on.

    I didn’t have the ET cartridge myself, but I had a friend who did, and I remember he and his family were all pretty into the game. I recognized, of course, that it had little to do with the movie (which I didn’t like much anyway, even as a youth). But I think the game sucks in retrospect much more than it sucked in context. The context of its creation justifies what many game theorists believe about the soulless money-grubbing game corporations that want a quick buck rather than a good product.

    Another random observation… we had a Texas Instruments TI 99 4A, and the artwork on the boxes just showed a screenshot. A Wild West shootout game might have tumbleweeds and other decorations on the package, but I remember even as a kid appreciating what we got.

    Yet another random observation… I seem to recall that my siblings and I spent a lot more time programming (or at least typing in machine code from magazines and trying to hack it) than we spent playing cartridge games on the TI and the Atari. Other than Ahl’s book, is there a canonical list of do-it-yourself games that a critical mass of readers might be familiar with? Just curious.

    I can still hear the sound of the 3-part harmony version of the Star Wars Cantina Band music that my siblings and I laboriously programmed into a BASIC program we found in a magazine… I even created a little jukebox that played about 9 songs, which I had to get my siblings to transcribe for me since I never took any music lessons and couldn’t read notes.

    Those magazines were cheap, or free if you found them in the library, and catridges were expensive.

  10. diane Says:

    Nick, what’s the significance of this platform, as opposed to any other? I’m sort of starting to see a link between the platform you’ve chosen and an idea of “the spirit of early home videogames” … but the focus on the device makes me wonder whether the more important player here is Atari-the-company.

    Also, I’d love to hear more about the spirit of early home video games. I suspect this is an idea you’re still exploring?

  11. bryan-mitchell young Says:

    As far as studying the best selling games, I think that such a move would result from a different emphasis. Playing the best selling games would give us insight into the experience of players at the time, and of what games people at the time bought. So it would be about experiencing the mindset, or experience of the player rather than the game. It would be to play these games because those are the games people bought rather than an emphasis on whether or not the games were any goods. It would focus on trying to figure out why people bought these games and what they got out of it. Of course that would progably be part of a larger project that involved other kinds of research, including archival research and ethnography.

  12. nick Says:

    Dennis, Pole Position is a good one (as is Night Driver, an earlier arcade driving game that was ported to the VCS by Demon Attack programmer Rob Fulop). Again, I left it out to avoid overloading the list with arcade ports. Star Raiders was very innovative, but the VCS version is a port of the Atari 400/800 original. The first-person space shooter was an important genre, though: Activision’s Star Master and Starpath/Arcadia’s Phaser Patrol were other good games in this category.

    Diane, I picked the Atari VCS because of personal familiarity and general popularity, but also for a few other reasons. It was the console to beat in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with a huge number of cartridges and the most overall effort (not just at Atari) going into developing for that system. It was the first popular cartridge-based system, although not the first to market. Also, it had such a long lifetime that you can quite clearly see how much cartridges advanced while the hardware stayed constant.

    I am interested in early home video gaming, mainly for what it might tell us about the essence of computer gaming. It’s easy to dismiss it or romanticize the VCS, but I think the social experience of video gaming, the role that video games played in introducing computing to children, and the nature of the early games themselves have a lot to show us, about the origin of video game genres, gaming as a family activity/children’s activity, and even gaming as spectacle. It might be amusing to think of Atari VCS games as amazing spectacles, but you couldn’t see anything like the full-screen Yar’s Revenge explosion or the undulating colors of The Empire Strikes Back by channel-surfing. Among other things, the VCS was an outrageous thing to do with your TV, like Atari Video Music.

    It’s hard to seriously consider that film theory can be the basis for understanding video games when you look at VCS games, which were engaging and clearly related to today’s games in important ways, but have nothing to do with film: no camera, no attempt at realistic (as opposed to extremely iconic) depiction of scenes, etc. Yet they lend themselves quite well to explanation of the sort Katie and Eric provide in Rules of Play, and, I think, to “software studies” approaches. So I also think VCS games are good for reminding us that “computer” and “game” are the fundamental aspects of computer games, even though other approaches to these games might be useful.

  13. B. Rickman Says:

    I know that nick’s goal is to open up a discussion, and he has clearly done that. But with these endless lists, 90% of the discussion they generate is noise, what about this game, why not that game? It is a discussion about the list, and very rarely does someone bring in an historical context or a sharp tool for analysing the objects in the list.

    But worse than that, I find the focus on VHS games to be myopic. These games are historically interesting, but as game forms they are hacks. They require little intellectual investment to play. Culturally they do a poor job at representing life in the 80’s — aside from a couple of Spielberg movies, the content of VHS games says very little about those times. The only reason why we talk about them at all is because we’ve got a new class of technological elite, with a lot of money and a lot of influence, and they like to play games.

    Where’s the top 10 list of business applications for Windows 3.1? Where is the exciting biography of the man who wrote VisiCalc? Where are the new media programs offering classes in bioinformatics? No one cares about these things because they aren’t geeky and fun entertainment. Oh, but Asteroids!, there’s something that deserves a weeklong convention, and a new department at the university.


  14. Diane Says:

    Rick, I’m not sure I agree about the desirability of this research but you sure hit the nail on the head for me in terms of what we might expect to learn from studies of these games. What do they say about life in the 80s? What sort of investment (intellectual, financial, social) was necessary to enjoy them, and in what contexts?

    We have the tools to investigate those questions. It wouldn’t be hard to understand the demography of early computer games — we can research things like income levels and price points and marketing. It would be interesting to trace the social diffusion of the different systems. I remember that only very well-off kids had these systems in 1980 but by 1988 or so, just about everyone I knew was playing video games at home, and gaming wasn’t just for geeks anymore (but it was still very much for boys, at least where I grew up).

  15. scott Says:

    “Where is the exciting biography of the man who wrote VisiCalc?”

    Not a biography, but recent recognition for Visicalc nevertheless:

  16. Walter Says:

    I guess I have to disagree that your more specific criteria–capturing the spirit and being influential–more or less equate to “rewarding study the most” or “particularly useful for study”. What assumptions are being made about what is rewarding, and what assumptions are being made about the kind of study involved? A mechanics analyst or interface analyst won’t necessarily find this to be a ‘good’ list. I guess I don’t see the point of constructing a ‘general’ canon when there are so many axes of study and, accordingly, different optimal lists for each.

    I can appreciate general discussion on various interesting aspects of varying games, but I’m not sure what special significance this has as a uber-canon.

  17. Dakota Reese Says:

    Combat has always been interesting to me because it is the first video game that I can recall where players were encouraged to mod the game.

    I can’t remember if it was in the instruction book or in an Atari magazine, but much in the spirit of the Magnavox Odyssey, players were encouraged to cut out additional obstacles out of paper and tape them to their screens to alter game play.

    Nick, I can see where you are coming from in hesitating to use film studies to address early games, but I would argue that there is utility in appropriating some of the discipline’s tools as a localized basis for study.

    How about using Laura Mulvey’s work to address player/avatar relationships and pleasure in VCS games?

  18. nick Says:

    Walter, I think you missed the first part of my post, in which I explain how this suggested study list isn’t a canon. (Although I don’t see anything wrong with canons.) Obviously different purposes get you different lists, such as the other ones I linked to. My purpose is not to draw up a general list but to help scholars of console games specifically. You’re welcome to develop one for interface designers, too. Or perhaps your under the impression that people can be scholars of console game while only trying to understand “mechanics” or “interface”?

    Dakota, I don’t recall that paper-obscuring technique from the Combat manual but it does ring some sort of bell. I suppose that would give certain people a “home court advantage” even with the same cartridge. I also guess that idea didn’t have much a life after Combat … but maybe it did, and I don’t know about it.

    I don’t know Laura Mulvey’s work, but would love to hear of how it might enlighten Atari VCS play. I don’t see a problem with drawing insights from film studies, but I see a severe problem with using those perspectives as a starting point, when consideration of the computer and understanding of the game are really what is essential and there is good work being done along these lines currently.

  19. Jason Says:

    I can maybe see using Mulvey’s work in more recent games, where controllable cameras are often used and the bodies of avatars more closely resemble our own (minus, of course, the absurd proportions). And I say this with hesitation, because I think that Mulvey’s work is too often stripped from its context of a certain style of Hollywood cinema and perhaps over-used in other contexts, without appropriate measures to account for the difference in form and content (which is not to say, by the way, that Mulvey’s work isn’t brilliant and useful – it is certainly both).

    So with that caveat in mind, I am curious how near-abstract pixilated representations of cars, tanks, and spaceships in early videogames operates within Mulvey’s framework for cinema?

    I know that Bob Rehak tackled some similar issues (without direct reference to Mulvey, but drawing heavily on Lacan and the mirror-stage) in the Video Game Theory Reader and, while I found his essay to be well written and fascinating, I thought it had the same problem – namely, a sprite for a spaceship or a racecar just doesn’t work for me as an operating mirror form. Actually, had Rehak dropped the mirror-stage completely from his essay and made his arguments about avatars without such a heavy lean on psychoanalysis, I think he could have retained many of his more forceful points while losing some of the aspects that complicated his essay (or, perhaps, had he used the mirror-stage more as window dressing and less as a weight-bearing wall). Unfortunately, my book and all of my notes are at home, so I can’t point to specifics right now.

    I don’t mean to hijack the thread, but I think the disconnect that I feel is present when using such an analysis points towards some distinctions we can make about genres, audience, and reception in early (and later) games.

  20. Walter Says:

    Nick: No, I don’t think that people can be scholars of videogames only when trying to understand mechanics or interface (the whole “so many axes of study” should have been a tip-off ;).

    And while it’s true that you say this list isn’t a canon for the platform, it leaves open the question of whether the list is intended to be canonical. What ultimately led me to the interpretation that is was, were your remarks about “most rewarding” and “particularly useful” for study, which you’ve implicitly suggested are determined by your criteria of (1) capturing the spirit of early home gaming and (2) being influential. That just strikes me as a pretty bold suggestion, is all. :)

  21. Jane McGonigal Says:

    YAY: Anyone in the Bay Area interested in playing Atari classics and chatting about the potential scholarly knowledge hidden therein is welcome to swing by my Berkeley apartment and play with my Atari 2600, which we have about 70 working cartridges for, but which I far too infrequently have occasion to plug in!

    NAY: I agree, leave Mulvey (Lacan, et al) out of it. If there is one thing game studies has done right so far in my opinion is to eschew (for the most part) grand master theories of the psychoanalytic variety!

  22. gil Says:

    When my company was very young (1981), we did quite a lot of subcontract work for Atari and Parker Brothers. I’m not sure there’s a lot to learn from these games, except that they comprise a cross-section of the types of games people still play. Their primitive nature was not the result of careful analysis of the elements of gameplay, but rather more mundane constraints.

    The limiting factors in creating games for VCS and similar early machines were ROM size, processor speed and video capability, probably in that order.

    ROM size: Really pretty pictures were bulky to store. Often, the intro (Attract) screen took up a substantial proportion of the ROM space, but was considered worth it. There was much use of complex bit-mapping. In Tutankham for the Philips G7000, for example, we had 121 rooms in a game that had multiple players, multiple non-player characters, multiple treasures, secret passages, sound and much more, all in an 8Kbyte ROM! (Tell that to kids nowadays, and they won’t believe you)

    Speed: It wasn’t game play speed you had to contend with, it was that anything you did to the screen had to be performed during the vertical blank flyback of the raster on the TV – Yes- really! (And if you were particularly clever, you could twiddle a few things while the raster flew back after drawing a single line on the screen. It also had to work in both PAL and NTSC contexts, which had different intervals.

    Video capability: Atari was better than most, but the colours were pretty restricted – not in range, but in the number of simultaneous different ones you could have on the screen at once. (The colour range was one of the things you could twiddle during line fly-back, and Combat and Breakout were good examples of that so that the top of the screen had one range and the bottom another). During intensive gameplay you could sometimes see the boundary shimmer a little.

  23. Semifat Sediment Says:
    The Atari 2600 is useful for more than just “I Love The 80s” episodes.
    Nick Montfort at Grand Text Auto has posted a short list of Atari 2600 games that are worth studying, or that are representative of some aspect of early video gaming. He also touches on some of the reasons early video games are worth looking at, which …

  24. nick Says:

    gil, sorry for the delay in responding – we’ve been upgrading!

    Their primitive nature was not the result of careful analysis of the elements of gameplay

    I didn’t meant to suggest that. Rather, I was thinking that when you have a “primitive” platform, and you can’t do anything to make the graphics or sound look like those of, say, an Amiga, the one way you can excel is by creating a game that plays well. So we should be able to find games on the Atari VCS that are really exemplary for their gameplay – and I think the ones I listed are some of several in that category.

    Of course, there were other ways to “excel” – by getting a license to port a famous arcade game or make a game named after a famous movie. But that didn’t always result in a good game.

    Regarding the JAKKS joystick: It came to my attention recently on rec.arts.int-fiction that the joystick doesn’t emulate a VCS; it seems to contain a reimplementation of the games running on different hardware. This explains how 2-player variants have been removed, and why there are some games on there originally designed to be played with a paddle. This review from November 2002 gives it only 55 out of 100. I welcome reports from people who have used one of these joystick systems, as I still hold out some hope that they will be durable and convenient tools for some sorts of casual game study.

  25. greglas Says:

    Off-topic a bit, but kind of on as well — I was considering getting a console last week and was checking out some of the Xbox & PS2 titles. One thing that really struck me (that Nick has talked about before re the 2600) was how social the marketing was for the 2600 and how many of the enjoyable console games (and arcade games) of the 70s and 80s were designed as two-player games.

    After checking out the most popular current console titles on the most popular platforms, I began to wonder what if all these second controllers aren’t just wasted hardware. The guys at the game stores seemed to sympathize with the lack of interesting 2P social titles (other than deathmatch games, which I guess are the current state of the Combat genre)

    Can anyone spot me a link to some smart commentary about what might be the social force behind the market trend away from interesting social console games? Is it the fact that the PC is essentially a 1P platform and contemporary games try to port? Have Yahoo! games or sports games or MMOGs cornered the market for social gamers? (Bonus points for a GTxA archive link, no points for Amazon links.)

  26. bing Says:


    try looking at the gc. it really has a much better selection of intimate (non-online) multiplayer games. This is probably due to the fact that nintendo is targeting younger gamers who are more willing and able to get together and play (family environment, more free time etc), then the older target audience (single or significant other not a gamer, less time to organize games etc) of the other consoles.

  27. greglas Says:

    Thanks, bing. For some reason, I hadn’t looked at the Game Cube titles too deeply, but I’ll check them out now…

  28. Fabricio Says:

    Is it possible the programmers
    do for Atari vcs homebrew the Delphine┬┤s
    Another World,or Out of this world?

    i hope that……..

  29. Kirk Says:

    FWIW, Robot Tank is by no means “Visually better” than Battlezone on that system.

    It’s debatable about what’s the better game, Robot Tank with its weather/damage and fast, hover-tank like game play (and bizarre “if you can’t see the bullet it can’t hit you” mechanic) but for a serious attempt to model a small 3D world, Battlezone is it… nothing beats hearing a bullet fired off screen, then throwing it into reverse and seeing it pass harmlessly ahead…

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