A Closer Look…

Posted by
April 8th, 2012 4:30 am

Earlier I presented a list that represents the internet’s idea of the Atari 2600’s 15 best games. This is a hard list make, because there were dozens of great games made for this system. Let’s see if we can figure out what made these games so good:

1. River Raid — The premise was simple: fly a plane through a canyon while shooting down targets, avoiding collisions, and keeping fueled up. But there were some terrific complications thrown into the mix as well. A small element of strategy was introduced with the fuel gauge: not only were you flying around shooting at things and avoiding getting shot, you had to think about how badly you needed that next fuel depot. Some of the enemies could shoot back, and a few of them would shoot at you from a safe distance outside of the canyon.

This game, like many others at the time, was big on innovation. It’s a scrolling shooter played from the top down. It featured a variety of enemy types plus the additional complication of managing your fuel level. The object of the game was basically “don’t crash”, and there were a lot of things in the game that could crash you.

2. Pitfall! — The legendary Pitfall Harry was an explorer and treasure hunter. He couldn’t fight worth anything, but he could do a decent Tarzan imitation. We could possibly describe this game as an early platform explorer, and it featured one of the scariest of all game bosses (no, not the giant scorpions, although those were scary too): a time limit! I hate time limits. Maybe that’s why I never managed to find all the treasures.

A very simple design based on beating the clock and avoiding obstacles. Look this one up; there’s some interesting reading on wikipedia.

3. Space Invaders — One of the icons of the early video game era, this space shooter features a fixed screen (no scrolling) and introduces barriers to provide cover for a small strategic element. It’s also a sort of a “goal defense” type of game, because if one of your enemies touches the ground you’re done. And all of this was played to the increasingly rapid sound of your enemy’s boot steps marching toward you…

4. Combat — This is where things got a little complicated. Players patrol a battleground (represented as a maze or sky field) and shoot each other into oblivion. Highest score wins.

The innovation here is the sheer number of variations you could set for this game. Need a more complicated maze? You could get that. Want bouncing bullets? No problem. Invisible tanks? Check. With 27 variations, it was a little crazy. And infinitely replayable.

How’d they solve problems like pathfinding A.I. back then? They didn’t. This was a two player game only, which was probably necessary considering hardware limitations, and is possibly the game’s only real drawback. Not really that big a deal, considering this game made #4 on the list. People remember it quite fondly.

5. Asteroids — Another fixed field space shooter fills out The Internet’s top five Atari 2600 console games. Notice a pattern here? These games are starting simple, and mixing two or three simple elements together to make the game interesting, grab the viewer’s attention, and then put it in a headlock. Maybe that’s why we look at the clock suddenly and wonder where all the time goes when we play games like this.

In the interest of brevity, I will shut up and save the rest of the list for later. I notice a few things looking at what we’ve got so far. Four out of these five games are shooters. But mindless shooting isn’t enough. Notice the elements included that make the player think: Fuel management. Strategic cover. Rebound angle. Force field and hyperspace options with their own inherent drawbacks. Players like to shoot, but not always mindlessly. They need variations on their field of play and their objectives. They want choices, and perhaps most importantly, consequences for those choices.

What else can we glean from this list of the five most popular games? What were your favorite Atari games?

14 Responses to “A Closer Look…”

  1. Jeremias says:

    I commented one of your last posts:

    Two weeks before the competition starts, blogposts have a life cycle less than a day ^^.

  2. Puzzlem00n says:

    Hmm. This is an interesting article, but I feel that you’re asking the wrong questions about these games. You are concerned with what people think is fun, but I think it would be better to ask why they think these things are fun. You’re listing innovations, but not explaining why these innovations were improvements. I don’t know, maybe what I’m saying isn’t your goal, but I think it would be a good idea to go deeper than the surface of these games.

    • Gurglor says:

      That’s an interesting point, but I don’t think it’s useful to ask why people think games are fun if you don’t look at what they think is fun as well. It goes hand in hand. Games are made out of the ‘what’ elements; you can’t really build a game strictly on the ‘why’, at least not without including the ‘what’ as well.

      Or to put it a different way, ‘why’ is a lot more abstract than ‘what’. Since we need to think about both, I simply started with the concrete because it’s easier for people to see that. Then you jump out into the abstractions of ‘why’.

      In other words, I think looking at the ‘what’ gives better context for exploring the ‘why’. I could be mistaken, but that’s pretty much my thinking on it anyway.

      Besides all that, the deeper I go, the bigger my wall of text is likely to get. I suspect my fellow enthusiasts will only stay interested enough to read for so many paragraphs, ya know? :)

      • Puzzlem00n says:

        Very true. It is easier to focus on the materials of the experience, and it gets you closer to a professional game. I just suppose, as you delve into greater depth of things, these questions are bound to come up.

        I am a fan of what you’re doing here, though, and it’s nice to see some quality observations.

  3. Jeremias says:

    The big picture of your article is to determine methods or improvements of them to design better games by have a look at old games. In art you can learn the craft to paint or draw meaningful pictures by interpret works of others. A common way are the following steps:

    1. What do you see?
    2. How it is done?
    3. Why did the artist do it and why on this way?

    You use this findings in the context of analysis and syntheses: you analyse patterns and symbols to synthesize it in your own work. You learn how to communicate your statements.

    Very brief example:
    Casper David Friedrich, Mönch am Meer

    What do you see? Little Monk somewhere on the ground (not in the middle), big sea and a very big sky. Unsaturated colors, dark… How it is done? Using big areas and high area contrast between monk and his environment. Why? Interpretation: Meaninglessness of human being respective nature and existence. Which (simple) pattern I gained from this? Using an area contrast to determine someone’s value.

    Adapting this on game design, the steps would be:

    1. What do you see, hear and control? (Features?)
    2. How it is done? (Mechanics?)
    3. Why did the game designer do it and why on this way
    Why enjoy people fun on this way?

    To get on the fuel example in River Raid:

    What I see here respective fuel:
    – you can shoot it (get points!)
    – there are highscores
    – you can avoid it
    – nothing happens if so
    – you can use it as barrier (not sure if, I didn’t play the game :D)
    – opponents try to shot you down
    – you can fill up your fuel
    – your fuel empties and you will die if this happens

    How it is done?
    The fuel is presented to you just for a period of time.
    – you can shoot it (get points!)
    – you can boot a shot and it flies into the fuel
    – you can avoid it
    – you can fly away from it
    – you can use it as barrier (not sure if, I didn’t play the game :D)
    – you can fly to it
    – you can fill up your fuel
    – you can fly into it

    The designer uses the short period of time to threaten the player to make a tactical decision in time. A very important decision, because you get shot down if you don’t use it as a barrier or you run out of fuel. If the player takes the highscore as a main goal, he will not get a high one if he ignores shooting at the fuel barrels. The fourth decision is to do nothing with it.
    The threaten to make a fast decision results in a thrill because thinking about these decisions work parallel to fighting the enemies. Thrill equals fun?

    My personal way to think about fun in games is an emotional way. Every game has emotional patterns, very specific ones. And if you like a game and play it again and again, thinking at night about some nice tactics, you just want to satisfy an emotional drive derived from such a emotional pattern.

    The emotional patterns for me sounds like achievements… in the fuel example they are „fast decision maker“, „tactical overview“, „risk manager“ (translate fuel to points) and some more.

    Another good example of emotional satisfaction in games (which result in gaming fun) is the following:
    In Battlefield 3 I often fly jet together with a friend. If he gets haunted by an enemy jet, he trys to break out (difficult task…). But then I come and shot down the enemy jet. The emotional experience is something like „Damn, I saved your ass!“ or „Brotherhood“. This motive is placed very often in films, where companion enters the room and shots down the main character’s threat.

    What’s your opinion of this? Are there some emotional patterns you enjoy in current or in old (Atari) games? Do you think analysis/synthesis, What/How/Why or emotional patterns are a good way to improve game design?

    • Puzzlem00n says:

      Yes, this is definitely part of my point before. Emotion is necessary to a quality game experience. If you don’t have the player invested in the experience somehow, then you don’t have someone who wants to keep playing. What investment is better than an emotional one?

      Speaking of which… emotions… Good idea for a theme suggestion. I’ll do that now.

  4. Gurglor says:

    @Jeremias — that’s possibly a good way of breaking things down as well. Whatever helps us identify the elements we want to repeat and improve on will work, I think. There are probably better approaches than mine, but I think we get the most out of these “sprint” type events if we have a good idea of what we want or need when we go into them.

    Emotional patterns have a lot to do with my enjoyment of a game. I’d say that’s why I only play a particular kind of game if I’m “in the mood for it”. What does being “in the mood” for a game mean? I’m looking for a certain kind of experience, either to match the way I’m feeling now or else repeat whatever feelings a particular game evokes. In my case I think it’s a combination of that.

    When a game no longer compliments my “mood”, then I get bored with it and find something else to do or play. Why? I want a different emotional experience now.

  5. Jeremias says:


    In common game design articles/books emotional involvement is stated as an important part of a good game, but I think there is a better differentiation needed: Many people reduce emotional experience on affective basics like humor, fear, sorrow, curiosity or just suspense. But in my opinion, people want to have (as I said above) very specific feelings.
    And yeah, that would be a nice ludum dare theme : D


    „if we have a good idea of what we want or need when we go into them.“. Absolutely right. A formal method would be nice, which enables the use of creativity in an effective manner: emotional pattern engineering to get the very (like Puzzlem00n said) important emotions into the game.

    The use of Game Design Patterns already exists:
    (270 dollar… lol? is this a handwritten book?)

    I think I’ll try a formal-like method in the coming ludum dare…

    Your point of emotional desires (satisfaction of particular emotional experience) and getting bored of them makes sense. Should a game have multiple different emotional experiences so players don’t get bored? Does the amount of emotional experiences discriminates casual and „hobby“ games (games used as a hobby, don’t want to use the term hardcore)?

    • Gurglor says:

      I’m not sure how much we should focus on the ’emotional engineering’ aspect of gaming. It definitely plays a part in what people are having fun with and why, but I’m also not comfortable thinking of game design in terms of tinkering overmuch with peoples’ feelings, either.

      I’d say we should go for fun and interesting combinations in the experience we create, but trying to design a game that runs the entire gamut is probably stretching things a little thin. Like trying to write a novel that covers half a dozen genres. You’ll probably wind up combining the worst of what you want to include instead of the best, and at that point you’ve missed the ‘epic’ design you were probably going for and wound up in ‘satire’ territory at best.

      • Jeremias says:

        I think you misunderstood the way I use „emotional“. It even covers affective and cognitive desires like exploration and not only feelings like „fear“, „happiness“ or „sadness“. So you can replace „emotional“ with „fun“ in my textes – sorry for that confusion.

        Fun is a very strange word used in games. Amnesia: The Dark Descent ist neither funny (humour) nor fun in terms of „hey, get shocked by a game and feel real fear was fun“.

        Whatever, term confusion is an important part in theoretical discussions, sadly ^^.

        Your novel example is a good one. If a game tries to be different things at once, it will be indefinit, forcing the player to do stupid things while obstructing him to get the aspired gaming (emotional/fun) experience he wanted…

        Do we have a superordinate question which we discuss here?

        • Gurglor says:

          I think it depends on which layer of the gaming experience we want to explore. My thought was something akin to just tunneling through them sequentially and seeing what I can find out. I’d be interested to know which layer Puzzlem00n wanted to look at.

          I was sort of exploring the question of why people thought the “best” games were so fun or memorable. To answer that we’d probably have to enumerate the different layers that make up the gaming experience. Some of that is the psychological or “emotional” factor you were talking about. Why do we play? What are we getting out of our game time that makes us want more?

          What makes a game fun? The level of competition? Sometimes. The escape of fantasy? Sometimes. The thrill of shock and horror? Sometimes. But not every game as about every one of these factors. You can approach the subject from any of these angles (and more), so I suppose people are naturally going to look at it from different angles. Maybe that in itself is why there’s such a wide spectrum of interesting games available.

  6. Puzzlem00n says:

    Well, I suppose I’ve been summoned there. I suppose, if I must put it into words, I’d like to explore how games effect people. How does a game alter a person’s thought process, make them learn something, and how does that translate to how fun it is? Is part of the fun perhaps exploring the feeling of being someone else? The feeling of being “Alone,” perhaps? That’s the kind of stuff I like.

    Although, I suppose that’s a bit off topic from what I was talking about in my first comment, which I’m just realizing. I guess that layer is more like fun on a psychological level. They say what is fun is generally related to solving problems, a mental adaptation of the human mind to become more intelligent. They also say things like feedback alleviate the frustration of solving them. How do these games incorporate that?

    So yeah, both those paragraphs are what I find interesting points.

  7. Puzzlem00n says:

    P.S. I thought this discussion was interesting enough to move to a wider audience. =D http://www.ludumdare.com/compo/2012/04/10/what-makes-a-game/

  8. Jeremias says:

    Funny I prepared the following graphic before I read your posts:


    @Gurglor: Is that the tunnel you talking about? And “Game Mechanics” the level you want to discuss?

    @Puzzlem00n: “Player and Game Configuration” would be the level you talking about.

    And “Player’s Emotional Experience” would be level I stucked (:P).

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