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?