Atari’s 2600 (or VCS as it’s also known) was a phenomenally successful machine that spawned countless fantastic games. From arcade conversions to original releases, it was a huge success with gamers and launched many classic franchises. Join us as we go back through the Retro Gamer archives and reveal our 10 personal favourites.
Don’t be fooled by the ancient-looking visuals, Space Invaders was one of the earliest ‘killer apps’ for Atari’s console and proved a massive hit when it was first released. It may not be arcade perfect (there were only 36 onscreen invaders compared to the arcade’s 55), but Space Invaders had plenty of different options, 112 in fact, which was a staggering amount at the time and greatly enhanced what was already a great game. Moving shields, zig-zagging bombs, invisible invaders, two players onscreen at once, guided missiles; the list was virtually endless. If you don’t have a copy of Space Invaders in your collection then you’re doing your VCS a huge disservice.
River Raid was a huge departure for Carol Shaw; especially when you consider that the majority of her previous VCS games had been based on simple parlour games. The never-ending river you flew up was filled with a variety of dangerous hazards and the further you made it up the river, the more dangerous the challenge became (we didn’t mind though, it looked amazing). Not only were you up against dangerous opponents, you also had a limited amount of fuel to worry about, which became scarcer and scarcer and the game progressed. A classic shooter no collector should be without.
Like many 2600 arcade conversions, Berzerk wasn’t perfect. For starters, the voice synthesis from the arcade game was nowhere to be seen (although this was later added in an enhanced version), the graphics gave the game a more claustrophobic feel than its arcade parent and the enemies couldn’t fire diagonally, thus making it easier to play. Despite these niggles it remains a great conversion mainly because of its simplistic gameplay and solid controls. Negotiating the mazes took steady nerves and a fair amount of patience and strategy. If you’re a fan of shooters, track this down as quickly as possible.
Adventure is perhaps one of the crudest-looking games on the 2600. Your lead character was nothing more than a simple block, many of the rooms were sparse even by VCS standards and the less said about the dragons the better… Nevertheless, it was one of the most involving titles available for Atari’s first console. With a simple premise (return a stolen chalice to a castle) and some great gameplay mechanics – several items can be picked up along the way to help your progress – Adventure remains a landmark title and an essential addition to your VCS library.
Even the most avid 2600 owner will tell you that Atari’s original Pac-Man was an appalling conversion. The game had obviously been rushed and disgruntled gamers poured scorn upon Atari. Atari had obviously been listening, though, as Ms Pac-Man was a huge improvement. While the visuals weren’t arcade perfect, they captured the spirit of the original, and, this time around the main character actually looked like her arcade counterpart. Add in spot-on controls, faithful sound effects and near perfect gameplay that perfectly mimicked the arcade game and Ms Pac-Man success was assured.
Activision certainly churned out some quality titles for the Atari 2600 and H.E.R.O. was no exception. Taking control of Roderick Hero, the aim was to use your propeller backpack to venture into the 20 dangerous mines and rescue all the miners. H.E.R.O. was typical of many Activision titles in that it was very polished and featured some solid gameplay. While there was no actual music to speak of, there’s a wealth of impressive effects that really added to the game’s atmosphere and the ever-decreasing power in Roderick’s jetpack ensured that every game remained a tense challenge. Great stuff.
Defender II (or Stargate as it is also known) is another great arcade conversion for the 2600 and a damn fine shooter to boot. Unlike the original Defender (which was a pretty poor conversion) its sequel got everything correct and featured visuals that were extremely reminiscent of the arcade hit. The action was fast and furious, sprite flickering was kept to a bare minimum and there were plenty of meaty sound effects to enjoy. Add in the fact that none of the original controls were sacrificed and you have yet another cracking title that certainly deserves a special place in your collection.
Pitfall II: Lost Caverns
While the original Pitfall! is still a fantastic game, we constantly find ourselves returning to its superior sequel whenever we fancy participating in some jungle antics. Thanks to the cartridge containing its own chipset, the visuals in Pitfall! II were very advanced for their time and were complemented by an extremely impressive soundtrack – indeed, technically Pitfall! II remains one of the best-looking and sounding games that we’ve ever played on Atari’s console. If you’re looking for a tense platformer Pitfall! II should be tracked down at all costs.
There were plenty of sports titles available on the Atari VCS, but few came close to the greatness of Alan Miller’s excellent Ice Hockey. It’s only two-on-two, and the graphics were rather simplistic to say the least, but none of that matters in the slightest as the all-important gameplay more than delivered. You had a surprising amount of control over both your players, the action was fast and furious and, once you got the hang of it, you could pull off shots from a variety of different angles. It was even possible to check opponents and send them crashing to the floor if you couldn’t regain control of the puck. Another great title from Activision that needs to be owned.
There’s an amazing array of home-brew titles currently available for the 2600, but Thomas Jentzsch’s Thrust remains one of our favourites and shows off just what Atari’s console can be capable of in the right hands. It was a great conversion of the original Commodore 64 classic and featured some very impressive visuals and a real sense of inertia that made it a joy to play. There was some fantastically smooth scrolling on display and the controls themselves were superb, meaning that you’d never blame them when you inevitably crashed into the desolate landscape. Don’t turn your nose up at its home-brew status, Thrust was a superb title for the 2600 and deserves to be played.