Previous to the launch of the Atari 2600 in 1977, home video gaming was more of a concept than a reality; users were limited to Pong or other generic variants as well as other less versatile machines with smaller libraries such as the Fairchild Channel F.
With the release and following success of the Atari 2600, some of the best games of the 1970’s and 80’s were developed and enjoyed by the public at large.
Activision – River Raid, Pitfall!, Frostbite, Kaboom!, Freeway
Activision produced a number of wonderful games for the Atari 2600, including some of the most notable titles of the generation. A very neat feature of playing Activision titles was that, if one attained a high enough score in each of their games – with few exceptions – the player could mail a photograph to Activision and receive an exclusive patch commemorating their achievement!
River Raid was a fantastic take on the top down shooter, in fact having a great influence on the Shoot ‘Em Up (SHMUP) genre of games that would later become popularized by cult classics such as Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun. Progammed by Carol Shaw, the player controlled a bright yellow aircraft down a river / ravine, shooting enemy aircraft, gunboats, and helicopters – swerving to avoid obstacles and collect fuel. The variety of terrain and obstacles was commedable and extremely enjoyable with regards to replayability.
Another Activision title that proved supremely popular was the iconic Pitfall!, perhaps the most popular game ever released by the developer. Programmed by David Crane, the game featured titular protagonist Pitfall Harry in his quest to obtain treasures hidden deep in the jungle.
The player was charged with swinging over pools of snapping crocodiles on a vine, or perhaps even performing timed jumps on the noses of the crocodiles while their mouths had shut in order to cross. Other fatal antagonists included scorpions in the lower levels as well as bats and rattlesnakes. Gameplay was tight, responsive, and extremely innovative and entertaining.
Those who had a penchant for blasting spaceships into debris might take a shining to Starmaster, a first-person view space shooter that was vaguely reminiscent of Elite, another retro game that was released widely for contemporary personal computers. Charged with defending nearby starbases from attack, the player blasts ship after ship into cosmic dusts. A variable damage system allows hits to your shields, warp drive, weapons, and even radar! All in all, Starmaster was a fun game with little time commitment and a very slight learning curve.
Frostbite was another great release for Activision, available in 1983. Playing as Frostbite Bailey, the player was charged with building igloos by jumping from ice floe to ice floe, avoiding geese, crabs, and polar bears that threatened to push Bailey into the freezing water! Following enough timed jumps, necessary to complete the building of the igloo, the player must make it back to shore and retreat inside to complete the level. Fun, addictive, and extremely challenging gameplay made Frostbite an instant classic.
Kaboom! (catch those bombs, if you can!) and Freeway (a Frogger clone) also deserve honourable mentions as fun, frenetic action games with little to no learning curve and excellent replay value.
Atari Releases – Including Combat, Adventure, Midnight Magic, Ms. Pac-Man
The Combat cartridge shipped with the original model Atari 2600 and is still widely recognized to this day amongst retro gamers and casual gamers alike. Featuring the ability to take two tanks, biplanes, or jet airplanes head to head against an opponent – Combat was an extremely novel game for its time and one that was extremely well received for it’s replay value. Additions such as bouncing bullets or the ability to take a squadron of fighters against the opponents bomber made Combat a standout title.
While Adventure may not look like much, it was one of the earliest console releases to be described as a role-playing adventure game. Controlling a nondescript block through a series of mazes, castles, and dungeons in search of the enchanted chalice – the player has access to a variety of items such as a sword, keys, and a magnet. Adventure also features the very first Easter Egg (secret) to be placed in a video game. Look out for the three dragons, however, as they’d love to make a tasty snack of our intrepid adventurer!
Midnight Magic enters as a pinball simulator on the Atari 2600 that features bright, neon colours and a fairly responsive and realistic – given the circumstances – interface. Being a relatively late show on the console, released in 1986, Midnight Magic was a fun and enjoyable pinball game that featured not only two paddles, but four! The bright colours and absence of flicker also made this title a superior edge over its predecessors in the video pinball genre.
Finally, Ms. Pac-Man simply cannot go without mention. Though many critics deride the gameplay of the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man as being filled with flicker, strange colour co-ordination, and generally weak gameplay, Ms. Pac-Man seemed to have taken those criticisms and adapted the style of play around the console with great success. With an improved colour palette, much less annoying sounds, and improved screens, Ms. Pac-Man is a much stronger title than her predecessor and a truly enjoyable experience for arcade genre enthusiasts.