Post Playthrough Roundup – My Entire Atari 2600 Backlog

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The teenage me bought this ancient treasure from a local independent game store over a decade ago. I never figured out how to hook it up to a modern TV, and I promptly boxed it up in frustration. After I graduated college, I tried again with no success. Today, 27 year old me finally figured out what I was doing wrong… My TV had to be on Channel 2, not 3. Please don’t tell my old college instructors. They might take away my Electronics diploma for this rookie error.

Now that the old fella is up and running (which I think is freaking impressive considering how old it is), I can finally play my Atari 2600 games! In an effort to clear a lot of low hanging fruit from my backlog, I decided to partake in a mini-marathon with my entire Atari 2600 game collection. Since you can’t really “beat” games from this historic era, I spent a max of 15 minutes with each title to see how far I could get. This console is also an antique so I didn’t want to put too much stress on him. This blog entry is going to be me rambling about my time with each of my 10 games.


Phoenix

phoenix-2My first Atari 2600 game! It took me a couple minutes to figure out that you need to flick the “Reset” switch to start playing a game. After this clueless modern day gamer figured that out, I discovered one of my joysticks is bad since the little pixelated thingy (I’m assuming it’s suppose to be the “Phoenix” based on the title) would only move left. After I swapped it out I was good to go. My High Score was 4330 and I almost made it past the wave with the red birds. I was only half a red bird away from the next round.

Lightning Review

Gameplay
You move the little pixel Phoenix spaceship to the left and right, avoiding the angry alien pixel birds firing things down at you. Some of them will even swoop down at you, killing themselves if they hit you, but also taking away one of your precious lives.  You press the red button to shoot things at the enemies. Simple, yet entertaining. The enemies have differing formations, and more challenging enemies appear after each round. The blue birds die in one hit if you hit their body, but can take up to 3 if you only clip wings. Any hit you take results in a loss of one of four lives. When those are gone, that’s it: Game Over. I’ve read up on it, and apparently there is something we would consider a final boss, by today’s standards, near the “end”. Ahead of its time!

Graphics
Okay, I understand this is the infant stages of the now booming gaming industry. I’m going to try and forget out how hyper realistic games are now, and focus on the technological limits of this dear old console. The enemies have design variety, and I like how the blue birds flap their wings. The little orange thing that represents the Phoenix spaceship moves pretty smoothly.

phoenix-1
Considering the era, the detail on those alien birds is pretty nice!

Sound
Different tones play when you fire, die, kill things, etc. There was no music or anything. Just the classic beeps of a bygone era.

My Overall Biased Opinion
It’s simple, and I had fun.The art on the game depicts an epic space battle with the alien birds. I bet if it did have a real story it would be epic.


Centipede

cetipede-2Game #2 was much less entertaining for me, even though there was actually a lot of things happening on the screen: The ever approaching segment of dots, and a bug bouncing near the bottom to always watch out for. It took me a few deaths to realize that I could move about 1/4 up the screen, as well as side to side. That definitely made dodging the bug thingy easier. There is also a bunch of random squares littering the play area. I assume these were the mushrooms shown on the box art. My High Score was 7359 and I made to the part where everything turns yellow. Some circular object fell down from the top at that point, but my rectangle sadly died before I could figure out what it was.

Lightning Review

Gameplay
I’m not sure what the rectangle thing I’m controlling was (the weird looking guy on the game art if I had to guess), but you move it left, right, down, and up. A fearsome series of dots (probably the “Centipede”) slithers across the screen and down towards you. Press the red button to shoot at it, while watching out for the little bug bouncing around the bottom with you. When you hit the Dot-ipede, it breaks up into segments. I often found myself bouncing around the bottom dodging the bug, and many pieces of angry centipede. I’m not sure what the bug at the bottom really does, but it seemed to give me more points when I killed it closer to the bottom of the screen. Each level changes the colour of the environment. A simple way to distinguish things I guess. I can assume more things get thrown in as you progress.

Sound
I was greatly annoyed by the constant high pitched tone that played for the bug at the bottom. This made me focus more on squashing it, rather than the centipede, which makes a more pleasing “thump thump” noise as it inches closer. Unfortunately, another annoying bug always respawns to irritate my poor ears.

Graphics
The flowing rainbow Atari logo on the title screen was impressive. During gameplay, there’s not a huge variety of enemy designs from what I’ve seen. The colours just change as you progress. Everything moved pretty smoothly during my brief playtime.

cetipede-1
That purple bug is so damn annoying…

My Overall Biased Opinion
I didn’t really like this game due to the constant annoying bug noises. I only put 5 minutes in before I was done. The game art shows an evil looking human pointing at some cute bugs, with a field of mushrooms in the background. I would really like to learn more about this crazy world.


Defender

defender-2Game #3 is my favourite so far! This title is set on an unfortunate planet being assaulted by evil alien invaders. You control the brave spaceship taking them out in a classic shoot ’em up style game. The designers did a good job making everything look like what the pixels are suppose to represent. My High Score was 17050 and I made it to area 2. A big scary red thing made the entire screen flash, and then my humble spaceship was crushed.

Lightning Review

Gameplay
You have free joystick control to move left, right, up, and down as you zoom horizontally over the city below. There are a healthy variety of alien invaders to shoot, and the range of motion adds a lot of depth to the game. There is even a map/radar at the top! Impressive. There are clearly defined levels, and the difficulty seems to be just right. The ability to move backwards is helpful if you zoom by an evil alien craft and need to turn around to blast it.

Graphics 4
A unique fleet of bad pixel ships to shoot down, the spaceship actually has the outline of a believable ship, and there is a clearly visible city below to protect. The spaceship motion was also very responsive to my controls. When you shoot, a satisfying rainbow laser flashes across the screen.

defender-1
That definitely looks like a high tech spaceship, a menacing U.F.O, and an innocent city to save.

Sound
The spaceship makes awesome engine sounds when you move, and a cool laser sound when it shoots things. I found no annoying repetitive tones in this classic game.

My Overall Biased Opinion
I really enjoyed my full 15 minutes with this game. The designers made this title shine, considering the technology limits of the time. The game art shows a futuristic city scene, with the innocent inhabitants you protect with your mighty spaceship. This would have made for an interesting Sci Fi story.


E.T. the Extraterrestrial

et-1This title has made it to the top of many “Worst Games of All Time” lists so I wasn’t expecting anything spectacular. Even with my low expectations, this “game” (I use the term loosely) still managed to be worse than I could ever imagine. I really don’t know what I just did, and I want my 5 minutes of precious time back, now. It would have been better spent staring at a wall. The unsold copies definitely deserved their place in that landfill, and the people who dug the abominations up recently have probably been cursed by the angered spirits of gaming.

Lightning Review

Gameplay
You walk around and some strange people skitter across the screen. Sometimes one of them carries you into a building, and then you walk away freely. The guy with the hat got stuck on the screen fairly often. You also fall down pits, a lot. There is a weird counter at the bottom that inexplicably decreases when you move. When it reaches zero, what seems to be the kid from the movie appears, and the counter magically refreshes. I just don’t know what to say…. WTF is the point!?

Graphics
The strangers do look like decent pixel representations of people. The environment is odd, but green/blue is a nice change from all the solid black backgrounds I see in other games. E.T. is this lighter green thing who can raise his head when you press the red button. I do think they designed E.T. fairly good for the time. I was too distracted with trying to figure out what the hell was happening to really enjoy the decent graphics.

et-2
The “?” at the top of the screen sums up my thoughts pretty well.

Sound
The highlight of this game for me was the nice tone that played on the title screen, which reminded me of the movie theme song. Other than that, the sounds make slightly more sense than the gameplay.

My Overall Biased Opinion
This must have been the ominous prophecy that foretold games based on movies, and vice versa, are BAD ideas. I found no objectives or any way to tell what the hell was happening. I’m just going to pretend I never played this. The .5 in this category is for the nice musical theme on the title screen. I do consider it a dubious achievement to have what many consider the worst game ever made in my collection.


Pac-Man

pacman-2I feared I had discovered my first broken game. No matter how much I blew on it or wiggled it around, it wouldn’t play. Luckily, the non-exciting Isopropyl type of alcohol and a Q-Tip fixed it. It turns out there was a ton of fossilized gunk blocking the contacts. This game stars an iconic character that I would still consider relevant today. The designer created him by thinking of a pizza that was missing a slice. The creative process is a mysterious beast sometimes… From what I’ve read, this is a shadow of the epic arcade game, but I still found it entertaining. Back in the day, it must have been exciting to take Pac-Man inside your home for the first time. My High Score was only 280. Those nasty ghosts really know how to work together effectively.

Lightning Review

Gameplay
Eat lines in a maze with the cute circular yellow creature to increase your score. There are four ghosts prowling around making things quite difficult. They often gang up on you, and there aren’t really a lot of escape options if you get cornered. If you consume a big square thing, you have a few short seconds to eat any fleeing ghosts, sending them back to the respawn point in the middle. They always come back with a vengeance though… It’s simple to learn, but very hard to master.

Graphics
Pac-Dude clearly has eyes and a mouth. The ghosts are adorably spooky looking, and the playing area resembles a blue coloured maze. Animations moved flawlessly, and everything was stable. No issues really.

pacman-1
I’m not sure why those ghosts hate Pac-Man so much. He just likes eating a lot.

Sound
Lots eating line beeps, and crumpling death sounds. Nothing overly exciting but it fit with what was going on.

My Overall Biased Opinion
A simplistic wander around a maze and eat lines type of game. It was fun during the time I played it, but I can see it getting boring fast. I read a bit about Pac-Man’s origin. His direct Japanese name translation is “Puck-man”. I think everyone can appreciate why they went with “Pac-Man”instead. Those rebellious teenage vandals would have had a field day!


Ms. Pac-Man

paclady-2I’m pretty sure Ms. Pac-Man is the first playable female game character (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). As a female gamer, I consider her a pioneer of sorts. I do feel the original Pac-Male had a better game though. I had some issues with the graphics, and she only had three ghosts to deal with, making her game slightly easier. My High Score was 3150 and those 3 immortal ghosts still enjoyed killing me a lot.

Lightning Review

Gameplay
You traverse the maze as the ravenous Pac-Woman this time. As in the original, the more lines you consume, the more your score goes up. The pretty pink maze is still not a safe place to feast. There are only 3 shady ghosts moving around inside, but unless you’ve devoured one of the bolder squares to enter a brief Pac-Goddess mode, they still kill you if you touch them. There is also a random pair of cherries floating around the maze, for some odd reason. If you eat those, the score really goes up! Simple and addictive, but it really doesn’t make much logical sense.

Graphics
The graphics are colourful, but I found them, for lack of a better real word, flicker-y. There are also a series of random black lines on the left side of the screen. They don’t seem like they should be there and really bothered me… The ghosts are cute, and Pac-Lady’s bow is a nice touch.

paclady-1
I kept thinking “Why are those black lines on the left side of the screen?” as the ghosts kept killing me. The pretty pink colour kept me calm though.

Sound
Lots of line chomping noises, the sad ghost victory tone, and the Pac-Goddess mode sound. Nothing spectacular but nothing annoyed me either.

My Overall Biased Opinion
Like the other one, it was a fun game, and I didn’t have to think too much. Just keep eating those lines and try to avoid the ghosts. There was nothing really memorable about it, and I’ll forget I ever played this shortly.


Swordquest Earthworld

swordquest-2I know this game has received rave reviews, but this is another “WTF is happening?” game to me. I did find it much better than that E.T. disaster. I couldn’t figure out what I was suppose to do, or why I was walking into different coloured rooms all the time. In my unqualified opinion as a modern gamer looking back, adventure type games don’t make much sense on the Atari 2600… If anyone reading this understands this game, feel free to enlighten me. I traversed into many multi coloured rooms, entered a few confusing side scrolling areas, and moved items aimlessly around a menu system.

Lightning Review

Gameplay
Yes, I’m judging this game harshly because I didn’t understand what to do. I just kept using the joystick to walk down into rooms, and pressing the red button made a menu appear, most of the time. In this mystical menu, there are different items scattered around. I could put them in what I think was the inventory system, but I had no idea what their purpose was, or how to use them. Sometimes pressing the red button in a room switched to a side scrolling type area, with no clearly defined objective. My head hurts trying to figure this out…

Graphics
At least it had some of the best graphics I’ve seen so far. There is a nicely detailed sword on the title screen, and the little dude you control is well put together. His legs even move when you walk! There is also a neat door opening animation every time you enter a new coloured room. Although I had no freaking clue what to do with them, the little item icons were detailed and unique.

swordquest-1
It looks pretty for its time, but this confused gamer had no idea what she was doing…

Sound
I heard the nifty door opening sound a bunch of times… That’s about all I can say.

My Overall Biased Opinion
I personally disliked this game since I didn’t know what was going on. I assume this is an early rendition of a dungeon crawler, but I couldn’t find anything to swing a sword at, or understand what all the items do. The game art was interesting at least. It shows a desert scene with two people traversing the wasteland. Yeah, I’m just going to move on now…


Pitfall!

pitfall-1As you can tell by the picture, this game cartridge has seen better days. I feared I had an actual broken game when it wouldn’t start at first, but thankfully re-inserting it made it work. I died frequently in this early version of a side scroller, but it was an overall enjoyable experience. The jungle environment was an nice change of pace from the dull backgrounds I’ve seen in other games. My High Score was too abysmal to mention since I couldn’t find a single treasure, and got hit a lot.

Lightning Review

Gameplay
There are 32 treasures you need to find in a time limit of 20 minutes. Your score increases when you get treasure, and decreases when the bad things hit you. I am horrible at this game and didn’t find  a single shiny item, but that seems like a lot of depth for an Atari 2600 game. You traverse several obstacles in the environment and plenty of rolling logs appear. As the name implies, there are a ton of pits you can fall into. There are also cranky crocodiles to avoid, and deadly scorpions underground. I found swinging on a rope over a pit was a very awesome gameplay mechanic for its time.

Graphics
I honestly think this is the best that can be achieved on the old Atari. The jungle has trees, the little man’s animations are superb, the scorpions and crocodiles look menacing, and those logs roll along without interruption.

pitfall-2
Something as simple as swinging on a rope is quite impressive for this era.

Sound
I enjoyed hearing the tone that plays when you fall into a pit. And yes, that happened to me a lot.

My Overall Biased Opinion
It’s challenging, but I can see it being rewarding if I put more time into it. This cartridge is on its last legs, so I just spent my 15 minutes with it and I’m happy to move on. I can see how this relic probably inspired many future platforming games.


Asteroids

asteroids-2The game delivers what the name promises: lots of asteroid destroying fun. The overall goal of blowing apart space rocks was obvious, and the pew pew noises added to the fun experience. The game works well with its limited graphic style. My High Score was 3060, and I managed to clear the first asteroid field.

Lightning Review

Gameplay
You take control of the mighty arrow spaceship in the middle of the play area. The objective is to turn your ship with the joystick, and press the red button to  break apart dangerous asteroids. The cosmic rocks differ in size, and shooting bigger ones breaks them into smaller pieces. I often found myself getting destroyed by the smaller pieces if I failed to take them out fast enough. Oh and there’s this blue thing that flies by randomly. If it hits an asteroid, that seemed to be good. If it hits your arrow, say bye-bye to a life. After you cleared all the asteroids, you move up to the next round. I found the simplicity addictive and entertaining.

Graphics
A nice colorful assortment of blobs that represent asteroids with the arrow ship on a black background. The asteroids moved quickly, and that blue thing always zoomed around when it wanted. Nothing special, but no major complaints.

asteroids-1
The colors are nice but I found it kind of boring. I guess Pitfall! has raised my graphical expectations.

Sound
A rhythmic metronome type tone constantly plays, and there was lots of pew pew noises from my ship. That scary blue thing takes up all the sound when it appears, which really draws attention to the potential menace.

My Overall Biased Opinion
Nothing complex and it was easy for me to pick up and play, even though I’m not very good at it. This is one of the more enjoyable games I’ve played today. The game art shows a neat scene with a spaceship entering a hazardous asteroid belt.


Adventure

adventure-1My experiences with other adventure type games have been horrible, so  I was expecting another “WTF” moment with a game actually called Adventure. I was pleasantly surprised that this turned into my favourite game for the system. This must be as close to a free roaming game as you can get in the Atari 2600 age. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the plain maze world with my square. Keys looked like keys, and those evil dragons always got me when I stumbled upon one. The underpaid developer also slipped in an early version of an Easter Egg as a way to stick it to his mean employer: The text “Created by Warren Robinett” is littered across one room. I find that Easter Eggs add soul to a game, and this is one of the first examples of the awesome idea. Kudos to Mr. Robinett for rebelling against his oppressive bosses and keeping the spirit of game development alive. Talented designers deserve credit for their masterpieces.

Lightning Review

Gameplay
The overall goal is to traverse the flat open world to get the chalice thingy back. Your square picks up keys, and can swap between different items. Exploration is a big part of the game, and there are plenty of evil dragons around to make things difficult. I actually got a bit of an adrenaline rush the first time I saw one. I didn’t make it very far, but I had fun with the little bit of flatland I got to see.

Graphics
The backgrounds vary in color from room to room. A square is a bit boring to have as an avatar, but the movement is very fluid. The dragon monsters are striking as they bounce around the room you enter. If they get you, you can see your poor square in their stomach, and then flick the reset switch to try again. Keys actually look like legitimate keys, and a nice gate opening animation plays when you come across one.

adventure-2
The gate opens when you go near it! I really have a new appreciation for how evolved today’s games are.

Sound
Sounds only play when stuff happens, which avoids the annoying repetitive tone issues I had with other games. No music or anything, just beeps and whatnot. It’s really hard to give sounds a score in the Atari age…

My Overall Biased Opinion
Exploration, dragons, and an Easter Egg from a disgruntled former employee. This easily claims its rightful place as the best game I played on the system. I also like the mythical dragon artwork on the game cartridge.


Just like that, a whole 10 games have been removed from my backlog. It was great to finally experience the days where all you had was a joystick and a red button to interact with a game world. I have developed a new appreciation for just how far video games have come over the decades. I also think the pioneering video game developers were quite talented to be able to create so many unique experiences with this limited early technology. My elderly Atari 2600 can happily retire back to his box now that I’ve spent some quality time with the old guy.

26 thoughts on “Post Playthrough Roundup – My Entire Atari 2600 Backlog

  1. Great article, I can’t say Atari games can keep my attention for long, but they’re fun little mini games at a bare minimum. I have the arcade version of Phoenix as part of the Taito Legends collection I own on PS2. It’s a pretty simple game but surprisingly addictive.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s funny that I don’t really remember most of these games by the title, but once you showed the screen shots, the nostalgia came flooding in! Also the fact that the Atari 2600 still works after all these years is testament to how they made older systems to last. The laser on my husband’s PS3 has died numerous times, but my old, original PS2 is still going strong and that’s not that many generations back so it’s not a laser thing.

    I would always mess up in Asteroid by moving the ship. The controls were weird to me because it would jet across the screen, and then I’d get disoriented lol. What’s amazing to me is the entire Atari collection could now easily fit on your average smartphone but at the time, those cartridges were revolutionary. It combined with the Coleco were my first gaming systems.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love nostalgia! I’ll always have a special connection to the very first games I ever played. I doubt any of today’s consoles will still be working ~40 years from now, and the then 80 year Atari 2600 still will be, lol

      I found it so weird to hold a joystick! I grew up with controllers that had lots of buttons. It makes me think that all the technology in a single smart phone today, took up entire rooms at one point. I’m floored thinking about what the future holds…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They went to the moon with computers less powerful than my smartphone! It’s absolutely amazing.

        They built consoles to last back then! And you can’t even say that they’re less expensive now. A PS4 is like $500. It should last forever :p

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Whoa, what a score, dude! I’ve never played on an Atari! This is a shameful admission here you know, but I love the graphical style and bleeps and bloops and how you had to use your imagination to fill in the gaps. Plus, E.T.

    Try and get your hands on E.T. if you can. :o)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is great. I feel like I missed out on this generation, since I started gaming in 2003 on the PC. We had an Atari in my household, but I never really touched it. I was just “Eh.” about gaming until I got my hands on GTA III and the WW2 games that were flooding the market in those days.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have one of these stored somewhere (it belonged to my dad.) The Pac-Man port isn’t great, but I didn’t know any better so I liked it as a kid. Yeah, most Atari games don’t end. The only one that I finished would be Superman, which you can complete once you nab all the crooks and repair the bridge Lex blows up.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a fun post!

    You have a great collection of games here. I know that fear/disappointment you had when you put in your Pitfall cartridge and it didn’t start up right away. I had that happen with the one game in the lot I picked up back in April: Super Breakout. The sad part is that mine never did recover. I’m on the lookout for another copy of the game. Thankfully this old hardware was built to last, eh?

    Hooking up old consoles to new televisions can be tricky business. I’m happy you got it figured out! I have a box of Atari games hanging around that I’ve been meaning to play, and some of them are ones you’ve mentioned here. Now I know what not to touch with a 32.5 foot pole!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve got a pile 2600 carts myself – brings back plenty of memories. 🙂

    I ended up spending a few dollars on having the TV output of the console upgraded to composite so it could connect to most TVs and I haven’t regretted it and has given it a new lease on life.

    I can highly recommend River Raid too… its a great shooter. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I loved your descriptions of what was going on on the screen… sometimes we really have to use our imagination to imagine that the little yellow square on the screen is actually supposed to be a person, lol! Seriously, though, I do love the Atari! I haven’t played mine in many years, but after reading this post, it might be time to hook it up and play again! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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