Nostalgia Lane: My Top 10 Favorite Atari 2600 Games

Earlier today I posted a discussion over at Massively regarding Atari 2600 games that would make great MMOs.  Okay, it was a silly topic, but it’s bringing out the nostalgia in a lot of folks, myself included.  The 2600 was the first console we ever owned in our home, which we got in 1982 and played for the better part of the next decade (our mom refused to let us get a NES, since we “already had a video game system”, so we waited it out until the SNES).

I loved the crap out of that system, even as friends were moving on to 8-bit consoles, and have a lot of fond memories of the games.  In no particular order, here are my top 10 favorite Atari games:

1. Asteroids

Like Tetris and Diablo after it, Asteroids was the perfect zen-like game where you could just get into a rhythm of destruction and zone out.  It wasn’t anything too deep, but blasting apart rocks and constantly coming up with a new target priority list kept me playing for a long time.

2. River Raid

River Raid is one of those Atari games that’s constantly on everybody’s list of favorites, and for good reason.  It looked pretty cool as a prototype scrolling schmup, with deadly walls (you couldn’t fly above the sides of the river or bridges for some lore-based reason) and various obstacles that required shootin’.  What really made this title shine was the fuel gauge — it was always ticking down, requiring you to judge whether you should go fast to get to the next fuel depot (and risk more harm because of speed) or go slower to be safer (but risk running out of fuel before getting more).

3. Star Raiders

Before Wing Commander, before X-Wing, before Elite there was Star Raiders — a surprisingly complex cockpit space shooter that required the use of a keypad to plot courses and warp between zones.  Your ship could suffer specific types of damage, and it was actually possible to win by clearing out all of the bad guys within a time limit.  Awesome game, even though it was pretty tough.

4. Armor Ambush

Forget Combat, Armor Ambush was the best tank game on the 2600.  One of the biggest challenges of the system was that players had very limited controls — usually just a joystick and one button.  Armor Ambush worked around these limitations to create a surprisingly addictive PvP game where each player controlled two tanks.  You’d switch between the tanks on the fly by pulling back on the joystick, and would need to keep track of all four tanks (or less, when they got destroyed).  Another cool feature was that the terrain mattered — tanks went faster on roads, slower on land, really slow through trees, and couldn’t pass through some obstacles.  I think you could even hide a tank in trees for a surprise when your opponent wasn’t looking.

5. Radar Lock

What a lot of people forget or overlook is that people didn’t stop making games for the 2600 after the crash of 1983 — support for the console continued well into the early 1990’s.  Because we were denied a Nintendo, my brothers and I were always on the hunt for decent 2600 games, and toward the end of the 80’s, some developers actually created terrific titles that pushed the limits of the system in ways that we’d never imagined.

For example, Radar Lock.  Look at that screenshot — it’s nothing that you would’ve seen in 1982, for sure.  Radar Lock was a fighter game where you’d sweep the skies for enemies (using the radar in the lower center) and have to watch your limited fuel and ammo as the fight continued.  The sound effects and graphics were hefty for the system, and I played this game like crazy because of it.  And yes, you could do a (wait for it)… BARREL ROLL!

6. Warlords

Warlords was a brilliant game, provided that you could get three friends to play with you.  Before “multiplayer” and “deathmatch” were common gamer terms, Warlords was all over this style of play.  It combined Breakout mechanics (bouncing a ball with a paddle to break bricks) with PvP (the ultimate goal was to kill your enemies’ kings with a well-placed shot.  With four players (using two split-paddle controllers), a Warlords bout often got hectic and heated.

7. California Games

Now, I’ve never really been much of a sports video game fan, but California Games captivated me and my brothers for hours on end.  It was partially the wide variety of games included — hackey sack (!), surfing, roller skating, BMX, frisbee (!!), and — our favorite — half-pipe skateboarding.  You could even pull tricks in these games, predating Tony Hawk by several years.

8. Jungle Hunt

It seems that just about everyone loved Jungle Hunt, for reasons that are hard to explain.  It’s not that deep of a game, but it is varied and has a nice multiple-world platform feel to it.  Basically, you have to make it through four levels to rescue the girl: a vine-swinging level, a swimming level, a rock-dodging level, and a rescue-from-cannibals level.  I still don’t know why we liked it so much.  I’m guessing the 80’s warped our brains.

9. Ms. Pac-Man

I’m not going to lie — the Atari 2600 version of Ms. Pac-Man can’t hold a candle to the visuals of the arcade version.  BUT it was still light-years better than the abomination that was the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man, and it played silky smooth.  The level variety was fun, the colors soothing, and my mom would try to steal the controls when we weren’t looking.

10. The Empire Strikes Back

Not only the first good Star Wars video game on consoles, but the first good movie game as well.  ESB featured the Battle for Hoth, where you controlled a snowspeeder tasked with single-handedly taking down a never-ending wave of AT-ATs.  It wasn’t easy, and your best bet was to line up a shot on a weak point that occasionally flickered on the AT-AT.  But the game just felt cool, the invincible music rocked, and you even could suffer battle damage before dying.

Honorable mentions so you won’t bug me about them in the comments: Yar’s Revenge, Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, Pitfall!, Battlezone, Superman.

17 thoughts on “Nostalgia Lane: My Top 10 Favorite Atari 2600 Games

  1. moxie July 21, 2010 / 11:47 am

    Oh wow.

    I didn’t even have an Atari. I got to play on my aunt’s Atari (I was only 4 or 5) and was limited to what games she had. My favorites were Asteroids, Pole Position, Centipede, Smurfs, & Frogger.

    And later I found and loved the NES version of California Games. 😀

  2. Hunter July 21, 2010 / 12:36 pm

    No joust? dude.

    armor ambush was great, particularly, I believe i remember bouncing shots off solid objects. that was fun.

  3. Scott McMillin July 21, 2010 / 12:59 pm

    My list would have to include Pitfall!, Adventure, Super Breakout.

    Warlords may be my favorite. Playing with 4 players with Atari Paddles was the best!

    Star Raiders was my favorite game for my Atari 800 — I never played the VCS version. I always wondered how it worked without a keyboard. It’s the one game from the early Eighties I’ll fire up and still have a thrill playing.

  4. Hudson July 21, 2010 / 1:35 pm

    How dare you not include Yars Revenge!

  5. Dink July 21, 2010 / 2:33 pm

    Another, “What? No Yar’s Revenge?” post. Also, the tank games cartridge called Combat, played ALOT of that.

  6. Ethic July 21, 2010 / 3:44 pm

    We still reconnect the old Atari to play Megamania (the wife LOVES it) and occasionally Adventure. We have 20+ various games and work through them once and a while.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Megamania

  7. Sleepysam July 21, 2010 / 3:45 pm

    The main thing I remember was that Atari had the better space/racing games, and Intellivision had the better sports games.

  8. theerivs July 21, 2010 / 4:26 pm

    Some games I loved came from Activision like Robot Tank sort of a better Battlezone. Enduro a great Racing gameas well..They both had weather effects, and that was pretty cool.

    I’m sorry though I did like Raiders of the Lost Ark for 2600, just cracking your whip trying to catch that branch, and hearing the music. Great time to be a kid.

  9. Rog July 21, 2010 / 6:59 pm

    As much as I loved the Atari 2600 (my cousin had one imported from the States in 1977 before it arrived in Canada), I was really more of an Arcade kid.

    I’d list Joust, but ugh the Atari version was just plain awful. Same goes for all the Williams home ports (Defender, etc.). I have a restored Joust coin-op in my living room and it’s still IMHO one of the best games ever made. MAME? Yuck control-lag ruins Joust!

    Another note: Star Raiders really needed an Atari 400 / 800 to be properly appreciated.

    For actual Atari VCS/2600 games:

    1. Combat – Although it didn’t really compare to the fluid controls of the arcade Tank versions, it’s still just fun to play as a versus game. Armor Ambush came so much later (6 years?) I had already abandoned my 2600 for my C=64.

    2. Adventure – Oh man, seriously my friends and I thought this was an epic game at the time.

    3. Space Invaders – Again, dumbed down from the much more challenging arcade, but generally the 2600 version is the one that’s remembered, complete with the double-fire cheat.

    4. River Raid – It doesn’t hold up over time, but for pure nostalgia– my cousin and I didn’t sleep the first night we played River Raid. That’s the start of my all-night gaming sessions.

    5. Pitfall! – Still holds up in a simplistic way.

    6. Missile Command – I long for a decent updated Missile Command that doesn’t cheap-out with Nintendo style bosses and powerups. There’s so much solid gameplay, it doesn’t need the extra muck.

    7. Artillery Duel – Worms totally replaced it, but it’s still fun. Something about having to wait your turn while you watch in futility as you get blown to smithereens.

    8. Frogger – Some games on the 2600 were almost as good as the arcade and Frogger is probably the best example.

  10. Brian 'Psychochild' Green July 21, 2010 / 11:26 pm

    I have fond memories of the Atari 2600 because my mom played with me a lot. She really didn’t get into games after that. Personally, I think the 2600 is one of the main reasons I got into game development.

    The only “ZOMG YOU FORGOT” game that came to mind was Adventure. I agree with Rog, that was a great game that I played endlessly. I also loved the Activision Games (oh, how times have changed….) One of my favorites, besides Pitfall!, was Keystone Kapers.

    One absolutely great game that’s pretty obscure is Fast Food. You’re a giant freakish mouth eating food and trying to avoid the gas-causing purple pickles. Stuff starts flying fast and furious after a little bit, so you need fast reactions. Eat too many purple pickles and you’ll burp. Hilariously funny when your age is in the single digits. 😛

    Ah nostalgia….

  11. sabry May 28, 2011 / 1:26 am

    announced that Atari was going to re-maThe only “ZOMG YOU FORGOT” game that came to mind was Adventure. I agree with Rog, that was a great game that I played endlessly. I also loved the Activision Games (oh, how times have changed….) One of my favorites, besides Pitfall!, ke the Atari 2600

  12. jeff June 4, 2012 / 2:48 pm

    pretty “mainstream” list there. Ever play Frankinstien’s Monster, Millipede, Jr. Pac-Man, Montezuma’s Revenge, Tutankham, Enduro, or Tapper? You may change your mind with this list. I’ve now collected and played over 120 atari 2600 games, and my mind is still changing today.

  13. xe.com December 5, 2016 / 10:34 pm

    Hunting through circulars and trimming deals out may end up being plenty of time.

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