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Nostalgia Lane: Pitfall for the Atari 2600

What may have been the strangest thing about playing Pitfall back when I was a kid is that I didn’t even realize I was playing a “platformer” — one of the first real ones, in fact. We didn’t have that terminology yet. It was just this cool game that everyone wanted to take a turn with, even though nobody knew how to win it.

(I mean, you could find all of the treasure before the timer expired, that was the technical win condition, but did you ever know anyone to do this in the Atari 2600 days? I never did. You simply played it for the joy and challenge before you utterly failed, because that was the Atari way.)

As one of the earlier games in our 2600 library, my memories of Pitfall are not a cohesive whole as a series of fragmented little clips:

  • Seeing my cousin be way better at it than me
  • Watching my dad howl in frustration when he fell into the croc’s mouth for the umpteenth time
  • Loving any screen with the swinging vine
  • Thinking that the scorpion actually looked like a cartoon face with an angry giant eye
  • Having that moment when the quicksand pit opened up and I fell into it, because I felt foolish
  • And finding that sweet spot on the croc’s eyeballs that was safe to stand

Oh, and that sweet, sweet Activision box art:

I definitely was not that great at Pitfall, but I dove into it time and again. What made me happiest is that I had a lot of freedom of choice in how to explore the world. I could go left, right, down into the underground, back up — the game wasn’t forcing me onto a path. Getting good at jumping over logs and the scorpion and the crocs was a genuine skill that I could practice, too. It was a HUGE game world (255 screens, a feat that was insanely impressive for 1983)

Looking back at it today, what strikes me the most is the absence of power-ups. We’ve gotten so used to them, it’s wild to consider a time when you didn’t have any. Not even a weapon, either! Just running, jumping, climbing, and (in my case) dying most ignobly.

But man, it was a great rush.

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Nostalgia Lane: Mario Bros. for Atari 2600

Out of all of the stories I have playing Atari 2600 games, this one may be the longest. Indulge me, however.

So it’s the summer of 1986, and I am in deep envy as some of my friends got the new Nintendo Entertainment System and were enjoying titles like Excitebike, Zelda, and — of course — Super Mario Bros. The second I got my hands on SMB over the previous Christmas at a friend’s house, I was absolutely head-over-heels in love with its design and platforming fun. I played it at anyone’s house who had it and in the occasional arcade or Pizza Hut (although those versions were tougher).

But we weren’t getting an NES, at least any time soon, so my options for home Super Mario Bros play were limited. However, I thought I might have a shot, because I saw that the Atari 2600 had “Mario Bros” on a game shelf at my local toy store, and so I asked for it for my birthday.

Now, keep in mind that I didn’t have the internet or even magazine reviews. I just was hoping that, like some other arcade ports, Atari was able to come up with a crude but workable version of Super Mario Bros. There was a lot of denial in my head — even the titles were different — but I clung to hope. I celebrated my birthday in Florida at my grandparents’ home and unwrapped Mario Bros there… which did me no good because the console itself was back up in Indiana.

But I had the manual, at least, and once again tried to fool myself into thinking that this may be Super Mario Bros even as the very game documentation said otherwise.

When I got back home, the truth finally settled in: This was no Super Mario Bros. But after I got past that crushing disappointment, I found that this was actually a fun game in its own right. Mario Bros is a one-or-two-player game on a static screen where you try to flip critters, kick them to their doom, and grab the occasional flashing rainbow cube-thing for extra points. There was a yellow power bar that could be smashed to knock over all critters on the screen, or else you could jump underneath them and flip them that way.

You did have to watch out for a fireball that would go back and forth between the tiers. There was also bonus stages where you could grab lots of coins within a time limit.

Unlike Super Mario Bros, there were no power-ups and no jumping on top of critters to kill them. But it was decently fun, especially when someone else joined you. It was a frantic race to see who could get the most points — and also who could betray the other. You see, you could un-flip the critters through the power bar or jumping beneath them, so if your opponent was closing in on the critter, you could un-flip it and kill your friend that way.

Good times.

Anyway, it wasn’t that complicated, but I always liked the design of Mario, Luigi, and the crab and turtle dudes. Maybe it wasn’t the game I’d hoped for, but fun was had even still.

P.S. — Many years later, some fan actually made a fairly decent SMB port for the 2600, which is so impressive that I can’t believe it actually works.

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Nostalgia Lane: Radar Lock for the Atari 2600

When people talk about playing the Atari 2600 back in the day, they usually aren’t referring to “1989.” By then, the NES was already the dominant console pretty much everywhere and the 2600 was this incredibly old relic from 1977 (when I was just a year old).

But it was a little different in our household. From start to finish in the 1980s, console gaming in our house was just with the Atari 2600. Discussions with our parents about upgrading to an NES went nowhere (“We already have a video game system!” would usually be the response), and we were still a couple of years away from getting our SNES. So believe you me, my brothers and I played the heck out of the 2600 when we couldn’t go over to a friend’s house to play something newer.

That meant we were also on the prowl for newer games in the late ’80s that featured better gameplay and graphics as Atari tried to extend the lifespan of the system as long as it could. This hunt resulted in part with the acquisition of Radar Lock, a title from 1989 that I’ve never heard people talk about.

And that’s a shame, because Radar Lock quickly became one of my top-five Atari 2600 games ever. On the surface, it wasn’t anything that special: You piloting a fighter jet around the sky, blowing up enemy planes before you ran out of fuel and/or ammo. Also you had a handful of missiles and proximity mines (which, unfortunately, were accessible via the second joystick because of that “only one button” thing the 2600 had).

What it lacked in complexity and depth, Radar Lock made up for in superbly solid gameplay. It was a fast-paced arcade fighter sim that had you dogfighting over an endless ocean. The sounds of the machine guns were weighty and the satisfying explosions of enemy craft kept my butt planted in my seat. Along with titles like Asteroids and River Raid, this game was a perfect “zone out and play for long stretches of time on autopilot” experience.

The graphics were also a highlight: Bold, crisp, and colorful. You jet’s tracers did a neat gradually disappearing effect as they arced out and then down. I always liked the “taking off” sequence at the start, as well as the point in the missions where you had to dock with an airborne tanker to fuel up. I learned later on that making the horizon tilt left and right was actually a very difficult thing to do for the 2600 and required a lot of cheats to make it look smooth.

So while other kids had Top Gun, I had Radar Lock — and spent so, so many afternoons after school blasting my way through waves of bad guys.

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Nostalgia Lane: The last games of the Atari 2600

You know what fascinates me? The final titles officially released for any console. Usually nobody’s paying attention at this point because we’re already two, three generations past it, but as someone who used to play consoles well past their expiration date, I think it’s pretty cool to look at these final games. Sometimes they’re surprisingly advanced, using every trick learned to pull out the stops that wasn’t conceivable earlier in the console’s history.

For me, the console that stayed in our home for the entirety of the ’80s was the Atari 2600 (which was only replaced when we got a SNES in ’91). While my friends were deep into the NES by the late ’80s, I was still picking up the few random titles that the 2600 could do, like Radar Lock (which was an underappreciated gem). So I wanted to look at the final batch of games the system created.

For the U.S., there were four titles that came out in 1991 that marked the end of the run. The first was an adaptation of the arcade hit Ikari Warriors, which was a run-and-gun shooter. I never played it, and it certainly looks primitive compared to other editions, it’s kind of crazy they got something like this to work at all.

MotoRodeo was a monster truck racer that offered split-screen (!) competitions. Sentinel is the only light gun game that the 2600 ever had, which is news to me — I never knew the console had ANY.

Then there was Xenophobe, which is one of my arcade guilty pleasures. Man, if I saw Xenophobe in an arcade, I’d run right to it and smash all the quarters I had into its waiting embrace. I loved the gooey Alien-like atmosphere, even though I had no idea what I was doing or how to win a level. Shoot and don’t be impregnated by aliens, I guess.

The actual gameplay is really advanced for the Atari 2600, with music, cutscenes, items, platforming, and lots of enemies. This is one that I would’ve honestly loved to have had on the console.

But the very last Atari 2600 released in the world before the console’s decomissioning was actually in 1992 in Europe. The game was called Acid Drop, a puzzle game in the vein of SEGA’s Columns.

While these are the last, they aren’t all the most complex. There were a batch made from 1988-1990 that featured far more options, graphics, and gameplay than the early days of Space Invaders and Pac-Man. That might be worth another article.

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Nostalgia Lane: Super Mario All-Stars

While the SNES was absolutely amazing for RPGs and other fun genres, this still was very much the era of platformers. My brothers and I played Super Mario World, Castlevania IV, and Contra III to death — partially because we loved them, and partially because new games were expensive and only granted on birthdays and Christmas. So rare were they, in fact, that it was unthinkable to advocate for a game whose quality was yet to be determined. You didn’t want to buy, say, R-Type 3 and find out that it was so bleeding difficult that you’d never get past the first stage.

Therefore, it was like a weirdly targeted gift when Nintendo came out with Super Mario All Stars in 1993. At the time, this was AMAZING. It was all four NES era games — Super Mario Bros 1-3 plus the Japanese Super Mario Bros 2 — bundled together in a single cartridge. Even better, there were save states and all of the games were remastered to bring them up to SNES-level graphics.

For a broke teen in the ’90s, this was the most bang for your buck that you could get, especially considering that the playability of at least three of the titles had long been proven to be terrific.

Sure, none of the games could really hold a candle to Super Mario World, but they were still a lot of fun. SMB1 was certainly a heaping of nostalgia (and still handled tight), the Lost Levels was an interesting challenge, SMB2 was a childhood favorite of mine, and SMB3 is an undeniable classic. Honestly, we probably spent more time playing SMB3 on this than the others combined.

But that didn’t matter, because at least there was a choice. I know, we’re in a time today where there are more free games at one’s fingertips than can ever be played, but this certainly wasn’t the case in 1993, especially with an offline console. In one stroke, our SNES had four games added to it, and we felt like rich kings.

I wish that Nintendo had done more with this format for some of its other properties, such as making an All-Star Zelda or something with the first two games remastered. Or All-Star NES collection — pick four classic games and spruce them up. Considering that this game sold over nine million units, you’d think Nintendo would have picked up on the possibilities.

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Nostalgia Lane: Console demo discs of the ’90s

Back in 2020, I mused about how much I loved the PC Gamer demo discs, including their thematic CGI menus. But those weren’t the only demo discs on the scene, and today I wanted to cast my memory back to the console equivalent.

The earlier disc-based consoles, especially the PlayStation 1 and 2, weren’t internet machines capable of downloading demos and games. I mean, technically the PS2 could be kitted out with a modem for like two games, but for all intents and purposes, it wasn’t online. So players had limited options when it came to accessing new titles: Pony up a full price based on reviews and/or word-of-mouth, try it over at a friend’s house, rent it, or snag a demo disc from somewhere.

This pre-internet period for consoles was a boom era for the demo disc. By stripping a title down to a single level or so, companies could squeeze several titles onto a single disc and distribute them all over the place. Studios saw it as shrewd marketing, but us players saw it as a whole lot of free gaming. In fact, I’m willing to bet that a majority of players who used these discs weren’t doing so to try-before-you-buy — they were engaging with these mini-games as if they were the full product.

I played several of these demo discs to death, especially in the period of my life where disposable income was a laughable concept. And I appreciate that it expanded my gaming adventures past titles I would actually pay for. I wouldn’t buy a Tony Hawk game, but I would certainly boot up a free demo to kill an hour or two.

Unlike PC Gamer’s demo discs, I never had a regular source of discs for consoles. Some I got from various magazines, or game stores, or even Pizza Hut. Once in a while, a studio might include demos as bonuses if you purchased a main product. I know Squaresoft did this, such as getting a few levels of Parasite Eve if, say, you bought Final Fantasy VIII.

I’m not super-nostalgic for demo discs, but back in the day they offered up dozens of hours of fun for the low cost of nothing. Sampling all sorts of different games and perhaps even finding a title to invest the price of a box was an adventure in and of itself.

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Nostalgia Lane: Rollercoaster Tycoon

Sims of all sorts were quite popular in the ’90s, although many of them were whiffs and misses by the studios. It was like they were looking for that magical setting and approach that’d be a magnet for gamers — and such a magnet came along in 1999 with Rollercoaster Tycoon.

I don’t think this was the first theme park simulator, but it definitely was the first incredibly popular one. For me, the idea just clicked: You were given a chunk of cash, a swath of land, and were told to build a profitable amusement park. You laid out paths, installed rides, sprinkled in bathrooms and vendors, hired staff, and started monitoring guests’ happiness and thoughts.

I was hooked right away when RCT came out. It angled hard to draw in creatives (vs. destructives, as I think of them), and there was a deep joy in setting up a perfect park and watching these little virtual people enjoy it. I played it for years after, eschewing the inferior sequels for the simplicity of the original.

So why did RCT work so well? It’s because everything worked well in it. The graphics weren’t 3D but were still colorful animated sprites that could be viewed from four angles. The grid system made it fairly easy to build a park and set up queue lines. There was good feedback on how efficient and fun your park was at any given time. There was the tightrope walk of expanding to make money vs. expanding too fast and losing profits.

But I think the real cincher was the library of rides themselves. There were a lot in the original game, and most all of them were really cool to plunk down and watch operate. The team did a great job with the animations and sounds, leading to a very theme park-like cacophony when multiple rides were running at once.

While the smaller rides came standard, the bigger ones — your log flumes, trains, and especially rollercoasters — could be bought as a package or built by hand. I always had the hardest time building good rollercasters because it was tough to figure out the space, not run out of money (they were expensive), and make them fun without being too extreme. Honestly, I had a better time making interesting log flumes.

The original game spawned a whole bunch of sequels and knock-offs. I’ve tried most of them, but none really stuck like the first. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the perfect game for the right time in my life, and that time is past. But it was an amazing ride while it lasted.

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Nostalgia Lane: Max Payne

The thing that always cracked me up about Max Payne was that he was trying SO HARD to be the ultimate noir action star that he developed this permanent expression on his face that looks like he’s eternally whiffing the armpits of sweaty wrestlers.

When the 2001 original first came along, I had almost written it off as a gimmicky shooter not worth my time. But then I’d heard so many good things that I had to check it out myself, and sure enough, it was a riot from start to finish.

Max Payne is your standard boilerplate gritty crime novel police detective who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time as a post-apocalyptic snowstorm blows into town. There’s something about drugs and dirty cops and who really cares about the story? It’s not about the story. The story is just a flimsy excuse to barrel down corridors, kick down doors, and get into firefights.

This is where the game shone, because Max Payne was all about that John Woo/Matrix bullet time. You had a little hourglass meter that would refill, and if you had enough of a charge, you could activate bullet time to move and fight as the world slowed down around you. Not only was this a terrifically cool way to get through chaotic gun battles, but it allowed you to soak in the carnage as a visual feast. Sure, it was a gimmick. But it was one heck of a gimmick.

As the game goes along, you get more weapons and bad guys get tougher, but the core gameplay loop remains. There’s some big setpiece ahead, and you’ve got to manage bullet time and normal time as you mow down scores of villains.

Max Payne really leaned into being over the top in every aspect, and it worked for the game. Not only were the fights this heightened reality, but the growly narration, the comic book panels of certain scripted sequences, and the labyrinthian twists all played into this tone.

The sequel was fine but not nearly as fun for whatever reason, and I stopped playing the games after that.

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Nostalgia Lane: Turtles in Time

When the SNES Classic came out a few years ago, I know fans of the console each complaints over what they saw as glaring omissions. I thought it was a good lineup overall, but there were two incredibly glaring holes: Chrono Trigger and Turtles in Time.

I’ve talked enough about the former on this blog, but Turtles in Time has been a gaming staple of mine since the 1990s. It may be — and I don’t want to blow out a hyperbolic statement here — but it may be the best brawler-style platformer ever made for the 16-bit era.

Of course, as a kid the big draw here was how much this title embraced the look and full roster of characters from the 1987 cartoon series. We were still pretty crazy about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the early ’90s, and with this entry, we felt like we FINALLY had the game that we’d been wanting ever since the NES put out the first title.

Character sprites were big, detailed, and well animated. You could play any one of the turtles, each of whom had a slightly different playstyle based on weapons. It had great couch co-op with a second player (although you both would be fighting to get those pizza boxes first!). Every character from the series, from the Foot soldiers to big villains like Krang, Shredder, and Rocksteady made an appearance.

And — I cannot stress this enough — the gameplay here is tight and responsive. Fighting feels impactful and gives the edge to the turtles (as should be) as they plow through waves of bad guys. There are all sorts of special moves you can pull off, including grabbing mob to thrash them back and forth and even picking them up to throw them right into the camera (which is a move you have to master for a boss fight later on).

The level design was really the icing on the cake. As the title implies, this game sends the turtles hurtling through time to different eras. The time travel levels include the prehistoric era, the Wild West, a pirate ship, and the far future.

Not every SNES game really stood the test of time, but let me tell you, Turtles in Time remained a fan favorite among my family and youth group any time I’d turn it on. It’s so easy to pick up and enjoy, and I think the bright colors and animated characters really grab people’s attention. Even today, my kids know this game and beg to play it on my pocket SNES player.

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Nostalgia Lane: Super Back to the Future Part II (SNES)

Older gamers who are also fans of Back to the Future know that the movie franchise was poorly, poorly served on the 8-bit and 16-bit consoles. LJN made a couple of terrible titles that were a disgrace to the source material — and truly not a lick of fun. Yet in recent years, there’s been an increased awareness that at least one very respectable BTTF title was made for the SNES… in Japan.

This was Super Back to the Future II, and it’s been on my must-try list for a while now. Studio Daft developed and released this in 1993 to Japanese audiences only, and it was a huge improvement over the shoddy LJN efforts. It had colorful graphics, a decent rendition of the Back to the Future theme, characters with expressive (and oversized) heads, and all of the scenes and locales from the second movie in the trilogy.

I had to play this, so I booted up my little retro gaming device the other day and took it for a spin. In the game you play as Marty, who starts off with access to a hoverboard that has horrible uphill handling (you have to jump to get going up small bumps if you have no speed). Other than a jump, I couldn’t tell if he had any other special moves or power-ups, but fortunately Mario rules were in effect: If I smacked down on the head of an enemy, they died.

So I played through the first few levels of this platformer and quickly rolled up a list of pros and cons. Pros first. The graphics are great, with expressive characters (Griff as a manic boss absolutely wrecking the Cafe 80s is a highlight), and I enjoyed playing to the synthesized rendition of the overture. It’s a straight-forward journey through the movie, and I appreciated the creative use of the locales (such as jumping on floating cars). And the controls were… adequate.

However, it’s not a fun game overall. It’s kind of a bland platformer, to be honest, where the only significant move on your part is building up some speed if you’re falling or sliding down. But the real problem with Super Back to the Future II is that cruising along at this speed WILL kill you. Because the character models are so big and the screen real estate relatively small, it’s too easy to have enemies and obstacles suddenly appear without any time to react. So the only way to progress is slowly… on a hoverboard. It feels wrong.

And after the novelty of playing a halfway-nice-looking SNES version of this series wore off, I was left with a type of gameplay that I got bored of a long time ago. It is weird to think about the missed opportunity of releasing this in the west, but in 1993 this probably wasn’t going to blow anyone’s socks off anyway.