“Friends may come and go, but enemies accumulate.”
OK, that quote really has nothing to do with any of this; I was just Googling for a quote and that came up. Although I suppose the same may be said of Atari 2600 games, at least in the hands of a restless collector. Pitfall II may come and go, but Pac-Man and E.T. accumulate.
This isn’t the first and it probably won’t be the last, but once again it’s time to rate the best of the best, and so without further ado (and minimal clichés), I present my top 11 classic Atari 2600 games, as determined objectively by tabulating my subjective reviews on this very website. Please bear in mind that my scoring scale is not that finely graded, so there are in fact several ties, which (thanks to the Romans and the various forebearers they ripped off) normally benefit Berzerk at the expense of Yars’ Revenge, but here I’ve leveled the field by arbitrarily imposing rankings among the tied games according to my fleeting whims.
- 11. Ms. Pac-Man (Atari, 1983)
- By now, mocking Atari 2600 Pac-Man is about as tiresome and unsatisfying as playing it apparently was back in 1982 (although, to be honest, being a little too young for arcades at the time, I didn’t know any better and I loved it). Atari quickly (although perhaps not quickly enough) remedied the situation with this 1983 follow-up. I never actually owned it as a kid. (My parents reasoned that I already had Pac-Man so why spend another $40 on what they — oh, so sadly — perceived as the same game.) But I played it at friends’ and neighbors’ houses enough to know that it rocked. Frankly, I find the whole dot-gobbling, ghost-dodging premise a little unsatisfying these days, but the game is still an undeniable classic, and an excellent translation of the arcade game for the 2600’s already aging capabilities.
- 10. Space Invaders (Atari, 1980)
- Let’s be honest — this is what put the 2600 on the map. (Well, this and Basic Math, of course.) It’s a classic take on a classic game concept and, at least for us non-purists, actually improves upon the arcade original with color graphics and more intense gameplay.
- 9. Circus Atari (Atari, 1980)
- This is an odd one. I never owned it as a kid, never played it as a kid, and judging only by the “screenshots” (or artists’ renditions that used to pass for screenshots), never wanted it as a kid. But it came into my collection in the early 2000s and I was immediately hooked. This is Breakout with a (slightly sadistic) twist. It’s a lot more fun to watch the clown go splat than to watch your ball disappear into oblivion, I’ll say that much. The unique challenges posed by the addition of gravity and the ability to somehow instantaneously flip (and, for that matter, slide) your seesaw, along with the possibility of bonus lives when you clear the red balloons, adds to the excitement. Hands down the best paddle game made by Atari.
- 8. Berzerk (Atari, 1982)
- Sure, there are no robotic voices calling you “chicken,” but this is still an awesome (in the most ’80s sense of the word) home rendition of the challenging arcade classic. The tension is palpable as you race futilely from room to room in an endless electrified maze. I think even as an 8-year-old, I somehow understood that this game was hinting at a much better future (for video games, at least… not necessarily for hapless space explorers).
- 7. Yars’ Revenge (Atari, 1982)
- Sure, it’s a horrible version of Star Castle, but that’s why it’s not called Star Castle. This is apparently a love-it-or-hate-it kind of game, but the love-its seem to predominate. My enthusiasm for this game has always been heightened by the fact that I found it in a closeout bin at Kmart for $1.99 in 1985, the first video game I actually bought with my own money. The incessant, brain-melting drone… the relentless creep of the Qotile’s missile, and the unpredictable onslaught of the dreaded Swirl… this is definitely one of the classic “zone-out” games.
- 6. Asteroids (Atari, 1981)
- The first Atari game to boast a staggering 8 kilobytes of program code, Asteroids brought the classic arcade action home. Sure it was a bit easier than the arcade version, and the crisp white vector graphics were replaced with flickery colored blobs, but it was still the kind of game you could keep your eyes glued to for 6 hours straight, which (along with Space Invaders) slowly drove mothers everywhere insane with its Jaws-esque minimalist soundtrack.
- 5. Keystone Kapers (Activision, 1983)
- Often overlooked in the company of its other Activision platform game brethren, this game has always been one of my favorites. It has a great quirky theme, excellent (by contemporary standards) graphics, and solid engaging action. Unfortunately it was released on the eve of the legendary market crash of 1984, so it went underappreciated (much like another pair of outstanding Activision platform games, Pitfall II and H.E.R.O.)
- 4. Frogger (Parker Brothers, 1982)
- And my vote for best arcade conversion on the 2600 (apparently) goes to Frogger! While it doesn’t quite look like the arcade version, it does look good (certainly as good or better than the version on the supposedly superior Intellivision), and the gameplay is outstanding. Certainly Parker Brothers had a great concept to work with in this classic Konami arcade game, and they did a great job of bringing the experience home. No Atari collection is complete without this game, and fortunately, since its as common as dirt, few collectors have to suffer that embarrassment. (Even if the label’s missing.)
- 3. Kaboom! (Activision, 1981)
- The ultimate twitch game of all time. There has never been another game like Kaboom! and there never will be, at least until console manufacturers bring back the paddle controller. Even then it may not be possible, because for all of its limitations (and they are myriad), one thing the Atari 2600 really had going for it was its unique and somewhat peculiar (once you begin to understand why it works this way) ability to move on-screen objects incredibly quickly in response to the slightest controller movements. No system before or since has been as good for this purpose, and no game took advantage of it better than Kaboom!
- 2. Solaris (Atari, 1986)
- In the days when a complete, commercially-released game could still be designed and developed from scratch by one person (and even start out as a hobby project), Solaris stood out for its incredible depth, complexity, and quality. I was absolutely in awe of this game when I first discovered it in the late ’80s, and I still hold it in high esteem today. It doesn’t hold up quite as well anymore just because it’s so close to an NES game that it makes me long for something on a newer and more powerful system, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is clearly in the top 5 (if not top 2) Atari 2600 games of all time.
- 1. H.E.R.O. (Activision, 1984)
- For me, there is one perfect Atari 2600 game, and this is it. It has a great concept, decent graphics, it’s easy to learn but challenging to master, and it has a surprising amount of depth and replay value. It’s a game ahead of its time, in that it feels like the majority of the platform-type games that dominated the NES a few years later, and yet it does all of that on hardware that was originally designed 8 years earlier to play games like Pong. Amazing.
For those of you who are asking, “But what about
Cosmic Ark, Jr. Pac-Man, Midnight Magic, Moon Patrol, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, River Raid, Stargate, Super Breakout, Warlords