Panic’s “Atari” game art, framed and hung at Room 34 HQ

The other day I mentioned the super-cool watercolor-and-pencil game art Panic recently commissioned as part of a reimagining of their Mac software as early ’80s Atari 2600 games.

I ordered both the reproduction game boxes and the art prints, and they arrived just four days later (i.e. yesterday). They look amazing. As recommended by Panic, I headed out to IKEA this morning and picked up a couple of Ribba frames. The art prints were specifically designed to fit perfectly into these frames. I contemplated getting frames for all four of them, but at $20 a pop it seemed a bit much. So I went with two, for the two Panic programs I actually use (Coda and Transmit). It was just as well, anyway. Since they’re so big, two is all that fit on the wall above my desk!

The photo below shows Room 34 HQ, now graced with these fantastic looking prints. This wall was blank for months, and I had just been thinking I really needed to hang something up there, when these prints became available. The timing was perfect and I couldn’t be happier with the results! (Unfortunately the photo probably reveals, more than anything else, the limitations of the iPhone camera, especially indoors at night. I had every light in the place turned on but this was the best I could manage.)

panic_at_room34

Holy. Freakin’. Crap.

I love Panic, Inc. They make two of my indispensable web developer software tools: Transmit and Coda. And they have a great attitude. Their founder is a cool guy. And now, to top all of that off… they’re Atari freaks.

Oh man. I love this. I have a few quibbles with some of the details of their fake screenshots — things that aren’t actually possible (as far as I know) with the technical limitations of the Atari 2600. But it’s no matter. I absolutely love this stuff… it’s even better than the Venture Bros. Season 3 DVD art. Check it out:

Panic Atari art

On knowing your target market, and knowing when you’re in the target market

Venture Bros. Season 3I’ve never really watched Venture Bros. on Adult Swim, although I’ve long suspected that I might like it if I gave it a chance.

That suspicion was heightened tonight as I perused the DVDs at Target. To any average person, this cover design may fall somewhere between inexplicably weird and just generally poor. But to me, and to many other 30-somethings like me, it grabs you by the eyeballs and drags you over to pick it up. So authentic! Did they carry it over on the ba– oh holy crap, they did! Fake ’80s video game screenshot and all!

Yes, the package design for the Venture Bros. Season 3 DVD set is a faithful — no, absolutely dead on — reference to the classic package designs of late ’70s/early ’80s box designs for games from the Atari 2600. Or, to speak more accurately to the time period of the designs, the Atari Video Computer System. The solid, garish box color; the font; the overall layout; the watercolor collage art. It’s all vintage ’70s, vintage Atari, 100% perfect. They even faithfully reproduced (graphically, not physically) the fact that the boxes were always already smashed when you bought them at the store.

If you’re not familiar with those box designs, here are a few reference points for you (from AtariAge):

Vintage Atari game boxes

(And yes, since you’re wondering, I did go out of my way to pick six of the lamest Atari games I could think of.)

Scott’s All-Time Most Tremendous, Stupendous, Never-Gonna-Endous Top 11 Atari 2600 Games (Because 10 Just Wasn’t Enough)

“Friends may come and go, but enemies accumulate.”
—Thomas Jones

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.

Whatever.

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.

Honorable Mention

For those of you who are asking, “But what about ?!?!” The following great games just barely missed making it to the list:

Cosmic Ark, Jr. Pac-Man, Midnight Magic, Moon Patrol, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, River Raid, Stargate, Super Breakout, Warlords

The Mysterious and Elusive Sears Exclusives

The small town where I grew up had a fairly limited selection of available cartridges for the system, even when I acquired mine, at the peak of the innocent, naive, pre-crash frenzy, in May of 1982. Kmart and the small Kay-Bee toy store in the local mall were pretty much the only places you could go for this crazy new technological marvel, the home video game.

We didn’t have a Sears store anymore, its vacant anchor space in the sparkling new North Main Street commercial district (which has since become a grayed, decaying industrial district) having recently been filled by the town’s exciting new Kmart store. (More recently, the space, long abandoned by Kmart’s migration to the town’s sparkling new 18th Avenue commercial district — and now drastically renovated in an abominable and already “dated” 1990s architectural style — has become the home of the world-renowned Spam Museum.) As a result, I had no idea that Sears had its own version of the Atari 2600, complete with repackaged versions of Atari’s games, plus a few exclusives. (Even at the tender age of 8, however, I was already well-aware of the bizarre practices of Sears, Roebuck & Co. of selling products only under its own brands, even if those products were — as with the Sears Video Arcade — simply those of other manufacturers with new brand decals attached.)

I remember well my first encounter with a “Sears exclusive” Atari cartridge. At the time, I was deeply engrossed in the enticements of the game catalogs Atari shrewdly packed in with each cartridge sold. And in my insular little world, I was convinced that, thumbing the pages of the catalog, I had the entire library of games for the system at my fingertips. The concept of third-party games was wholly unknown to me, awaiting my discovery of the wonder of wonders, Activision, at the neighboring larger city’s Musicland store. The infallible comprehensiveness of the game catalogs I had studied and memorized had only recently met its first challenge, when I acquired a dusty, back-of-the-rack copy of Video Olympics, packed with an old (two whole years old, old!) catalog that featured two discontinued games: Flag Capture and Surround. “How can this be?” my 8-year-old brain wondered. “If they made these games, why would they stop selling them?” My childhood obsession with Atari taught me not only a love for electronic gadgetry and a modicum of hand-eye-coordination, but also some valuable lessons about graphic design and marketing, which have actually been somewhat useful in my adult career.

Anyway, as I was saying, I remember well my first encounter with a Sears exclusive. It came on the heels of the experiences outlined in such prolonged manner in the previous paragraph. As a child, I spent my days at my grandparents’ house while my parents were at work — a distinct advantage of living in the same town as one’s grandparents. Their next-door neighbors had 5 kids, the youngest of whom was a girl two years older than myself. She and I were close friends for many years. Thus it was that I was in these neighbors’ basement rec room, playing some of their Atari games I did not own (“Football,” for some reason, stands out in my memory), when I discovered something that shook my Atari worldview to its very foundations:

Steelplechase.

“Wha– wha– uh… what is this?” I wondered, perhaps aloud. An Atari game, but yet, not quite an Atari game. A strange artifact from an unknown world. Unfortunately, my 8-year-old attention span, already becoming frayed by another recent invention (MTV), was insufficient to sustain the intrigue. Oh yeah… and then I actually played the game. Not terrible, but… well… ehh…. Nothing to get that excited over. It was promptly long-forgotten.

My second encounter with a Sears exclusive came about 8 years later, in high school. All of my friends had, in the late 1980s, packed their Atari consoles away in a dark, musty corner of the darkest, mustiest closet they could find in their respective homes, to be replaced by the latest and greatest, the Nintendo Entertainment System. I never got a Nintendo. (In fact, I still don’t have one today… but it’s not for lack of trying.) I did covet the system many times, however, playing Super Mario Bros., Castlevania, Gauntlet, and the rest on their systems during junior high and high school sleepovers. Meanwhile, I kept the Atari flame alive, fanned by two marvelous, recently-acquired games: Solaris and Yars’ Revenge. The latter, a classic long-missing from my collection. Simple, to a fault. But oh-so addictive. The former, a wonder. Truly an impressive achievement for the system, and good enough to sustain me in my delusion that my Atari was just as good as that stinkin’ Nintendo crap my friends all had. Plus, I never had to give my cartridges the infamous “blow job” to get them to work, either! (Nothing X-rated here, folks… if you’ve ever spent any time playing a Nintendo Entertainment System, you know exactly what I’m talking about.)

One day in high school, one of my traitorous, Nintendo-loving compadres informed me that his parents were having a rummage sale (known to those of you in various other parts of the country as a “garage sale” or a “yard sale” or a “see how much money I can get for all this old crap I don’t want anymore sale”). He also informed me that he was planning to sell all of his old Atari cartridges at it, although he’d let me have first dibs on any of them that I wanted. I can’t remember now if he actually expected me to pay for them or not. But I am inclined to think he did. What the hey… I was rakin’ in the big bucks as a grocery bagger at the time, and he was unemployed, trying to earn enough scratch to buy the latest iteration in the “Mega Man” series, so why not help a chum(p) out?

I remember a few of the specific games I got in the deal. Cosmic Ark and Maze Craze were a few of the most anticipated in the bunch. And then there was this oddity called “Strategic Space Combat Game.” At least, that’s what I thought it was called, because the end label was missing. My friend informed me that it was actually called Stellar Track, and that it was one of his favorites. (The similarity of its title to “Star Trek” did not occur to me at the time.) Without an instruction manual, and in the days before all such information was archived for the ages on the Internet, the game was essentially useless to me, however, and to this day I have not given it more than a few cumulative, lifetime minutes of my attention.

I went on with my life… went to college, got married, moved to California, got a job, moved back from California, got another job, etc. etc. The Atari followed me in my many and varied journeys, and eventually acquired a companion/rival when I added an Atari 7800 to my collection in 1997. Somewhere along the way, my childhood interest in the numbering sequence of Atari’s games, and the mystery of CX2614 and CX2617 was answered. (Ah… of course, I thought, when I learned that those unused slots had been reserved for Steeplechase and Stellar Track respectively.) But there was still a nagging question, deep in the cavernous recesses of my brain: What of CX2647?

In May 2002, nearly 20 years to the day after I had first gotten my Atari 2600, I was introduced to the wonders of the AtariAge website. To be sure, I was disappointed that it bore no relation to the old Atari Age magazine from days of yore (although that disappointment was tempered recently when high-res scans of every issue of the rag were added to the site’s extensive archives). But the breadth and depth of information on the site was simply mind-boggling, and I pored over it exhaustively for days on end.

And at last, the mystery was solved. Submarine Commander. The missing piece!

I just recently added Submarine Commander to my collection. Having finally picked up Steeplechase sometime in mid-2002 (along with a newer, intact picture label copy of Stellar Track), I can now say that my collection of the Sears exclusives — all three of them — is at last complete.

But, being a naturally inquisitive soul, as well as an über-geek who delights in irrelevant minutiae, some unanswered questions linger:

  • Why were these 3 games released in Sears stores only?
  • Did Sears have an agreement with Atari to produce “Sears exclusives?”
  • Did Atari think these 3 games were too weak to be released under their own label?
  • If they were so bad, why did they bother to release them at all?
  • Why didn’t Star Ship meet a similar fate?