Since I was in my mid-20s when Pokémon was created, I never really “got” it. The only thing I knew about it was the whole seizure thing. But then I had kids. Just before he turned 4, my son went through a brief-but-intense phase of obsession with the Pokémon cartoons and toys just before he discovered Mario and the video game floodgates opened, leaving all past obsessions (Thomas, Star Wars, etc.) in the dust (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor).
So as the video game thing took off, I bought him Pokémon FireRed for the Game Boy Advance, thinking I could tap into his pre-video game interest. I vaguely knew that the games were RPG-style, but I didn’t make the connection that, unlike in many games, where there’s reading but it’s fairly inconsequential, in a Pokémon game it is absolutely essential that you be able to read in order to play. Since my son’s still a pre-schooler, that didn’t work out so well.
Eventually, I decided to give the game a try myself, and I’ve become completely hooked. It’s kind of ridiculous, but the characters are tremendously varied and creative, with clever names, and the RPG elements of the game are solid and very well-done. What can I say, it’s fun!
But it wasn’t until I encountered one particular foe, that’s not only funny looking but very cleverly named, that I fully embraced the Pokémon world: I’m not even sure what it is, but it appears to be a purple, wheezing puff bag, with a very self-satisfied smile, oozing toxic fumes, named (I love this) “Koffing.” And here it is, in all its nasty glory. Apparently there’s a mutant evolved version named “Wheezing” as well.
Obviously I’m not the only person who appreciates Koffing’s unique appeal. He’s achieved the ultimate honor: an “ate my balls” page.
Valve Software, makers of the Half-Life series, will soon release a new set of games set in that universe, called The Orange Box. The most intriguing element of this, for me, is a game called Portal. The game equips you with a special gun that can create teleportation holes at will. What does that mean? Allow them to demonstrate:
Ever since I read Word Freak, an exposé on the world of competitive Scrabble by Wall Street Journal sports reporter Stefan Fatsis [wow, such a convoluted sentence, simply to avoid having to write “Fatsis’s”], I’ve been obsessed with improving my Scrabble game. (Excuse me, my SCRABBLEÂ® Brand Crossword Game… er… game.)
For a couple of nights, SLP was into it (why does that sound dirty?), but she just couldn’t match my endurance (again… why?). So I had to resort to playing against the computer. I’ve been playing tournament style to boost my (unofficial) rating, playing mostly against the 1220-rated “Veteran” (whom I beat about 2/3 of the time) and the 1400-rated “Smart” (to whom I lose about 2/3 of the time).
Tonight my rating finally topped the 1300 mark (against Smart, no less), and I celebrated by playing one more game against Veteran. And therein came my greatest moment.
Veteran had set up the triple word column on the right edge with LAVE, and my draw that turn included the Q, the Z, and both blanks! I stared at the board for a moment before realizing I had a most unusual play (if it was actually a word). And so it was that I laid down QUIZZER through the E in LAVE, with the Q on the triple word and the (real) Z on the double letter, using the blanks for the U and the other Z, giving me 99 points. If only I’d had an S on my rack, I could have hit the other triple word as well, for a triple-triple-bingo, worth 356 points! (That’s among the highest possible scores for a single word, even though, as a fairly pedestrian word, it doesn’t carry as much cachet among Scrabblers as words like QUIXOTIC or MEZQUITE.)
I still ended up winning the game with several other high-scoring moves, including a ballsy (if anything Scrabble-related is ever even remotely “ballsy”) multi-turn set-up that allowed me to play EXITS on a triple word for 49 points, after having already milked the X for all it was worth. I almost screwed it up though. I had played LURID early on, to which I later added the double XI. Already I was planning EXITS, but I was missing the T. So to try to build it up even more, I played RIDE while waiting for the T, but… d’oh! I really should have just played RID, because I needed that E! Naturally the T landed on my rack in the next turn, but we were getting close to the end of the game, and I didn’t have an E! Without counting, I assumed they were all on the board already, but I got one in my second-to-last draw, and EXITS appeared! On the final turn, I was left with AINRT on my rack, which fit nicely in the same area to turn ER into TRAINER for the victory! 447 may be my highest single game score ever.
Yeah, I’m a geek. But I represent! (Saying that makes me even more of a geek, doesn’t it?)
Wow, looking back at that screenshot, I’m even more impressed with myself (if that’s possible). Tournament play uses a clock, just like chess, with each player limited to 25 minutes total (going over the time limit carries a steep penalty at the end of the game). When I first started playing computer Scrabble a couple months back, I’d usually use up almost all of my 25 minutes, but in this game my clock read 17:34 at the end, meaning I had only used 7 minutes and 26 seconds for the entire game! Of course, as usual, Veteran only used 15 seconds. One time I think the computer only used four seconds for the whole game. I think the computer needs a handicap on the tournament clock: the player gets 25 minutes and the computer gets 25 seconds. Yeah, that sounds fair.
I’ll stop now. If I go on, I may just have to beat myself up.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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!
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.
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 ?!?!” 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