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.


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

Got a Chronic Case of Pac-Man Fever? Drs. Buckner and Garcia Have the Prescription

I make no attempts to conceal my lifelong obsession with the video games I played in my youth. My Atari 2600 and Intellivision are still hooked up to my TV, I have collected over 200 game cartridges for those systems, I own a pinball machine and an Asteroids cocktail table, I lurk in the forums at, and I even have my own web site devoted to the topic.

But I can acknowledge some of the, er, pitfalls of such an obsession.

Yesterday a couple of friends and I stepped into the netherworld of arcade auctions. I went to a previous auction with one of them, and we each walked away with a machine in tow… I got the aforementioned Asteroids cocktail table; he took home a Ms. Pac-Man cabaret machine.

Yesterday’s auction was a comparative disappointment. Again, we each had our sights on a particular machine: I sought a Dig Dug, he wanted Tempest. And again, we found what we were looking for… the somewhat meager selection of machines up for bids did nonetheless include a fairly-decent Dig Dug and a pristine Tempest. Unfortunately, both of us were under strict spousal orders not to come home with another game.

I made a feeble attempt at bidding on the Dig Dug but ultimately let it go for a paltry $425. My friend didn’t even bother making a showing on the Tempest, which eventually closed at a surprisingly low, given its excellent condition, $900.

Although the auction was, for us, a failure (but a rousing success for our wives), it did inspire a renewed interest in, or at least awareness of, the music of Buckner & Garcia. (I think I phrased that wrong… this actually made a bad situation worse.)

In case you’ve forgotten, Buckner & Garcia were the one-hit wonders who provided the soundtrack to America’s early-’80s obsession with Pac-Man, in the form of “Pac-Man Fever.”

Most people, unaware of their good fortune in this matter, have probably lived the last 21 years in the belief that this was the only song ever recorded by the joystick-jockeying duo. But the blissfully ignorant among us are wrong. So very, very wrong.

In fact, Buckner & Garcia tried unsuccessfully to repeat their success cashing in on pop culture fads by recording a dreadful piece of rubbish entitled “E.T. I Love You.” But that wasn’t before CBS Records ill-advisedly inflated their “Pac-Man Fever” success into an entire LP… a concept album, no less, focused entirely upon the popular video arcade games of the day.

Marketing types have a curious unwillingness to take chances on new ideas, combined with an uncanny ability to take one small, unexpected success and run it into the ground with lightning speed. Such was the case with Buckner & Garcia’s “Pac-Man Fever” album… eight B&G songs about nothing but video games!

Of course, this was a bad idea.

But once the ball (or in this case, the tape, or to avoid the mixed metaphor I am about to produce, the locomotive) is rolling, nothing can stop the freight-train momentum of a fundamentally-flawed concept with obscene amounts of cash strapped to its back.

I’m sure some of you out there owned a copy of the album. Judging by the dozens of tattered copies of the LP I found at a St. Paul Cheapo Records store when I purchased my own in a surge of retro-kitsch interest in the mid-’90s, sales were quite brisk, at one time. I imagine most copies that haven’t yet found their way to used record stores are stuck away in attics around the country, alongside long-forgotten lava lamps, pet rocks, unopened six-packs of Billy Beer, leisure suits, leg warmers, and other detritus from the late ’70s and early ’80s. (Personally, I think the lava lamps deserve more respect than that, but I understand their place in most people’s forgotten fad attic archives.)

For those of you who’ve never heard the album, or have spent years in therapy trying to forget it, I’d like to share my recent experience, having brazenly subjected my ears and brain to the entire thing (not all at once, of course, or my head surely would have imploded before I had the opportunity to write this).

The music is god-awful, to be sure. But I discovered something upon my most recent listening that I never noticed before. If you pay close attention, you can actually hear the evolution of the musicians’ mental state during the recording of the album. This is, in fact, a brilliant case study in what happens to people who’ve come up with a goofy but novel idea when they are pressured to draw that idea out far beyond its inherent appeal.

Track 1: Pac-Man Fever

This, of course, is the original idea, recorded well before the rest of the album. If I remember the story right, Buckner & Garcia were a couple of commercial jingle writers and performers based in Atlanta, who came up with the idea of making a song about their enthusiasm for Pac-Man. The song effectively captured the public’s temporary obsession with the game, and was requested so much by listeners to local radio stations that the guys got a record deal out of it. Unfortunately, that meant they had to actually record an entire record.

I completely understand the decision to make a concept album. There is no way this song would fit with a program of serious songs. It had to be novelty all the way. But a better decision would’ve been to leave well enough alone.

Track 2: Froggy’s Lament

Fresh in the studio on the heels of their unexpected rise to fame with “Pac-Man Fever,” the boys put together this silly, but still fairly enjoyable little tune inspired by Frogger. They kept up the gimmick of using actual game sounds in the song, and engaged in some good-natured self-mockery in the form of bizarre, frog-like voices. But the concept was already beginning to fray.

Track 3: Ode to a Centipede

OK, let’s get one thing straight. There is no way a ballad about a centipede — the creature or the video game — could ever be a good idea. The fact that this nauseating experience is only the third track on the album has to be seen as an acknowledgement of the weakness of the concept. Hopefully, B&G’s intention was to send a warning to CBS management that this was a bad idea that would never work. They didn’t get the message. (I should just point out here that I realize the songs were probably not recorded in the sequence they appear on the album. But just work with me on this, OK?)

Track 4: Do the Donkey Kong

On the surface, this is a happy, bouncy, ’50s sock-hoppish dance tune, albeit one with horrifically stupid lyrics. But despite the perky tempo and forced enthusiasm of the singing, you can hear the band’s deep regret for ever having accepted the advance to record this album.

Track 5: Hyperspace

To resolve any ambiguity (“hyperspace” being a staple in the concept of scores of space-themed video games of the early ’80s), this song happens to be about Asteroids, a game that is near and dear to my heart. One of the most exciting things about this game (aside from its gripping black-and-white vector graphics) is the awesome bass-heavy rumble its speaker generates when you blow up an asteroid. (Homer Simpson might even describe the effect as “bong rattling.”) So it’s quite painful for me to hear those beloved explosions in the context of this song. I try to avoid listening to it much, lest the unfortunately-catchy chorus should find its way into my head uninvited while I’m playing the game.

By this point, Messrs. Buckner and Garcia were clearly just going through the motions, hoping to get the damn album over with as soon as possible so they could focus on their next big idea… a song about E.T.

Track 6: The Defender

Buckner (or is it Garcia?) sings with almost-believable conviction here about his passion for his role as the “captain of the ship and its men.” But his profound sense of self-loathing is beginning to overwhelm the music. Then again, from the listener’s perspective, that’s probably a plus.

Track 7: Mousetrap

By now, the band has basically worked through its issues. The guys know what they’re doing is hopelessly lame, but the end is in sight, and now their self-loathing is recast as a blatant contempt for the listener… an unmasked incredulity that anyone would bother to get this far into the album without flinging the disc out the nearest open window.

Track 8: Goin’ Berzerk

I think the title says it all. Every turn of emotion the musicians endured over the 3 days they took to write and record the album merges with the others and a final picture comes together of the stark reality of what they’ve just done: Here, at last, we are left with a document of one of the most monumentally-stupid attempts to cash in on a fad in human history.

Fads are defined by their temporality. Fads are, almost by definition, intrinsically ill-conceived. If they weren’t, they would endure. But they don’t. Sadly, they usually leave artifacts like this behind.