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The Essential 2600 Games - The Atari Times

The Essential 2600 Games

Games every VCS owner must have in the 21st Century
by Brian C. Rittmeyer

June 23, 2001
I saw a listing on eBay the other day that had me shaking my head, only this time it wasn't over the absurd price - someone was selling their Atari 5200 because they figured since he or she had just bought a PlayStation 2, they didn't need it anymore. Huh? Why does having one system mean you can't have the other? This person must not be able to chew gum and walk at the same time.

But for those who are able to own more than a single game system at a time, there's nothing quite like owning a classic, and an Atari 2600 in particular. Some leeway can be granted for the 7800, since it can double as a 2600, and is quite practical for being two systems in one, especially given the great graphics on many 7800 games and their rather easy availability.

But for anyone who considers themself an "Atarian," a working 2600 - be it a six toggle, a four toggle, a "Darth Vader," or a Junior - is a must. But with a massive library, the weight of which eventually helped kill the system along with some awful games, how does one go about assembling a collection of games that in the year 2001 are still fun to play? It's easy to go and buy every game in sight at flea markets, second hand stores and yard sales, especially when they can often be bought for a buck or less. (It requires a mental illness to set out to buy every cartridge label variation.) But, for the purposes of this piece, what 2600 games could be called essential components of any inventory? What games are the "must haves," and can be enjoyed to this day?

Upon reviewing my collection of 233 titles - certainly not the biggest but substantial - I humbly offer the following suggestions, in no particular order, for games that, largely through gameplay, will make a 2600 sing and should be easy to find:

1. Breakout and Super Breakout by Atari. I can never remember what is really the difference between these two games. They're both basic, fun games to play - bounce the ball with your paddle and break through the multi-colored wall. What could be simpler? Of course, you'll need a working set of paddles to play these games - while fun, they're not the biggest reason to have a good set of paddles, which I'll explain later.

2. Space Invaders by Atari. The invaders don't look much like the arcade, and the play doesn't really feel much like the original - as I was reminded when I had the joy not long ago to play the original arcade game for the first time in many years. However, this is the game that made sales of the 2600 soar as everyone wanted to be able to play this at home, and it's fun in its own right, so it's a must have.

3. Missile Command by Atari. Although the graphics and control setup differ substantially from the arcade original, this arcade translation of the legendary game is just plain fun on the 2600. Defend your cities from a relentless bombardment for as long as you can - and learn something about nuclear war in the process.

4. Asteroids. Like Space Invaders, an arcade classic that came home. Blast the space rocks without getting pulverized. A basic game, so it's still fun on a basic system, although I was never very good at it - I also suck at Defender, whether it's 2600 or D2K on the Jaguar, so if you're wondering why it's not listed, that's why.

5. Berzerk by Atari. I couldn't possibly leave this childhood favorite out. It may get boring and repetitive, and you would need the 5200 version to hear yourself called "chicken" for leaving a room without destroying all the robots, but it's a classic and reasonably fun on the 2600.

6. Yars' Revenge by Atari. Here's a concept that would never fly today - you're a fly, out to destroy the Qotile. What's a Qotile? Get the game and find out. You chip away at his shield until your enemy is exposed, then let loose with your cannon. Destroy him, and the screen erupts in colors. This game remains great fun.

7. Star Raiders by Atari. Some may call this a bastardized version of the game, and you'll need a video touch pad and the overlay to play it, but I remember truly feeling as if I was flying in space while playing this game. Your mission is to destroy the Zylons and save your starbases - the inspiration for the much-desired but short-in-supply Battlesphere for the Atari Jaguar.

8. Ms. Pac-Man by Atari. A decent translation of the arcade game, and all-around superior to Pac-Man, which at this point can be considered unplayable and good only for rounding out a collection and playing for nostalgia, not playing for fun.

9. Dig Dug by Atari. Another good arcade translation of an arcade smash. The graphics are simplistic, but it's still fun to play. A twist on the Pac-Man idea, you make your own maze with your miner rather than maneuvering in one already made for you. Instead of ghosts, you've got to watch out for Fygar the fire-breathing dragon and Pooka, the, uhm, round orange thing with glasses. Blow 'em up with your air pump or drop rocks on them; drop two rocks and collect the bonus fruit or veggie. Truly an odd concept, but a great game.

10. Fishing Derby by Activision. You're going to see several Activision titles on this list, and with good reason - they made many darn good games. This is one of them. Whether against the computer or a human opponent, trying to see who can land the most fish the fastest makes for a fun game. The deeper you go, the more points the fish are worth, but it takes more time. And watch out for the shark!

11. Kaboom! by Activision. Here's the biggest reason to make sure you've got a working set of paddle controllers. You use your water buckets to catch the bombs dropped by the Mad Bomber. Miss a bomb, lose one of your three buckets. After just a few screens the game speeds up to a frantic pace - forget watching each bomb, just try to follow the pattern. Unless you've got android reflexes, individual games aren't going to last that long, but you'll find yourself playing again and again.

12. Pitfall! by Activision. A 2600 classic. You're Pitfall Harry and you're out for treasure. But crocodiles, vanishing traps, snakes, fires and scorpions are out to get you. Running into logs and falling down holes don't help your points, either. This was one of the games that, unlike Pac-Man, finally showed what the 2600 could do.

13. River Raid by Activision. Another classic. You're flying up the river of no return, blasting ships, helicopters and bridges. Just be careful not to run out of fuel or hit the river banks.

14. Frogger by Parker Bros. Parker Bros. got it right when they translated this arcade smash for the 2600. While the graphics were simplified for the system, they are passable and mostimportantly the gameplay was preserved, along with the music. Your task is to guide your little green friend across a busy highway and across a river filled with turtles and logs to his "home." Get five home, advance to the next level, where the speed picks up and dangerous elements such as crocodiles and snakes are added.

15. Demon Attack by Imagic. Like Activision, Imagic made some quality games for the 2600, Demon Attack among them. It's a shooting game where your targets are like birds. You'll only see three on the screen to start, but destroy one, and a new one forms from both sides of the screen to take its place. There are several different types of demons, and in the later levels destroying one splits it into two tiny birds - destroy one of the pair, and the other will dive down after you. Good graphics and sounds.

16. Atlantis by Imagic. Here's a game I would play for hours. You're defending the mythical city of Atlantis from a relentless, methodical space attack. You have three gun turrets - one on either side and one in the middle. As long as your middle gun is there, your city is protected by shields; lose it, and you're vulnerable to attack. When all of your city is gone, the survivors streak away in a spaceship. There's a nice variety of attacking ships, and the hum of the streaking little ship will get you nervous, as you hope you can time your shot right to get him before he gets you.

17. Cosmic Ark by Imagic. Some considered this game a sequel to Atlantis, for at the end of the game when your ship is destroyed the same little escape vehicle is seen. This game is interesting for its variety in that there are two distinct parts to the game. The overall mission is to rescue aliens from their endangered worlds. In the first part, you must guide the ark through asteroids that approach from all four sides, using the joystick to blast the asteroids before they hit you. If you survive, the ark then hovers over an alien world, and you control a tiny ship that descends to the surface, where you attempt to lock on to the aliens with a beam that carries them up to your ship. Besides the aliens being skittish, your rescue mission is hampered by the planets' defenses, a beam that will destroy your ship. You're also limited on time, as you must get back to the ark before an asteroid comes. In addition to watching out for asteroids, you also need to watch your energy level.

All of these games are guaranteed to be fun to play. You may disagree and find other games fun, and some other 2600 games are fun but hard to find - but start with these, and you're guaranteed to have a system you'll play just as much as a PlayStation 2 - that is, as long as you can handle having more than one game system. But if you feel the need to get rid of one, you can probably unload that Sony on eBay.

Reader Comments for The Essential 2600 Games

*gasp* by the_osh127 on 2006-10-31 18:12:20
why isn't Adventure on this list?
heh... by Darryl B. on 2006-10-31 20:12:10
Yeah, or Escape from the Mindmaster? ;) Oh well, with opinionated pieces like these, everyone's going to think differently.
Adventure by aquaria_girl on 2007-09-23 08:42:30
Adventure wasn't on the list because it sucked ass big time. I hated it more than ET.
Adventure by Brian R. on 2007-10-01 13:09:51
Well, I wouldn't say Adventure "sucked ass big time," but I know it's a game I'm no longer interested in today. I probably played it back in the day, but I just don't think it holds up - which was the premise of this write-up. But Darryl is right - everyone will have different opinions. Heck, mine may have changed since I wrote this!
Did you know? by Eric R on 2007-12-07 18:54:18
There's this famous hack of the 2600 port of BERZERK where the colors are just like the arcade machine and the voice is included.
Zomg. by Ferret75 on 2008-04-22 20:23:41
Why isn't Adventure on there? It's so awesome.
adventure by trogdore on 2008-11-01 17:10:18
I just barely got a 2600 and i would play adventure for hours. if played on mode 3, its completely random, that means no repeating!
forgot the best by Aloan on 2015-09-22 20:33:59
the best is Pitfall II. (period)
New Atari Owner by N-man on 2021-04-26 10:11:51
Just got an Atari Junior yesterday. This list will really help me get a good set quickly. Thanks for the suggestions even 20 years later!
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