The ABCs of Atari
Atari was truly the pioneer of video games. If you're any kind of video game fan, you've heard this all before. "Atari popularized video games. Nolan Bushnell is my god. Atari is the greatest! Yadda yadda yadda..." But exactly WHY is Atari the greatest? What made their games so popular?
Simplicity. That's it. Their games were simple. And that simplicity translated into creativity. They had a wide variety of games. They didn't pump out the same game over and over again like the game designers of today to. Tell me, how creative is it to have yet another Virtua Fighter game? Or another Gran Turismo game? Or another Metal Gear game? Or another Halo game? Sure, there are creative games to be found, but they aren't as prolific as they were in the Atari days.
So let's take a brief look at those games that made Atari great. And let's cover the whole alphabet while we're at it!
Asteroids - Probably one of the most recognized games in the world, Asteroids dethroned Space Invaders as the world's most popular game. Simply aiming and shooting space rocks makes the game progressively harder by your own actions. Truly ingenious. The music, if you want to call it that, is meant to represent your own heartbeat increasing as more and more tiny rocks are created. Throw in the hyperspace mode to save you in case of emergencies and the alien ships and satellites and you're playing a masterpiece. Of course, you can read more about Asteroids in our special "All About Asteroids" article. Other 'A' games to remember: A.P.B., Area 51, and Arabian.
Battlezone - Back when game designs were actually creative, Battlezone showed people something that had never come before. 3D polygon graphics. Sure, they were simple compared to today's 3D epics, but what do you expect? Did you think that the graphics of today to burst forth back then? You gotta start somewhere you know. Beyond the special graphics is the control scheme. You're not just moving a joystick around but TWO joysticks. And they only move up and down. But the combinations allowed for brilliant control. Another thing is that you had to look through the viewer to play inserting the player directly into the action. Other 'B' games to remember: Breakout, Black Widow, and Blasteroids.
Centipede - Shooting games were all the rage back when Centipede was released. Most of it's competitors were games about shooting aliens. Galaxian, Pleiades, Satan's Hollow, Space Invaders, Astro Blaster, Phoenix, and on and on... Centipede brought something new to the table. Let's shoot bugs instead! And not only do you shoot bugs, but the player decides how the main bug will attack. The titular centipede changes his direction when he comes in contact with a mushroom. And mushrooms can be destroyed by the player. Of course there are other bugs to deal with like the flea, scorpion, and the ever annoying spider. I guess women's fascination with this game stems from the fact that they're normally afraid of these pests and oftentimes ask their spouse to kill the spider. Now they get to do it in a non-threatening manner. Other 'C' games to remember: Championship Sprint, Crystal Castles, and Cyberball.
Dig Dug - This game wasn't really created by Atari, it was from Namco, but it has become synonymous with them (like Space Invaders has for some reason.) This is a variation on maze games, only in this one the player gets to create his own maze. Well, until the critters turn into ghosts and head directly for poor little Dig Dug. While it wasn't Atari's game per se, it still holds many of those creative qualities. Instead of shooting the bad guys with a pistol or laser gun, you pump them up until they explode. Weird. And another cool thing about this one is that the last critter standing is a total coward and will run away when his friends are gone. And how about a tiny bit of AI to go with your zucchini?
Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters - Boy, that title alone is almost enough to fill up the paragraph! This game is creative in it's title along with it's campy theme. Sure, you're shooting robots like in some other games (Berzerk comes to mind) but Escape has injected a huge dose of humor that makes the game even more enjoyable. The sounds effects, the graphics, and the animation all add to this humorous tale of robot blasting and slave rescuing. Add in a unique 3D perspective, power ups, a cyber sled ride through a treacherous maze, and giant robotic lizards and you have another special game worthy of the name Atari. Other 'E' games to remember: Empire Strikes Back, The.
Food Fight - Have you ever wanted to be involved in an Animal House style food fight? No? Me neither. But hey, this game will let you throw food faster than a Wendy's burger flipper. Seems that poor Charley Chuck just wants to eat ice cream. But those mean and nasty chefs want him to eat parsley, tomatoes, bananas, watermelon and other "boring" foods. Rather than succumb to their will, Charley throws food at them in his quest to reach the coveted ice cream cone. If he fails, expect the chefs to stuff food down his gullet until he can't eat no more!
Gauntlet - "Red Warrior needs food badly!" If you haven't heard that phrase at one time, please stop reading this article now and go back to your knitting. Not only is Gauntlet one of the most popular games of all time, it has spawned so many sequels and variants they can't be counted. Games like Diablo, Dungeon Explorer, Starcraft, Dungeon Siege, and Divine Divinity (to name just a few) can all trace their origins back to Gauntlet. Even 3D games such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft have a Gauntlet type elements to them. Now, we won't even get into the controversy of how Gauntlet copied another game called Dandy Dungeon (a name not befitting a dungeon crawler if you ask me.) The game fulfils a need (usually a boy's) to hack monsters, collect treasure, and build up power. All while finding an exit to the dungeon. Gauntlet is a fitting name because that's exactly what the player goes through. "Remember: Don't Shoot Food." Other 'G' games to remember: Gravitar, Gauntlet II, and Gauntlet Legends.
Hard Drivin' - Oh baby... I remember the first time I saw a Hard Drivin' cabinet. For the first time I could sit in the cockpit of a car and drive it upside down! Woohoo! It included realistic conrols like the wheel, pedals, and even the keys. In addition, this one featured some of the first force feedback controls ever. As you bounced your car into the ground the wheel would shake and move trying to throw you off balance. Sometimes it worked too. But it didn't take long before players tired of the same old track and began to long for more (which was fulfilled with the sequel called Race Drivin'.) Hard Drivin's legacy is that it was the first game that offered true realism. Or at least as much realism as a polygon would allow. Other 'H' games to remember: Hydra.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - In today's game world, bad games based on movies is the norm. But when Temple of Doom was released... Well, it was still the norm. But hey, I loved this game. There was something truly special about stepping into the shoes of Indiana Jones. Whipping the thuggee guards, thwarting Mola Ram, saving the children, racing down the mine carts, and saving the Sankara stones. All of this leading up to the final confrontation with Mola Ram on that rickety bridge. Ok, maybe I'm biased because I love Indiana Jones. And I love Atari. So naturally this game could do no wrong. Fortune and Glory! Other 'I' games to remember: I, Robot (Ok, I expect to get some flak for not covering this one more in-depth considering it was one of the first 3D polygon games ever made. But frankly, I never like the game as much as Indiana Jones. So there.)
Jet Fighter - Ok, looks like there is only one Atari game that starts with the letter 'J' and that's Jet Fighter. (Sure, there are lots of ports to Atari systems: Joust, Jr. Pac-Man, Jungle Hunt... But none of these are Atari originals.) Since I've never had the honor to play this game, I had to look it up on KLOV. Ah... I see. This looks like the Jet game from the 2600 classic Combat. Fly around in circles shooting your opponent who tries to do the same thing to you! Ah... Games were so much more fun back when you played against each other face to face...
KLAX - Remember when Tetris was first released? (Yes, it's one of those kind of retrospectives.) Atari ended up getting screwed with that deal (yes, there is an Atari branded Tetris arcade game) so they ended up doing the next best thing. They created their own Tetris like game. And it truly has it's own unique charm. Of course, you could only play it with a COLOR display (a little dig on the Gameboy's lack of color perhaps?) which was unlike Tetris. KLAX is as simple as Tic-Tac-Toe or Connect Four. Just line up the correct colors and the blocks disappear. But it's wacky backgrounds, humorous sounds and effects, and the sometimes unbearable stress it loads onto players ranks it up with the Atari greats. And did you know that it has an ending? See what happens when you beat level 100! Other 'K' games to remember: Kangaroo (I love me some Kangaroo! But KLAX is a much better game.)
Liberator - This is another unique game (read: Weird.) It's a game based on a comic book. Ok, that may not sound weird in the light of the Superman, Spider-Man, X-Men games of today, but this comic book was pure Atari. It was the Atari Force comics that were included with many of Atari 2600 games as well as a separate series of comics you could buy on the stand. In kind of a reverse Missile Command, you looked down on the planet and shot missiles to protect it and your ships. Not one of my more favorite games, but hey, I only discovered it a few years ago. (And it's not like there's a huge choice of 'L' games in Atari's library!) Anyway, play this game for a few minutes if you want to be considered a true Atarian. Other 'L' games to remember: Lunar Lander
Missile Command - Can you believe this wasn't my original 'M' game? I had Millipede instead! Thankfully, I came to my senses and remembered Missile Command. (And you should rightfully thump me on the head for forgetting one of Atari's mainstays.) It's the classic red-scare, nuclear holocaust, WWIII game. One that made it's way into another classic, Terminator 2. (Gee, both depict the end of the world by nuclear missiles. Must be a coincidence that Missile Command appeared in that movie, huh?) You know the drill... Use your trak-ball (a unique controller back then) to move your pointer and shoot missiles at incoming ICBM's. Protect your cities from destruction and you get to do it all over again. What's truly scary about this game is it's inevitability. There is no way to win and eventually even the best players will lose. In the movie Wargames we learned that the best move in a nuclear war is not to play. Maybe that's something we can learn from Missile Command too. Other 'M' games to remember:Marble Madness, Millipede, Mace: The Dark Age
Night Driver - Imagine this: You have a great idea for a first person perspective game about driving really fast. You want awesome images, trees, houses, cars, mountains in the background, the whole enchilada. Unfortunately, the graphics of the day can't do anything even close to that. Shoot, technology of 1976 wouldn't even allow you to draw a car on the screen! What do you do? Well, set the game at NIGHT and make everything dark! Then call it Night Driver and people will think you intended it to be that way all along! Yeah! Creativity at it's finest. So, yeah... That's the basis of the game. Drive really fast at night and don't crash into anything. Unfortunately, your head lights are also malfunctioning leaving you in what I used to call "Stealth mode."
Off The Wall - Now here's a strange concept. A Break-IN type game instead of BreakOUT. All you gotta do is clear the bricks in the center of the playfield with your ball and get the ball into the exit. Sounds easy enough. And it is. But there are a lot of new brick variants to mess with your head. But it's basically the same game created by those Apple guys so many years before. Just with an added twist.
Paperboy - Is this the world's first "Job Simulator?" (Or would that go to the classic computer game "Spare Change?" I dunno.) Anyway, this is another of Atari's mainstays, so you should know all about it. In case you don't, the goal is to steer your bike through a dangerous neighborhood delivering papers to subscribers and smashing windows of the non-subscribers. Boy, that's realism for you! This game has become so popular it always appears on the Atari collections. It also appeared on the Lynx, the NES, the Genesis, the SNES, and others. Now... How many arcade games do you know of that has actual frickin' bike handlebars as the controller?! Naturally, this made all home versions pale in comparison because obviously no one was going to spend $100 on a home handlebar controller for this one game. Other 'P' games to remember:Pole Position, Peter Packrat, Pit Fighter, Primal Rage, Pong (duh.)
Quantum - This has got to be one of the most original (or boring) games I've ever played. It's kind of a mix of Qix (another 'Q' game but not by Atari), Reactor, and Tempest. Your goal is to draw circles around atomic particles to destroy them. (Sounds like a scientist designed this one.) Mmmmkay. The vector graphics are pretty cool as always and it's an original game all right, but I don't think it hit with too many people. Hey, did you see a 2600 version? I thought not.
Rampart - This is what you get when you mix a strategy, an action, and a puzzle game all in one. Rampart starts out with selecting your castle, which will become important later on in the game. Then you place your cannons inside the castle. After that phase you must fire your cannons at the incoming ships to destroy them. If they get to land they will drop land troops to attack you. Once that phase is complete you get a chance to rebuild your castle with Tetris-style pieces, but you only have a short amount of time for repairs, so thinking is optional here. Rampart is unique in that it mixes several types of game genres together to create another totally different experience. Oh, and it's great for short bursts, not like some of those other castle building games. Other 'R' games to remember: Roadblasters, Race Drivin', Return of the Jedi, Road Riot, Roadrunner
S - How to choose, how to choose... There are so many great Atari games that begin with 'S', it's virtually impossible to pick just one. There's Star Wars, Super Breakout, S.T.U.N. Runner, San Francisco Rush, Skull & Crossbones, Space Duel, Space Lords, Sprint, Steel Talons... I was probably going to choose Star Wars as the 'S' game because it's such a great one, but I've decided to go with Shuuz. Yes, a cartoony version of the classic horseshoes game has defeated Luke Skywalker. Atari has made a masterpiece with this game. They've taken the ho-hum game and turned it into a laugh fest that keeps you coming back for more. Each game you just know you can do better. You know you can beat that skinny nerd. You know you can hit that chicken crossing the playfield. You just hope that the girl's bikini hangs off just a little bit lower. This is truly a fun and overlooked game. And I'm not joking.
Tempest - This was a no brainer. There are a bunch of great 'T' games from Atari, but none as big and important as Tempest. The updated version of this game almost single-handedly kept the Jaguar alive (the other being Alien vs. Predator) and it truly a unique game. "Monsters! The original concept called for monsters!" I remember that line from a 1981 copy of Joystiq magazine. The article goes on to say that the designers (Dave Theurer) couldn't get the vector monitor to display monsters. But the artwork had already been done, which is why there are monsters on the cabinet! In Tempest your job as a "live wire" is to move fast and shoot faster to avoid the electric critters sliding up the web. If you defeat all the creatures, you move on to the next level. Psychedelic is one word to describe Tempest. Classic is another. Other 'T' games to remember: T-Mek, Tank, Tetris, Thunderjaws, Toobin'
Ultra Tank - Looks like there was only ONE Atari arcade game that starts with 'U' and that appears to be Ultra Tank. This is an advancement on the original Tank game which was ported to the Atari 2600 as the well-known Combat. You drive your tank around trying to blast your opponent who is trying to do the same. Really, and easy concept, isn't it? I could go on to say that this game was the inspiration for modern day deathmatch games like Quake, Doom, Unreal Tournament, Halo and the like, but that would be crazy.
Vindicators - Wow, two tank games in a row? Vindicators is tank game with a twist (aren't all Atari games like that?) In this one you can partner with another tank to destroy the evil bad guys (does it really matter who they are?) You travel though the maze of obstacles battling enemy tanks, turrets, and bosses to reach the end. Along the way you can collect stars which will allow you to buy powerups in between levels. In a similar move to Battlezone, this game had some unique controls (which have never translated to the home consoles of which the NES was the only port.) The other cool thing was the design of the cabinet which had tank-tread-looking parts on the side. Apparently the game was popular enough to warrant a sequel creatively called Vindicators II.
Warlords - There are only 3 Atari arcade games that start with 'W' but Warlords stands so far above the others they're not even worth mentioning. This is one of the best "party games" ever created even if it was meant to be a 4-player Breakout clone. In Warlords, you play the role of a trusty shield (trusty, not rusty) guarding your castle from attack. Fireballs fly around the screen and it's your job as the shield to either deflect them or catch and throw them at your enemies. If they collide with your castle a brick will be dislodged and your king will become vulnerable. Lose enough bricks and your king could be killed. The 2600 port was super faithful to the arcade gameplay even if the graphics weren't. Atari was inviting your friends over for a 4-player Warlords long before the Wii made party games popular. Warlords rules.
Xybots - There's really one Atari game that starts with 'X' (No, Xevious was a Namco game.) Besides, Xybots was much more creative a game than a dull top-down shooter! In Xybots, you roam a pseudo-3D maze destroying evil robots. Ed Logg, the designer, wanted this to be a 3D version of Gauntlet and I think it succeeded in that task. What makes the game unique (again) is the controller. You had a standard joystick to move your character around, but you were also able to twist the joystick in order to make the character turn left or right. This control scheme has made it tricky for home ports of the game and the Lynx version gets around this by forcing the player to hold a button down before pressing left or right on the joypad. An okay solution, but one that can't beat the original concept.
Y - Yes we have no bananas. We have no bananas today. (But there was a 2600 game called 'Yars Revenge' Happy now Darryl? :D )
Z - Same goes for the 'Z' games. There just wasn't any arcade game created by Atari that starts with 'Z.' Although there was one Lynx game... Zarlor Mercenary.
Hopefully you've read every word of this article diligently. And if you have, you know that Atari has (or had) a rich and creative history in video games. Each of the games presented here pushed the envelope in one way or another. Be it with the controller, the graphics, the ingenuity, or the financial aspects. So if you want to be considered a true video game fan (not just a hardcore Atarian) learn about how these game shaped and molded the industry we enjoy today. It's a good thing you started here!