I found myself wondering why I would want a game console from the 70s, when it’s well into the 21st century. Was it nostalgia? Sure, but that was only a slice of the pie. My “tween” daughter was having fun playing it, too. She kept coming back and asking to get some time on Breakout. What charm could such a primitive console really have outside of nostalgia? As it turns out, quite a bit.
Why is the Atari 2600 “the best” and still worth playing? Is such a primitive system still relevant? Graphics and sound are slicker today, but the Atari still shines in great gameplay - especially in games where simple graphics actually enhance the experience. Several examples show how this works.
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I have written elsewhere about why retro video games are popular overall, and that it’s much more than nostalgia. In this post, I want to unpack some specifics about the original king of the hill - the Atari 2600 - and how those broader ideas really shine in this system.
My intent here is not to fanboy, but to really explain what I believe are some brilliant qualities that even appeal to people who have never played the Atari before.
It’s also important to keep this in mind: The technological and cultural trends that have shaped gaming, have given different eras different “flavors” as far as what was popular. To go back to an old system is not just to embrace something that is less capable technologically, but is to dive into a different way of thinking about gaming, when people were pursuing different ideas.
Let’s jump in, and look at the big ideas first, then you can jump to the games.
Atari 2600: Era of Simplicity & Cleverness
When the flagship Atari console was released (1977), it was pushing the boundaries of what was possible. Nolan Bushnell and his people decided that the MOS 6502 chip (actually, the 6507, a 6502 variant) was the price/performance sweet spot. They saw this as the window of opportunity where they could get enough technological capability at an affordable enough price, and launch the home video game revolution. (Notably, the 6502 also launched the “trinity” of the home computer revolution as well - the Apple II, the Commodore PET, and the TRS-80.)
It wasn’t the first home video game system. Magnavox had released the Odyssey in 1972, and Atari itself had released the Pong home unit in 1975. Other, less popular units came and went, including the notable Fairchild Channel F, which introduced the innovative idea of a removable game cartridge - invented by Fairchild engineer Jerry Lawson. But the Atari was the first system to really catch fire with the public, and with that success came lots of money, which meant the opportunity to get talented people doing serious work on breaking new ground in fun. The 2600 introduced a golden age of innovative ideas and smart gameplay design.
Golden Era of Limitations: Smart Gameplay Focus
Atari’s people knew they had to be clever to get the most out of the limited capabilities the 2600 had to offer. Games were written in Assembly language - the tightest, most efficient way to program. When coming up with game designs, they had to think very carefully about speed, space, and graphics/sound. These machines just couldn’t do that much, so they had to be smart about using the little they had to create compelling experiences people would want to play. And it’s important to keep in mind that arcade games already had popularity, so while the Atari had to compete with them for money spent on entertainment, they knew they couldn’t compete on graphics, sound, and controls, all of which were more sophisticated on the arcade machines.
It meant the game makers had to think smarter, since they would always be outgunned by arcade games. This was increasingly so as time went on, and newer arcade games could utilize newer technology, while the 2600 was locked into the same tech for its whole run (1977 through the end of its heyday in the mid 80s, though it was still produced until Jan 1, 1992).
Another point to keep in mind is that Atari the company came about as a result of creating arcade games - starting with Pong - and that they continued create arcade games, even as they found success with the 2600. Some of the best game designers in the industry were working for Atari, and there was cross-pollination of people, ideas, and designs across the arcade and console divisions.
When working with such low power and simple graphic/sound capabilities, game creators had to intelligently abstract their ideas into gameplay. Instead of a high-resolution, photorealistic, realtime 3D rendering of a person or vehicle (which was impossible on any tech at the time), you maybe got a square. That square represents you - like pieces on a checkerboard do. Once you understand the game’s interface, it fades into the background as you focus on gameplay - move that square around the screen, leaving a trail behind, while you close in your opponent (Surround).
Another interesting product of these limitations was that the games’ small storage capacity meant designers had to think in terms of using that space efficiently. Early games were limited to a total 4K in size. One result of this was that when you bought these games, designers added play value through remixes. You got the core game, and then using the Atari’s Game Select switch, you were able to change out to different pre-made variations on the game. Designers thought carefully about how their core concept could be altered by introducing very specific changes, in varying degrees, to shift the nature of play. Some of these variations provided interesting tweaks, and some introduced fundamental shifts - just by changing a simple facet of how things worked.
5 Great Games That Show What’s Great About Atari
There are plenty of excellent games worth playing on the 2600, but to illustrate the special aspects that I explained above, I’m going to talk about some early games that really showcase this kind of game design. All of these games exhibit the characteristics that the Atari 2600 was really known for.
Atari 2600: Warlords
Released in 1981 for the 2600, Warlords is the home version of Atari’s 1980 arcade game. It’s a multi-player game, designed for up to 4 people. Gameplay has four warlords surrounded by brick castles - one in each corner of the screen. Each player defends his warlord (and tries to prevent his castle from having bricks knocked out) by moving a shield back and forth around the outside of the castle to deflect a ball that is rapidly ricocheting around the screen. At the same time, players are attempting to chip away the bricks in other castles to take out the other warlords. It’s a clever evolution on the classic Breakout concept.
This game is ridiculously fun, and I mention it first because it is the ideal way to “get it” about the Atari. Some things just can’t be properly explained - they have to be experienced. If you have a friend who doesn’t understand why the 2600 is cool, play this game with them (preferably in the 4 player version). We had a recent gathering with friends, and decided to sit down at the Atari and play this. It was such a blast, we all found ourselves whooping and laughing like mad. Our friends’ 14 year old daughter decided she was an Atari fan on the spot.
Gameplay is uncomplicated, and it’s the sort of thing a newbie can pick up and play instantaneously. Warlords beautifully illustrates how simple gameplay can be very enjoyable, and have lots of replayability. It’s a combination of the mechanics, and the human factor. The mechanics are easy to understand, and strangely satisfying as you outwit and out-reflex opponents to progressively chip away at their defenses. Play changes quickly, shifting from waiting, to lightning-fast, rapid-fire volleys. A player who is on the edge of losing can quickly come out victorious after just a few slam-bang reversals. And the fact that you can play with up to 3 friends means unpredictability, and boisterous reactions as you pound on each other. Another big plus is that because Atari 2600 multiplayer is all in-person, everyone is sitting in close quarters - not separated across the internet. Don’t underestimate the potency of that setup - it adds a whole layer to the game.
Variations let you change up ball speed (including an extra slow one for kids), and choose between the ball always bouncing off of your shield (fast and furious play!), or being able to catch the ball by squeezing the button. Catch mode adds a new dimension, by letting you stop a crazy-fast volley dead in its tracks, and then decide when you want to relaunch the fury on your opponents. This ability to stop and think, control game pacing, and fake people out is a welcome wrinkle.
It’s also key to keep in mind that this game uses the Atari paddle controllers, a controller style unfamiliar to modern gamers. It grew out of the old Pong games, letting you spin a knob back and forth to slide your Pong “paddle” (a virtual ping pong paddle) from side to side. In this game, you arc your shield around the two exposed sides of your castle, whipping it back and forth to block, or release a ball.
A note on the graphics: Because they are so blocky in this game, turning your shield so that it’s angled creates some odd-looking shapes, since the consoles can’t render clean diagonals. It looks very weird at first, but as things get rocking, you don’t care any more. You’re too busy clobbering each other.
- Up to 4 Players (Simultaneous)
- Paddle Controllers (Up to 2 Sets of 2 Controllers)
- Variations: Number of Players / Ball Speed / Ricochet/Catch Shields / Child Mode (Slower Play)
Atari 2600: Maze Craze
One of the 2600’s early titles, Maze Craze was released in 1978. This can be played by one or two players, depending on the game variation. Each level is a randomly generated maze, through which you must guide your person (a cop) to the exit. Depending on the game variation, the number of robbers, and whether you must capture or flee from them, changes up game play. Layer on other variables like portions (or all) of the maze being invisible, and the ability to leave decoy wall sections, and this game has a number of ways to play it.
Maze Craze provides a high-energy maze-solving game that has both players dashing their way around a labyrinth, trying to balance speed (get out first!) with accuracy (make sure you don’t head the wrong way!). The simple, blocky graphics work beautifully here, since anything more elaborate would be distracting. The game interface is boiled down to a clean presentation of the essentials. The size of the maze, along with the simple blockiness of the walls and paths put gameplay in the perfect sweet spot between puzzle-solving and breakneck action. The maze is complicated enough to take some work to solve it, but it’s simple enough you can figure it out in glances, instead of the tedious pace a more complicated maze would require. They really thought this thing out beautifully.
Add in the variations, and this game can quickly go in a number of different directions. Blockade mode has you working to fake out your competition with decoy walls that look real, but can be passed right through. The “robbers” have you either chasing or fleeing - adding a lot of complication before you can seek the exit. The visibility changes force you to do a lot of start/stop as you feel your way through in bursts.
The Atari joystick is the perfect controller for this - letting you make clean, crisp decisions in direction-taking, as you fly along at a controllable, but speedy clip. Scan the maze, watch your opponent, watch out for robbers, then scan the maze again to make sure you’re still headed the right way. It’s a frothy mix of strategy and reflexes.
This is another one my tween daughter requests repeatedly. The crazy, nearly-out-of-control pacing, and the relatively quick completion of each maze means you’re constantly on to the next randomly-generated challenge.
Like Warlords, the head-to-head in-person play, with crazy change ups and rapid pace makes the whole thing extra fun. Lots of carrying on, and loud exclamations as what looked like certain victory is headed off by an unexpected derailment. This game is simple, great fun that perfectly leverages what the 2600 is the best at.
Maze Craze Stats
- Up to 2 Players (Simultaneous)
- Joystick Controllers (Up to 2 Controllers)
- Variations: Visibility: Decide how much of the maze is invisible - none, some , more, all / Capture: You must touch all bad guys before exiting the maze / Bad guy number: 2, 3 or 5 / Wounding: players are stopped and slowly regain speed after being touched by bad guys / Terror: Player cannot exit until other player is knocked out by bad guy / Blockade: Leave a fake piece of wall behind to confuse opponent / Auto Peek: Get periodic flashes of portions of the maze that are invisible / Player Peek: Player controls when invisible maze flashes visible / Scouts: Player has a scout that tries to lead the way for him / Difficulty switches make player move same speed as, or faster than bad guys
Atari 2600: Surround
Another early title (1979) for the 2600, Surround was an early version of a game type that was to become familiar. It’s a one or two player game, where you can compete against the computer, or a friend. You control an onscreen square that leaves a wall in its path as it automatically moves across the screen while you choose the direction with a joystick. The object is to get your opponent to crash into the wall you are leaving behind, or one of the walls around the play area, or his own wall. You must do this while making sure you don’t crash yourself. Play through a set of levels, and the one who ins the most levels takes the overall win.
Player squares move at a slow enough pace that they are very controllable, but the challenge is how the relentless motion (you can’t ever stop) keeps you on your toes as the available area you can move in dwindles. Again, it balances slower strategic thinking against faster reflexive dodging and maneuvering.
The variations on this one also provide a good bit of latitude in play style. You have options to control when your trailing wall is laid down, and whether the outside edge of the field is bounded by a wall, as well as progressive speeding up, and diagonal movement. The wraparound mode (where there is no outer wall, and going off one side wraps you back around to the opposite), provides a complete change in how you think about carving out territory, and trying to blockade your opponent.
I’ll also mention that this is one of my daughter’s (13) favorites as well. I’ve been mentioning this on each, because it hammers home an important point. The fun is not just in reliving childhood memories. You know you have something good when the newest generation is right there with you loving it.
Like with Maze Craze, the chunky Atari joystick provides the perfect, crisp maneuvering tool. While you can play against the computer, I actually never have. It’s just too much fun trying to outwit a human who’s sitting next to me yelping out alternating cries of joy and frustration.
- Up to 2 Players (Simultaneous)
- Joystick Controllers (Up to 2 Controllers)
- Variations: Number of Players / Speed Up / Diagonal Movement / Wraparound / Erase (move with no wall left behind) / Difficulty switches toggle whether you can back up onto your own trailing wall and die
Atari 2600: Breakout & Super Breakout
Both Breakout and Super Breakout were released for the 2600 in 1978, and were home versions of arcade games. Between 1 and 4 players can play, with the 3 and 4 player options breaking players into teams. Similarly to the classic Pong, you control a rectangle at the screen edge which acts as your paddle (like a ping pong paddle). Your objective is to bounce the ball against a multi-layered wall of “bricks” which are knocked out when the ball hits them. You use the Atari paddle controllers, spinning them back and forth to slide the position of your onscreen paddle. The goal is to amass points by knocking out bricks, and to complete levels. People on the same team play simultaneously, each covering half of the playfield.
A key ingredient that makes this simple gameplay so enjoyable is the way that players can control the ball by how they hit it. Depending whether you hit it with the center of the paddle, or the left/right sections (and how far left/right), you can get the ball to rebound at a different angle. That means it’s not just mindlessly bouncing it back at the same angle (as some badly done Breakout clones do), but you’re able to vary the angle of travel to tune where your shots go, and hit particular spots on the wall. This simple addition of a little aim control is a very important part of the game, and you’ll find yourself using to get some real finesse into your playing.
Levels in the wall are colored differently, and higher levels give you more points. They can also speed up the ball’s movement. One of the more satisfying occurrences is when you get the ball all of the way through the wall, and it begins bouncing back and forth between the top playfield border and the upper brick levels. Lots of free points get scored while you just watch and wait for it to make its way back down.
In Breakout, variations provide you with some nice little tweaks. Steerable means that after you hit the ball, you can influence it to shift a bit more in a left or right direction. Catch lets you use the button to catch the ball with you paddle and stop the action for a bit. You can choose where you release it, to add more control to your serve. The Invisible variant only flashes the wall to visible when you hit it. Timed versions track how long it takes you to clear a level. Breakthru is an alternative take on the game. When you select one of these game versions, the ball drills through bricks instead of bouncing back. This changes things pretty significantly, sometimes getting pretty fast and furious.
Super Breakout presents a whole new set of variations on the core Breakout gameplay. The basic Breakout games have walls with 8 rows of bricks instead of the 6 used in the original Breakout cartridge. The Double variation ups the ante with two onscreen paddles (controlled by the same player), and two balls. The Cavity variant begins with two “chambers” in the wall, each with a ball trapped inside it, bouncing around. When you knock out a path to the cavity, the trapped ball is released into play. Progressive has the wall slowly advancing toward you, lending a new urgency to destroying it.
In both Breakout and Super Breakout, variants provide for some seriously enjoyable play.
Outside of Pong, Breakout is one of Atari’s earliest hits (in the arcade, first). The simplicity of play, put together from just the right ingredients, gives it a timeless quality. Steve Jobs of Apple fame worked on the original arcade Pong, and commented about how it had a special kinesthetic quality to it. You can really “feel” it in a strange way, as you whip the paddle controller back and forth, snapping your onscreen paddle into just the right position to aim your shot.
Once again, the in-person multi-player play adds a lot of fun via the human element. Because these games, like the others showcased here, are all simple enough to quickly grasp, and offer lots of replay value, they are great for social gatherings and introducing new friends to classic video games.
- Up to 4 Players (Alternating)
- Paddle Controllers (Up to 4 Controllers)
- Variations: Number of Players / Steerable / Catch / Invisible / Timed / Breakthru / Difficulty switches toggle between full and 3/4 size onscreen paddles
Super Breakout Stats
- Up to 4 Players (Alternating)
- Paddle Controllers (Up to 4 Controllers)
- Variations: Number of Players / Breakout / Double / Cavity / Progressive / Child Mode (Slower Play) / Difficulty switches toggle between full and double-sized onscreen paddles