The world’s first well known video game console, the Atari 2600, was an incredibly simple machine. It only had a few preprogrammed “objects” and it had absolutely tiny amounts of memory (as in, this paragraph, on this webpage, might be more than a typical 2600 game) which meant that games needed to be compact, simple and competent even in the smallest gameplay loops. Thankfully, alongside its reputation for shovelware that would make even Steam weep, many more than competent games came out for the machine.
Shall we go over six of them?
With that said, this list has a couple of exceptions. One is that we’re going to be talking about games originally released on the 2600. The console had a lot of arcade ports, and while they may be completely fine by themselves, it feels a bit weird to recommend them over the (more accessible today) arcade versions. So this list will only focus on 2600 games that are original to the console, or were ported away later. The second is that we have one game on this list that isn’t quite your typical 2600 game, but in order to explore that, we’ll need to take a closer look at a peripheral called the Supercharger.
6. Escape from the Mindmaster (Starpath Supercharger)
The Starpath Supercharger was an addon for the Atari 2600 that would let games load from cassette tapes; this brought a massive advantage in memory size, allowing games to be up to a staggering 32 kilobytes! About a dozen games were released for the peripheral, including one of the first console RPGs, but the one we’re talking about is a pseudo-3D, maze-wandering title, Escape from the Mindmaster.
Arguably the most complicated game on this list, the premise is still quite simple; get the pegs hidden around the maze into the right holes to unlock the exit, and get there as fast as possible. The main enemy is the Mindmaster himself, an alien who wanders the halls and chases you down if he sees you, forcing you to restart on contact. Combined with only being able to carry one peg at a time, pegs being randomly placed every play, little minigames for extra variety, and bonus points for finishing as fast as possible, running around like a bat out of hell can easily become a habit. Just keep the volume down; while it’s a great warning that the Mindmaster is nearby, the sounds can grate a bit after too long.
5. Radar Lock
Released as late as 1989, Radar Lock is one of the most competent looking games on the Atari. Not many have full take-off sequences, mid-air refuelling, and proper gameplay segments to boot. Thankfully, Radar Lock also holds up as a pretty good game. A sci-fi take on Afterburner, enemies swarm the screen, and shooting them with your gun is plenty satisfying. Keep your score up for as long as possible and try not to get shot out of the air.
Activision didn’t survive the crash of ‘83 with hot air and promises, back in the 2600 days they actually made a bunch of good games. Decathlon uses a familiar formula; over ten events you’ll waggle your stick and hit the button to sprint, jump, and pole vault your way up the leaderboard. You can even play with four players, to see just how fast those joysticks snap (it was a common complaint about the game). It’s much less likely to break modern day controllers, thankfully.
While I would love to make the “hey, Crabman” reference of Berzerk’s Atari 2600 port here, that’s not original to the 2600. Thankfully, Marauder fits the bill just fine. A maze-wandering shooter akin to Berzerk, what sets Marauder apart is two things: the enemy is incredibly aggressive on higher difficulty levels, and line-of-sight rules mean you don’t know what you’re facing until you’re right on top of it. Firefights are frantic, staying alive almost impossible, and high scores forever fleeting unless you’re at the top of your game.
2. River Raid
River Raid’s example of vertical scrolling shooter is one of the best on the platform. Along with the fast-paced progression and the competent shooting, you have a series of split-second decisions to make along the way – blow up fuel depots for bonus points or use them to keep you going, constant splits in the path with danger and reward, and bridges that need to be destroyed to get through them. The scaling difficulty puts the cherry on top of a game you’d swear was ported from the arcades, but is truly original.
And then you have the lowest level of absolute simplicity you can possibly imagine. Kaboom is not a unique formula, but it is a well polished, razor-sharp one. The bombs you must catch go from simple to ludicrous speed within a couple of rounds, and when played on a proper device like a paddle or a mouse, the precision is exactly what you need to keep up, but only the greatest levels of skill will get that high score. Games are quick, satisfying, and fast to retry; the best example of aging gracefully, and still fun to pull out for five minutes today.
These games were picked for their ease of pick-up-and-play content today, but there were definitely more on the 2600 that are capable of entertaining even 40 years out. If you do feel like trying to find the games listed here, of course sites like eBay come to mind, but you might also want to browse the AtariAge Buy, Sell and Trade section.
Feel free to leave your favorite Atari 2600 games in the comments; give us all a few extra games to try.