Category Archives: Consoles

Top 10 Atari 2600 Games

The Top 10 games for the original home console

The Atari 2600 console was one of my earliest video game experiences as a child growing up in the 80’s, having several friends who owned one, but I never had one myself until around 10 years ago, when I started collecting retro video games.

As an early arcade manufacturer, Atari were able to produce some classic home conversions of their popular coin-ops, allowing gamers to experience the “arcade at home” that we all longed for at the time. That’s not to say that the Atari 2600 didn’t have it’s share of exclusive titles, with some fantastic original games being produced for the console.

The graphics on the Atari 2600 were fairly basic, and the gameplay restricted by the design of the processor, but it supported a surprising array of titles, and skilled programmers were able to work around its limitations to produce some amazing games.  So much so that a list of the 10 best games barely scratches the surface of the little wooden Atari’s excellent back catalogue.

The Atari 2600’s popularity was also its downfall, suffering from an avalanche of “shovelware”, with a huge volume of poor quality software released as companies jumped on the video game bandwagon. Ultimately this contributed in a crash that took the games industry several years to recover from.

But we are not looking at shovelware here, far from it, as I look at some of the greatest games ever created for the Atari 2600 console.

10 – Pitfall

Atari 2600 PitfallBox Art

My introduction to Pitfall was via the arcade version which I stumbled across whilst on a family holiday. Remember this was a time when video games consisted of mainly of Pong, and the idea of controlling a character who could run, jump and swing across the screen was something truly magical.  The term “platformer” had not been invented at this stage, when all arcade games were referred to as Space Invaders.

The inevitable home conversion on the Atari 2600 was a revelation, managing to capture the spirit of the original game in all it’s “flick screen” platform glory. The pits, rope swings, scorpions, alligator filled lakes and rolling logs were all there, as you embarked on an Indiana Jones style mission to get to the 32 treasures spread throughout thegame, and get back in one piece before the time runs out.

Pitfall Harry in Action

Pitfall was seminal, in that it marked a move away from the “quick fix” of arcade inspired titles before it, having a 20 minute duration and more open world feel.

 9 – Ms PacMan

Ms Pac Man Box Art
Ms Pac Man Box Art

The story of the original Atari 2600 PacMan is the stuff of gaming legend – a truly horrific conversion that is held up as the beginning of the end of the first era of videogames, heralding the great crash of the early 80’s.

The original game was made in huge volumes, on the expectation that everyone (pretty much anyone who owned a 2600) would want a copy, but it was so poor that many of them ended up in a New Mexico landfill which was rediscovered in 2014.

The sequel Ms PacMan was effectively a PacMan 2, and second chance for Atari to perfect the format on the 2600, and the result was indeed perfect. All of the horrible screen flicker of the original was banished, replaced with a detailed (if condensed) maze, characters that actually looked like the original arcade version, and some decent sound effects.  Most importantly it was fun to play, unlike the original 2600 version, and deserves a place in the Atari 2600 Top 10 games of all time.

Pac Man complete with flickering ghosts

8 – River Raid

The vertically scrolling shooter has been a hugely popular video gaming genre, but the Atari 2600 had relatively few of these games due to the difficulty in creating the scrolling effect on the limited graphics hardware.

Atari 2600 River Raid
River Raid Screenshot Atari 2600

River Raid however managed to work around these limitation to create a hugely playable shooter that is a firm favourite with Atari 2600 fans.

The game featured some novel risk / reward elements, such as the need to refuel your ship on a regular basis by flying over fuel depots, which often required you to fly perilously close to the canyon walls.  There were also multiple enemies to be avoided or destroyed, from fighter jets to helicopters and warships, and bridges that needed to be taken out before you crashed into them.

River Raid was famously banned in Germany due to the level of aggression and destruction on display, only being permitted many years later to allow its inclusion in a PS2 anthology.  They missed out on a great Atari 2600 game!

7 – Space Invaders

The original “must have game”, Space Invaders was the title that lead many people to purchase an Atari 2600 in the first place, such was the interest in owning a home version of the classic arcade game from Taito.

Atari 2600 Space Invaders Screenshot
Space Invaders Atari 2600

All of the features from the arcade were there, including the descending alien ships, bonus mothership, defensive shields and sound effects that increased in tempo as the on screen action became more frantic.

The number and shape of the aliens may have been different, but Atari compensated for any cosmetic variations by introducing multiple variations in the game, with features such as 2 player, moving shields, invisible aliens and zig-zagging missiles.  In fact there were so many variations of the Space Invader format that up to 112 unique game types could be played.

The standard game however is still the best, and the reason that the game sold in the millions. Space Invaders is a game that no Atari 2600 collection should be without, and no list of top Atari 2600 games.

6 – Defender 2

Much like PacMan before it, the original Defender game on the Atari 2600 had a number of key differences with the arcade original that made it less than perfect, for example….

The second game, which was titled Defender 2 on early versions but renamed Stargate later to mirror the Arcade sequels to Williams classic horizontal shooter.

Atari 2600 Stargate Defender 2
Defender Atari 2600 Screenshot

All of the key features were there in the game, which focused on a lone pilot defending the surface of a planet that was several screens wide, and preventing aliens from picking up the inhabitants and converting them into hideous mutants. Your only guide to the location of the aliens was the radar at the top of the screen, allowing you to locate the aliens before they kidnapped the humans, or rescue any humans that had already been accosted.

Somehow, despite the variation in graphical detail of the 2600 compared to the arcade version, which also included a complex control system that used a joystick and 3 different buttons, Atari pulled off the impossible and created a perfect port of Defender.

5 – Missile Command

Much has been written about this seminal game, a smash hit for Atari and one of the most fondly remembered from early 80’s arcades. There was huge gamer demand for a home conversion for the 2600, and it was a very passable effort. It was always going to be difficult to replicate the original, given that it used a trackball and 3 different fire buttons compared to the joystick and one button of the 2600, but the programmers managed to replicate the feel of the game if not the actual look and control scheme.

Missile Command Atari 2600
Missile Command Screenshot Atari 2600

But putting aside the differences, it is a great game in its own right and very playable, and another solid entry into the Atari 2600 Top 10 games.

4 – Adventure

Adventure was for many their first taste of an “open world” game, albeit one contained in a cartridge that wouldn’t be big enough hold the code for your toaster today. The objective of Adventure was to locate a chalice and return it to it’s home in the Yellow castle, and along the way battle dragons, avoid troublesome bats and solve problems using items found along the way. Swords kill dragons, keys unlock doors, magnets drag items from inaccessible areas, everything has a purpose which is automatically revealed when you carry the item into the right location.

Atari 2600 Adventure
Screen shot of Adventure

Although space was tight on the Adventure cartridge the developer found space to create one of the world’s first video game “Easter Egg’s”, where an invisible object could be carried to a particular room resulting in a display of the author’s name.

Adventure was a great game, unique at the time and playable even today.

3 – Combat

As one of my earliest video game memories, Combat will always represent what is best about 2 player video gaming – where the competition is fierce but fun, and what starts out as a quick game becomes “best of 3” then “first person to 10” and ends up in an all night gaming marathon.

Combat Atari 2600 Tanks
Combat – Tank Battle

Taking a very simple premise a dogfight, 2 players start in different parts of an arena and have to position themselves so that they can shoot the other player before they shoot you. The arenas in question vary from aerial battles in the sky between 2 pilots, to land based battles between rival tanks, but always with the same objective. The aerial battles differ in that your planes have to keep moving and require deft control to get into an attacking position, whereas tanks can remain stationary and rely on walls for cover – more a game of cat and mouse.

There were 27 different variations in the game, including jets as well as bi-plane battles, different types of terrain and cloud cover and different missile types including guided missiles controlled by the joystick once fired.

Better than Pong, Combat took the two player gaming experience to a new level and delivered an Atari 2600 classic.

2 – Kaboom

Kaboom is one of those Atari 2600 games that you just had to be there to appreciate – the premise being one that would fail to shift a free to play iPhone game today, it’s that basic.  Your job is to foil the evil plot of the “Mad Bomber”, identified by his stripy jumper, catching the bombs he drops from the top of the screen in your bucket.  And that’s about it.

Kaboom Atari 2600
Kaboom! Miss and you lose a bucket

The secret of Kaboom on the Atari 2600 is the addictive nature of the gameplay, as you whizz around the screen in your paddle controlled bucket collecting explosives thrown by the increasingly erratic bomber.  The game doesn’t end until you reach the high score of 999,999 – by which you will have been steering your bucket for nearly 3 hours, and with no reward apart from the knowledge that you have mastered one of the Atari 2600’s best games.

1 – Asteroids

The original arcade asteroids used unique vector graphics and an oppressive soundtrack that ramped up as the titular Asteroids filled the screen.

Asteroids was an important game for Atari, another reason to own a 2600 console and play the game you loved in the arcade.  Given the basic nature of the graphics the game had no right to exist (see my full review of Asteroids for the Atari 2600) but Atari managed to pull off the impossible task of making it playable – if not graphically identical.

Asteroids Atari 2600
Asteroids Atari 2600

Although the Asteroids were solid, and the ship could only fly in one of 8 directions, the game was great fun and managed to capture the spirit of the original. Asteroids was the game I returned to the most and is still playable today, a worthy number 1 in my list of the Top 10 Atari 2600 games.

The best of the rest – Atari 2600 Games outside of the Top 10

There are a few games the deserve an honourable mention, including arcade greats Frogger, Pole Position, Pong, Joust, Galaxian, QBert  and Centipede, all of which were every popular on the Atari 2600.  I also had  soft spot for Phoenix in the arcade which was replicated on the humble 2600, as well as Phoenix clone Demon Attack.

Although ET was rubbish, there were some other successful film tie-ins, my favourite being The Empire Strikes Back where you get to take on an Imperial AT-AT Walker in a snowspeeder, just don’t try any of the other Star Wars games on the Atari 2600 as they were mostly terrible.

If you are after an original space shooter for the Atari 2600, you could do worse that try out the excellent Yars Revenge, which should maybe have been in my top 10 as Atari’s second highest selling game after Pac Man, and it’s highest selling original game.  Rather than multiple enemies, you need to battle a single enemy through a force field by breaking through its defences and avoiding its homing attack.

And no review of the top Atari 2600 games would be complete without a mention of Haunted House,  an early example of “survival horror” which was as memorable for the disturbing box art as the game itself.

Playing the best Atari 2600 games today

I should probably be pointing out all of the different Atari 2600 emulators available, so that you can try out some of these great games, but that would miss the point of this console.

You need to experience tuning a TV to the right channel, blowing the dust out of the cartridge slot, untangling the wires and then hitting the power switch.  You need to see the brightly coloured screen fizzle into life, select the right game mode and then bash the single big orange button on your joystick to start the game.  Check out my own Atari 2600 renovation project if you want further inspriation.

Atari 2600 Console Box
Atari 2600 Console Box

So  get yourself onto ebay, and pick up a console with a bunch of mixed cartridges for less than the price of a new XBOX or PS4 game.  Just like I did.  You won’t regret it.

Nintendo 64: Video Game Consoles as Art

The Nintendo 64 console was the last major console to feature cartridges, and following on from the hugely successful Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), it had a tough act to follow. It aped exactly the format of the SNES, with the cartridge slot at the rear of the top side of the console, and 2 large buttons for power and game reset.  With it’s large “power bulge” towards the front of the console, the Nintendo 64 console somehow suggests the case could scarcely contain the graphical muscle within.  It featured some “feet” at the front of the console, giving off a sense of weight and substance, another reference to the increased power of the Nintendo machine.

The Nintendo 64 Console
The Nintendo 64 Console

Unlike its major competitor of the time, the Sony Playstation 1, it was also a friendly looking console, smoothed and without a straight line to be seen, and large colourful graphic on the front breaking up the otherwise monotone colour scheme.  This fit with Nintendo’s targeted audience, and was the choice for younger gamers everywhere, as opposed to the Playstation with its subdued design which was clearly aimed at a more mature demographic.

When researching this article I couldn’t find the right image to represent the console, so I took some pictures myself with my Nikon D60 digital SLR, and I hope you like the image I created. I wanted to capture the smooth curves and friendly face of the Nintendo 64 console which in this photo looks organic, almost frog-like.

So if you like the image please feel free to use, share, tweet and Pin!

Chrono Trigger – Classic RPG for Super Nintendo

Why was Chrono Trigger never released in the UK?

Many retro games fans the world over will claim Chrono Trigger as their favourite RPG – and this a game that was never officially released outside of Japan and the US.  At least not until the 2008 re-release on the Nintendo DS.  Amazingly, this was the first time many UK gamers will have played this classic RPG.

Chrono Trigger for Super Nintendo
Chrono Trigger for the Super Nintendo (SNES)

The game was originally released in 1995, but I was introduced to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) much later on as I started to collect classic retro consoles and titles.  I was always a Megadrive fan, but through researching some US retro game sites and podcasts I was convinced to invest in a SNES on ebay, and pick up some classic games.  I tried a number of RPG’s, inlcuding Legend of Zelda and the Final Fantasy series, before seeking out Chrono Trigger (and the converter required to use on a UK console) due to the positive feedback from the fan base.  The was that this was an even better RPG than the Nintendo classic.

Chrono Trigger Storyline

I can’t really do the Chrono Trigger storyline justice in a short review as I could go on for hours about this incredible RPG, but here is a brief sysnopsis.  The main character, Chrono, stumbles across a machine that takes him back in time, and discovers an evil force, LAVOS, that will eventually destroy the earth. With his friends Marle, Lucca and Frog, he must use the time machine to travel back and forth through the ages and defeat LAVOS.

The game had a fantastically well thought out storyline, where speaking to characters in the game revealed clues as to the next steps.  Due to the time travelling aspect, the same locations would change based on your past actions, impacting the current timeline.  To complete the game you had to travel back and trigger specific events that would foil LAVOS’ plans at a later point.  The game featured multiple endings, depending on actions taken during the game, which caused the game to branch in different directions, meaning that you could play the game several times over and never see all of the endings.  This branching system also extended to smaller decisions, such as whether to steal some food or not, which would have implications later in the game.

Battle System in Chrono Trigger

Chrono Trigger had a unique battle system, where enemies would be confronted on the playfield rather than in a separate battle screen, and allowed members of your party to either select a solo attack, or combine forces for a special move.  Party members could also be assigned default attack patterns, be aggressive, tactical or to always heal.  This was a big departure from the RPG conven

snes lavos Chrono Trigger
Chrono Trigger – LAVOS Battle

tion of random battles whilst traversing the game world.  Mastering the battle system, particularly the combination moves was critical to defeating some of the bigger bosses, particularly the various forms of LAVOS.   Remember this game was released back in 1995 where games were still hard to complete – you had to level up your characters to get past certain enemies, resulting in lots of trial and error before progress could be made.  This definitely introduced a sense of achievement to the game experience which is missing in many games on modern consoles.

 

 

 

A sequel, Chrono Cross would follow on the Sony Playstation in 1999, which was well received but sold in smaller volumes. Finally in 2008 the game was released in Europe on the Nintendo DS, so UK gamers like me could finally (officially) get their hands on this fantastic RPG.

Chrono Trigger has to be one of my favourite RPG’s of all time, up there with Legend of Zelda : Links Awakening, and Dragon Quest VIII. If you have not had a chance to play it, try the DS version which is going to be cheaper than an original SNES cartridge, I promise you wont regret it.

Atari 2600 Box Art – The Best Video Game Media

The best box art in video game history?

The Atari 2600 was the first real experience of video gaming for many of retro gaming fans, and if you were born in the 70’s then its likely you will have owned or played one of these classic machines (you can see my article on renovating an old 2600 console here).

Atari 2600 Defender
Atari 2600 Defender
Back in the early 80’s you had to use a certain amount of imagination when playing an Atari 2600 game, given the low resolution of the graphics and the limited colours available – you just had to take for granted that your blob was a knight and the other blob a dragon for example.

But that didn’t stop Atari from providing gamers with inspiration in the form of the box art used to advertise the games, which are some of the most detailed and fantastical of any games before or since.

Classic Atari 2600 Box Art

atari 2600 breakout
Atari 2600 Breakout

The early Atari 2600 boxes featured dramatic artwork that attempted to capture the essence if not the actual graphics of the game, as well as the gameplay mechanics.

Some artwork was a literal interpretation of the game, such as the classic Defender, with scenes of human victims being targeted by an agressive alien force.

Other games took a more abstract approach, with the artwork depicting the gameplay concept rather than the game itself – anyone playing Super Breakout might be confused by the artwork as there wasn’t an astronaut anywhere to be found in the actual title.

You could however imagine the game being some kind of low-gravity squash played by space explorers, and it forever affected the way you viewed the game.  A little like reading a book after watching the film adaptation, you always see the actor when you visualise the lead character.

Another great example of dramatic Atari 2600 box art is the provided by Haunted House, an early example of the survival horror genre, which used disturbing images to highlight the uncharacteristically scary nature of Atari’s game.

Haunted House Atari 2600 Box Art
Haunted House Atari 2600 Box Art

In reality the game itself was not particularly scary, but the artwork certainly gets across the intentions of the game.

Where is the great box art today?

Back in the early 80’s, before the internet and youtube, it was difficult to actually see a game being played before you bought it – apart from perhaps a couple of tiny screenshots in a magazine review or on the back of the box.  Some games were advertised on TV, but you didn’t really get a feel for how good it was based on the few seconds of actual gameplay footage presented.

You had to pick a game based on this scant detail, or in many cases the box art alone.

Today you wouldn’t buy a game without reading several online reviews, checking out fan forums, or watching footage on YouTube.  There are websites dedicated to the making of the game, with preview footage, teaser adverts on the TV and in the cinema, and endless online discussions on the likely features.  You can even download trial versions of many games online through your console, and “play before you pay”.  Based on this onslaught its unlikely you will buy a game you don’t already feel you know intimately before you hand over your cash.

The need for physical media (and the boxes it came in) is now declining, with downloads becoming more the norm in the next generation of hardware.  Soon the only thing that comes in a box will be the console itself, and the need for fantastical and imaginative box artwork, like these brilliant examples from Atari, will be gone forever.

Die Hard Trilogy for the Playstation 1

Does the classic movie translate into a classic game?

Die Hard was one of those 80’s films that defined the era, a story of greed, corporate excess and heroism, where one lone cop can bring an army of Armani suited terrorists to justice.  Bruce Willis made his name as an action hero in this 1998 film, and set the tone for a career playing tough loners battling to defeat the system, including 3 (to date) Die Hard sequels.

Die Hard Trilogy CD art
Die Hard Trilogy Cover Art

Die Hard wasn’t the first action movie to be converted to a video game, there have been many popular films that have suffered at the hands of the video game industry.  It is rare to see a video game that captures the feel of a film, with many being based loosely on the plot and not really conveying the essence of the film.  Early conversions from the 80’s would often be rushed into development without any access to movie assets such as the artwork or the original score, and in many cases the programmers would not even see the film itself, just a plot summary.  It is no suprise then that many gamers would rush out to buy the tie-in to the latest action film, and be dissapointed with the result.

Only 8 years after the movie was released

Die Hard Game Screenshot
Die Hard Trilogy Part 1 – Die Hard!

Fox Interactive’s 1996 game bucked this trend, having been released 8 years after the original Die Hard film, and included all 3 of the movies in the popular series.  The idea of packing three films into a single video game was a novel one, where previous movie licenses had tended to focus on a single movie with key scenes featured in the gameplay.  Die Hard Trilogy managed to captured the essence of the movies in 3 entirely different genres – 3rd person adventure, on-rails shooter and driving game, all in one package.

Die Hard

The first game in the series is based on the original film, Die Hard, and sees you scaling the multi-storey Nakatomi building to defeat the terrorists and rescue the hostages.  Set in a third person 3D, your vantage point is from above and behind, viewing the maze of corridors on each floor through the missing ceiling, and allowing you to spot other characters which could either be avoided, rescued or attacked and killed.

Starting in the basement car park, you can only see a part of the current floor, and have to clear each section of bad guys before you can gain access to the lift and rise to the next level.   As an added incentive a bomb would be triggered after the last bad guy was taken out, and you had to reach the lift before it detonated. 

The Playstation’s 3D graphics were put to the test by this game, as the entire level rotated around you as you moved, and walls became transparent in order to view your character as he entered rooms and passed along corridors.  There were also some great sound effects, with digitised speech from both John McClane and the badies who would scream as you shot them.

Make it all the way to the top and you have to clear the roof of enemies and battle with a helicopter to complete the game.

Die Hard 2: Die Harder

[amazon asin=B007C5KL82&template=iframe image]The second title in the trilogy is a complete departure from the first, being a first person on-rails light gun game, set in the location of the second film, that of Dulles international airport, where you must foil yet another terrorist plot.  As hero John McClane you have to defeat wave after wave of armed attackers in order to progress through the varied levels.  Die Harder played very much like the Time Crisis or Virtua Cop arcade games,  but it managed to get across the feel of the second Die Hard film, revisiting many of its set piece action sequences.  

The game was quite a touch challenge, requiring you to battle multiple enemies on screen at once, whilst avoiding taking out innocent hostages, and progression to later levels was not an easy task.  The game was also incredibly violent, with terrorists running around on fire being offered a blessed relief via a bonus “mercy shot”, and copious amounts of blood on offer as your screaming victims die in agony.  The scenery in Die Harder was also destructible, meaning that in certain sections of the game the screen would often erupt in a riot of explosions, human casualties and breaking glass.  Of the 3, Die Harder has to be my favourite game in the trilogy and would have worked as a standalone title.

Die Hard 3: Die Hard With A Vengeance

The final and arguably weakest game in the trilogy is a driving game loosely based on the plot of the movie Die Hard with a Vengeance. Terrorists have placed bombs in strategic locations around the city, and it is your job to drive your taxi around the narrow streets of New York to try and reach the bomb and defuse it before it explodes.  As such it plays a bit like Crazy Taxi but without the passengers and varied environments, and once you have played a few times the lack of variety in the game starts to grate. 

There are some neat features, like the handbrake turn, and the radar system which guides you to the correct road on the New York grid network.  There was also a fair share of violence on offer in this final Die Hard game, with innocent pedestrians being mown down without penalty and blood splattering on the screen as you hurtle to your next objective.

The game was also released for the Sega Saturn, using the Saturn’s native lightgun.  A sequel to Die Hard Trilogy was produced for the Playstation, entitled Die Hard Trilogy 2 (what else?) but this failed to generate the same level of excitement as the original.

Playing the Die Hard Trilogy Today

The Die Hard Trilogy is now much more difficult to play due to the lack of light gun compatibility with modern LCD TV’s, so if there was ever a reason to keep an old CRT TV in the house then this is it – along with the other great Playstation shooter Point Blank, and Namco’s conversion of the Time Crisis arcade game.

Even though the game is now more than 15 years old, it is still great fun to play today.  In spite of the many games that have failed to recapture the essence of the movie on which they are based, if any game can lay claim to being a great movie tie-in, then Die Hard Trilogy is it.

See my Hubpages article on the Top 10 Playstation Games

Legend of Zelda for the NES – The Best Video Game Media

In this series of blogs I’m highlighting the best of physical game media of all time – the next generation of games could be download only, so enjoy these fantastic objects while you can, they won’t be making any more of them.

Legend of Zelda Gold Cartridge for the NES / Famicom
Legend of Zelda Gold Cartridge

The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) had the biggest of all the physical video game cartridges, with simple cardboard boxes to hold them. Almost all of the cartridges were a standard battleship grey, with games being differentiated by the sticker with the game title and artwork. There was one game however that bucked the trend, and it did so in style, with a solid gold cartridge – or at least that’s what it looked like.

Gold Cartridge version of The Legend of Zelda for the NES
The Legend of Zelda for the NES

The Zelda series requires little introduction, but only gamers of a certain age will recall the excitement generated by the release of the original game in the series, the Legend of Zelda for the NES. The game came packaged in a gold box, with a cutout to reveal the gold cartridge beneath, immediately making the game stand out as something special. Inside the box the game featured a world map, something that many gamers at the time would had welcomed. The map of Hyrule negated the need to draw your own as you played through the game.

The game itself was a revelation, very much doing justice to the ostentatious packaging, not an exercise of style over substance. Subsequent Zelda games on later consoles often featured the Gold cartridge, but it was the NES version that was the original and best.