Category Archives: Atari 2600

Top 10 Atari 2600 Games

The Atari 2600: The original Retro Gaming 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.

Atari 2600 Top Ten Games


Atari 2600 PitfallBox ArtMy 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 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.

 Ms PacMan

Atari 2600 PacMan vs Ms PacMan
PacMan (top) vs Ms PacMan (bottom)
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.

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 RaidRiver 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!

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
Space Invaders
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.

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 2All 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.

Missile Command

Missile Command Atari 2600
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.

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.


Atari 2600 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.

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.


Atari 2600 Combat: Bi-Plane Battle
Atari 2600 Combat: Bi-Plane Battle
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.

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.


Asteroids Atari 2600
Asteroids Atari 2600
Much has been written about the original asteroids, a game that 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 2600, 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.

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.


Kaboom for the Atari 2600
Kaboom! Miss and you lose a bucket
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.

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’s 2600 best 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 Atari 2600 Games Today

Atari 2600 Console Box
Atari 2600 Console Box
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.

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.

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.

The Empire Strikes Back for the Atari 2600

The Empire Strikes Back is regularly quoted by fans as their favourite Star Wars film, focused on Luke’s development as a Jedi knight, and his relationship with his evil nemesis Darth Vader.

AT AT Walkers from the Empire Strikes Back
AT- AT Walkers from the Empire Strikes Back
The stand-out action scene in the film is the battle on the ice planet Hoth, where the Imperial forces locate and launch an attack on the rebel base with ground troops and the iconic AT-AT Walkers. These huge lumbering machines resemble giant camels, carrying troops and spitting lasers, and in the film’s equivalent of the Death Star trench run, have to be slowed down by the rebel forces to allow the evacuation of the base.

This scene forms the premise for Parker Brothers 1982 game, released on the Atari 2600, where you as a rebel pilot take on the mighty walkers, in a game resembling the classic Defender by Williams. Piloting a rebel Snowspeeder, you can fly horizontally across the landscape to locate and attack 5 imperial walkers, which are moving from the left to the left towards your base. The location of the walkers is shown on a map (Defender again) at the bottom of the screen. In the film the only way to bring the walkers down was using a slingshot to wrap around the huge legs to trip them over, but on the Atari 2600 you have to shoot down the walker with repeated hits of your laser. Multiple hits to the body were required, slowly turning the colour of the walker from black to red and orange, before finally destroying them. You could also aim for a weak spot indicated by a flashing blob.

The Empire Strikes Back Atari 2600 Screenshot
Atari 2600 Screenshot

The walkers themselves were not without their own weapons, requiring you to dodge lasers while you zipped around the walkers, and whilst at first they were “hollow” allowing you to fly through them, on later levels they were solid, increasing the difficulty level. Your ship had 3 lives, indicated by the colour of the snowspeeder, but could be repaired by landing at the bottom of the screen, but this consumed valuable time. On later levels the AT-ATs would also fire smart bombs, and march more quickly towards your base.

The level is complete when you have destroyed all 5 walkers, or the walkers reach your base and the game is over.

So the big question is, was Parker Brother’s Empire Strikes Back any good? I certainly remember playing it as a teenager and spending hours perfecting my technique, and on replaying the game today it feels just as good as it was in 1982. Given the gaming potential of the original Star Wars film, it is an interesting fact that this was the first ever computer game from the iconic series. It certainly captures the essence of the film, and the battle scene that we all wanted to be in, playing hero Luke Skywalker. At the time my only regret was that you couldn’t use a tow cable to trip the AT-ATs.

Since the release of this game there have been Star Wars games released for every home computer and console from the NES to the XBOX 360, including recreations of the Hoth battle scene. The best of these was part of the Rogue Squadron series of games starting with the Nintendo 64, and later the Gamecube. In these later releases you finally had the ability to take down the AT-ATs with a tow cable, just like in the original film, and it was worth the 15 years I had to wait for this to happen.

There have been some great Star Wars games over the years, as well as some spectacularly poor releases, but this first game falls into the former category, and a great gaming memory for any Star Wars fan around in the early 80’s.

Moon Patrol for the Atari 2600

Moon Patrol was a classic 2600 conversion of the arcade game of the same name. Developed by Irem and launched by Williams, this side scrolling driving game was the first of its kind. The arcade version also featured parallax scrolling, a simple optical illusion where different background graphics move at different speeds to give the illusion of depth.

moon patrol marquee Atari 2600
moon patrol marquee Atari 2600

Moon Patrol Atari 2600 version

Back to the 2600 version and your mission, as pilot of the moon patrol vehicle, was to traverse the lunar surface, avoiding multiple challenges along the way, and complete the journey as quickly as possible. Sounds pretty basic, but this was an Atari 2600, and backstory was not always a huge feature of these early games!

Moon Patrol Atari 2600
Atari 2600 Moon Patrol
The classic Atari “orange button” joystick allowed you to speed up or slow down by pushing left or right, and pushing up would jump – handy for getting over the craters and also for jumping missiles or other enemy characters, rocks and landmines.

Multiple waves of enemy ships would drop missiles, which also need to be avoided, especially those that create new craters with their bombs. You also suffered ground based attacks from the rear by enemy buggys, which you had to jump to get in front of you and destroy, as well as oncoming enemy tanks. Fortunately you were armed with a laser that fired both forwards and upwards, destroying both enemy ships and obstacles. The game required careful thought as to when to shoot and when to jump, and whether a long jump could clear several obstacles at once, requiring a lot of strategy for a humble 2600 game.

Successfully clear 5 zones with increasingly agressive enemies, and more and more tricky obstacles, and you start again on a new difficulty level.

Moon Patrol had the kind of simple gameplay mechanic that translated well on the seminal Atari console, and this was a well executed example, and still playable today.

Frogger for the Atari 2600

Frogger is one of those classic video games, up there with space invaders and pac-man having broken out of the arcade entered popular culture. The premise is simple – get your frog across the busy road, over the crocodile infested river, and home to his lily pad. The gamaplay was all about timing, when to cross the road, when to jump on a fast flowing log, and when to jump from a submerging turtle.

Frogger Atari 2600
Frogger Atari 2600
It’s no suprise then that this classic game from Konami has been replicated on any number of platforms from the Spectrum through to the Playstation (I’m particularly fond of Hopper on the BBC Micro, back when they could get away with straight rip offs of other peoples intellectual property).

Atari 2600 Frogger Box Art
Atari 2600 Frogger Box Art

The Atari 2600 version of Frogger was the first opportunity that most people had to play the arcade game at home, being released a year after the arcade game in 1982, and for a change the experience was a good one (Pac-Man on the 2600 anyone?).

Everything was there, from the multiple lanes of traffic to the fast moving logs, providing an authentic challenge to your seemingly suidcidal frog as he tries to make his way home. You could even jump on the back of a crocodile, as long as you avoid the snapping jaws. Take too long and your frog dies, adding an extra element of challenge to the game. Fill all 5 “home” slots on the far side of the screen and the game cycle starts again.

The graphics featured in this version of Frogger may have been a bit rudimentary, and there was a certain amount of flicker on the screen, particularly when the frog jumps across a lane of traffic or onto a log, which is most of the time, but this can be forgiven.  For anyone who knows anything about programming for the Atari 2600, getting the game to run at all was a significant achievement.

A simple game but very addictive, Frogger is a must for any Atari 2600 collection.

Asteroids on the Atari 2600

Atari released Asteroids in the arcades in 1979 and it became their biggest selling game of all time, up there with Space Invaders as one of the most recognised video games in history.

Asteroids arcade screenshot
Original Asteroids Screenshot

It was only natural that Atari’s #1 property was ported to their new home system, the 2600. Featuring solid raster graphics rather than crisp vectors, the game somehow retained the spirit of the original if not the look. This feeling was enhanced by the sound, which retained the menacing 2 notes which, Jaws-like, sped up as the pace of the game increased.

The arcade game felt like you were stranded in a cold and empty space, but the Atari 2600 version, with its bright colours was altogether more jolly.

Asteroids Atari 2600

To add a bit of longevity (if this were needed, when all you had to have was a strong forearm and a love of button mashing) there were 66 variations of the game, including various combinations of warps and shields and enemy ships.

Difficult to find the words to describe such a seminal game on a ground breaking platform, so how about some facts I found on the internet so they must be true:

* Asteroids was the first 2600 game to use “bank switching” (whatever that means) to double it’s Rom space from 4k to 8k

* In 1999 a homebrew version was brought out with wire-frame “vector” graphics, basically the asteroids were the same but hollow

* Universal Studios have just announced (July 2009) that they are planning to release a film based on the Asteroids game

* Asteroids was released on every Atari home system and computer except the 5200, which only made it to prototype stage

Still playable today, a great gaming memory from my early teens, and the first game I bought when I got hold of an old 2600 on ebay last year.