Just the Tip: A Beginner’s Guide to the Atari 2600

To say that the Atari 2600 is iconic, or even legendary, is somewhat of an understatement. The flagship product of video game pioneers Atari, the 2600 is a great example of the right thing in the right place at the right time. Ask even the most gaming ignorant person about “Atari” and, though they may not hit the nail on the head, they’re guaranteed to swing the hammer.

If you’re reading this you’re likely either wanting to break into collecting for the 2600, or you already do and can’t get enough (in which case, reading this is sort like wanking, dude). Either way, over the course of this document we will introduce a bit of the system’s history, some information about available controllers, nano-reviews of a number of games, etc. All towards the end of helping the reader make more informed decisions with their money. Because we’re just really nice people, alright?

Behold: the Video Game Nerd. Thanks, Atari. We totally needed a hundred million of these bouncing around.

A Very Brief History

The king pin of the second generation of video game consoles, known for the first couple of years as the Atari VCS (Video Computer System), was first released to North Americans in 1977 and wasn’t wholly discontinued until fifteen years later in 1992 (on the same date as its second successor, the 7800). There were a number of different models, dozens upon dozens of controllers, and over 565 games were released (not including prototypes, some of which eventually made it off the shelf and are in circulation today). Many of the 30 million units they sold are still being used by those that love the system, evidenced even if just partially by the rather large homebrew community. Yes, in 2016 people are still turning out great titles for this system.

IGN, who I am loathe to ever quote, said something important about the 2600 that bears repeating: “[the 2600 is] the console that our entire industry is built upon.” And what they meant by this is that the system is considered simultaneously responsible for the first big video game industry boom (despite being up against more powerful consoles like the Colecovision), and also the crash that almost wiped it all out in 1983. The 2600’s role in that market crash is hotly disputed, some even pointing to a single game, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. This is largely blown far out of proportion. The fact is, the market was incredibly over-saturated, with five major consoles, dozens of other minor ones, new competition from home computers, tons of developers churning out bad games just to cash in, etc. People stop spending money, everyone goes out of business… it sucked. And this is the part of the story where people start talking about the NES and don’t stop for five years, BUT: the point is, the 2600 was a force to be reckoned with, and has carved itself out a niche as one of the most important pieces of video game hardware the industry will ever know. Deal with it.

The Atari 2600 ‘Vader’ model. I know… so intense you can almost hear Annakin Skywalker’s emphysema.

2600 Models There are just over two dozen different models of the 2600, including knockoffs, licensed Sears editions, clones, etc. That said, here are the versions you are most likely to encounter when shopping for a 2600:

Atari-VCS Six Switch: Least common of the lot, these were the very early models, they had all six switches on the front plate. The earlier of the two was nicknamed the “Heavy Sixer” because it had a lot of extra metal shielding on the inside, making them noticeably heavier to lift.

Atari-VCS CX2600a: Four switches on the front, the other two moved to horizontal sliding toggles on the back. This is probably the most common version of the console.

Atari 2600: The first edition to be labeled “2600,” these were very similar to the CX2600a, but came in a sleek black look that people took to calling the “Vader” model. My Vader recently started having a power fade problem, which indicates the poor bastard needs some new caps. Unlike newer consoles that shit the bed, and shit the bed hard… this is an easy fix, so no sweat.

Atari 2600 Jr.: Released in 1986 in an attempt to breathe new life into the system (or rather, coax some more money out of it), these models were redesigned to be smaller, though functionally the same. I’m not a big fan of their looks, but then again, I’m no prize either.

Atari 7800: Not a 2600 (obviously), but it does play 2600 games. Some people see it as a no-brainer to get the 7800 over the 2600 because it plays two generations worth of games, but they do tend to be more expensive — and some 2600 games physically won’t fit into the 7800 cartridge slot without (minor) modification.

Whatever system you go with, you should be good. They’re all pretty reliable, easy to repair and have their individual charms.

The standard Atari CX40. Mine has a sticky button, and when it sticks during a Berzerk high score run, I think about hurting myself and others.

Getting a Grip: 2600 Controllers

Open up an arcade cabinet and look at the controller guts, then compare it to the innards of a standard No-Name aftermarket 2600 controller. One looks like a space shuttle to the other’s lawn mower. While other systems have been successful with cost-cutting designs, such as the ridiculously good Super Nintendo game pad, the lot of Atari wannabes… not so much. First, let’s get a few things straight:

1. There were a lot of controllers made for the 2600. Greedy companies wanted in on the market and often did so as cheaply as possible. In other words, most are garbage.

2. Some people like shitty controllers; you might very well be one of them. Don’t hesitate to try anything.

3. It is likely you won’t find something that’s 100% comfortable. Some controllers will have suction cups or other such attachments to help stabilize them on a surface so the action of the stick doesn’t make the base as hard to hold, but I have yet to encounter one that’s truly successful.

4. If you want to use a gamepad, your standard Sega Genesis pad will plug in and go without modification.

5. I consider the single biggest tactile difference between 2600 controllers to be how long the ‘throw’ is regarding the stick. This refers to how far the stick has to move before it sends the signal to the console saying “Hey shitbag, go right.” A shorter throw is generally going to be faster, but it puts more pressure on the hand holding the base. Just something to think about. And if you don’t think about it, I’ll know, and I’ll find out where you sleep.

6. Keep in mind that some controllers are going to be better or worse for lefties. Some, like the Suncom Tac-2, provide a cloned button on the other side to make it easier to hold for the south paws.

7. If you have electronics knowledge, keep in mind that you can always buy high end arcade stick parts and make your own! Or order pricey, but very well built ones from folks like those at Edladdin.

Standard Atari paddle controllers. Feel the excitement.

8. Aside from your basic joystick, the next most used controllers are the paddles. Just don’t buy any unless they’ve been tested as ‘jitter free.’ If you can’t infer what ‘jitter’ is, you’re a dick.

9. The 2600 had a bunch of other weird, often game-specific controllers, such as the keyboard controller. We’re not going to discuss those here because they’re not widely used.

Now, out of all the unwashed masses, a few controllers seem to always rank highest in terms of general favorites. That’d be the standard Atari CX40, Suncom’s Tac-2, Wico’s Command Control and of course the standard Genesis game pad (though to be honest, I much more prefer the Genesis arcade sticks for a more ‘authentic’ feel). These are all pretty safe buys when it comes to securing at least one good, working controller. Beyond that expect some trial and error.

A space fly shooting fireballs and a machine gun while wielding a magic wand. If you have to be strong-armed into reading this game’s instructions, someone should tie bricks to your feet and throw you in the river.

Pro Tip: RTFM

One thing you’ll notice pretty fast when getting into games from this era is that the developers had to employ a lot of imagination to overcome hardware limitations, and that the game designs require a bit o’ the old magic of you as well. There are going to be games you’ll pop in, study for an hour, and still have no idea what the fuck to do. And that’s why there’s a manual! Read it, and you shall be enlightened. Don’t have one? Use The Google; there are tons of them available online.

In addition to simply explaining how the game works, the manuals will also let you know what all those switches on the console are assigned to do. As far as I know the only switch that isn’t controlled by programming from the games is the power switch. The color / b&w switch, which often doesn’t do anything unless you’re playing an older game that has a built in palette for black and white televisions, is also reprogrammed upon occasion (in Turmoil it functions as a pause switch). Something you’ll notice pretty quickly is that about half of all games will ‘start’ with a button press from the controller, and the other half by flipping the Reset switch. Weird but true, folks! Weird… but… true.

So, good advice: read the fucking manual. You can do it. We believe in you. Not really, but run with it.

Take a big whiff. That’s mold, dust and a hint of cat pee. A big hint.

The Infamous Games Rundown

This section will contain a number of nano-reviews so you can get an idea of what’s out there. Rather than just listing the standard “top 10,” we want to show a little more of what variety the system has to offer. B and C grade games are just as important to any given platform anyway, so to hell with the elitists. Or something. Anyway, expect a picture of the good, the bad, and the interesting. Minus the bad. Mostly.

Phil’s Picks…

Frogs and Flies (Mattel) A simple game about two frogs, each fighting their toad-faced neighbor for their share of the lunch rush. While this may sound boring at first, the slightly rustic physics involved in jumping, flying, and landing the frogs are addictive. Can be played with two players “competitively,” which just adds to the fun.

Frogger (Parker Bros.) Yes, another frog game made the list (already). What can I say? I have a thing for frogs, maybe? Frogger is another arcade port for the Atari 2600. This one lacks a graphical beauty, but makes up for most of it in the fun, attractive gameplay mechanics that made the arcade game a hit. Move the frog across the interstate and into the swamp. From there jump from log to log until you reach the lily pads.

Luthor destroys the Gond. No, seriously. Son of a bitch does it every time.

Trick Shot (Imagic) Trick Shot is a simple pool table game. The gimmick here is a very tricky power up shot. As the button is held down on the controller the shot charges up. Time your release to get the exact amount of oomph you’re looking for. This is one of the lamer Imagic releases (which are amongst the best games on the system), but is still worth a go because of this interesting mechanic.

Mouse Trap (Coleco) This version of Mouse Trap pales in comparison with the Colecovision port, but it doesn’t diminish the experience. Killing cats with your mouse when it takes a little Mexican Bam-Bam is always fun. Pac-Man had his day, but now needs to step aside for Beefy Mouse. Back to reality, this game’s one big hook is the ability to change the pathways of the maze. This is the factor that helps the game stand out from other Pac-Man clones.

Video Pinball (Atari) Video Pinball feels like a one-player interactive Pong. It isn’t anything like real pinball, but is entertaining nonetheless. The physics are just downright silly and the sounds are a bit simplistic even for the 2600. Still, this game just has some weird charm to it. Maybe it is watching the ball bounce around, or the ball finally, by some miracle, getting up to the top where it collects what I would believe are digital rollovers. NOTE: Game would probably be more fun on acid. Also, for a great pinball choice that’s actually like pinball, look into Midnight Madness (also by Atari).

Solar Fox (CBS Electronics) This unique spaceship game has an easy enough objective to make it simple to learn, but hard to conquer. Nabbing all the little containers on the screen is simple until you add in the upper and lower turrets shooting at your ship at random. This isn’t helped by the fact that these turrets can release an almost screen wide barrage from Hell that will blow your mind. Solar Fox is a simple and well done arcade port, which is why for me this has an addictive, quarter-eating quality to it. This is a little known game that deserves a lot of credit.

Megamania (Activision) At first glance, this seems like some weird ass game about cheeseburger components coming to destroy the world. Whether that’s true or not, who cares… I say order up! Megamania is an early vertical shooter that is all about blasting away at alleged fast food favorites with what appears to be the U.S.S. Enterprise. This voyage has a really good balance between difficulty and fun. Making this probably up there in the top 5 of my favorite Atari 2600 games.

Spider Fighter (Activision) Hate-it-or-love-it you got to admit that Spider Fighter has style. This fast-paced shooter has you protecting random fruits from spiders and there nasty minions. This game is much easier than a lot of other Atari 2600 arcade shooters, but has its hook in how fast and fluid the gameplay is. Shoot the main spider as it lays its eggs, which hatch and need to be killed too. This is my go to game for a good time on the Atari 2600. Highly recommend giving this game a shot.

Laser Blast (Activision) Ever wanted to know how revenge would feel for the aliens in missile command? No? Neither did I, until playing Laser Blast made me realize how bad those aliens had it. The player guides an alien space craft with a fun turret laser. There are three enemy turrets positioned on the ground doing their best to blow you out of the sky. This game feels like one big ass quicktime event because the enemy’s lasers can fire at any time and place. Blast’em before they do is the best advice that I can give. Also keep moving because half the time they fire when you’re ship is standing still.

Moonsweeper (Imagic) Moonsweeper is straight up ahead of its time. This game is like a mash up of Space Master and Beamrider. It consists of two game screens. The first is a galactic view where you need to shoot incoming asteroids from the right, left, and top. When a blue or purple planet is in view slow down and knock into it. This launches the second phase in the game dubbed by myself as Mission Impossible: Moon Rescue. There are six little bastards you have to pick up, but there are random obstacles and enemy ships to avoid. Like Solaris the speed of the ship can be varied, but doesn’t always make a difference. This game is hard and that’s what makes it fun.

Phoenix (Atari) In my opinion, Phoenix is the God of all Atari 2600 arcade ports. It is also one of the best Space Invader inspired games on this system. This port handles the precision shooting of the arcade with really nice graphics for a port. The movements and patterns of the enemies are challenging, but aren’t too complicated that they become annoying. Just like the arcade game, the shield is a blessing and a curse. Triggering the shield at the wrong time means death. The little Turdmaster (Anus’ term) at the end is super annoying though. Standing in his spaceship / wall of doom… smug bastard makes me want to kill him every time.

Vanguard (Atari) Famous for its hilariously silly commercial, Vanguard is a true treasure of the 2600 era that no collection is complete without. Atari ported this original side-scrolling shooter from the arcade to the 2600, which is quite a feat. The graphics are pretty cool for the 2600 and the game has plenty of variety, fading away the impact of any repetitive gameplay elements. Gond at the end is the wimpiest boss ever, but is lovably silly. Give it a try if you’re looking for a fun loving game.

Obviously a Warlock, not a Wizard… but ah well, fuck it.

Anus’ Picks…

Towering Inferno (US Games) One of a few 2600 games that won’t work unless you plug your controller into port 2. A very cool (er, hot), unique game where you rush into different floors of a burning building, put out some crazy dancing fires, hit a thing that goes WHIIIIIOOOP and then run out. Only gripe is how easy it is to get stuck along the walls. Seriously, programmers. Am I wearing flypaper or something?

Wizard of Wor (CBS) Another game that requires you to put the player one controller in the player 2 port. A maze shooter of the highest caliber, think Pac-Man meets Berzerk. Thoughtful design, hilarious box text and cool enemy archetypes makes this a must-have. Easily my favorite game of its kind. Love them Garwors! I’m serious, I do.

Space Cavern (Apollo) A fixed vertical shooter with a twist – every once in a while some kind of pissy space badger will run out of either side of the screen and wipe you out if you don’t get it first. This game also features the most horrifying main character death animation / sound of its generation. I seriously haven’t had something give me nightmares like that since the last time I watched Peewee’s Playhouse.

Beamrider (Activision) A vertical shooter with somewhat of a 3D perspective due to some great scaling effects. After its name, there are linear ‘beams’ on the playfield that you, as well as the enemies, ‘snap’ to after moving. This grid-like element creates some really interesting gameplay as you are more accurately able to predict where an enemy will be when firing.

H.E.R.O. (Activision) Raise your hand if you want to play a platformer where you’re some kind of bomb-dropping asshole with a helicopter backpack and bug/snake-killing eye-lasers. Raise your other hand if you want great graphics design and perfect controls. Alright then, sell your kidney and buy a copy of this (and spend the leftover money on booze). Or kill your best friend and take their copy. Your God will forgive you; it’s that good.

Dolphin (Activision) You’re a dolphin and you follow the currents to escape the evil… squid. Yeah. You’re also trying to dodge big walls of annoying ass seahorses. Frankly, its not a very exciting title, but what is exciting is the sonar feature. Every so often the game emits a tone, and depending on how high or low it is, you can determine where to position your dolphin vertically to pass through the hole in the next bank of seahorses. I can’t do it worth a shit, but it’s a really cool idea. And also, I can’t help but wonder what the dolphin did to piss that squid off.

Dark Cavern (Mattel) Originally known as Night Stalker for the Intellivision, this is a maze shooter with a few elements that I feel set it apart. You have limited ammo with occasional time-sensitive pickups, different enemies that can slow you down or kill, you, etc. The primary threats are these robots that can still squeeze off shots at you while finishing their death animation, which makes for some really fun and tactical run-n-gun gameplay. Very similar to Wizard of Wor, but also very different.

Yar’s Revenge (Atari) You’re a thing and you shoot the stuff off the outside of another thing, then send a big thing in to kill it – all the while running away from yet another thing. Also there’s a big sparkly shield. Just be sure not to do the thing to yourself with the thing that you do.

Sneak’n Peek (U.S. Games) I’ve honestly never heard of anything more ridiculous than playing hide and go seek in a barren house on the Atari… while actually sitting in a house that likely has actual places to hide, like, your actual body. However, the audacity to even make this in the first place is too impressive to avoid discussing. One player hides while the other player leaves the room or closes their eyes. And then that player finds them. I’m not even shitting you with my shit.

Turmoil (20th Century Fox) One of the best kept secrets of the system, this is a fixed shooter where you move up and down on a grid of pipes, able to turn left and right, and you shoot the crap out of stuff. Very frantic with a number of different enemies that need to be handled in different ways (some transform when they cross the screen, some can only be shot from behind, etc.).

The stuff nightmares are made of.

Game Extra: A Bit O’ That Sweet E.T.

If you have even a passing interest in this system, or video games in general, you have likely heard about E.T. and how its the “worst game ever made” or some stuff about how Atari had to dump all these copies in a landfill, etc. Let me set you straight: E.T. Was written by Howard Scott Warshaw, who also coded the excellent Yar’s Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark (which a lot of people like, but makes me want to die). Long story short, E.T. was forced to market far too early and wound up published incomplete. A lot of that sort of shit was going on at the time, hence the industry going butt-poop on itself.

So is E.T. that bad? No. It’s boring as hell, but it’s not bad, nor even close to being the worst game on the system. I was going to provide a list, but that’s been done a dozen times (as has this myth-busting itself). That and you’re likely to find a shittier game just by picking up a handful of random ones at a pawn shop. Thems the facts.

Some Final Words

While I believe the 2600 is a great platform for having a hell of a lot of fun in and of itself, I think it’s also an important system to experience for anyone wanting a clear picture of what video games are, and how they came to be. Many innovations were carried out on the system, not just by way of brand new ideas, but in terms of the ingenuity involved in porting much more complex games from the arcade. It was a great time for the interaction of hardware and imagination – especially if you appreciate classic game models where mastery of skill and high score hunting are king.

Whatever the reason, a choice to bring a 2600 into your life is a good one. Unless there’s some kind of fungus growing in the case and you breathe it in and die.

By Gamesman Anus & Gamesman Phil

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