The Atari VCS (2600) Edition of the Totes Mathematical Top Ten Game List for Every Console Ever!

This entry is part 9 of 15 in the series Console Lists

Journey with me, my fellow gamers into the long, long ago. An age of disco music and punk rock. Twas an age that saw the US Military really amp up nuclear weapons production and also an age where because of the U.S. space program, microchips and computers were beginning to cost so little that common people could not only afford them, but they could actually take one of these incredible machines, more powerful than the computers that guided us to the moon, and choose to play video games on them.

I’m speaking of course of the seventies. And while we won’t be looking at the first video game console to come out, we’ll be looking at the first truly successful one. The year was 1977 and the console was the Atari Video Computer System, AKA the 2600.

More Games. More Fun.

Atari 2600
Released: 1977
Generation of Home Consoles: Second
Graphics: Technically 8 bits
Rating: Wildly Important

To know the early history of Atari is to love it. Atari was started by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. Now these two founding fathers of the billion dollar video game industry did not invent the first video game. Games had been around in a very underground sort of way at various universities. Computer science students had figured out how to reprogram computers to do seemingly simple, yet revolutionary things. This was opposed to boring things like actual missile command, banking, math, and shooting people to the moon. Some enterprising students in the computer graphics and programming fields figured out how to make games.

What Bushnell saw when he was shown a demonstration of the games, and the comp sci peeps did not, was a marketable product. Bushnell had worked on the midway of his local amusement park in high school and college and his main job was to get rubes to come over to his booth for an attempt to win some sort of prize by engaging in a game of skill/luck. Ring toss and the like. He knew there was something to these video game things.

After an unsuccessful attempt to start the video game industry at Nutting, the company they worked for, Bushnell and Dabney struck out on their own and started Atari in California. The goal was to make arcade games. This was all happening around the same time that Magnavox made a console called the Odyssey for home use. Included with the Odyssey was a game called Tennis, which Bushnell saw.1 He thought that it might make a good arcade game and after a bit of tweaking, Pong was born.

Twas a simpler time

While the Odyssey was a solid machine, it was very poorly marketed because people had no idea what the hell they were supposed to be buying and it was insanely expensive. Pong machines at bars and eventually arcades is what really introduced everyone to the medium. Once Atari games began appearing all over the place and the concept was understood by Joe Average, it was a much easier sell when eventually Atari released Home Pong and its follow-up, the 2600.

People went nuts for it. The Odyssey managed to sell a few hundred thousand units around the world. At the end of its run, the 2600 had sold 30 million. Nobody was prepared for the popularity of the thing. Atari (Who had no idea how to run a rich and successful company but knew how to party with the best of them), Warner Brothers (Who eventually bought Atari without knowing why people bought games or what made them good), and Magnavox (who didn’t understand why their own product didn’t sell, but were pretty sure that Atari had something to do with it) were all flummoxed.

Suddenly there was more money than anyone knew what to do with and traditional companies had no idea how to deal with a Silicon Valley start-up, quite yet. As is customary in cases such as these, everyone either retired, went on to start competing firms, or attempted to sue everyone else. By that measure, it was another great success story of the California computer business world. Atari’s history is insane. I love it and I’m only explaining about 1% of what happened there. If you want a MUCH more detailed history of the company along with video games in general, I HIGHLY recommend, The Ultimate History of Video Games book by Steven Kent. (You can read all about how Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both worked at Atari at one point or another. Small valley, apparently.)

So now that we’re done with that, let’s take a look at what my Excel algorithm spit out as the top ten games for the first successful video game console in the history of the human race.

10. Combat. 1977. (Atari) Combat was one of the launch titles for the 2600 and for the first few years was included with the console. You and a pal try to blow each other up using tanks, planes, or fighter jets! The game featured a top down view of either some sky or a little field where the two combatants would try to kill each other by firing a little bullet or a missile at each other. It was fairly well received and fondly remembered (As most pack in games were). Frankly it was a perfect choice for the pack in-game as it was simple enough to effectively teach people how to play these wacky video games.

9. Yar’s Revenge. 1982. (Atari) Yar’s Revenge was a space shooter where you play a giant space insect named Yar, out for revenge against a different space insect named Qotile. I think he was some sort of laser controlling space fly. It’s all explained in the comic which was released with the game. It was the most successful game for the 2600 which wasn’t a port, movie tie in, or third-party game. It was made by Howard Scott Warshaw (Of the famed E.T. the Extra Terrestrial game) and was his first major hit for the company. Fun and weird little shooter.

8. Warlords. 1980. (Atari) A port of the arcade game of the same name, Warlords was a 4 player sort of hybrid of Pong and Breakout and one of my favorite game for the system. Each player controls one corner of the screen and everyone bounces a projectile back and forth at each other to break through the other player’s wall. Behind the wall was your King and your job was to kill the other warlords while protecting your own guy. I played the hell out of this game and some of my fondest memories were playing it on the re-released 2600 with my college buddies. Simple, elegant, frantic, and fun.

7. Kaboom!. 1981. (Activision) This was an early “Falling Brick” style game and a kind of sort of port of the Atari arcade game Avalanche. There’s a Mad Bomber (what probably bombs at midnight) at the top of the screen and he’s hurling bombs towards the bottom. Your job is to catch the bombs before they hit the bottom of the screen or…Kaboom! Game over, man. Game over. Unless you have some extra bomb catching buckets, in which case the game continued. The game was very well received and the graphics and sound were both pretty tremendous for the time.

6. River Raid. 1982. (Activision) River Raid was a top down view, scrolling shooter game designed by Carol Shaw, one of the very first, if not THE very first women to design video games. It was wildly heralded as one of the best types of these games to have been released up to that point and won a number of awards for best war game, best action game, and holds a distinction of being the first video game banned to minors in West Germany. (Clearly Shaw just wasn’t thinking of the children!) Due to Shaw’s design, the world was procedurally drawn and thus essentially unlimited, assuming you avoided the enemies and didn’t run out of fuel. It’s a great and important game for several reasons and well deserving of the sixth slot on the TMTTGL4ECE. (Do I need a better acronym? How about just the TMTT?)

5. Adventure. 1979. (Atari) Made by Warren Robinett and stuffed into an absolutely unbelievable 4KB of memory is my favorite game for the 2600. Adventure. In an era when most games took place on a single screen, Robinett managed to program thirty. It was arguably one of the first graphical open world games, and featured mazes, the ability to pick up different objects ranging from weapons to keys to magic bridges. There were secret rooms, secret items, no points or time limits, and is arguably one of, if not the, first action-adventure video game, the first console fantasy game and laid down an incredible foundation for what was to come in a bunch of genres. It was hugely important, still fun to this day, and well deserving of its spot.

4. Missile Command. 1981. (Atari) A port of the incredibly successful 1980 game of the same name, Missile Command puts you in the command center of Earth, defending human cities from an alien attack. Projectiles would reign down from the sky and you fired intercept missiles to take them out before they could kill all of the humans. It’s considered one of the quintessential classic arcade games and the port to the 2600 was generally considered pretty good. It was the fourth best selling game on the system and while the game feels a bit dated by today’s standards it was a wonderfully original and creative endeavor.

3. Space Invaders. 1980. (Taito) Starting out the top three is the first ever killer app for a console. The game was incredibly popular in the arcades. And the word incredible doesn’t really do it justice. The game is a big reason why a huge number of video arcades were able to open. There were arcades which ONLY had this game. It was the highest grossing arcade game of its time and Taito made BANK. (About 1.65 Billion dollars in today’s money.) When the 2600 version was released in 1980, it quadrupled the sales for the console. The pixellated enemies have become iconic for their designs and the game has been referenced in every form of media available. The port to the Atari had a few flaws due to memory limitations but it remained a very solid game and absolutely belongs in the top 3.

2. Asteroids. 1981. (Atari) Asteroids was one of the first major hits in the arcades. Gameplay was simple. You control a tiny spaceship and must destroy all of the asteroids on the screen. The original arcade game was rendered on a vector display so while the graphics were monochrome, they were incredibly sharp as compared to many of the other hits of the day. When ported over to the 2600, it was the first game which was able to use a cartridge with 8K of memory instead of the traditional 4. This gave the 2600 version a lot of room to play around with different game modes, colors, and all around goodness. A million people have copied design elements from it and the game has been continually updated for newer consoles and can even be played online. A revolution in the arcades and a super solid port lock Asteroids down for the number two slot.

But there can be only one king of the hill. One game at the top of the heap. And what game would that be, you ask? Why it’s the one, the only…

1. Pitfall!. 1982. (Activision)

Pitfall! was the second best-selling game on the system and lauded by many as the best adventure video game which had ever been released. You play as Pitfall Harry and have to navigate an odd maze like jungle in an attempt to collect a bunch of treasure. You have a twenty-minute time limit and there’s many a scorpion and crocodile trying to keep you from your booty. There were traps you needed to avoid, vines you could use to swing on, and of course a number of pits to fall into.

It was a gorgeous game and Activision made every effort to get as many colors onto the screen as they could while also animating the enemies and making sure that no flicker was present at any time. It is widely regarded as being a direct precursor to the side scrolling and platforming genre. (It would be labeled the first such game, except that it didn’t actually scroll.) It was incredibly long as compared to most of the games of its day. That was primarily due to being developed specifically for home play as opposed to being an arcade port. Somehow Activision managed to cram all of this into 4K of memory and apparently not a single byte went to waste. Hugely innovative, incredibly influential, and a without a doubt worthy of the number one position as determined by the TMTT algorithm.

So that’s the 2600 list! Upset that Super Breakout didn’t make the cut? Do you want to get into an argument about why Pac-Man deserves to be on the list? Send me a comment or a tweet @Whentheicebreak! And always remember. The sun is scary and bright. So don’t go outside. Stay in and play video games!

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Maybe saw, anyway. He would have certainly had the opportunity to see Tennis on the Odyssey, although he always claimed that Pong was an Atari original
Philippe L.

About Philippe L.

When not out exploring the stars with his good friend Hotblack Desiato, he makes his living here on Earth keeping other people's money safe from the hands of thieves and spinning the occasional yarn. He enjoys beer and coffee very much, but unfortunately he can't eat shellfish or tomatoes.

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