The Atari 2600 at 45 – and 8 of the best Atari 2600/VCS games
The console that kickstarted the home gaming boom still has the capacity to surprise
The Atari 2600 (or Atari VCS in old money) has turned 45. If you owned one back in the day, congratulations: you’re old. But rather than count the years until you collect your bus pass, let’s celebrate a games machine that did far more than its designers could ever have imagined.
So you’ve gone full retro this time, to the point this console has woodgrain.
It does scream 1970s. That was the point. Atari reasoned home gaming was so new the Atari VCS – renamed Atari 2600 in 1982 – should work with your decor. (Apple years later came to the same conclusion with the iMac.) It was pioneering in other ways too, with external cartridges rendering obsolete standalone TV games that had until then been popular. And, despite a lacklustre start, Atari stuck with its console – unlike rival Fairchild, which dumped its Channel F system with alarming speed, assuming gaming would be a fad. Whoops.
Oh good. So that left us with countless terrible Atari takes on cherished arcade games.
Be fair. The console was primitive – largely based on hardware designed for playing Pong. But in the right hands, great things happened. Sure, there were bad home conversions of classic arcade games. (Hello, Pac-Man’s migraine-inducing flickering ghosts!) But Space Invaders for the console is often dubbed the first ‘killer app’ for good reason, improving on the one-note original through dozens of variant modes. And games creators later weaved all kinds of magic, even managing to extend the console’s capabilities through custom chips, as with Pitfall II.
If it was so great, why isn’t a new Atari console battling it out with the PS5?
The US videogame crash resulted in Atari burying surplus consoles and over 700,000 carts in landfill. That’s got to knock a company’s confidence. But focus was the main problem. Although the machine limped on to the 1990s, eventually selling over 40 million units, Atari never produced a successor of note. Eventually, the Atari brand fizzled. Still, the console lives on in cheapo TV games, a terrifyingly expensive Lego kit, and in reborn form as the current incarnation of Atari’s latest flop, the new VCS. Some things never change…
Pieces of 8-bit: the best Atari 2600/VCS games
Roughly 500 unique titles were released for Atari’s famous console during its lifetime, and homebrew is still made for the machine, such as Thrust, Super Cobra Arcade, and Circus Convoy – a new title by Activision alumni David Crane and Garry Kitchen.
For our selection, though, we’re sticking to the classics. These eight games provide a window into gaming’s distant past, – and are still fun to play.
H.E.R.O. takes you deep underground, for fast-paced missions where you use your jetpack and bombs to rescue trapped miners.
Space Invaders blasts away other VCS arcade ports, bettering the original with multiple modes and co-op play.
Solaris mashes up Star Raiders, Elite and Defender, fashioning an ambitious game packed with exhilarating space dogfights.
Kaboom is the game paddles were made for, as you go ‘zen’ to scoop up deadly bombs. Someone make a mobile port, please!
Montezuma’s Revenge ambitiously brings a tough multi-screen platform adventure to a machine originally designed to play Pong.
Empire Strikes Back plays fast and loose with the source material, but it’s an exhilarating game as you take on deadly AT-ATs.
Pitfall II dramatically evolves to the original platform game, adding an expansive map, novel features, and even music via a custom chip.
River Raid brings endless procedurally generated blasting to the Atari, with an elegance and simplicity that remains compelling to this day.