Pong

PongBuy this gameThe Game: Avoid missing ball for high score.

(No, really!) (Atari, 1972)

See the videoMemories: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? And who hatched that egg (or fried that chicken) first – Atari founder Nolan Bushnell or inventor Ralph Baer, who licensed to Magnavox his concept for a dedicated video tennis game that could be hooked up to a TV set? Continue reading

Breakout

BreakoutBuy this gameThe Game: You’ve got a mobile paddle and – well, frankly, balls. But you don’t have a lot of balls at your disposal (am I the only one becoming a little bit uncomfortable discussing this?), so you have to make the best use of them See the videothat you can to knock down the rows of colorful bricks overhead. Missing one of your precious balls – and we all know how painful that can be – forces you to call another ball into play. Losing all of your balls, as you’ve probably guessed by now, ends the game. So, in essence, Breakout is a metaphor for life from the masculine perspective. (Atari, 1976)

Memories: The year was 1976, and Atari’s founder, Nolan Bushnell, had an idea to revive the overmined “ball and paddle” genre: turn Pong into a single-player game, almost like racquetball, in which players must smash their way through a wall of bricks with a ball without missing that ball on the rebound. Bushnell was sure the idea would be a hit. Continue reading

Combat

CombatThe Game: Two players each control a fearsome armored fighting vehicle on a field of battle littered with obstacles (or not, depending upon the agreed-upon game variation). The two tanks pursue each other around the screen, trying to Buy this gameline up the perfect shot without also presenting a perfect target if they miss. In accordance with the laws of ballistics and mass in the universe of Saturday morning cartoons, a tank hit by enemy fire is bounced across the screen – sometimes right off the egde of the screen and into a corresponding position on the opposite side of the field – spinning at a very silly velocity, and battle begins anew. Other variations include biplane and jet fighter dogfights. (Atari, 1977)

Memories: Chances are, anyone who’s my age who is asked to remember their first video game console will tell you it was the Atari VCS – and their first game? Naturally, the one that came with the VCS: Combat, based on the 1974 arcade hit Tank! by Kee Games.

Kee Games? Continue reading

Surround

SurroundBuy this gameThe Game: You and your opponent face off in an enclosed arena, controlling “leader blocks” which leave solid walls in their wake. You must not collide with your opponent’s block, its solid trail, or the walls of the arena. To win, you must trap the other player, or the computer-controlled block within your solid wake (or their own). (Atari, 1977)

Memories: Any Tron fan worth his weight in bits will know what part of that 1982 game (and movie) was inspired by Atari‘s Surround and other games of its ilk which had been in the arcade for some time. But if anything, the Light Cycle scenes and game stages that came down the pike later simplified the game to its core, for Surround actually has more twists – literally. Continue reading

Gee Bee

Gee BeeThe Game: It’s like pinball, but not quite. Not only are the bouncing-ball physics and bumpers of pinball present, but so are walls of bricks which, when destroyed, add to your score and sometimes redirect your ball in unpredictable directions. Pinball meets Breakout. (Namco, 1978)

Memories: If you’re wracking your brain trying to remember this game, don’t spend too much time – not that many gamers actually got to play it first-hand. It is, in fact, only in retrospect that Gee Bee‘s true historical significance has been revealed. Continue reading

Super Breakout

Super Breakout4 quarters!The Game: You’ve got a mobile paddle and – well, frankly, balls. But you don’t have a lot of balls at your disposal (am I the only one becoming a little bit uncomfortable discussing this?), so you have to make the best use of them that you can to knock down the rows of colorful bricks overhead. In some games, there may be other, free-floating balls trapped in “cavities” in the bricks, and setting them loose will mean See the videoyou’ll have several balls – and not all of them necessarily yours, disturbingly enough – to handle. Missing one of your balls – and we all know how painful that can be – forces you to call another ball into play. Losing all of your balls, as you’ve probably guessed by now, ends the game. So, in essence, Super Breakout is a metaphor for life from the masculine perspective. (Atari, 1978)

Memories: The sequel to Atari’s original Breakout coin-op, which actually enjoyed greater success at home on the Atari VCS than in the arcades, Super Breakout added some minor innovations to the original game, including the cavities (and their rogue balls) and the double-paddle (and the paddle length shortening by half when you knock a ball into the top of the playing field). Still fundamentally a black & white game, Super Breakout’s colorful bricks were achieved the old Magnavox Odyssey way: colored overlays on the screen itself. Continue reading

3-D Tic-Tac-Toe

3-D Tic-Tac-ToeBuy this gameThe Game: If you’re not quite up to the challenge of playing 3-D chess with Mr. Spock, you can always try playing 3-D tic-tac-toe against the Atari 2600. Using your joystick, you position your pieces in an ongoing battle with the computer. But be careful – the machine is very wily about placing its pieces, and can often force you to head it off at one pass, only to leave yourself wide open for a complete vertical row. This game is much more challenging than it looks, despite the age of the technology involved. (Atari, 1978)

Memories: Clever little game, this, and among the earliest batch of Atari cartridges released. And considering that its contemporaries in that batch included such titles as Breakout, Space War and Combat, 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe is probably the most graphically refined of the early VCS games. Continue reading

Basketball

BasketballSee the videoThe Game: Two players each control one man in one-on-one, full-court action. Whoever has the highest score by a predetermined time limit wins. (Atari, 1978)

Memories: If you need a “before” and “after” picture to see how far video basketball has come, Atari’s Basketball – one of the earliest games published for the VCS – is an effective “before” snapshot. Atari had previously included a Pong-style basketball game as one of the selections on its dedicated Video Pinball console, and compared to that, Basketball is a quantum leap forward: the players are now represented by stick figures, not paddles, and there’s a very early attempt at an isometric 3-D representation of the court, possibly one of the very earliest 3-D perspectives attempted in home video games. Continue reading

Breakout

BreakoutBuy this gameThe Game: You’ve got a mobile paddle and – well, frankly, balls. But you don’t have a lot of balls at your disposal (am I the only one becoming a little bit uncomfortable discussing this?), so you have to make the best use of them that you can to knock down the rows of colorful bricks overhead. Missing one of your precious balls – and we all know how painful that can be – forces you to call another ball into play. Losing all of your balls, as you’ve probably guessed by now, ends the game. So, in essence, Breakout is a metaphor for life from the masculine perspective. (Atari, 1978)

See the original TV adMemories: Breakout is a fine adaptation of the game created by a one-time early Atari employee named Steve Jobs (who got a lot of help from his friend Steve Wozniak; these two later founded a computer company named after a common fruit). As the original arcade game wasn’t all that complex, the VCS version doesn’t need to overcome any technical hurdles. And yet it does! Continue reading

Home Run

Home RunBuy this gameThe Game: From the great American pastime to the great Atari pastime, the sport of baseball is boiled down to its bare essence in this early game for the Atari VCS. One or two players can play. In a one-player game, players start as the pitcher/outfielders (selecting different game variations will provide a different number of outfielders; the default is a single pitcher/outfielder), while the second player starts as the batter in two-player games. The rules are simple: three strikes mean you’re out, three outs mean it’s time to change sides, the player who gets more little digital dudes across home plate wins. (Atari, 1978)

Memories: In the context of RCA‘s Studio II Baseball cartridge, Home Run is actually quite the improvement. Rather than abstract rectangles and squares, Home Run‘s baseball players actually look, well, humanoid. But much like its predecessor, it doesn’t take long to figure out that Home Run wasn’t that much of a home run. Continue reading

Slot Machine

Slot MachineBuy this gameThe Game: The one-armed bandit joins forces with the one-button, one-joystick wonder. Place your bet, pull the lever and take your chances; lining up the symbols in the three windows of the slot machine will pay off (in a virtual kind of way). Messing up just makes the house richer. (Atari, 1978)

Memories: An early title by prolific Atari VCS programmer David Crane – still working directly for Atari at this point, well See the videobefore his Activision and Pitfall! years – Slot Machine is an good snapshot of where console gaming was in 1977/78. Console games seemed to fixate, at this time, on simulations (or rough approximations) of existing sports and games that could be played “in the real world” without computer assistance. More fanciful fare – such as space games – were left, for the most part, to the arcade. Continue reading

Stellar Track

Stellar TrackBuy this gameThe Game: Welcome to the bridge. Your mission is to travel from sector to sector, eliminating alien incursions without getting your ship and crew destroyed. Friendly starbases offer aid and allow you to make resupply stops so you can keep up the good fight – and you do have to keep a careful eye on your phaser, shield and warp power… (Atari [Sears exclusive], 1978)

Memories: Quite a bit more rare than the VCS edition of Sega’s Star Trek arcade game is this Sears exclusive – and, unless you’re trying to put together an insanely complete collection of 2600 cartridges, don’t sweat it if the rarity of this game prevents you from ever getting your hands on it. Stellar Track sucks like a hull breach. Continue reading

Asteroids

AsteroidsBuy this gameThe Game: As the pilot of a lone space cruiser, you must try to clear the spaceways of a swarm of free-floating asteroids, but the job isn’t easy – Newton’s laws of motion must be obeyed, even by asteroids. When you blow a big rock into little chunks, those chunks go zipping off in opposite directions with the speed and force imparted by the amount of energy you used to dispel them. To that screenful of bite-sized chunks o’ death, add an unpredictable hyperspace escape mechanism and a pesky UFO that See the videolikes to pop in and shoot at you, and you’re between several large rocks and a hard place. (Atari, 1979)

Memories: Easily the most “physics-correct” space video game ever made, Asteroids was also one of the coolest. It was equally fun to play it real safe or, as in the example animation seen below, to just go nuts and live on the edge. Continue reading

Cutie Q

Cutie QBuy this gameThe Game: You control a pair of paddles at the bottom and center of the screen. Serve a single ball into play, and skillfully deflect it toward rows of brightly colored monsters; tripping all of the “face bumpers” near the center of the See the videoscreen can yield a big bonus multiplier. If you can drive the ball toward a tunnel structure at the top center of the screen, it’ll do a lot of the work for you, blasting monsters from behind until it carves a gap big enough to fall toward your paddles again. Of course, standard Breakout rules apply: if you let three balls leave the screen, the game’s over. (Namco, 1979)

Memories: The third and final game in Toru Iwitani’s series of riffs on video pinball and Breakout, Cutie Q is the most unique (and also my favorite of the three). Not simply content to add more color to his previous game, Iwitani started from scratch, even adding a tunnel full of suspiciously Q*Bert-like critters that can be eliminated for bonus points. It still retains some pinball elements, but Cutie Q is more firmly in video game territory than either Gee Bee or Bomb Bee. Continue reading

Galaxian

GalaxianThe Game: In one of the most seminal variations on the Space Invaders format, Galaxian was among the first clones to introduce attacking formations that would break off from the usual rows and columns of See the videoBuy this gameinvaders. Though Galaxian‘s use of this innovation was minimal, it was a drastic change from the usual slowly-advancing target gallery. (Bally/Midway [under license from Namco], 1979)

Memories: Galaxian may not be as well remembered as the much more strategically challenging Galaga, but it ultimately added a vital new twist to the Space Invaders-inspired genre, a format which was badly in danger of becoming stale. Galaxian was also the first arcade video game to use a color display instead of a monochrome monitor with translucent colored overlays. Continue reading

Lunar Lander

Lunar LanderBuy this gameThe Game: Gene Kranz isn’t around to give you a go/no-go for landing – in Lunar Lander, you’re on your own, trying to use the least fuel to bring your lander down for a soft touchdown on the safest target area available. You can always scrub the landing by pulling the ABORT handle, or you can opt for nerves of steel and try to keep your ship – valued at 100 megabucks, incidentally – in one piece. Failure, as some associated with the moon program have been known to say, is not an option for making that one small step…but if you do litter your landing pod across the lunar landscape so many times that you run out of fuel, you can always try to salvage the space program’s integrity for another quarter. (Atari, 1979)

See the videoMemories: Atari’s first foray into vector graphics was old news by computer mainframe standards. The basic premise of Lunar Lander had been around as a text-only game, blasting craters into college students’ productivity and computer lab time, for years. Continue reading

Lunar Rescue

Lunar RescueBuy this gameThe Game: Those pesky Space Invaders are back and this time they’ve got hostages. Your mothership hovers in orbit over the craggy, uninviting surface of the moon, waiting for you to hit the action button and signal the beginning of your mission. The docking back doors open underneath you and your lander begins See the videodropping toward the surface. You can control where you land, and to some extent the speed, and you’ll have to weave through several rotating zones of meteoroids to reach the surface safely. Once landed, you can take on one passenger, and then you have to blast off again to ferry your man back to the mothership. Only this time, the meteors are replaced by several waves of flying saucers who will not only be happy to ram your lander, but shoot at you from above too. If you get your man home – or even if you don’t – the mission begins anew until you run out of ships. Higher difficulty levels add more enemies, such as fireballs streaking through the sky. (Taito, 1979)

Memories: This very obscure Space Invaders sequel takes some of the same basic ideas as Atari’s Lunar Lander (released the same year) and adds some lunar loonies and other more obviously fictional elements; Lunar Lander was good if you wanted a straight-ahead simulation of an Apollo landing, but you get to land your ship and then take off and shoot stuff in Lunar Rescue. It’s challenging and quite a bit of fun, too – I find myself playing this one for a pretty good stretch if I start. Continue reading

Major League Baseball

Major League BaseballThe Game: Play ball! Two teams play until they each accumulate three “outs” per inning. Try to hit the ball out of the park, or confound the outfielders with a well-placed hit none of them can catch. Steal a base if you’re feeling really brave – and then try to cover your bases as best you can when the other player tries all of these same strategies on you. (Mattel Electronics, 1979)

Memories: After Atari’s barely-there VCS baseball title Home Run, and the much better but still graphically simple Baseball! cartridge for the Odyssey2, Major League Baseball was a revelation. This was the moment, for many of us, when video sports games started to look like the sport they represented on home consoles. It almost redefined sports game sound too: the Intellivision has a good swipe at emulating the phrase “You’re out!” at the appropriate moment, an innovation which was nipped in the bud quickly by Mattel Electronics. Why? Continue reading

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