51 Shades of Geek

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

Polo

PoloThe Game: Climb onto your trusty four-legged ride for a good old fashioned game of horse hockey. Try to knock the ball into your opponent’s goal, but don’t put yourself in a position where you can’t defend your own. (Atari, 1978)
See the video
Memories: One of the earliest Atari VCS games to go unreleased, Polo was never intended for general release as its own game; rather, plans were apparently afoot within Atari to offer the game as a premium giveaway item to buyers of Ralph Lauren’s recently-introduced Polo cologne. (If that sounds a little difficult to believe, keep in mind that, in its early heyday, the $200 VCS was very much a high-end luxury item – not unlike Ralph Lauren’s products.) 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

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

Video Pinball

Video PinballThe Game: Pull the plunger back and fire the ball into play. The more bumpers it hits, the more points you rack up. But don’t let the ball leave the table – doing so three times ends the game. (Atari, 1979)

Memories: Having done Basketball and Football as successful video games, Atari turned its attention to other sports and other balls…so to speak. One such experiment was the not-quite-successful Video Pinball, the company’s attempt to bring the excitement and physics of pinball to the video screen.

The game’s dazzling disco-era look was the result of the video display being generated backward by a monitor laying flat inside the cabinet. The monitor’s display was then reflected toward the player by way of a half-silvered mirror with the overlay decal attached. The result was that the video display now magically shined through the artwork. (The animation seen here shows a rough approximation of the screen as seen in the arcades, the actual video display, and the artwork overlay that made things a bit more colorful.) This was actually a very common trick in early arcade games: Space Invaders used it, and so did many others right into the 1980s…until processing power increased enough for most games to generate their own backgrounds. Continue reading

Superman

SupermanThe Game: It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a vaguely anthropomorphic heap o’ pixels with a red cape! Lex Luthor has hatched one of his deadly schemes to overthrow Metropolis – and, naturally, the world – starting with the destruction of a bridge in the city. Deal with Luthor’s thugs, save Lois, and put Lex himself behind bars – but keep an eye out for Kryptonite. (Atari [under license from DC Comics], 1979)

Superman adMemories: A product of the corporate synergy between DC Comics and Atari – both freshly acquired by the Warner Bros. empire in the late 1970s – Superman was one of the first attempts at a multi-screen adventure structure on the Atari VCS, something which would be honed more sharply with such games as Adventure and Haunted House (and trashed once again with top-heavy, overambitious later efforts like E.T. and the Swordquest series). Continue reading

Star Raiders

Star RaidersThe Game: Zylon warships are on the rampage, blasting allied basestars out of the sky and wreaking havoc throughout the galaxy. Your orders are to track down the fast-moving raiders and destroy them before they can do any more See the videodamage. You have limited shields and weapons at your disposal, and a battle computer which is vital to your mission (though critical damage to your space fighter can leave you without that rather important piece of equipment). The game is simple: destroy until you are destroyed, and defend friendly installations as long as you can. (Atari, 1979)

Memories: The original version of Atari’s Star Raiders leaves very few doubts as to its origins; in a sense, it’s a new take on the old grid-based Star Trek mainframe game, only with ample opportunities for arcade-style action. Oh, and – astonishingly, even back then – the game kicks off with a title screen showing a spaceship obviously based on the Enterprise from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which also appeared in 1979. How the lawyers missed that one, we’ll probably never know. Continue reading

Asteroids Deluxe

Asteroids DeluxeThe Game: As the pilot of a lone space cruiser, you must try to clear the spaceways of a swarm of free-floating (and yet somehow deluxe) 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 See the videoBuy this gamezipping 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 likes to pop in and shoot at you, and you’re between several large rocks and a hard place. Only this time you have shields. (Atari, 1980)

Memories: As an unspoken, unwritten internal rule, Atari’s coin-op division just didn’t do sequels. While other companies were happy to keep turning out endless variations on the same basic themes and attaching a number to the title each time, or some extra designation like “plus” or “deluxe,” Atari’s arcade designers reasoned that they had so many good ideas that they didn’t need to do sequels. The surprise success of Asteroids, however, was one case where Atari realized it could cash in if only it could ignore that rule. Continue reading

Battlezone

BattlezoneBuy this gameThe Game: As the pilot of a heavy tank, you wander the desolate battlefield, trying to wipe out enemy tanks and landing vehicles. (Atari, 1980)

Memories: Though the above description is exceedingly simple, See the videoBattlezone was another pillar of Atari’s stable of outstanding vector graphics games (which also included Tempest and Asteroids). With its two-stick control system, mimicking a real tank’s controls, its slowly lumbering game play, and its periscope-like screen, Battlezone was, for its day, an incredibly cool and realistic game (with a huge cabinet too). Continue reading

Centipede

CentipedeBuy this gameThe Game: Apparently, the exterminating business is getting more dangerous. In the course of trying to wipe out some vermin, you find yourself on the defensive – any of them can kill you simply by touching you. Fleas drop from the top of the screen, leaving bothersome mushrooms in their way. Scorpions periodically See the videopoison the mushrooms, making them impossible to destroy. And a pesky spider is always dancing around the screen. (Atari, 1980)

Memories: I was never that hot on Centipede, but this is mainly due to the fact that its trakball controller pretty much ensured that I sucked at this game. But many people just loved it. With the benefit of hindsight, and slightly better hand-eye coordination, I can now see why. Continue reading

Missile Command

Missile CommandBuy this gameThe Game: Tucked away safely in an underground bunker, you are solely responsible for defending six cities from a relentless, ever-escalating ICBM attack. Your three missile bases are armed with nuclear missiles capable of intercepting the incoming enemy nukes, planes and smart bombs. One nuke hit on any of your three launch bases will incapacitate that facility for the rest of your current turn, but one nuke See the videohit on any of your six cities will destroy it completely. (The only chance you have of rebuilding a city comes when a bonus city is awarded for every 10,000 points scored.) And when all six of your cities have been destroyed, the cataclysmic end of the world proceeds. Game over. (Atari, 1980)

Memories: Possibly the first video game ever to register on the so-called moral compass, Atari’s Missile Command contained a strong, anti-nuclear message, arriving at the dawn of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. For those of you who weren’t alive at that time, here’s a little bit of historical context. Continue reading

Red Baron

Red BaronThe Game: Take to the sky for some biplane battle with Baron von Richtoven himself! In a combat environment where banking too sharp can either be a daring maneuver or certain doom, your mission is to take out as many enemies as you can See the videoBuy this gamebefore you yourself accumulate too many bullet holes in the sides of your biplane. Dirigibles also make tempting targets and, for the truly daring, there are land-based tanks nestled near mountains and civilian homes. The game is over when the last of your planes is shot down. (Atari, 1980)

Memories: Emboldened by their first-person tank combat simulator Battlezone, Atari also set out to create the first ever first-person flight combat simulator. (Presumably this fascination with first-person combat sims predated Atari’s shotgun wedding with the U.S. Army that resulted in the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle Trainer.) And lest you think there’s no connection between Battlezone and Red Baron, take a close look at that cabinet – it’s exactly the same design as the Battlezone cabinet, minus the periscope-style viewer and second joystick. Continue reading

Tempest

TempestBuy this gameAs a strangely crablike creature, you scuttle along the rim of an abstract, hollow geometric tube, zapping red bow-tie-ish critters and purple diamond-shaped things which carry them. There are also swirly green things (swirly thing alert!!) which spin “spikes” like webs, and by the way, you should avoid spikes. See below. (Atari, 1980)

See the videoMemories: Tempest is a bizarre little game to crack. Since you spend your time rolling around a vaguely tubular structure, the game is controlled with a knob only, and surprisingly, the speed with which you move the control is reflected in your onscreen speed. With some practice, Tempest was a truly addictive, engrossing game, one of the arcade’s best. Continue reading

Warlords

WarlordsBuy this gameThe Game: Think of it as Pong to the death. Two to four players hurl a fireball (multiple fireballs as the game progresses) around the playing field, smashing the walls to each other’s castles and – hopefully – hitting the other players’ kings and putting them out of commission. Your launcher doubles as a mobile barrier See the videoaround your castle which bounces the fireball right back at your curiously Vader-esque opponents. (Atari, 1980)

Memories: Far more famous at home on the Atari VCS than it was in the arcades, Warlords was a really fun game with the right group of friends (or friendly enemies). I’ve only ever seen one machine, and it was a cocktail table (or, to use less industry-specific jargon, a “sit-down”) version – and now that I think about it, it seems like Warlords would have been a bit difficult to pull off as an upright cabinet, but uprights did exist – with B&W monitors only. Continue reading

Adventure

AdventureBuy this gameThe Game: As a bold adventurer trespassing a mighty castle in search of treasure, you face a twisty maze of chambers, dead ends aplenty, and colorful, hungry, and suspiciously duck-shaped dragons. (Atari, 1980)

Memories: The first game of its kind to hit the Atari VCS, Adventure scores a first in video game history – and not just because of its huge, sprawling maze.

Programmer Warren Robinett was a little disgruntled during his stint at Atari. He watched as his fellow programmers jumped ship, formed companies like Imagic and Activision, and struck it rich as the third-party software industry took off. Continue reading

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