It’s hard to explain to someone raised on Game Cube or Playstation 2 why anyone would even bother with the 2-bit graphics and blocky visuals of the Atari 2600. Until you sit them down to actually play the thing. Despite their shortcomings, some of those old games are just plain fun to play, which should be the point of any video game. A couple of years back a bunch of guys I work with (who were on average nine or ten years younger than me) got together and just to get a rise out of them I brought out my old 2600 and the over 100 games I’ve collected over the years. After a few rounds of Warlords they began to see just why so many of their older brothers and cousins (and in some case parents!) had one of these.

I got my Atari 2600 for Christmas 1983, a time where the system had peaked in popularity and was less than a year away from the awful video game crash. But to this 9 year old, getting the Atari was possibly the most exciting moment in my life up till then. Hard to imagine now, but I used to see ads for the Atari and various games and would almost literally drool wishing I had one. Yeah, it was that bad. I can still remember seeing that big box under the tree, with two little boxes on top of it with a note saying for my sister and I to open this present last. Eventually we got to it and each opened one of the little boxes. One was Donkey Kong, one was Pac-Man. So we knew then what the big box was. I don’t think I’ve ever torn into a present that fast. The next week or so we were home every waking hour was spent playing those games, as well as the ubiquitous Combat. Could you even buy Combat separately?

For the first few years I had an Atari, I got very few games for it. New cartridges were anywhere from $40-60, which is pretty expensive even by today’s standards. Then around 1987 I started seeing games in department store bargain bins for as low as a dollar! I remember stocking up a bunch of M-Network games, including Astroblast, Space Attack, Lock ‘n Chase, and Tron Deadly Discs. Then when the NES came out, people started getting rid of their Atari systems and games in droves. And even though I too had a Nintendo, I continued to get find Atari cartridges at pawn shops, trading posts, yard sales, etc. which is when my collection exploded. I was at my friend John’s house once and his mother came home with a GARBAGE BAG full of games that someone was just going to throw out. We sorted through them and I ended up with a bunch of new games; including Room Of Doom which according to www.atariage.com ‘s rarity guide, rates a 6 out of 10 (1 being easiest to find), making it the most obscure game I have. The last game I bought new was Rampage in 1989, and even then I was surprised that a game that was still in a lot of arcades was available for the 2600. I now have over 100 games, and if I didn’t have a wife and two kids, would surely have more because I’d be trawling ebay for used carts. But as it is I just don’t have the spare cash and besides, there’s still something infinitely cool about stumbling upon a box of old cartridges in your aunt’s attic or something.

TEN OF MY FAVORITE ATARI GAMES I ACTUALLY OWN:
1) Frostbite (Activision) – This just may be my ultimate Atari game. Something about jumping that Eskimo over blocks of ice to build an igloo while trying to avoid being eaten or chased by a polar bear or being knocked into the icy water by birds or crabs just works for me. And no surprise, it’s an Activision cart. It’s been said many times how they made the best games for the 2600, and it’s worth repeating. Incidentally, I only recently learned that the Eskimo’s name is Frostbite Bailey, which as I mentioned before is one of the results of buying used games without their instruction manuals.
2) Journey Escape (Data Age) – Ok, I realize this is not a great game, but I happen to be a big fan of Journey so for me it serves two purposes; a somewhat rare Atari game plus a cool piece of rock memorabilia. Contains a nifty pre-MIDI rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin’”. I wonder if the guys in the band actually played this. And I wonder why their manager looks like Kool Aid Man.
3) Video Pinball (Atari) – It might not be my favorite game, but Video Pinball holds the distinction of being the game I’ve spent the most time playing in one session. One morning I literally played this thing for more than two hours, rolling my score in the process and resulting in the AC adapter getting very, very hot. I actually played this before I ever played a real pinball game.
4) Demon Attack (Imagic) – Any top ten list of Atari games must surely include a Space Invaders knockoff, and although Phoenix almost made the cut, this is the one I’ve played the longest, and it’s still fun.
5) Frogs And Flies (M Network) – This game is one of those incredibly simple concepts that somehow still manages to be fun. Two frogs sit on lily pads waiting to see who can catch the most flies before the sun goes down. Boom. This game also holds the distinction of being the only Atari game my wife likes to play.
6) Dolphin (Activision) – Another Activision winner, this game made ingenious use (for the time) of sound effects. You control a dolphin swimming through rows of seahorses trying to avoide being eaten by a murderous squid. Which makes me wonder, when a squid catches a dolphin in real life, do they just disappear and make that creepy “hissing” sound? It would be a lot less messy.
7) Raiders Of The Lost Ark (Atari) – This is one of those games which I have a love/hate relationship with. I love it when I find all the correct objects and discover which mesa the Ark is buried in, and I hate it when my parachute snags on that branch or thieves steal my shovel and I can’t get back into the temple room because the opening has closed back up and none of the sheiks will sell me a grenade and I get killed with that annoying ticking sound and….you get the picture. Took me three years to complete the first time. No saves or pause buttons back then, kids.
8) Moonsweeper (Imagic) – Not a game you hear a lot about, but I love it. You start out in space trying to land on various coloured “moons” where you have to then rescue six humanoids and go back into space again, all the while dodging naggingly persistent missiles. Addictive.
9) Super Breakout (Atari) – There have been so many variations of this game over the years, but this is one I own. I’ve never ever seen the original Breakout. There’s just something about the sound of that ball ricocheting between the top of the board and the top layer of bricks that gets me every time.
10) Pressure Cooker (Activision) – I could have made a serious argument for having most of my top ten including Activision games, but I tried to balance it out between different companies. This is another winner where you’re a short order cook trying to fill burger orders and get them out in time. It can get pretty intense, especially when you’re waiting for cheese and they keep sending you lettuce. Oh yeah.

TEN GAMES I’D LIKE TO FIND:
1) Pitfall II: The Lost Caverns (Activision) – Let’s get this out in the open: the first Pitfall sucks, ok? I’ve never been able to find all the treasures, it’s simultaneously the most boring and yet most difficult Atari game for me. The sequel, on the other hand, is a gem. This would probably be my favorite game if I could actually find it. My buddy John had it and I used to borrow it all the time. A few years back I offered to buy the handful of games he had that I didn’t. He said his mother had donated his Atari and all his games to their Sunday School class. Arrgh! The infinite lives are a nice bonus, as well as the checkpoints so you don’t go back to the start every time you die. Don’t be a smartass like me and not touch any of the checkpoints. I thought I could do the whole game without passing any checkpoints and got right to the end before I got caught. If there was one game I’d spend some serious cash trying to acquire, it would be this one.
2) The Empire Strikes Back (Parker Bros.) – This is another game that Johnny had. I’ve got Jedi Arena and Star Wars: The Arcade Game but for Star Wars Atari games this one’s still the best. If you’ve never played it, basically it concentrates on the scene from Episode 5 where the Rebels are battling the Imperial Walkers. Don’t stay in one place too long.
3) Frogger 2: Threedeep! (Parker Bros.) – The first one was a classic, obviously. I’d like to get this one simply because I don’t know anyone who ever had it, never seen it in stores, never seen it used. I just remember seeing ads for it in comics.
4) Demons To Diamonds (Atari) – My cousins used to have this game and I haven’t played it in years. This is one of those cases where the game might not be that great but I’d like to have for nostalgic purposes. All I can remember about it is that it used paddles.
5) Adventure (Atari) – I've never played this game, but apparently it's a classic. I've only seen it in the old catalogues. I just feel like I'm missing out.
6) Bugs Bunny (Atari) – This is stretching it because I know this was just a prototype. But I’ve been a fan of the Looney Tunes since conception and I’ve played a ROM of this; it’s really quite good. My kids like it too.
7) Garfield (Atari) – Another prototype. This would have been a good seller if it had come out earlier.
8) Smurfs Save The Day (Coleco) – I’m all about the sequels. The Rescue In Gargamel’s Castle is a fun game, but I’ve never seen this one. In fact I’ve never seen a screenshot of it besides the title screen. Very, very rare.
9) Squeeze Box (U.S. Games) – This bizarre little game actually scared me when I was a kid, that final scene after the walls close in the convict and the devil’s laughing. My cousins had this one too.
10) Fast Food (Telesys) – Something unspeakably funny about eating until you burp. Oh, and this game is fun too, especially when you’re ready to play something else so you just go over to the left screen where the food comes incredibly fast and you can’t control what goes in your mouth. Hey, I never said I was a classy guy.

One final thought: Does anyone out there have a game besides Star Raiders that actually uses the video touch pad?

Thanks for reading.