On Atari's 40th Birthday: The 10 Greatest Atari 2600 Games

On June 27, 1972, Atari Inc. was incorporated in the state of California. That makes today the 40th birthday of the company that pioneered coin-op gaming, and six years later Atari would unleash the Video Computer System, later renamed the 2600.


The console gaming industry was for all intents and purposes born with the Video Computer System, and home entertainment would never be the same. The console with the one-button joystick and the game cartridge changed everything and introduced some great interactive entertainment along the way. Here are my Top 10 Atari 2600 Games.

10. Realsports Football. Atari's first football game was horrible. It was barely football at all. But with Realsports Football, Atari tried and mostly succeeded in creating a decent football sim. You only had a Pop Warner size team, but the players looked pretty good and you could do most of the things you could do in the real sports world: Breakaway runs, first downs, passes, interceptions, punts and so forth. The AI was pretty stupid, and before long every player had figured out how to blow it off the field 99-0. But Realsports Football and the other Realsports games foreshadowed the massive Madden, MLB, NBA and FIFA simulation franchises that dominate today.

9. Missile Command. Defend Cities. 'Nuff said.

8. Star Raiders. This game required a pad separate from the joystick to control all the various functions of your space ship. It was way ahead of its time for its complexity and replayability.

7. Asteroids. Another coin-op hit that was built to take advantage of the low resolution graphics of which computers were then capable, by using vectors and polygons to give the illusion of definition. The home version instead turned the sharp arcade version's lines into candy-colored rocks. But it was essentially the same game with the same basic tactic: Try not to leave the center of the screen or you're dead. This was the first game in which the lack of save capability became a serious problem.

6. Pac-Man. Compared to the arcade version, the 2600 version looked and sounded terrible. The dot eating sounded like a bad impression of a goose honk. The graphics were comically blocky. The mazes and monsters looked nothing like the game we had all blown piles of quarters mastering in the arcade. But Pac-Man helped establish the crossover between the arcade and the home console, which would drive gaming for years to come.

5.  The Empire Strikes Back. This was the game I always wanted but never owned. It recreated one of the most amazing scenes on film at the time, and for its time, it was awesome. My friend had it. I was totally jealous for about two years.

4. Pitfall. Pitfall was a must-have 2600 game and it helped establish Activision as a game maker standing independent of any console manufacturer. As Pitfall Harry, you were an Indiana Jones knock-off, hoping on gator heads and swinging on vines to collect gold bars. It was a great adventure in its time, graphically pushing the 2600 and today Activision runs many of the biggest game franchises around. Call of Duty is Pitfall's gaming grandson.

3. Pong. Pong was Atari's first game. It was a painfully simple coin-op tennis game, but the foundation on which the gaming industry stands. Pong on the 2600 required a paddle rather than the iconic joystick. And you could put a whammy on the ball to make it harder for your opponent to get to it.

2. Space Invaders. By the time the VCS came out, Space Invaders was already a monster coin-op hit. VCS systems came with Space Invaders, drawing the arcade user into an inevitable choice to buy the 2600 and bring the game home. You couldn't save games and the scoreboard only went up to 9,999. Unlike modern games, you could not win Space Invaders even by using the double-fire bug. But the game really made the VCS/2600 the beast that it turned out to be.

1. Adventure (1978). I first saw Adventure when I was visiting a friend/classmate in the hospital. He had broken a collarbone, and his parents brought his Atari to his hospital room so he would have something to do. The game storyline immediately drew me in, and before long it became a major time eater at my house. You could win Adventure. And you could play it again, and it wouldn't always play out the same way. Plus, the game had a great Easter egg, foreshadowing the cheats and hidden eggs in today's games. Adventure was in many ways the first modern console game, despite its primitive graphics with dragons that looked like chubby puppies. And that frickin' annoying bat.

Honorable mentions: Defender rocked and could be infuriatingly difficult. Joust was bizarre but awesome. River Raid was another major Activision landmark. Night Driver let you crash your car into unsuspecting houses on lonely country roads.