The 20 best games for the Atari 2600

On Sept. 11, 2017, the Atari 2600 turned 40 years old. Hitting shelves at a hefty $199 price tag—about $786 adjusted for inflation—the 2600 came with a single button joystick, a pair of paddle controllers, and a game. The system’s lifespan is hard to fathom in modern times, selling from 1977 until Jan. 1 1992. While the modern game systems refresh every few years, the Atari 2600 was a presence in stores for 13 years.

The Atari’s longevity is mostly thanks to its deep catalog of games, ranging from adventure titles to action games, and movie tie-ins. Despite, or perhaps because of, its limitations, Atari developers found new and exciting way to stretch the system’s limited capabilities into fully realized games. While they may seem crude by today’s standards, the Atari 2600 help usher in the modern era of games whether current players remember it or not. Don’t believe us? Take a walk down memory lane with our picks for the 20 best games on the Atari 2600.  

1) Pitfall!

The original king of rage quitting, Pitfall! is the rare 2600 title that remains on the lips and minds of gamers around the world even more than 30 years after its release. Combining an infuriating difficulty level with a 20-minute time limit, Pitfall! helped define the side-scrolling platformer for generations to come. From swinging on vines to falling through holes to new levels, we’re still playing with mechanics Pitfall! introduced. Take off your hat and show some respect. 

Screengrab via YouTube/World of Longplays

2) Battlezone

People scoff at the 2600’s admittedly limited capabilities, but in the right hands, the system could produce remarkable things. Battlezone stands as the systems finest graphical achievement, one of the earliest examples of a first-person shooter, complete with 3d graphics. Battlezone is still fun today, a feat made all the more remarkable when you consider its 1980 release date.

Screengrab via YouTube/AXDOOMER

3) Berzerk

Berzerk’s multi-directional shooting action has helped cement its legacy as one of the Atari’s finest action titles. Maze games were common in the system, but Berzerk added a shooting component that took its simple mazes to another level. The Atari 5200 version is among the first home console games to feature digitized speech and has been lovingly referenced in everything from News Radio to the Simpsons. On a darker note, Berzerk is also the first game to be tied to the death of a player, when an 18-year-old game had a heart attack after achieving two high scores on the game in 15 minutes.

Screengrab via YouTube/World of Longplays

4) Secret Quest

Atari’s answer to Legend of Zelda wasn’t a fantasy game, but instead a science fiction title. You are an unnamed hero tasked with blowing up eight space stations using a blend of simple sword-based combat and brain-bending puzzle solving. At the end of each level, you set off a detonation timer, forcing you to quickly find a teleporter or face your doom. Secret Quest is beloved for its Easter eggs, including a hidden stats menu only accessible by flipping the system’s “black and white” color switch.

Screengrab via YouTube/Revoctours

5) Combat

Looking for the height of Atari two-player military combat? Look no further than Combat, a land and air combination that ruined plenty of friendships over countless fevered battles. Tank levels see you navigate simple mazes as you seek to destroy your enemy, while the biplane and jet levels take you to the clouds for aerial warfare. With 27 variations of its three level types, Combat was a diverse game that pushed its simple format to the limit.

Screengrab via YouTube/vghchannel

6) River Raid

This vertical-scrolling shooter was a massive hit for Atari, selling over a million cartridges. Players control a fighter jet that can move right to the left, but not forward or back, as it blows up enemies and seeks out precious fuel reserves. River Raid remains a blast to play, thanks to its varied level design and challenging refueling requirements.

Screengrab via YouTube/World of Longplays

7) Fatal Run

One of the biggest games ever released for the 2600, clocking in at a (for the time) massive 32KB, Fatal Run is an oddly dark sci-fi racing game that tasked players with transporting a radiation vaccine to a dying populous. Your simple task is complicated by other racers who want to run you off the road and into the grave. Fatal Run was one of the rare titles for the 2600 to feature a password system, but after you’re blown up for the hundredth time you’ll be thankful it has one.

Screengrab via YouTube/Highretrogamelord

8) Outlaw

Pong technically never came to the Atari 2600, but there were plenty of games in its spirit. Outlaw was the best: a shootout themed riff on the classic hockey game that saw players trying to ricochet bullets around a map in hopes of killing their opponent. While the single-player component is a blast, Outlaw’s two-player mode is where it cemented its legacy.

Screengrab via YouTube/Highretrogamelord

9) Basketball

Atari’s 1978 Basketball was one of the few early titles to feature a single-player mode with an AI-controlled opponent. Games last four minutes, with players being granted eight directions to move using the joystick. Each player could steal the ball from their opponent while they’re dribbling, adding an extra layer of strategy to the title. While its graphics look awful by today’s standards, Basketball’s gameplay holds up after all these years.

Screengrab via YouTube/TheLimeyDragon

10) Space Invaders

It would be criminal to leave Space Invaders off this list—even if it wasn’t all that fun. The title was the first licensed arcade game to come to a home system. It’s credited with quadrupling sales of the 2600 and selling over 2 million copies in its first year. While the Atari version feels slow in comparison to the lightning-fast editions we’ve come to love since, Space Invaders stands as a champion in the annals of Atari history.

Screengrab via YouTube/Space Invaders

11) Kaboom!

Kaboom! Is a simple bomb-catching game, but its simplicity hides some deceptively addictive gameplay. It’s easy to sit down for a game, then find yourself an hour later on your sixth play through. Players try to catch bombs in three buckets as explosives are tossed by a madman. For every thousand points you get another bucket, and if you should ever reach 10,000 points, you get to see the mad bomber’s expression change. Kaboom! featured one of the first public high-score events. Players who scored over 3,000 points could take a picture and mail it into Activision in exchange for membership in the Activision Bucket Brigade and get a Bucket Brigade Patch. We wish more games now gave out merch for high scores.  

Screengrab via YouTube/thedarkbanshee

12) Atlantis

Atari games weren’t known for their darkness, but Atlantis has an oddly grim premise. You are tasked with manning the defenses of the legendary underwater city, only you can’t move your guns. Instead, you can only aim from fixed points, hitting enemies when they come close but often being left defenseless at the worst moment. The game ends when your city is destroyed, and no matter how well you play, eventually the city falls. The Last of Us might haunt modern gamers’ dreams, but Atlantis taught an entire generation of Atari fans about the futility of war.

Screengrab via YouTube/World of Longplays

13) Adventure

While many 2600 games were ahead of their time, Adventure is notable for introducing features we’ve all come to take for granted. Enemies move around the world even when they aren’t on screen? That’s Adventure. A playing area made up of multiple different screens? Sorry, Zelda, you owe Adventure a cap tip. Players explore a giant (for the era) castle full of dragons and bats in search of keys and hidden rooms. The game also introduced three levels of difficulty, each causing the mazes to become more complicated and items to be randomized.

Screengrab via YouTube/TheLimeyDragon

14) Asteroids

Asteroids’ simple gameplay made it a classic from the arcade to the home console, but the 2600 version is a work of art. The first game to utilize bank switching to increase the amount of space on a cartridge, Asteroids was a massive 8KB compared to the standard 4KB games of the time. Playing with a joystick on modern systems is fun, but if you want an authentic experience, make sure you play using the Atari’s paddle controllers. There’s nothing like quickly spinning in space to blow up a deadly asteroid at the last second, even decades after the game’s release.

Screengrab via YouTube/Old Classic Retro Gaming

15) Missile Command

Atlantis may have preached that war is unwinnable, but Missile Command proved that even when you can win, succeeding is hard as hell. Players are tasked with destroying incoming attacks from outer space using one of six missile battalions. Your ammo is limited but replenished at the beginning of each level. This port of the popular arcade game became the third-most-popular Atari game in history sales-wise, and its addictive gameplay makes it clear why. It’s still a blast today.

Screengrab via YouTube/Missile Command

16) Yars’ Revenge

By today’s standards, Yars’ Revenge is overly simple, essentially boiling down to one boss fight. But, viewed through the lens of a game released in 1982, this strategic shooter is important to remember for its powerful boss who could change forms to attack in new and frustrating ways. In a world enamored by Cuphead, it’s important to remember the original pain inflicted by the morphing villain. Pour out your cup for Yars, may his nemesis Qotile rot in hell.

Screengrab via YouTube/World of Longplays

17) Swordquest

Swordquest was a wildly ambitious series that sadly never saw completion thanks to its over-the-top ad campaign and complicated gameplay. Players could solve puzzles within the game to win real-world prizes, valued at a total of $150,000. While this wild marketing gimmick has overshadowed the title’s gameplay in the years since, Swordquest is a remarkable, fully realized game. Using logic puzzles and furious (for the time) action sequences, players explored a magic castle, transporting items between rooms and uncovering clues. Deeply confusing at times and overly ambitious, Swordquest is an example of how far the 2600 could be pushed in the right hands.

Screengrab via YouTube

18) Kung Fu Master

Late in the 2600’s lifespan, the system began to struggle with its limitations, from processing power to its one-button joystick. Kung Fu Master, a port of the arcade smash, shows how developers began to work around those weakness to bring exciting and faithful recreations of more complicated titles to the system. Players run, duck, jump, and punch their way through waves of enemies that come from all sides of the screen. Facing off against dragons, ninjas with boomerangs and throwing knives, and powerful fighters who can take multiple hits, Kung Fu Master feels like a full on Nintendo game packed in a tiny Atari package.  

Screengrab via YouTube/tipsytrucosdejuegos

19) Star Raiders

Long before Wing Commander was even a thought in someone’s mind, Star Raiders was setting the standard for intergalactic space combat. Released in 1979, this fully realized game introduced an open world complete with enemies to hunt down and friendly bases to discover. Players maneuver through the world via the Galactic Chart, which divides the map into sectors, each of which can be hyper warped into. The hyper warp sequences of the game get more difficult as you progress, eventually requiring you to steer your ship during each segment. Star Raiders should be remembered as a classic for its forward-thinking first-person shooting mechanics, but when you take into account the depth of its world building and exploration, Star Raiders is more than a classic. It’s a seminal piece of video game history.

Screengrab via YouTube/Electron Dance

20. Super Breakout

No Pong clone was as cruel as Super Breakout, and none was more beloved. Your goal is to keep a series of balls from falling off the screen, bouncing them against a slowly exploding wall with your paddles. This lightning-paced single-player puzzler offered three complicated game modes. “Double” gave players two paddles stacked on top of each other to deflect the ball. “Cavity” hides two extra balls within the walls of the level that you must free for extra points. Finally, “Progressive” gives players with a single paddle and ball to destroy a slowly encroaching wall before it kills them. Unlike many Atari titles, Super Breakout lives on today, in millions of cell phones and consoles around the world.

Screengrab via YouTube/NML32

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