The NES became generally available in the US when I was just two years old but I was ignorant of its existence until elementary school. Even then, we didn't have one in our house until my seventh birthday (the most exciting present ever--thanks Mom and Dad!). Instead, I cut my gaming teeth on my dad's Atari 2600. My parents successfully passed off our Atari as a "Nintendo" for several months before I finally played the real deal at a friend's, but even after I had wised up, the Atari got plenty of use. Even my NES-owning friends would come over to play the Atari. Why? Because we had every single game.
Well, maybe not every game, but we had several hundred. You see, we were either multi-millionaires or my dad had a friend rig up a cartridge with an EPROM port and burn a zillion games onto chips for us. I will leave the truth ambiguous to avoid directly incriminating my father as either a pirate or a money-grubbing oppressor of the proletariat.
In any case, we had a lot of games and I played them all to death. Not only when I was a kid, but again in high school when one of my first acts on the internet was to create an Atari 2600 fan and FAQ site. In other words, while my opinions on canned fruit cocktail may be unrefined, on this topic, I'm a coinnosseur.
3. Fast Food
And so I mortgage my credibility on the first entry. Fast Food is not one of the three best Atari 2600 games. It's probably not even one of the thirty best Atari 2600 games. But it's my third favorite.
You play a disembodied mouth who flies around the screen eating as much fast food as you can while avoiding the treacherous purple pickles. Eat eight purple pickles and you burp; game over. It sounds stupid and it is. But it's also maddeningly addicting. When you start out, the food scrolls across the screen slowly, but as you eat more and your score gets higher, the food starts whizzing across. The purple pickles tuck themselves in behind those delicious milkshakes, and as the pace gets more frantic you just can't help eating some.
It's painful to rank Fast Food above masterpieces like Pitfall! and the Atari port of Ms. Pac-Man (both of which I completely adore), but when I think of my Atari, this is one of the first games I think of and will be one of the first in the system when I next dust it off.
Unlike Fast Food, this game has plenty of admirers. It's notable for two reasons (besides being a fun game): (1) It contained the first popularly-known easter egg, and (2) it is the first ever action-adventure game, a genre which a few years later gave us the immortal Legend of Zelda.
Adventure is several orders of magnitude simpler than Zelda, but it seemed an amazingly complex game at the time. The goal is to carry a chalice back to your home castle. The world is a maze of rooms with a couple other castles and several items strewn about. There is a bridge which lets you walk through walls, keys to unlock each castle, and an arrow to slay the three evil dragons zooming around and trying to eat you (and looking like ducks). The hero is a simple square that can carry one item at a time, so the game revolves around the logistics of getting the items you need to the right places in the right order, while making sure your arrow is never too far away in case a dragon turns up.
The thing that made this game great is how different it was from everything else. In most Atari games, everything but your score is random and transient--you shoot random bad guys, you eat random fast food, you pass random cars. In Adventure, if you unlock a door and store an item inside the room, when you come back 15 minutes later, the door is still unlocked and the item is still there. It seems silly from today's perspective, but this was just so amazingly cool.
I still find this game very fun to play and it's one of the few that doesn't suffer too much from playing on an emulator (arrow keys just aren't the same as those stiff-then-squishy joysticks), so I come back to Adventure pretty regularly even after all these years.
1. River Raid
I consider River Raid one of the finest games ever made. It probably got as much play on my Atari as all other games combined. It's a scrolling shooter, which is hardly unique on the 2600, but there are many things that set it apart from its competitors. First, you must manage your fuel--this is another example of sophistication that you just don't see in other Atari games. Second, you control the scroll speed (and this affects fuel consumption), giving you much more control than in most shooters. Third, the world is huge, cleverly designed, and non-random. Large, non-random levels are rare in Atari games due to the extremely limited space on the ROMs. River Raid achieves this by generating the world algorithmically rather than storing it directly.
River Raid isn't just an awesome game though; it's historically significant! The game was designed and programmed by Carol Shaw, the first female game designer. It wasn't her first game, but it's her best. Sadly, she retired just a few years after creating River Raid. Many of the successful early designers went on to be influential in the industry and I often wonder how (or if) things would be different with a prominent female designer from the get-go.
In conclusion, pew pew! River Raid, yeah!
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