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Video Game Uber Fun Fun List: Atari VCS

Author: Philippe
Posted: 20 Dec 2004

Welcome, one and all, to another edition of The Video Games Uber Fun Fun List here at Team Totally Awesome. My name's Philippe and I'll be your tour guide...through the incredible fourth dimension of time!

This week, we're going to go back to the magical land of 1977. A full two years before the birth of yours truly, a bunch of drug-addict computer programmers got together and decided to make something other than a new, innovative type of bong. K.C. and the Sunshine Band playing in the background, Nolan Bushnell and his ragtag group of heroes and geniuses created the Atari Video Computer System. The VCS, later renamed the 2600, went on the market and everyone and their sister and their uncle just went apeshit for the thing.

It was such a phenomenal success, in fact, that in the early eighties, Atari's parent company, Warner Communications, pulled fully 66 percent of their profits from these new fandangled video games (sounds familiar to me -- Sony's doing the same trick right now with the Playstation). Everyone wanted a piece of this system, and virtually everyone did get a small piece (even Nintendo wanted to market the 1985 NES system under the Atari moniker!).

Such was the influence of the Atari systems that toy companies felt that if they didn't have an Atari game to go along with whatever shit they were hawking, they'd lose out to the competition who did have games. Hell, even Rubik's frickin' Cube made an Atari game.

Other companies tried to cut in on the Atari (anyone remember Coleco?), but despite others generally having better technology, people still went for the VCS.

Eventually, Atari released a second system, the 5200, and since it was backwards-compatible with all the 2600 games, it also sold like those proverbial hotcakes that everyone's always talking about.

Unfortunately, as is wont to happen with hotcakes, people got ever so slightly carried away. Everyone who could make games for the Atari did make games (even their competitors and certain people in the porn industry), and the market got really saturated with crappy games. "Saturated" doesn't even begin to describe it, actually. The port of Pac Man, for instance, was so over-produced that there was something like 1.2 games for every Atari system on the planet. There were literally dozens of just incredibly terrible games for any one good game.

The American public got sick of it all and in 1984 the great video game crash occurred and nothing was sold, more or less, until the NES creeped its head around the corner. The NES had problems because of the crash as well; they had an incredibly hard time getting toy stores to even carry their product and, in fact, had to let the bigger toy companies not pay any money until the system was sold. Hell, they had trouble even getting that to be kosher with people.

Atari tried to keep up with the market. They had enough money to easily survive the crash and put out the new 7800 to try and compete with NES and the Sega Master System. Unfortunately for Atari, however, Nintendo started making developers sign no-compete clauses and without any new and fun games, the 7800 died a relatively quick death.

Atari tried one final thing and released the 2600 Jr. system, but that, too, sucked compared to everything else, and Atari, having produced something like twenty million VCS units, closed the factories and went away to think for a while. That brings us to about 1985ish where we'll leave Atari alone for a bit.

Whew. Long history, eh? But now to the relatively good bit. Why is any system popular? It's all about the games, beeyatch, So here we go with the top 9. Just for the hell of it, I'm going to be covering just the VCS. I had a 5200 but most of the good games were just revamps of the 2600 versions. I never had a 7800, and that thing can just suck a dick.
9. Centipede (1982, Atari). A port of the classic arcade game. You are a strange, caped magician who has to fight off a giant centipede. That's what the picture on the box leads me to believe, anyway. Graphics on the box compared to Atari games generally left a bit to be desired. Still, the game was solid and a breakthrough, mega-popular hit. 8. Mario Bros (1983, Nintendo). Representing the second time Mario appeared in an video game (the first, of course, being Donkey Kong), and the first time he had the name Mario, and a brother who shall remain nameless.

Brief little aside. At this point on Saturday mornings there was an hour-long cartoon based on arcade hits at the time. One of them was Donkey Kong, so they had to pick a name for Jump-man. Mario is born. Now, the interesting bit is that the girl you rescue was not the princess. In fact, it's revealed that it's Mario's niece, which means Luigi has some illegitimate daughter running around somewhere. Another Arcade port, this one was relatively OK graphics-wise and a whole mess of fun play-wise. No Bowser, or story line or princess; you were just a couple of Italians hanging out in a sewer.

7. Defender (1981, Atari). Now this game was bitchin'. One of literally hundreds of space-faring games to be released about this time, Defender managed to get in front of the pack. I don't even know why. It's not that much different than the rest of the games they had, though this bad boy did feature a map/radar, so maybe that's it. Frustrating but fun. 6. Warlords (1981, Atari). Odd little game that is still played somewhat regularly at Castle Awesome. It's basically a four-player mixture of Pong and Breakout. Oddly addictive, and I felt compelled to put it on the list due to the fact that if I didn't, the rest of Team Totally Awesome would ask me at least twice why I didn't and, of course, the fact that it is still being played regularly. Which is odd, if you think about it.

5. Joust (1981, Williams Electronics). You ride around on an ostrich, avoid pterodactyls, and kill your friends. As with the rest of the Atari games, simple yet fun.

I'm also just noticing that the games aren't getting nearly as much description as the NES games. Mainly because there's very little going on in the games. Tyler and I had a conversation when he first got his 2600 at The House of Yes. The main gist of it was that all of these games were more or less made by just one person. A guy who had a bizarre idea in his head and an hour or two to spare. No committees. No room for a story line, really. Just a guy thinking to himself, "You know what might be cool? What if you were a dude, and you were riding around on a weird flying ostrich, and you were trying to kill other dudes who also had flying ostriches...and there was a big fucking pterodactyl, too."

Interestingly, when Atari would hire programmers they'd usually be given an assignment of "make a game." That was it. They needed to do it themselves. Atari might never market the game or fully develop it, but it meant that all the programmers had this one thing that had been on their minds. If the game was really fun and addictive, they would put it out. Apparently, lots of companies felt the same way. Thus, Marble Madness or Joust. Ahh, the good ol' days. 4. Pitfall (1982, Activision). Super classic. Seemingly way too big for the 2600, Pitfall was one of the few games to hit every system. It was a port of the arcade game (actually, damn near all the 2600 games were ports of an arcade version). It was also the first true adventure platform that I can remember playing. There were water lizards that scared me. It took me a month to figure out how to jump on their heads without dying.

3. Combat (1978, Atari). Quite possibly the best multiplayer game Atari made, IMHO. You were a tank. Your friends were tanks. Everyone was a tank. You went around shooting up your friends in any number of modes. 2. Super Breakout (1978, Atari). Originally marketed as Pong with a twist. Well, OK, that's a lie. But it was Pong with a twist. Simple block-breaker that you can find damn near anywhere today in Flash format. This one was the best console versions of the game I recall actually enjoying and being good at.

1. Adventure (1978, Atari). Now this was simply amazing. You were a dot in a maze of castles, fighting duck/dragon hybrids. The game used a shocking 4K of memory, if I recall correctly and, at the time, was considered the most advanced game released on the Atari. Also, it was never released in the arcade. The game also featured the world's first easter egg. The programmer put his own name into the game in a secret room, thinking that nobody would ever find it. Of course, 2 weeks after release a 12-year-old called up Atari wanting to know who Warren Robinette was, and the rest is history.

To find his name, I seem to recall needing to find the bridge and bring it to the other side of the game map, placing it so you could get into a room with no doors, finding a grey dot on a grey floor. Bringing the grey dot to the very first screen and placing it on the wall, if there was another item in the screen with you, you could then pass through the dot and find Warren's name.

And that brings us to the end of this here article. One notable mention goes to the original Football game, just because I was so sick good at it, and, of course, mentions go out to the Pac Man port and E.T. for being the worst games in existence. Hope you enjoyed this and see you next time with a new console.

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