Everyone loves their Granddad right? We love his generosity, his mannerisms, his Werther’s Originals and certainly his stories. Well this story involves a Granddad, the Granddaddy of home video game consoles nonetheless, the one that arguably started it all. The machine that instilled an inherent love of video games in people all over the globe. A love which is still apparent to this day – you wouldn’t be reading this if it wasn’t!
So get yourself comfy and allow Simon Burton to pull up the rocking chair and tell you the story of his first love, the Atari 2600 Video Computer System…
This system was my first real foray into interactive televisual entertainment. Yes I had a Binatone ‘multi game’ system, but playing three extremely similar black and white pong derivatives and two ‘shoot the white blob’ games was not my idea of cutting edge technology, even for 1976. To be honest it was fun but even then I wondered where this new fangled technology could lead us. As an excitable eight year old I hadn’t heard about the new fledgling industry that was beginning to take shape across the Atlantic. I mean it was on the West Coast, which was even further from Blighty. I was too young to visit arcades and with no Internet or magazines to refer to, what happened next was like a bolt from the blue.
I awoke one morning, which I did pretty much most days, and as usual would pop next door to my mate Mark’s to see if he wanted to go and play footie or whatever. Today though, Mark looked at me with the ball in my hand and just shook his head, beckoning me inside. Upon entering the living room Mark’s dad Mick (who owned a local TV and electronics shop) was tinkering around behind the TV. He eventually popped his head up, and after a quick “Alright Si” he sat down on the floor and started fiddling with the front of the TV. It was then I noticed this strange black box with an intriguing wooden strip across the front that Mick was now tinkering with, flicking switches on and off. Then, after what seemed like an age, Mark shouted “It’s on!” and it certainly was…
I looked up and what I saw was absolutely incredible, a green and fawn screen with shapes laid out across it and on each side of this screen were two simple but distinguishable tanks. Before I could utter a sound Mick shoved a strange square box into my hand. It had a bright orange button to one side and a stick protruding out from the top. Mark picked up another and Mick shouted “3… 2… 1… GO!”
Suddenly the screen came to life with the noise of tanks trundling their way across a battlefield. We both started firing at each other with a deranged determination to outwit the other and win the war. Suddenly I had a clear shot, and hit the button like a mad war mongering General. With a bang and then an explosion Mark’s tank was spinning on it’s axis. A number one appeared in my colour at the top of the screen. By the time I had stopped whooping in a celebratory manner I was already losing 2-1 and all too soon the game was over. We quickly hit the re-set switch and off we went again. If all this excitement was not enough, Mark started flicking the game select switch and unbelievably the screen changed to a sky and our tanks transmogrified into planes, with a whole new control method!
As I reflect back on my life so far, that day stands out as a defining moment in my own personal history. It instilled in me a love for what we all hold dear, a love for something that can bring fun, excitement, competitiveness, but also a community spirit that can bring together people from all over the globe and from all walks of life. To be a part of this, this group of kindred spirits, means the world to me… until it is destroyed by some alien war fleet that is!
Below I give you some of my personal choices for games that defined this wonderful system. But please bear in mind that these are my personal choices, so boo sucks to you if you don’t agree!
Air Sea Battle (1977)
I suppose after all that nostalgic guff earlier you would have thought I would have chosen Combat, but although that was my first ever experience of the VCS, it is my second ever game (by about an hour) that I have chosen. The thing about Air Sea Battle is the way it brings out your competitive nature. You are both striving to shoot the same objects on the screen, which evokes a different set of emotions than controlling the object that can be destroyed (although the final game variation of the 27 on offer, Polaris Vs Bomber, offers up Combat like one-on-one action). The clean, crisp and colourful graphics do well to portray the style and the whole package offers basic, yet fun and challenging gameplay. The game variations were a common way of adding variety to a simple concept and in Air Sea Battle it is the Shooting Gallery that emphasises this most. The simple game mechanic of making the ducks, rabbits and other targets change direction makes the challenge on offer all the more engaging and adds to the whole Air Sea Battle experience.
When Atari launched the VCS in the fall of ‘77, it arrived with nine cartridges available. Apart from Combat, which came with the machine, and Air Sea Battle, the rest were not very complex in their structure. This was understandable given the fact that the VCS was new technology, but by late ’79 things were improving dramatically and this is when Atari dropped Adventure on to us. A new genre for a console, it had you finding keys to open castles, grabbing enchanted chalices, avoiding (or killing) dragons and rescuing princesses. Oh wait, no princesses here, just treasure. Pity…
What is great about Adventure is not the graphics, which although adequate are far from cutting edge even for the time, but the whole feel of the game. Level one set the mood, but level two introduced extra rooms, the White Castle, invisible maze and the Red Duck, err I mean Dragon. But just like the change of direction mechanic on the Shooting Gallery in Air Sea Battle, the Bat adds a whole new dimension to Adventure. That little blighter caused no end of cursing, shouting and thoughts of smashing the joystick into a thousand pieces, just to teach him that I was in control, and all because he had the cheek to grab an item off you just when you needed it most.
Adventure will be remembered by many as the very first game to contain a hidden ‘Easter Egg’ (a secret room with programmer Warren Robinett’s name in it) but to me it will always be about the Bat… Git!
Space Invaders (1980)
No “Best Games” article would be complete without the cartridge that sold over a million units in the US alone and in doing so put more Ataris into American homes than any game before or after. Yep, you guessed it, prepare to get invaded…
Taito’s 1978 smash hit arcade game proved massively popular and was a prime target (see what I did there?) to be ported over to the best selling home video games system at that time, and that was Atari’s aim (see, I did it again!) Space Invaders appeared on the VCS in 1980 and proved to be the smash hit that Atari wanted and more. The game was graphically and aurally competent, the sound of the flying saucer a particular delight, and although it had fewer invaders on screen (36 as opposed to 55 in the arcade version) it had much more variety on offer. In its 112 game variations it offered zig-zag bombs, invisible invaders, moving shields and a simultaneous two player mode among others. This made it a must have cart.
I was unfortunately in Dublin staying with family when I found out I had received a VCS for Christmas. The problem being that my brand spanking new Atari was at home in Kent. Within an hour I was badgering my mummy to let us get the ferry back to Holyhead. What made my excitable fervour even more intense was that my parents had wrapped up an Atari catalogue as a pre-pressie warm up, with the promise that I could choose any game from those within. I eagerly waded through it and for some strange reason I plumped for Flag Capture as my first new game when I got home.
A week later (my parents had turned a deaf ear to my request to cut short the trip) and I was standing in the Sidcup Silica Shop, my second home for the next six years or so… Actually who am I kidding, my first home! I was trying out Flag Capture and to be honest I was a bit underwhelmed. But then I noticed a poster on the wall depicting the Man of Steel. Even better, the bottom of said poster announced “Out now for the Atari VCS”. My first game purchase was sealed less than ten minutes later…
Superman on the VCS is an underrated game in my opinion. The graphics aren’t brilliant (although Supe’s flapping cape looks ace) but it was what the game was trying to achieve that had me hooked. Its premise was to repair the Metropolis Memorial bridge that Lex Luthor had blown up and catch Lex and his gang, whilst avoiding kryptonite and snogging Lois Lane. These mission based objectives were really ahead of their time, and the inclusion of the Bat from Adventure (this time dressed up as a helicopter) was a welcome addition and added nicely to the game’s puzzle elements. For me just playing as the Man of Steel was enough, but if you’re still not convinced, anyone up for a game of Flag Capture?
When Atari got a little bit too big for their boots and started to treat their staff, how shall we say… less than courteously (especially when it came to royalties and programmer credit) one of their most talented programmers decided enough was enough. Along with several other disgruntled colleagues, David Crane resigned from Atari, but instead of turning their backs on the VCS they realised that this was a still a profitable games system that had not yet reached the zenith of its popularity. Making games was what they did best and so they decided to develop their own games for the VCS, and lo and behold Activision was born.
Activision was the most prolific and well respected third party developers at the time (with Imagic a close second). They produced many classic games such as River Raid, Stampede, Chopper Command and Plaque Attack (a particular favourite of mine) but the game that will be remembered until the end of time is Pitfall!
When I first saw this incredible program, again in Silica Shop, there was a crowd around the Atari VCS. This meant that something special had landed. I took the opportunity to have a quick play on the Intellivision whilst waiting for the crowd to eventually thin out. I was then able to lay my eyes on what all the fuss was about and boy was I blown away. Just one look at Pitfall Harry swinging across a pond full of crocs with Tarzan call bellowing out had me hooked. Collecting treasure and avoiding nasty creatures above and below ground, this was a game I played to death. Literally. I died over and over trying to jump on the crocs only realising decades later that if you stand on their heads and not their mouths you don’t fall in. Pitfall! was a triumph, with the gameplay, graphics and sound blending into an adventure experience we did not think was possible. But David and his buddies had proved us all wrong and in turn made Pitfall! one of the all time classic video games.
I really couldn’t end this rambling nonsense without including this gem, the game that pretty much started the multiplayer party. It’s legacy so great that it is now woven into the fabric of retro gaming event competitions!
Atari released the arcade version Warlords in 1980, taking Breakout’s premise of brick walls being destroyed by balls and improved upon it with the main trick up it’s sleeve, four player gameplay. Each player has a castle in one corner of the screen and must defend their king using a paddle to either deflect the fireballs into another player’s wall or actively catch the fireball and then deliberately aim it at another player. The strategy elements are deeper than it first appears – do you attack your neighbour for a quick kill so they cannot attack you, or do you go for the player who is winning the overall best of five matches? It is easier to dispose of your horizontal or vertical aligned neighbours, but your diagonal opponent is whole different kettle of fireballs!
The VCS version did away with the graphical enhancements of the original and only one fireball is on screen at any time (the arcade allowed many balls to fly around the battlefield at the same time which levelled the playing field somewhat) but the gameplay is still top notch and provides spot on paddle controls and party friendly action.
I have always loved Warlords, but until I started attending retro gaming events such as Replay I hadn’t played it for decades. To rediscover this amazing game and to not only play it with enthusiastic and likeminded individuals, but also introduce it to a new audience is what keeps the game and this ageing gamer alive!
This article was first published in Replay Magazine, 2011.