Monday, September 22, 2008

Yeah, I still dig that Atari

Back around 1980, I felt like a jerk because most of my friends had an Atari VCS (later called the Atari 2600) and what did I get for Christmas?

One of those blasted Pong-like things from Radio Shack that was black and white, plugged into a television set and featured about seven games -- a lot of Pong variations and a shooting game in which the built-in gun attachment was used to blast at a square bouncing around the screen. Yes, I was certainly thrilled with that thing.

By the way, if you don't know what Pong is, read up on it right here. I insist. Really. If you don't know what Pong is, your knowledge of American pop culture is sadly incomplete.

So, there I was -- stuck with a blasted Pong thing while virtually all of my friends had an Atari 2600 (one fellow had a Magnavox Odyssey 2, but he was certainly in the minority). Smug bastards.

After listening to me gripe and moan about not having at Atari for a year, my folks did what parents tend to do -- they broke down and bought me an Atari 2600 so I'd shut up about it and they could get some peace and quiet. I've used that same advanced parenting technique on my kids over the years. Works like a charm.

Anyway, my first Atari came complete with the wonderfully awesome Combat (plane and tank battles for two players) and my parents through in an Asteroids cartridge, to boot. Over the years, I've collected over 200 games for that old Atari and still pull out the old system from time to time.

Why on earth would I do that when I've got consoles from every generation since the Atari around here? Eight-bit Nintendo Entertainment system? Got it and it's a coveted top loader, no less. Got a 16-bit Sega Genesis, 32-bit Playstation, a Nintendo 64 and both the Sega Dreamcast and Nintendo Game Cube from the 128-bit generation. We even bought a Nintendo Wii this year, but none of those newer consoles come close to the old Atari 2600.

At any rate, why? Because the old 2600 represents simple, "pick up and play" gaming at its finest. See that little photo at the top of this post? That's from Adventure, a game in which you are represented by a square block and your job is to run around slaying dragons with a sword that looks like an arrow symbol while trying to find an enchanted chalice.

I got that game because my mom said she'd buy it if I read a copy of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. Getting Atari games back then often required a bunch of work, see? I spent the summer of 1983 collecting a bunch of Kool-Aid points so I could get a free copy of M-Network's Kool-Aid Man (after drinking gallons of that sugary stuff, I've not been as enthusiastic about it since) and my parents could promise Atari games to encourage me to pay attention in school, do chores and whatever else I didn't want to do.

Yes, there were some bum games for that system such as the worst version of Pac-Man in the world and that horrible E.T. game that was so bad that it helped lead to the Atari's ruin. Most games, however, were simple and addictive and some great versions of the arcade hits of the day were ported to the Atari.

I may have gotten my first computer in1982 (a TRS-80 Color Computer) and my second one in 1983 (an IBM-PC complete with DOS 1.1), but I still loved that Atari and actually loved picking up games in for around $5 in 1985 and 1986. When I was in college, I had an Apple //e still spent a lot of time poking through flea markets and pawn shops for cheap Atari games and learned that there are few things more fun than Pele's Soccer, a room full of friends and plenty of beer.

Believe it or not, there are still people making games for the old Atari. Yes, the homebrew scene is very active and there are a lot of titles for sale at the AtariAge Store (that's a temporary link, but the full store should be back up soon -- AtariAge is a great resource for people interested in old Atari stuff, anyway).

For those wanting to rediscover (or discover) the joys of Atari, here's some advice. First of all, pick up an Atari 7800 if you can find it -- that one is backward compatible with the 2600 and some of the best arcade ports were made for it (Ms. Pac-Man, Food Fight and Galaga are particularly great). A good rule of thumb is that if a game is made by Activision, it's probably great. To steer clear of the rotten games, check for reviews on the Internet -- The Video Game Critic is a particularly great site, as is the Atari Times.

If you want to really geek it up, visit the forums on the aforementioned AtariAge as the folks over there can answer most questions you'll have. If anyone tries to convince you that the Atari Jaguar is a worthwhile purchase, however, don't listen. That system is a dog and most of the decent games for it were ported to the far superior Playstation 1, anyway.

By the way, a lot of those cheesy television and comic book ads for the 2600 were a hoot. Here's one for Activision's Megamania that features the Tubes. Ah, how I miss the 1980s. Enjoy!


Da Old Man said...

Galaga had to be the greatest video game ever, closely followed by the Tank battle game. I'm thinking it was just called Tank. But you could do bank shots, and it was great.
Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

The Natural State Hawg said...

Da Old Man:

You're thinking of Combat, specifically the Tank Pong variations. Yeah, that was some great stuff, indeed.

Glad you enjoyed it. I was glad I found that old Activision commercial.

fwaggle said...

man does this bring back some memories. i was a little young for atari (child of the 80s), at the age atari was popular i was doing whatever my parents wanted because i wasn't too absorbed in anything else. and when it came time to bring home a fantastic tv-connected contraption my dad opted for the more utilitarian commodore 64 rather than a video games system.

i did get to enjoy games like barnstorming later on, but even at that age (around 8 or so?) it struck me as odd that i couldn't (at the time) program said device, so it lost my interest pretty quick - i was always a hacker at heart. truthfully nowadays the only reason i haven't picked up atari homebrew is because i never found a too-good-to-be-true deal on an atari system i could violate.

i was thrilled you mentioned the dreamcast also (a system i have done some homebrew on, admittedly not much though) - while not quite as nostalgic as the atari and NES, it was a groundbreaking console that's seriously underrated and deserves a noted place in gaming history. *climbs down off the soapbox*


ImitationAngel said...

Thanks a lot for making me remember that I'm old. I'm an 80's baby and have each Atari model produced back then. Yes they still work although I haven't played them in a while. Food Fight was definitely my favorite game along with Ms. Pacman. Come to think of it my parents had me involved with video games early on in life. I had the Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Gameboy, and Sega systems.

I quit with my video game systems right around the time Sega Dreamcast was released. I can only imagine how much room I would have taken up if I continued to get each new system that was released every year.

Now that I'm thinking about it I may have to go dig out those old games and relive the past. said...

Hi Ethan! My brothers and I grew up with Atari and loved it. My favorite games were Pac-Man, Pong, and Slalom. I think it's cool you still have the system.

Beth said...

Oh, the Atari 2600, what a wonderful gaming system. My sister won a console through a Burger King sweepstakes in 1982 (I think), and it was the happiest day of our young lives. I can still picture her jumping up and down with the phone in her hand after she got the call. ;)

It came with Space Invaders, but we quickly hit the bargain bins at the local Zayres store and stocked up on various Activision goodies. (I still dream about playing Riddle of the Sphinx--not sure what that says about me.) I could (and did) play Yars Revenge for hours at a time. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

da old man, Galaga was my favorite too, but I only ever played it in the arcade. Did they make a version for the Atari?

JD at I Do Things said...

I only briefly got into video games when my soon-to-be husband bought me a Nintendo set. We stayed up until 4 AM for a few weeks straight playing Super Mario Brothers. The end. But I have very fond memories of playing Gorf at my college arcade. And of the TUBES! Where did that come from???

JD at I Do Things

The Natural State Hawg said...

fwaggle -- Ah, I still enjoy my Dreamcast, too. Skies of Arcadia remains my favorite RPG of all time (yeah, it's a bit juvenile) and my wife and I spent hours beating up each other on Hydro Thunder.

I'm pretty much a child of the 1980s, too, in that I spent my junior high years, high school years and most of my college years in that decade.

The 1990s sucked, by the way.

Imitationangel -- I only had the 2600, really. My parents bought me an Atari 7800 in 1998 (the year I got divorced from my first wife), and I'm particularly fond of that machine and loved the updated arcade classics for that one -- Food Fight, Galaga, Centipede etc. That's still the one I tend to play as it's backward compatible with all my 2600 stuff.

Go ahead and dig out that old Atari. In my mind, a finer system was never produced.

Oh, and I'm feeling old these days, too. Having a kid in middle school will do that to you, I'm afraid...

Laura -- I wouldn't give that thing up for anything. I've fried a couple in my lifetime, but I've got about three solid ones stashed around the house now. Atari forever...

Beth -- "Riddle of the Sphinx," huh? That's a good one.

And Galaga was for the 7800. I love that particular translation, too.

jd -- Neat commercial, huh? The Tubes actually did that commercial for Activision years ago. I actually remember seeing that on television years ago.

BSA said...

My atari was the Mattel II handheld football game. I wanted it so bad, what did I get, the basketball game. I asked my mother why I got basketball when they knew I loved football, she said she saw me play basketball the day before she bought it (only because I couldn't get the neighborhood kids to play football, I relented and played basketball).

A few years ago, I bought a refurbished unit. I still love it! Who'd think blinking red lights could be so entertaining?

Athena said...

LOVE pong. We had an atari growing idea what model it was...but my true love is the 8 bit Nintendo system. I still have it and still play it from time to time, too!

Beth said...

Oh, Riddle of the Sphinx wasn't just good, it was AWESOME. Although by today's standards it would probably be stupefyingly boring. But what did I know, I was 9 years old. ;)

Thank you for the clarification about Galaga for the Atari; we only ever had the 2600.

The Natural State Hawg said...

bsa -- Oh, yes. Mattel Football II. Great game. Why? Because unlike Football I, you could throw passes in Football II. Instead of that one, I had the Coleco Head-to-Head football game -- it had a pass feature and two people could play (one on offense, the other on defense).

Did you know that Mattel re-released some of those old handhelds not long ago (Football II included)? I wasn't too hot on them because you had LCDs instead of LEDs. It's just not the same.

Athena -- Heh. I've got the top loader NES -- none of the problems you get with the pins in the front-loaders. Like that one, too. However, here's the thing about the Atari -- you never forget your first...

beth -- Riddle of the Sphinx is still awesome. Very complex game for the Atari.

And, I do my part -- can't let any misinformation out about the late, great Atari, right? The 7800 was just released too late. By the time it showed up in 1986, the NES had already dominated the gaming system and people wanted more than superb arcade ports at the time. said...

What you need is an Atari shirt to wear while you are playing your games!

Hope all is well.

By the way, Conway plays Cabot this Friday night. We probably will get another spanking. And Dylan said the coaches told him to expect a lot more playing time. So we'll see.

The Natural State Hawg said...


I do, indeed, need an Atari shirt.

And, hey, with Dylan playing, the Wampus Cats may just pull out a win. He could well be the key...