Well, it’s been a nearly a year now since my mid-life crisis kicked in and I got hold of a Sega Mega Drive to relive my more innocent youth. While I have spent most of my efforts in getting hold of the games I used to own I have also started getting hold of the games I wanted but never got and this in turn has opened me up to the world of retrogaming at large. YouTube has been the key to this with channels such as the Angry Video Game Nerd and Classic Game Room being among my favourite things to sit down and watch while the wife indulges in her soaps on TV.
One thing that has cropped up repeatedly though is this belief that the retro gaming console is Atari’s 2600. Now, I was born on a rainy day in November 1984 and by then the Atari 2600 had already been around a little while. Now as far as I am aware the Atari 2600 was not nearly as successful over here in the UK as it was in the US. I vaguely remember playing a friend’s Atari 2600 when I was about 8 that his parent’s had got him for next to nothing at a car boot sale but at that time the Sega Master System and NES were the dominant consoles and we were never bothered with it. It just sat there gathering dust in the corner of his bedroom while Sonic and Shinobi battled the forces of evil in 8-bit glory (we were both Sega boys).
Now that I am more aware of the retrogaming culture I have been forced to ask myself; having not really played the Atari 2600 can I really consider myself a retrogamer?
Well this week I got a call from my brother-in-law and guess what? He’s got a hold of this classic console and a box load of game cartridges (no boxes though so putting in the games was a bit like playing Russian roulette). Now one thing you need to know about me and my brother-in-law is we are both extremely competitive with one another. I think it’s a primal thing. When I got in to RC helicopter flying a few years ago he had to go and get his own helicopter (click here to find out how well that ended for him). Retrogaming is another field with which we duel it out and we have had many a night where we have got a few drinks in and battled it out on Paperboy or Sonic. So to have the chance to do the same on this classic console required little persuasion.
My first impression of the console before I even switched it on was how retro it looked. It looks like a lot of old record players with that wooden panel at the front and has a rather friendly feel to it. It seems like ever since the Mega Drive nearly all serious consoles have had to be black, aggressive looking boxes while this one almost seduced me to play it. One of the things that is almost always mentioned in any Atari 2600 review is how you can plug the Sega Mega Drive’s controller in to it but I didn’t put this to the test as I wanted that original experience.
So we started playing. Thinking of writing reviews for these games I decided to do a review in bulk and give them a score out of five. So here are the six games I played in my first Atari 2600 session.
It’s the closest thing to Tron I have ever played. This then is the game that catapulted me in to the world of Atari 2600 and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a vertical shooter although it’s arranged so it has a 3D effect with your ship at the bottom firing at alien ships charging at you. The gameplay is smooth and it feels like its running on rails. Each level increases what’s on the screen including objects you have to avoid and at the end of each level is a boss who hurls scores of stuff at you. It’s simple unadulterated fun. A good start then.
The world is at war and it’s down to Lieutenant Tony Wilkins of the United Good Guys Navy to take his Korean War vintage MiG-15 (wait…a MiG? Well that’s what it looks like to me. Am I really the good guys then?) and battle air/sea forces for control of the oceans. The MiG has at its disposal an arsenal of guns (bricks) that shoot forward and torpedoes (long bricks) that drop forward at an angle. While it’s nice to be in a more traditional setting rather than just in space fighting aliens the biggest problem this game has is the Atari’s lack of a second button on the controller. In order to fire the gun you have to push the stick right then hit the button but this also sends you shooting across the screen and if you miss this will often send you hurtling in to a kamikaze-style attack. You kill the bad guy but you die too. It’s a big problem and I didn’t like the game as a result.
This wasn’t actually the second game I put in to the console. I put several games in but none of them seemed to work. I thought they were all crashing. As it turns out a lot of these games require you to hit RESET to start the game and I found this out purely by chance. Anyway back to it.
Daniel-san…Avoid this game. Now I am not going to harp on about the bad graphics. Being a retrogamer bad graphic design holds a certain charm for me. What I hated about this game was it was almost totally unplayable. I nearly smashed the controller trying to get my guy to kick or punch the other guy but all that happened was a feeble arm movement before I got my arse handed to me. Also why is my guy on the right? Almost every beat’em up I have ever played starts with your guy on the left.
Aliens have invaded Earth and it’s up to Lieutenant Tony Wilkins of the Earth Defence Forces to protect you all. Boy are you in trouble! Defender is one of the more well known Atari 2600 games and my justification for that is its one I have heard of. It’s a side scrolling shooter where you pilot your Viper from Battlestar Galactica over a cityscape against flying saucers that look like they are from the Adamski sighting (look it up). It’s pretty run-of-the-mill but what really endeared me to it was that gun you fire. The bolts are long and fast and make you feel like anything that gets in its way is going to be vaporised – not like those little “bricks” you shoot in Space Invaders.
The 21st century: mankind has colonized the last unexplored region on Earth; the ocean. As captain of the seaQuest and its crew, we are its guardians. For beneath the surface lies the future…So goes the forgotten 90s science fiction show of the same name. Obviously this has nothing to do with that show but it does feature a submarine and hostile sea creatures. The best way to describe this game is an underwater version of Choplifter. You have to take your submarine under the water and rescue divers all the while defending yourself against hordes of enemy submarines who are ably supported by Jaws’ extended family. When you rescue six divers you have to surface for them to disembark and then you progress to the next level. Every so often you have to surface to replenish your oxygen or your crew suffocates and at first this is quite safe but as the game progresses surface vessels attack you as well. It’s simple. It’s challenging. It is enjoyable but it’s also quite forgettable. Just like the tv show.
Bomb on Pixel City
Little known fact; since World War II the Royal Canadian Air Force has lost more planes to birds than accidents or combat. Just saying. This game holds the distinction of being the one that brought out that competitive spirit in me and my brother-in-law. The premise is simple; you are flying a bomber over a city and have to drop bombs on the buildings to demolish them. As you progress the buildings get higher and tougher to destroy and eventually you have to contend with anti-aircraft fire. The first couple of goes I thought I had no control over the bomber and I kept getting blasted out of the sky until I realized I did have a zoom capability that hurtled the plane forward to evade incoming fire. You also have to dodge pesky birds that probably have a number of Canadian kill markings tattooed on their wings. The bomber is also constantly descending so you can’t miss the buildings too many times or you will go smashing in to the side of them. Once you get the hang of it this is surprisingly enjoyable. In the ensuing competition I did lose to my brother-in-law however who is gloating even as I write this. Probably the most fun I’ve had so far but I can’t really give it a full 5 yet because it’s only the 6th game I’ve played so far.
So there you have it. My first impressions of gaming on the Atari 2600. Am I about to give up my beloved Sega and become an Atari fanboy? Not yet but what I will say is I have had such a great time playing these games (and there are plenty more in that box) that I don’t think I will turn my back on the 2600 yet.