Why the Atari 2600 and why now?

Unless you’re already under its spell, a perfectly reasonable question you may have is why in the world would anyone want to blog about the Atari 2600 in 2016. Heck, I ask myself that question. Is it early onset dementia? The hopelessness of a middle-age man whose past looks brighter than his future?

It’s probably both of those things, but at heart it all comes down to a deep affection for the console and its history. It’s also driven by a legitimate concern that not only the Atari 2600 but the entirety of the pre-NES generations of consoles are being relegated to the dustbin of history. There are far too many so-called “classic gamers” who won’t touch anything released prior to video gaming’s post-crash comeback.

So why does the Atari 2600 and its cohorts matter?

It gave birth to a million nerds.

The years 1977 to 1983 – the years, not coincidentally, that the Atari 2600 was at its height – were extremely significant on a cultural level. New approaches to technology, filmmaking and music were fuelling a new optimism in a future driven by a computer revolution – a welcome respite from the dreariness of the early- and mid-seventies.

The era saw the release of movies that are now considered unquestioned classics, including the Star Wars trilogy, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Without them, for better or worse, we would not have the Marvel and DC cinematic universes of today. It saw the rise of a new kind of music – punk rock – that would challenge the status quo and eventually become synthesizer-driven new wave, echoes of which we can hear in music today.

In the middle of all this, the Atari Video Computer System – the first commercially successful programmable console – was released, followed shortly thereafter by the Intellivision and the popularization of Apple computers in classrooms. In my opinion, the nexus of these three things marked the dawn of a new digital age, inspiring future computer programmers, filmmakers, writers and musicians.

It was the most versatile console ever

The Atari 2600 wasn’t really meant to do all the things it eventually would. If you look at the early documentation of the system provided to programmers, you find that the system’s basic architecture allowed for two sprites, a missile, a playfield and a scoreboard. If that sounds a lot like Pong, you’re right. Atari wasn’t done milking Pong for all its worth and sure enough, Video Olympics – a cart with a whole lot of versions of Pong – was among the console’s launch titles.

Now, compare those early games to Pitfall II in 1983 and Solaris in 1986. How did it get to those points? It’s because of innovative programmers who somehow found workarounds; ways to get the most out of this underpowered little system that was never meant to play relatively complex, multi-sprite games like Ms. Pac-Man or Dig Dug. Yeah, you had to deal with some flicker, but these ports still hold up gameplay-wise to their arcade forefathers.

It had an incredible variety of games

Just like today, the second and third generation of video game consoles had its share of fads that companies milked for all their worth. Hey kid – you like Space Invaders? Here’s a hundred more of them with some minor tweaks. But compared to some later consoles, the games available for the Atari 2600 were surprisingly diverse. You had maze games, early RPGs, early platformers, side-scrolling shooters, pseudo 3D games, plus games like Turmoil that don’t easily fit into any of those categories.

Compare that to the NES, which seemed at times to rely a lot on platform games, the SNES/Sega Genesis era with its emphasis on Mortal Combat-style button mashers, or the Doom era where every other game seemed to be a first person shooter (come to think about it, I’m not so sure that’s changed much).

The best of the games are still fun

There is no doubt that there was a lot of garbage released for the Atari 2600, and I would know. But you know what? If you look at the Video Game Critic’s reviews of games for other consoles you’ll quickly find that the 2600’s success rate was comparable to, or even better than, contemporary and future systems. Regardless of their graphic and sound disadvantages, the best Atari 2600 games – Yar’s Revenge, Pitfall and Atlantis just to name a few – are still fun.

Are they a substitute for modern AAA games? Of course not. These styles represent totally different experiences with their only thing in common being that they’re both games you play on a TV screen. But you use the right tool for the right job. You want an immersive, cinematic experience that tells a compelling story? You play The Last of Us. If you have a few minutes to play a fast, entertaining video game or want to beat a high score, you play an Atari game. There’s room in the world of video games for both.

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