Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Once upon a time the Atari was the (only) console of choice and now it’s merely shorthand for unflattering graphics and mercilessly used to make t-shirts ironic.
But our thirst for nostalgia knows no bounds so to celebrate Atari's 40th birthday today, we’ve compiled a list of the ten greatest games to emerge from that demigod of retro home entertainment.
He may be clueless as to the workings of the international stock market but Pac-man certainly abides by a ‘greed is good’ mentality. Not content with scoffing nutritious pixels and occasional his enemies, he’s taken his hefty appetite to a variety of consoles; some good, some tragic. And while he choked on his Atari debut as the game didn’t replicate any of his arcade grace – this classic spin-off featuring his wife was as good as anything he’d ever done.
You’ve probably forgotten the adventurer’s name - it was Harry – but if you owned Pitfall then you’ll be quick to recall the tar pits, gator-filled ponds and your more standard bottomless holes, which needed evading on this rainforest jaunt. Okay, so the background looked about as jungle-like as Doom did Butlins, but back in 1982 there was nothing more ground-breaking than this multi-platformer.
While the staff at NASA may have scoffed, Atari’s first vector graphics game, with its chalk-simple design had a rather brilliant premise - powering a ship through the atmosphere by recharging fuel at periodic stages meant that an over-ambitious landing would smash you into smithereens. We’re sure it fuelled the ambitions of many who harboured dreams of becoming a real astronaut, well, if they were American, Russian, Chinese or a monkey.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Searching for the Ark of the Covenant was never going to be easy for Indiana Jones back in 1936 Cairo - it was teeming with Nazi treasure hunters and worse, Google Maps didn’t even exist in those days. Even more challenging, was doing it all on an Atari 2600 using just two buttons to navigate around intricate traps and shadowy thieves. So difficult we bet Indy would prefer a snake over an Atari joystick.
With a paddle, ball and psychedelic coloured blocks that looked like they arrived straight from Willy Wonka’s warehouse, it’s easy to think Breakout was a doddle. And it was - at first. But as levels progressed and the ball bounced off your paddle at the speed of light, it proved to be a challenging game of skill, apart from that bit when the ball got stuck at the top and did all the work for you. Gaming bliss.
A long, long way from the all-encompassing barrel-bashing heroics on the Super Nintendo, here Donkey Kong was, fittingly, primitive, and rather annoyingly against you. Your character was Jumpman, an early version of Mario who saved his damsels-in-distresses with less Italian American stereotyping and certainly less mushrooms than his future self would. A cornerstone of console gaming that showed Nintendo could take their arcade might to the console market.
As Matthew Broderick’s teenage self would testify, war games were big business in the eighties and this tour de force of virtual warfare kick started a generation of bleeping artillery shelling. Ignore the fact it slightly resembled a back garden fireworks show worth under a fiver, there were lives at risk – probably.
Why are the best Atari games set in Earth’s outer atmosphere? Probably because space is the one background the Atari 2600’s limited screen resolution could actually replicate. But when it comes to games like Asteroids, the videogame of the early eighties which legacy still lives on, we don’t care. The spaceship might well be a microscopic triangle but we’d like to see the chunky Millennium Falcon navigate those chunky space pebbles.
The Empire Strikes Back
Believe it or not, there are more Star Wars video games than all the stars in our solar system put together. You shouldn’t believe this. But still, the film franchise has spawned a hefty stack of digital spin-offs, and not many are as well remembered as this one which put you in a snowspeeder to face off against a looming AT-AT Walker.
Our favourite Italian brothers Mario and Luigi – really, try thinking of another pair - will always have a place in our gaming hearts. Using their super-powered plumbing skills, they entered the sewers and fought off killer creatures - you’ve been living under a rock if you haven’t played this game.