We all love a list, so every Tuesday we’re posting one, on a variety of retro-themed topics! Feel free to share your own favourites down below — and let us know what other lists you’d like to see on future Tuesdays!
The Atari 2600, or the Atari Video Computer System, as it was once known, is a fundamental part of retro gaming. While its games may look primitive today, the system’s astronomical popularity in the late ’70s and early ’80s meant that it had a defining influence on what would become the video game medium. And, consequently, a lot of the best Atari 2600 games provide some of the earliest examples of genres we take for granted today.
So with that in mind, let’s explore the vast library of this classic console and pick out some of the best Atari 2600 games — both from the more well-known titles and the more obscure end of things!
As always, this is by no means a definitive list — let’s hear about some of your favourites down in the comments!
Warren Robinett’s 1980 Atari 2600 title Adventure is an immensely influential game that pioneered a lot of different things — most notably play areas that span more than a single screen, and game characters that continue to go about their business even when they’re not visible near you. It’s a key, defining influence on the early days of franchises such as The Legend of Zelda, and despite its extremely primitive visuals, remains one of the best Atari 2600 games.
In Adventure, you’re tasked with finding a magical chalice and returning it to the golden castle. Standing in your way are three deadly dragons, plus an annoying bat who has a habit of stealing and rearranging items around the map. While the game map is the same every time you play — a small map on the first difficulty level, a more sprawling kingdom to explore on the two higher difficulty levels — there’s potentially limitless replayability here thanks to the randomised item placement on the toughest setting.
You can play Adventure today in a variety of places — most notably as part of the Atari Collection 1 cartridge for Evercade, and in the Atari Flashback Classics collection for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
This simple but highly addictive game is one of the best Atari 2600 games that never actually made it to market back in the day — but it’s seen quite a few modern rereleases, and Atari themselves (or the entity calling themselves Atari today, anyway) are finally releasing an actual Atari 2600 cartridge of the game as part of their new “Atari XP” programme.
In Aquaventure, you play a diver seeking treasure buried at the bottom of a series of increasingly perilous coral reefs. You’ll need to descend into the briny depths of the abyss, fending off marine life along the way, and retrieve the chest before your air runs out. Thankfully, you have a bit of help on hand in the form of a mermaid who will pull you out of the water — and your trusty turtle who will track how much oxygen you have left.
Besides the rather pricey Atari XP release of Aquaventure, you can also play it as part of the Atari Collection 1 cartridge for Evercade, and in the Atari Flashback Classics collection for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
No list of the best Atari 2600 games would be complete without mentioning Combat, the original deathmatch and, for quite some time, the pack-in cartridge for the system. Pitting two players against one another in a variety of different scenarios, Combat is just as fun today as it was back in the late ’70s — though a few of the game modes also help us to appreciate how far competitive multiplayer games have come in the last few decades, too!
Combat’s main flaw is that there’s no single-player mode, meaning you’ll need someone to play against in order to get the best out of the game. If you do have a suitable opponent, however, there’s lots of fun to be had — whether you’re battling with the classic battle tanks or taking to the skies in a variety of aerial combat scenarios.
As the original pack-in game for the Atari 2600, original cartridges of Combat are ten-a-penny these days, but you can also play it as part of the Atari Flashback Classics collection for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
A follow-up to the also-excellent Atlantis, Imagic’s Cosmic Ark is widely regarded as one of the best Atari 2600 games out there thanks to its fast action, creative gameplay and addictive qualities. As pilot of the titular massive flying saucer, you’ll need to fend off attacks from all directions, then descend to various planet surfaces in order to retrieve valuable fauna samples.
Cosmic Ark is deceptively simple, alternating back and forth between its two distinct stages. But it’s an extremely well-designed game, gradually increasing in difficulty and intensity the longer you play — as well as being a surprisingly good-looking title for the humble Atari 2600.
Cosmic Ark hasn’t had many rereleases over the years — the only one that springs to mind is the hard to find PC and Mac version of Activision Anthology: Remix Edition — but original cartridge copies are pretty easy to come by and very affordable.
A 1983 release from Activision, Enduro is one of many games from the company that included revolutionary new features — in this case a day-night cycle. At heart, it’s a very simple “vanishing point” racing game, but it’s the game structure that makes things interesting here: rather than running a race of a set length or completing laps, here you’re tasked with overtaking as many cars as possible before your time runs out.
You begin each race in the daytime, then a sudden blizzard hampers your manoeuvrability, then the sun sets and it’s into night-time driving. As the dawn breaks, you’re beset by fog, and then the sun finally rises and a new day begins. If you’ve met your quota of cars to overtake by sunrise, then you continue to the next day; if you fail, your race is over.
Enduro is super-addictive and remains one of the best Atari 2600 games to this day, despite its simple visuals and sound. It’s a prime example of how Activision were once one of the most talented, creative companies in the business — and a stark reminder of how far they’ve fallen in more recent years. Sadly it hasn’t had an official rerelease for some time — your best bet in 2021 is nabbing a copy of Activision Anthology for PlayStation 2 or Activision Hits Remixed for PSP.
Adapted from the classic 1966 movie and Isaac Asimov’s novelisation, Fantastic Voyage is an excellent shoot ’em up for Atari 2600 with a twist: rather than blasting your way through the usual aliens or military forces, you’re working your way through a patient’s bloodstream in an attempt to destroy a life-threatening clot.
Fantastic Voyage is one of the best Atari 2600 games because it does things a little bit differently from the norm. You’ll need to pay careful attention to what you’re shooting, because some things are supposed to be in the body, and others might help you out a bit. It’s a tense, atmospheric game with simple but effective visuals — and it’s a great deal of fun.
As a licensed game, Fantastic Voyage for Atari 2600 hasn’t had any rereleases over the years, but picking up an original cart for Atari 2600 shouldn’t be too expensive these days.
Indisputably one of the best Atari 2600 games and one of the best shoot ’em ups of all time, Carol Shaw’s classic River Raid is only overshadowed by its own marginally superior ports to Atari 8-bit and Atari 5200, which feature just a little more variety in the gameplay.
River Raid is noteworthy for being an early game to make use of procedural generation — only using a fixed seed, so the levels are the same each time rather than randomised. The game effectively generates its levels on the fly rather than having them all explicitly stored on the cart, saving a huge amount of memory and ensuring that the whole brilliant experience fit into just 4K. Puts that 100GB download for Call of Duty into perspective, huh?
River Raid has had a few rereleases over the years; probably the most accessible in 2021 is the Activision Anthology compilation for PS2, and its Activision Hits Remixed counterpart for PSP.
Space Invaders may seem like an overly safe choice for a list of the best Atari 2600 games — but this thing was a system-seller back in the day. And it’s easy to see why — not only is it a solid port of Taito’s classic arcade machine, but its many and varied ways to play make it consistently interesting.
If you think you’ve nailed classic-style Space Invaders like a pro, the invisible invaders are waiting for you. And if you fancy playing with or against a friend, there are a host of creative, weird and wonderful two-player modes to challenge, too — including simultaneous and alternating competitive modes and cooperative modes where you each take responsibility for one aspect of the game’s control scheme. In all, there are an incredible 112 different game variations to fiddle around with.
As a licensed port of an arcade game, the Atari 2600 version of Space Invaders sadly hasn’t seen any rereleases over the years, but original carts are very easy to come by and cheap.
An immensely competitive but easy to understand game for between one and four players, Warlords is an essential part of any Atari 2600 library, and absolutely one of the best Atari 2600 games out there. Taking on the role of one of the titular Warlords, it’s your job to bounce a fireball back at your opponents, smash down their walls and take them out to prove your supremacy… until the next round, that is.
According to its original creator Carla Meninsky, Warlords is one of the only examples from the era where a console game was designed first and an arcade version was built based on that — she claims that although the arcade version made it to market first, she designed the Atari 2600 version before that.
You’ll need a set of paddle controllers to play Warlords on the original Atari 2600 — or you can play it as part of the Atari Flashback Classics collection for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
I’ve got to confess, I’m not the biggest fan of Yars’ Revenge myself, but I suspect at least someone will come for my head if I don’t include it on a list of the best Atari 2600 games, so here it is! Plus I can appreciate why it’s cool and interesting — I’m just not a huge fan of playing it. Or perhaps I’m just not good enough at it to appreciate it!
In Yars’ Revenge, you take on the role of one of the titular insect-like creatures as you attempt to fight back against the deadly Qotile. You achieve this by blasting (or munching) your way through their energy shield, then launching your Zorlon Cannon with perfect timing to take down your foe. It’s an interesting take on the shoot ’em up in that it’s very much a one-on-one battle between you and a single “boss”, but its frantic pace and emphasis on careful timing makes it challenging to get to grips with!
So those are our picks! Did we miss your favourites? Let us know down in the comments or via the usual social channels!