A look back on the golden age of Atari gaming

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This excerpt is from Jamie Lendino’s Breakout: How Atari 8-Bit Computers Defined a Generation, an amazing book that details with an obsessive’s eye the rise and fall of Atari 8 bit computers. While only someone who ran a BBS on an Atari 800XL can truly love the later parts of this book, everyone – from casual gamer to hardcore programmer – can appreciate the care Lendino took in bringing back some of the best games and gaming platforms of his youth. In this chapter, he looks through a few of his favorite Atari games and brings the memories flooding back of long weekends spent twirling joysticks in the rising dawn of computer gaming.

There’s no way around it: Atari’s 8-bit computer lineup was terrific for gaming. There were several thousand titles made for the platform, and of those, at least 300 to 400 were worth playing. Plus, plenty of titles appeared for other machines or in the arcade first. To narrow things down, I’ll focus on the biggest and best platform exclusives, where the Atari 8-bit version was first. I’ll note some key titles with interesting characteristics specific to the Atari 8-bit conversion. Some games were just fantastic to play and a huge part of the experience of owning an Atari computer, even if there were ports available on other platforms. Finally, I’ll include just a few key games that didn’t live up to the hype, and I’ll explain why. Whether you have an emulator or real Atari computer handy, or you just want to remember the good times, let’s go through the most significant games to grace the Atari 8-bit platform.

Culling the List

Some games by design don’t offer an appreciably different experience on the Atari 8-bit than they do on other platforms. Case in point: interactive fiction, which, because of its text-based nature, works on all computing platforms. Infocom is arguably the most famous of text adventure game developers, with even its early titles consisting of sophisticated language parsers and intricate plots and maps. Infocom employees began programming games on a DEC PDP-10 mainframe at MIT, but all of the best titles made their way over to the Atari within a few years, notably between 1982 and 1986. Games like those in the Zork and Enchanter series, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, are essentially novels you can play, and I played them on my own Atari 800 all the time. Infocom games were also notable for their included “feelies,” or trinkets, maps, and other materials, which helped breathe life into the well-written text-based games without a computer-based visual component. If you plan on reexperiencing these games in an emulator, instead of with actual Atari hardware and software, it’s worth heading over to sites like Atarimania.com to download the manuals and box art images. (In some cases it’s necessary, as the materials also functioned as de facto copy protection.)

Infocom text adventures weren’t even the first to reach the Atari 8-bit. Scott and Alexis Adams founded the lesser-known Adventure International, one of the earliest game development studios, in 1978. Taking its cue from the famous “first” text adventure, Colossal Cave, Adventure International released a series of adventures for various computer platforms, including the Atari 8-bit. Each one had a distinctive font on the Atari, with some of the more notable titles being The Count and Ghost Town. There were more than a dozen in all, plus some graphic adventures as well, before the company eventually folded in 1985. While the company’s parser wasn’t as advanced as Infocom’s, Adventure International beat Infocom to market by a couple of years.

Some of Atari’s own early games were mediocre; they were exceedingly basic, rushed versions of Basketball, Hangman, and other games populated early company catalogs and brochures. Most of Atari’s business, educational, and home management software didn’t do enough to demonstrate the wide capabilities of the platform, other than to scream “me too” next to the Apple II in the early years of the 8-bit Atari. Worse, a few major titles never made it over to the Atari 8-bit platform at all. As a certifiable role-playing game nut, I lamented the lack of Wizardry, Might and Magic, and Bard’s Tale games. Origin Systems stopped its famed Ultima CRPG series on the Atari with Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. But there was so much gaming goodness to be had with an 400 or 800, it didn’t matter. (Almost.)

Building an 8-Bit Ecosystem

While Atari refused to credit its own developers, some game programmers from this era gained fame nonetheless. Bill Budge, Bill Williams, Philip Price, and Scott Adams were four of the biggest, while programmers developing across multiple platforms like Richard Garriott and Dani Bunten also became famous to Atari users. Eventually, an entire healthy ecosystem of game software studios catered to the installed base of Atari 8-bit computer owners. Stalwarts included Lucasfilm Games, Avalon Hill, Parker Bros., Datasoft, Datamost, Electronic Arts, Epyx, First Star Software, Synapse Software, Brøderbund, and subLogic.

One of the biggest early trends was the conversion of popular arcade coin-up machines like Asteroids and Centipede. What stood out in my mind—and as a kid, what was of paramount importance—was just how close the home version could get to the arcade. This way you could play at home for free instead of begging your parents to take you to the arcade (and stuff your pockets with quarters). Gamers from the era may remember full-page ads depicting six or nine television screenshots in a grid, showing how the home conversion of, say, Q*bert or Popeye looked on various game consoles as well as Atari and Commodore computers. The worst sin of all was putting up fake screenshots in magazine advertisements. The ads didn’t document the on-screen graphics, but instead showed an idealized, Platonic version with seemingly unlimited screen resolution (I’m looking at you, Activision).

The arcade conversions played significantly differently on the 400 and 800 than on the VCS. Pac-Man was solid and Missile Command was excellent, but others didn’t fare as well; Space Invaders and Asteroids in particular came in for some criticism, which I’ll get to. Later on, as more third-party developers began working with the platform, we started to see exclusive titles appear on the 8-bit Atari computer lineup first.

A smattering of games even support multiplayer—not just in the “your turn, then my turn” mode of early arcade games, but true two-player action. Depending on the game, it can be a split-screen competitive mode (Spy vs. Spy and Ballblazer), a four-player mode for the Atari 800’s four joystick ports (M.U.L.E.), a good-versus-evil mode (Bruce Lee), or genuine two-player combat (Archon). If you got creative, you could do things like play Star Raiders with the joystick and then assign your best friend as the wingman to control the keyboard.

Which Version Was First?

Timing the releases also gets a bit tricky. A developer could program the game on the Atari 8-bit first—usually because that was the computer they already owned—and then port it to other platforms. Or, as was often the case, a developer targeted the Apple II first, and then ported it to the Atari—games with limited color palettes and sound capability were often created this way. One of the maddening things about being an Atari computer owner was waiting for ports of popular games from other platforms, which became more and more common as the Apple II and especially Commodore 64 continued to outsell the Atari lineup. Usually the most popular titles appeared on those platforms first, and show up on the Atari later. It became a chicken-and-egg problem; as other platforms began to take hold and Atari couldn’t effectively compete, larger developers began to plan their roadmaps with the Atari as a second or third consideration.

Even so, by the time the XL line was in full swing in 1983, there were many more software developers on board for writing and porting games for the 800. And once Atari let up on its restrictive third-party development policies, it opened up the doors for a true golden age in Atari software. These games weren’t just for owners of the newest 8-bit Atari computers, though. Many (upgraded) 400 and 800 owners could also take advantage of these titles, as none of them required more than 48KB, though some required a disk drive.

Finally, all dates given for games are for when they arrived on the Atari 8-bit computer platform, not when they were first released in arcades or on another computer platform. For example, Taito released Space Invaders in 1978 as a stand-up arcade game, but the Atari 400/800 cartridge version arrived in 1980, so it’s marked as a 1980 release.

A.E. (Brøderbund, 1982)

Anyone reading Atari magazines circa 1982 or 1983 will likely remember the full-page color ads for A.E. The Eugene, Oregon–based Brøderbund Software was known early on for its excellent games, and was reported to search overseas to find the best programmers. “‘The Japanese are by far the best at this. It’s their attention to detail,’ said [cofounder] Gary Carlston—and their dedication to perfection. Carlston had to fish the code for the game A.E. (Japanese for stingrays) out of [programmers] Jun Wada’s and Makoto Horai’s wastepaper basket. They didn’t think it was good enough to sell. It is currently one of Brøderbund’s top sales performers.”[1]

This Brøderbund game is a distant cousin of Galaxian and Galaga. You play by fighting off successive waves of space aliens, which swirl around in changing formations. You could see the Apple II roots in the basic color palette, rendered on the Atari 8-bit thanks to artifacting. Even so, the beautiful space backgrounds for the game were truly otherworldly if you were coming from a VCS or even some early arcade machines. The Atari version has much better audio, with polyphonic music and more robust sound effects during gameplay.

From floppy disk, it takes a while to start playing; you have to load the entire first disk and then flip it over before you can begin, thanks to all the graphics data. Strangely enough, although A.E. was a 48KB disk-based game, Atari apparently considered porting it to a 16KB version and releasing it as a cartridge for the 5200 SuperSystem. It made it so far as a full-blown prototype, but it was done two years late and after the Great Video Game Crash of 1983 and was never released.[2]

Agent USA (Scholastic, 1984)

“Somewhere in America, this dangerous FuzzBomb™ is on the loose!” (I have no idea if the word FuzzBomb is trademarked, but it sure looks like it needs one.) So goes the beginning of Agent USA, a terrific romp through America in the guise of a sci-fi B-movie. The FuzzBomb is turning people into wandering balls of fuzz (FuzzBodies), which are traveling by train and contaminating the whole country.

You must ride the nation’s train system from city to city, gathering clues to the FuzzBomb’s location based on how the disease is spreading. Along the way, you learn about U.S. cities, state capitals, time zones, and the nation’s overall geography. But Agent USA doesn’t feel at all like an educational game—which is a compliment. The bigger cities have higher-speed rocket trains. You can get free tickets for train rides at booths, and in state capitals you can get info about which cities have fuzzed people in them. To collect a ticket, though, you have to type the full name of the city, which helps you learn its name.

To defuzz people, you use crystals; you start the game with 10, but can get more by dropping a few and letting them multiply. When FuzzBodies touch the crystals, they’re cured; regular people just steal them. It takes 100 crystals to kill the FuzzBomb. You have to figure out where it is currently, go there, and not touch any of the fuzzed people until you get to it or they’ll deplete your crystal supply. As is often the case, the Atari 8-bit version has a funky sound track. The humans, such as they were, are little black hats with smoothly animated legs. You have a white hat. Uh, get to it.

Alley Cat (Synapse Software, 1983)

This exclusive Atari 8-bit title—which was later ported to MS-DOS in a horrendous cyan-and-magenta CGA-compatible version—is one of my favorite games. John Harris started work on it, but handed the project to Bill Williams after being unhappy with his one-screen prototype version.[3] Williams first developed Salmon Run (see below), then Alley Cat and Necromancer for the Atari 800—three of the platform’s best original games—and then some Amiga games including Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon for Cinemaware.

At any rate, as Freddy the Cat, you must navigate five different rooms, each of which serves as a discrete minigame. One room contains a fishbowl on a table; you must jump in, swim around, and catch the fish without touching any of the electric eels. Another room contains a birdcage you have to knock off the table so you can free and catch the bird it contains.

In the kitchen, you have to catch the mice that appear in a giant block of Swiss cheese. Then head to the living room to find a fun-to-climb bookcase, on top of which are three ferns you must knock over while avoiding a giant spider. The fifth room contains sleeping dogs; you have to eat the food in the dishes without waking the dogs. There’s also a bonus round in which you must reach your valentine kitty date while avoiding Cupid’s arrows, which pierce the hearts forming the platforms you walk on, making you fall.

Tons of clever touches abound. In the kitchen, for example, by running back and forth, you leave paw prints on the floor, which a Fantasia-style animated broom has to clean up first before coming back after you. The main screen features a series of garbage cans and clotheslines you must jump on to reach one of the rooms (which the game selects at random).

Alternate Reality: The City (Datasoft, 1985) and The Dungeon (1987)

One of the best and most distinctive games ever to be developed for the 8-bit is Alternate Reality: The City. It was intended to be the first in a six-part series by Philip Price: The City, the Arena, The Palace, The Wilderness, Revelations, and Destiny. Sadly, only the first two games were ever written and released—and they were originally supposed to form the first game together. Datasoft forced an early release, and so split the first game in the series in half.[4]

As a result, Alternate Reality: The City is barely half a game in the traditional sense, although it’s not obvious at first. The game starts with you being kidnapped, brought aboard a spaceship, and taken from present-day Earth to (you guessed it) an alternate reality. From there, you create a character, begin exploring the city, get jobs to earn money, defeat monsters, sleep at inns, and level up. It’s addictive and fun for quite some hours or even days—and the environment is certainly immersive. But as it eventually becomes clear, once you explore the entire map of the city, there’s no real goal or even plot. The City was intended as a roaming area to bridge the other chapters, and only one of the other chapters made it to market (and I’ll get to it below).

Despite all of this, Alternate Reality: The City is beyond compelling in its atmosphere and realism. It featured sophisticated 3D texture-mapped graphics, sound, and music for the time, all of which take full advantage of what the Atari 8-bit platform has to offer. No other version comes, not even on 16-bit machines, and the Commodore 64 port is downright pathetic. The game also keeps track of your character’s well-being, which includes hunger, exhaustion, and whether you’re drunk or poisoned. To this day, I still remember the main song, complete with lyrics. I play it from time to time just to hear and see it run. Also enjoyable is the 16-bit Atari ST version, which lets you join guilds and offers a tiny bit more of a sense of accomplishment. Composer Gary Gilbertson redid the three-voice versions of his songs so they make the most of the Atari ST’s less-powerful sound chip.

The Dungeon, meanwhile, is a classic dungeon crawl in a three-dimensional perspective. Inside the dungeon, you can buy weapons and other provisions, and you’ll encounter fountains, wizards, secret doors, and plenty of monsters in your travels. While exploring, you need to eat food and drink water to stay alive. You need a compass to navigate, and you’ll find keys, gems, and jewels as part of your quest.

The four levels contained in The Dungeon were supposed to be the sewers under The City. Philip Price ended up leaving the game industry in the middle of The Dungeon’s development; two other programmers finished the game for Datasoft. While The City was a true breakthrough and technical achievement in 1985, The Dungeon already looked a bit dated by the time it hit the market. A review in Dragon magazine criticized both games for their excessive disk swapping, especially when just trying to save your game and then continue playing. You needed a separate blank disk just to save your character data, and it had to be a different disk than the one for your character in The City. (The same 1988 Dragon review also criticized the Mac version for not letting you copy it to a hard drive, but Atari 8-bit users didn’t expect this sort of luxury.) The same year, FTL Games released the real-time Dungeon Master on the Atari ST, with a larger view and party of four characters to control, and dungeon exploration was never the same again.

Archon: The Light and the Dark (Electronic Arts, 1983)

Archon is a game of violent chess—and I mean that as a compliment. Each side has a leader: the Wizard on the Light side, and the Sorceress on the Dark side. The game takes place on a nine-by-nine-square grid with alternating colors. It otherwise looks like a chessboard, albeit with so-called power points at the top, bottom, left, right, and center. And, as in chess, each piece has different abilities. Your goal is to either capture the five power points on the board, or defeat all of the opponent’s pieces in real-time combat.

Both of these paths to victory are trickier than they sound. Whenever two pieces occupy the same space, one side fights the other to the death. The color of the square affects how much energy each side has. So if a Light piece battles a Dark opponent on a Dark square, the light side will have fewer hit points than usual and the dark side will have more. The total also changes depending on the kind of piece it is; some just naturally have more stamina. This makes it tough to defeat a side on its native color squares (white or black).

The other complex issue is time. Time continuously progresses in the game, and shifts between day and night. This affects roughly half the squares on the board, including all of the middle squares in a cross pattern. Three of the five power points are located on these changing squares. By the time you maneuver enough pieces to capture most of the squares, the colors will turn against you—a perfect opportunity for your opponent to attack and defeat you.

Archon: The Light and the Dark continues to play well today. First developed for the Atari 8-bit by Free Fall Associates, it became one of the first games published by Electronic Arts. It offers a perfect balance of strategy, speed, and polish. And there’s no mistaking the opening music riff, with its rising introductory fanfare and bombastic theme. Several later versions of Archon attempted to update the original game, notably in 1994 with Archon Ultra (with mixed results) and in 2010 with Archon Classic (much more successfully) for the PC. There was also a short-lived iOS version.

Archon II: Adept (Electronic Arts, 1984)

Archon II: Adept changes up the main board layout and mechanics. This time around, instead of a chess-style design, the game is arranged in bands around the four elements of air, earth, fire, and water. You control one of four wizards (adepts) on each side, either Order or Chaos. The five power points are still vital to the game, maybe even more so, since there’s a greater emphasis on spell casting—you are no longer limited to one of each spell. You spend much of the game summoning various kinds of elementals and demons to fight the other side, including kraken, juggernauts, wraiths, and gorgons. There are five ways to win instead of two, including triggering an Apocalypse with a final battle in the void.

It may be a stretch to call Archon II: Adept better than its predecessor—tougher would be a more accurate word. But it’s definitely worth playing, and some even prefer it to the original. Oddly, the Commodore 64 lost its graphical advantage over the 400/800 version; the two looked pretty much identical this time around. I’ve always found this game exceedingly difficult to play, and in a good way. Today it’s interesting to look back on just how innovative this sequel was, in a world where “sequel” usually means “more of the same.” Archon II: Adept takes some of the best elements of the first game and brings the storyline to a grander, almost epic scale—even if it’s not as tightly honed as the original.

Asteroids (Atari, 1981)

In the early 1980s, you couldn’t have a home computer platform without some version of Asteroids, and Atari needed to move heaven and earth to build up the Atari 8-bit’s cartridge library in the beginning. Yet even this brain-dead-obvious choice for a port of an existing 1979 Atari coin-op took more than a year to arrive on the 400 and 800. Unfortunately, management really was convinced the 800 should be a home computer first and a game system second; it took the wild success of Star Raiders, which I’ll get to below, to get Atari to reconsider its plan for the computer lineup and put conversions like Asteroids back on the schedule.

For the three people still on the planet who haven’t played this phenomenal classic arcade game, you control a tiny ship in an asteroid field. You must clear each screen of asteroids without crashing into any of them, and destroy the small and large UFOs that appear at regular intervals to attack you. You can jump into hyperspace as a last resort to prevent a collision, but there’s no guarantee you won’t reappear in the path of a different asteroid and die anyway. The physics of your ship’s thruster and bullets felt as real when the game was released as anything you’ll play today.

Although this 8-bit Atari conversion is passable, it’s not exciting. The main problem with it, as with any Asteroids clone, is replicating the arcade version’s spotless, tack-sharp vector graphics. The 8-bit Atari does a bit better than the lower-resolution VCS in this regard, breaking up the asteroids into multiple smaller pieces when you shoot them. But its pale-blue asteroids are weird; whoever decided to use different colors for the VCS version to make up for the lower resolution was onto something. The Atari 8-bit loses out on the overall gameplay balance, though. For some strange reason, you can’t fire straight to the left or right; no matter what you do, the bullets always veer a little bit to the above or below.

Also of note is one interesting gameplay variation: Up to four people can play at once, against each other or the asteroids, thanks to the 400 and 800’s four joystick ports.

Astro Chase (First Star Software, 1982)

Astro Chase, with its smooth scrolling and attractive launch sequence screen, was one of the first third-party games to show what the 8-bit Atari was capable of. It was the first major release from the prolific (and still-in-business!) First Star Software studio, and developed by the first winner of Atari’s Star Awards for the Atari Program Exchange. Parker Brothers picked up the rights to port the game for a then-astounding $250,000 advance. The game also won awards from Electronics Games, Creative Computing, and Computer Games magazines.

This game puts you in charge of defending Earth (of course) from an alien attack (of course). You can move and fire in any of eight directions on the 2D space landscape. More important, you can fire in a direction independently of movement. This usually requires two separate joysticks, as in games like Robotron: 2084 or Space Dungeon, but Astro Chase makes it work. There are 34 levels; your goal is to destroy all 16 megamines while fighting eight different types of enemy spacecraft. The playfield is many screens wide. Four energy generators mark the furthermost corners of space, along with shield depots across the top, sides, and bottom.

Like many games for the Atari, Astro Chase came on both cassette and disk; both versions required 32KB to play. This shut out Atari 400 owners, at least before memory upgrades became available. Today, the game looks dated. The sound is weak for an Atari 8-bit title, and though moving your ship in eight directions on a wide playfield was clearly a novel feat originally, the controls feel stiff. The aforementioned launch sequence seems a little lame now, too. For a similar game, I’d recommend Sinistar or Zone Ranger over this one if you’re playing today, but Astro Chase certainly earned its place in Atari 8-bit lore.

Attack of the Mutant Camels (Llamasoft, 1983)

This horizontally scrolling shooter is essentially a clone of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes back for the VCS, except with giant camels. Talk about a weird pedigree: It’s the work of Jeff Minter, the famed game developer who designed Tempest 2000 and Defender 2000 for Atari’s Jaguar console in the early 1990s, and later, a Tempest clone called Space Giraffe for the Xbox 360.

There’s an actual plot, but it’s too complex and unrelated to the actual gameplay to bother with. Here’s what happens: During each wave, several giant camels march slowly and to the right toward your home base. Your spaceship can destroy the camels, but it takes roughly a hundred shots to kill each one. If a camel reaches your home base, it’s game over. The physics work the same way as in The Empire Strikes Back. It’s tough to keep your spacecraft in one spot, so you’ll find yourself constantly overshooting the camel target and doubling back until you get better at it. The camels also shoot multicolored bullets at you. Like I said: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back with giant camels.

It’s unclear whether Minter developed the game for the 800 or the C64 first. Either way, the 800 version is superior, thanks to its more detailed, graded backgrounds; psychedelic moving playfield lines with rapidly changing colors; and detailed, distant mountain ranges. In 2012, the Smithsonian featured this game among others in its (now ended) “The Art of Video Games” exhibit. It’s a hard game and definitely worth a look today, despite its ultimately repetitive play, and it’s another example of a title that just looks and plays better on Atari 8-bit computers.

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