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Help me learn to love the Atari 2600!


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#1 Kyle Orland OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Apr 23, 2011 1:48 PM

Hello Atari Age forumites,

So I've got what you might think is an odd request: I want to learn what makes the Atari 2600 special, and I want you to help me.

A little backstory: I grew up in the late '80s playing the NES obsessively, and have been a devoted gamer ever since, even writing about games for a living (http://www.kyleorland.com for my clips).

I know the Atari 2600 is near and dear to a lot of people's hearts, but I've just never seen the appeal. Even when compared to my beloved NES, the games seem overly simple and relatively ugly, to me. Obviously I don't have any pleasant childhood memories associated with the system, so the nostalgia factor is working against me, but that doesn't seem to stop people from enjoying classic films, opera, classical music, etc. Why can't I learn to love the gems of the Atari 2600 library in the same way?

So I'm keeping my mind open and setting out to do just that. That's where you come in. As experts in the Atari 2600, I hope you can help guide me to the best the system has to offer, and help me appreciate it in the context of the time it came from (now lost to me forever).

To start with, I need help actually getting a system and games (I figure playing on a fancy monitor/HDTV with an emulator just won't do, and things like the Flashback don't have the range of games I want to try). So, a few questions:

* Does it matter which model of the hardware I get?
* Do I need a paddle controller and a joystick? Two of each?
* Where is a good place to get it? eBay? Craigslist?
* What's a fair price for the hardware and some relatively common games?
* Is there anything I should be particularly wary of when buying a system?
* What should my first Atari game(s) be? (I've already seen the 100 best games thread)
* Does anybody out there want to sell/loan me what I need, by any chance?

Once that's all set, and I start playing the games, I hope to get a dialog going with you guys regarding my initial impressions and how they will almost inevitably differ from yours.

Thanks in advance for your help, and I can't wait to dive in.

P.S. I should note here that I'm planning to publish the results of my adventure in classic game appreciation on The Escapist (http://www.escapistmagazine.com) so I may republish anything posted in this thread in that article. If you want to remain anonymous/off-the-record for any reason, send me a private message or an e-mail to kyle.orland -AT- gmail.com and say so.

#2 Cynicaster OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Apr 23, 2011 2:01 PM

My $.02:


* Does it matter which model of the hardware I get?
Depends on what you're after. If you just want to play the games, then not really. If you care about "rarity" or "collector value", etc. then there are variations of the system that are sought after for those things. My opinion is that the units with the 6 switches are the nicest to use. The hardware section of this website can give you a crash course on what the different models are.


* Do I need a paddle controller and a joystick? Two of each?
You definitely need to get a good set of paddles to get the full 2600 experience. They come in pairs, so one set plugs into one input. If you plug them in and the controls are shaky on the screen, you need to clean the pot in the paddles. Plenty of info on the net on how that's done. Two joysticks recommended as well, so you can play two player games.


* Where is a good place to get it? eBay? Craigslist?
I've never bought Atari stuff on eBay because I find the prices atrocious most of the time. I'd recommend at least checking your local classifieds, thrift shops, video game stores, etc. I think it's becoming increasingly more rare to find good Atari deals using this route but if you find something you'll probably be able to save some cash (if for no other reason than you won't have to pay for shipping).


* What's a fair price for the hardware and some relatively common games?
I'd say $50 should be plenty to get you a fully working system, some controllers, and a few games.

* Is there anything I should be particularly wary of when buying a system?
The only thing I can think of is somebody trying to misrepresent which version of the system you're buying. For instance, make sure you know the difference between a "light sixer" and a "heavy sixer", the latter of which is more collectible.


* What should my first Atari game(s) be? (I've already seen the 100 best games thread)
This is a thread in itself, but to make a broad statement, start with some Activision titles.

* Does anybody out there want to sell/loan me what I need, by any chance?
Nope. :)


EDIT: There is one other thing I wanted to mention. This is personal preference, but IMO the best Atari 2600 games are games that were designed for the system as opposed to arcade ports. Not that there aren't some very decent "old school" arcade ports (Millipede, Missile Command, Ms. Pac-Man), but when they tried to bring some later games to the system I think the results were pretty crappy (Rampage, Double Dragon). Activision, which I mentioned earlier, has many great non-arcade-port titles (Frostbite, Pressure Cooker, Enduro, Keystone Kapers, Stampede, Megamania, and many more).

Edited by Cynicaster, Sat Apr 23, 2011 2:07 PM.


#3 ScumSoft OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Apr 23, 2011 2:36 PM

I enjoy the challenge it poses to programmers. The limitations of the console cause one to think outside the box in order to perform the simplest of things.
Because of this, the reward of creating a fully working title is something to be VERY proud of and says allot about the hardships the original developers faced.
I tip my hat to every person whose managed to created a published product.
batariBasic doesn't count, that's cheating :D (Well...not really but it's far simpler to use than ASM)

My appeal is academic. I have some nostalgia from having one when I was little, but I only enjoy a handful of games on it. Most Activision titles are amazing programming feats and really show what the console can do, back when Activision was a cool company. Most known programing tricks for this console were taken from Activision titles! so I second the recommendation to check them out.

#4 wongojack ONLINE  

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Posted Sat Apr 23, 2011 3:12 PM

Personally, I don't think that its really possible to appreciate the Atari 2600 without understanding and having some appreciation for the arcade phenomenon that was going on during its heyday. The 2600 and its games were often direct ports of arcade games as Cynicaster points out, but even those that weren't had the same qualities as the great arcade titles.

For example,
-In most arcade games the point of the game is to achieve the highest score possible
-The player will almost always die or fail at some point in the game which ends the game
-Gameplay was made more difficult by requiring more fast twitch response from the player as levels increased
-Players weren't rewarded in game by animations, instead you were rewarded outside of the game by your friends and peers in the arcade
(others can add more)

The 2600 wanted to bring the above arcade experience into the home. Atari had great success with this in the form of Pong, so they wanted to expand on that. This worked great on the 2600 from about 1978 to 1982 (what would be considered a long time for most consoles). Atari became the fastest growing company in history, but during that time, the differences between console gaming and arcade gaming started to become obvious. The absence of the arcade atmosphere removed some of the enjoyment of achieving high scores (that could never be saved), and players wanted a deeper single player experience. Toward the end of the life of the console you see games that reward exploration and let you achieve goals much like a NES side scroller would, but in the heyday of the console what pushed gameplay was high score.

So with that being said, you need to set yourself up to succeed. Try to enjoy some of the top 100 with another player. Encourage yourself to enjoy mastering the game in order to compete with someone else. In this era of gaming, graphics and sound effects were often overlooked if you had a score rivalry with a close friend.

Don't give up! Difficulty can be punishing on some of these, but thats simply because the games are small. To keep a player interested, the game had to be difficult. Try to learn some tricks to help you succeed "If I position the ship here at the beginning of the level I can shoot 3 right away"

Change the difficulty settings and play the different game variations to try and keep the game fresh. Compared to modern games there really isn't much in these. If you are lucky there is more than one static screen, so you should use the game variations and varying difficulty options to change things up. Read the manuals so that you know what the variations are. You can find most of the manuals here on AtariAge.

IMO: games that really did a good job with the arcade experience were:
Space Invaders <- you must try the 2 player simultaneous variation
Warlords <- gotta try to get 3 others to play this with you
Asteroids <- If you've got a friend go with a high score competition on this one
Combat <- Try with 2 players - there are a ton of game variations

Activision games that you should try
Kaboom! <- Paddle-tastic
Chopper Command <- Keep the difficulty switch on easy
River Raid <- Lemme try once more to get farther
Pitfall <- Explore the area with a friend taking turns playing. You go one way, he/she goes the other. When you've explored enough, see who can last the longest and get the most points, then compare your 'route'

Games that started the progression to the next era
Pitfall II (and Pitfall)
Montezuma's Revenge
Hero
Stargate (because of the controls)

When I'm playing older games with a younger player, I like to stagger the gameplay where one of us plays 2x, then the next player gets 2 chances to beat his high score. If he does then player 1 gets one more chance to improve and after that, player 2 gets a final chance to win the high score duel. Once each of you has played up to 3 times, you move on to a new game. This adds some 'meta' gaming to the mix and gives you a time when you are expecting to stop playing a given game. That way if one of you really doesn't like it then you know its going to end soon.

I'm sure you know about emulation, so I'll just say that it is an alternative if you can't get your hands on the machine or certain carts. There is also a device called a Harmony Cart that lets you play ROMs through your 2600 hardware. It has its own forum on these boards.

#5 fiddlepaddle OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 6:00 AM

"Do I need a paddle..."

This question single-handedly explains why you haven't yet learned to love the 2600. Kaboom, Circus, Astrosmash, and (best with a friend) Video Olympics (Pong) and Warlords, will make a believer of you, or else you are a hopeless case.

P.S. Paddles normally come in pairs.

#6 atarigal OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 7:18 AM

"Do I need a paddle..."

This question single-handedly explains why you haven't yet learned to love the 2600. Kaboom, Circus, Astrosmash, and (best with a friend) Video Olympics (Pong) and Warlords, will make a believer of you, or else you are a hopeless case.

P.S. Paddles normally come in pairs.


I would also add Super Breakout to the list. :D

#7 Random Terrain OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 8:10 AM

Help me learn to love the Atari 2600!

Did anyone mention lube yet? :D

#8 Zach OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 8:14 AM

Read Racing the Beam.

#9 toiletunes OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 8:21 AM

To fully appreciate the VCS, examine what came before the VCS- check out some 1960's pinball, move on to the early arcade games, and follow up with home pong-type consoles. Study the games in (roughly) chronological order- it's no fair trying to compare Video Olympics to Road Runner.

Learn about programming, here's a great place to start:
http://www.atariage....le-of-contents/
then look at some of the games and try to figure out how the programmer made it possible.

Collecting is fun- Once you know where to look, it's not too hard to build up a large collection without spending a ton of cash. Plus, you can play your collection (unlike those who collect porcelain cows or whatever).

#10 godzillajoe OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 8:30 AM

I think it's one of those "you had to be there" things.

For me, a lot of it is nostalgia, sure.

But these days after learning a bit about how the hardware works, it's appreciation for what the little system designed to play Pong was able to crank out in the right hands.

And the fact that a lot of these ugly, repetitive games have major kick ass replay value and don't require 40 hrs. a day to play through.

Edited by godzillajoe, Sun Apr 24, 2011 8:30 AM.


#11 accousticguitar OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 8:40 AM

IMO: games that really did a good job with the arcade experience were:
Space Invaders <- you must try the 2 player simultaneous variation
Warlords <- gotta try to get 3 others to play this with you
Asteroids <- If you've got a friend go with a high score competition on this one
Combat <- Try with 2 players - there are a ton of game variations

Activision games that you should try
Kaboom! <- Paddle-tastic
Chopper Command <- Keep the difficulty switch on easy
River Raid <- Lemme try once more to get farther
Pitfall <- Explore the area with a friend taking turns playing. You go one way, he/she goes the other. When you've explored enough, see who can last the longest and get the most points, then compare your 'route'

Don't forget Starmaster (for Activision) and Millipede (Atari). :)

#12 Random Terrain OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 8:43 AM

Learn about programming, here's a great place to start:
http://www.atariage....le-of-contents/

This will be a great place to start too, once I get done with all of the pages:

www.randomterrain.com/atari-2600-memories.html#assembly_language

#13 accousticguitar OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 8:52 AM

* Does it matter which model of the hardware I get?
Not really. Sometimes the older models will have problems with the cartridges being difficult to insert or remove.

* Do I need a paddle controller and a joystick? Two of each?
At least 2 joysticks and a set of paddles.

* Where is a good place to get it? eBay? Craigslist?
You can make a request in the wanted section of the marketplace or look around for one that's already for sale there.

* What's a fair price for the hardware and some relatively common games?
Depends on the model and how many games. $30 and up I suppose plus shipping. I figure the common games are worth about $1 each.

* Is there anything I should be particularly wary of when buying a system?
Just make sure it's tested and working. Again, the marketplace here is usually a good place to find good working models. Ataris are tough for the most part, but they are 20 to 34 years old now.

* What should my first Atari game(s) be? (I've already seen the 100 best games thread)
That's a tough question. I personally like the arcade ports. Games like Asteroids, Space Invaders, Missile Command, Berzerk, Combat, Warlords, Star Raiders, Stargate, Millipede, etc. Of course, Adventure is my favorite game of all time and it's not an arcade game. :)

* Does anybody out there want to sell/loan me what I need, by any chance?
The only extra game carts I have right now are Pac-Man and Frogger. :lol:

#14 Zach OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 8:56 AM

Don't forget homebrews. When I taught programming in high school the kids' favorite games were Medieval Mayhem and Man Goes Down.

#15 Amstari OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 9:53 AM

The objective in a lot of games on the NES was to finish the game, but many 2600 games don't have an end, the goal is to improve your high score.

I would recommend getting a Harmony Cart to help with your research (http://harmony.atariage.com/) this way you can play the games on the original hardware and also play some homebrew games.

Join in the 2600 high score club (http://www.atariage....igh-score-club/). There are some games you will hate at first but after playing them in the high score club for a week you start to really enjoy them. I don't get anywhere near the high scores of other players but it is great because I've played games I haven't played much before.

Back when I was a kid playing Atari we didn't have a lot of games so you played the hell out of the ones you had and they were all fun.

And as Zach said read "Racing the Beam".






#16 Gorfy OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 10:22 AM

Definitely read Racing the Beam by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost. They do a great job of addressing both the cultural and the technical accomplishments of the Atari VCS. In doing so, the book addresses in depth six specific game cartridges: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yar's Revenge, Pitfall, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. A good idea is to start with these six games and play along as you read the book.

Enjoy.

#17 RevEng OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 10:23 AM

I grew up as a gamer from the days of dedicated pong systems until the modern consoles of today - the core 2600 experience is nothing like that of the NES or systems that came later. In much the same way that some people can't appreciate certain art movements because they can't broaden their horizon of what art is, some people will simply be unable to appreciate the 2600 experience.

View it as a different kind of gaming, rather than an old style of gaming. It's not helpful to your gaming experience to say that board games or card games have primitive graphics compared to the PS3. It's also pointless to make similar comparisons with 2600 games; they have sufficient graphics to deliver an experience that at the best of times is equal parts zen, minimalism, and pure joy.

#18 potatohead OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 12:36 PM

The vcs is iconic. When it was released people everywhere recognized it for the excellent design it was. Much better systems soon followed, but the vcs with it's many limitations and trade offs had a real time feel that was compelling and is compelling today.

Get a paddle and play kaboom. I mean play it and really try. If all goes as it does for most, a new door will open in your mind where thought becomes action and you will be hooked. That kind of basic experience is a lot of what the vcs is all about.

On a technical level, the machine is just enough to capture the essence of gaming. Less and it would have died off. More and it would lose that feel most of love.

The story is great! The simple software driven hardware is intriguing because the harder we work for it, the more the system does. 30 years of this and here we are today still making it do stuff that was not even on the table back in the day. It has been fun to watch.

Finally, the older ones feel good. Controllers are numerous and the asthetics are solid and techy in a distinctive old school way.

#19 potatohead OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 12:39 PM

Al, thanks for the nice mobile theme. It rocks and sorry all for the messy post above. I'm on the go at the moment just trying AA out on my crapberry.

#20 Rom Hunter OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 2:08 PM

Learning to love the VCS is learning to love the period it was released in.

The amazing fact that for the first time you could control something on your television screen.

The evolution of the games in the arcades that were then brought to your living room.

The fact that for the first time you could actually play against a virtual opponent (and have fun with it).

The whole seventies eighties nostalgia that is connected with it (I still remember playing VCS games while The Reflex from Duran Duran was coming out of our radio).

The ubelievable fact that there was a whole game inside a so called ROMPACK that you could carry with you and borrow from friends.

The fact that you were really challenged to go for a personal high score.

Etc.

8)

#21 Zach OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 2:31 PM

Hey, speaking of Duran Duran, I'm not the only one who as a child made Pitfall Harry dance into the fire, right? :ponder:

#22 Rom Hunter OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 3:04 PM

Hey, speaking of Duran Duran, I'm not the only one who as a child made Pitfall Harry dance into the fire, right? :ponder:

LOL

I was already "playing" this one:
http://www.gb64.com/game.php?id=8402

when that song came out.

8)

#23 ibogost OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 7:44 PM

Thanks to Zach and Gorfy for recommending my book :D

#24 keithbk OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 9:23 PM

There are some games that are truly fun from the original lineup (I know there are many from the current homebrews, but I want to focus on classic).

On top of the list that people have been suggesting, I want to add some of the fun racing games that are worth a shot. Enduro is one of the absolute best racing games for the Atari, but I am also a big fan of Night Driver and Pole Position. Sure, Night Driver is VERY simplistic and crude graphically, but it really is a fun racer.

Personally, Adventure is one of my favorite games ever made for the Atari, but I want to emphasize that the game manual is as much a part of the game to me as the game itself. I think if you just pop the Adventure cartridge into the Atari without ever reading the manual, you've only experienced half the game. Why? Because the manual sets the stage and imagination for the actual game.

I'm a big Superman fan too, so I really love Atari's Superman game. Whenever I play my Atari, Superman is a must.

And you might want to try Atari Hangman. I find it surprisingly fun and different.

#25 almightytodd OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Apr 24, 2011 10:11 PM

I would echo the comments made by Godzilla Joe and ROM Hunter that the true appreciation of the 2600 is based on the context of the era of its introduction. Before it was called the "2600", it was known as the "Video Computer System" or "VCS". That is important, because for many households world-wide, this represented the first time when a general-purpose CPU (...the MOS 6507; a variant of the 6502 that powered the NES) could be owned in a consumer electronics entertainment device. Just eight years earlier, Disney's motion picture, "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes" opened with a scene where the dean of a small college is arguing with one of his professors that a computer was a luxury that the college simply could not afford. In 1969, computers were something that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and were used in the space program to work out the mathematics of navigating a space ship to the Moon.

Not only did the VCS bring the arcade video-game experience into the home, in certain ways it surpassed it. Most coin-op games of that era were still in black-and-white. And the use of a microprocessors in coin-op games did not become common until the late 1970's, beginning with the Intel 8080-based "Space Invaders" (...also a black-and-white graphics machine). It was the beginning of a new era where computers became a part of our daily lives.

The fact that the VCS displayed graphics and sound on a home color TV, and that it was programmable; by virtue of plugging ROM circuits into the cartridge slot, gave the machine an unprecedented and unmatched life-span. And the fact that new games continue to be created by home-brewers to this day is a testament to the genius of its design. It is impossible to really gain an appreciation of the VCS by comparing it to the Nintendo - that would be like comparing a Ford Model T to a 1967 Mustang; both have an important place in the history of automotive design, but the Model T was ground-breaking in that it represented a new way of assembling automobiles to make them affordable to the masses.

In a similar manner to how the Mustang created a new classification of performance automobile, the NES revitalized the home video-game console industry at a time when some thought that it was just a fad that had run its course. And remember, the 2600 continued to be available throughout the life-span of the NES and into the first few years of the Super NES.

For those of us who lived through this period of history I think there's a kind of innate understanding that we have that may be difficult to communicate the generations who came after.




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