High Five #7 - The Five Best Activision Games for Atari 2600

Continuing our "Vintage Gaming" run of High Fives, here's a second look back down memory lane - this time, to the Atari 2600.

The 2600 was groundbreaking and ubiquitous. Everyone, it seemed, had one. (Except for one of my friends, who had an Intellivision - a topic for another High Five.)

And there were LOTS of games available for the 2600. Wikipedia says 565 in total, and I have no reason to doubt them.

(Of course, back then a cartridge would claim that it contained 5 "games" if you were allowed to adjust the difficulty to make the ball move at 5 different speeds. So it's an unverified number. But there were hundreds of individual cartridges.)

I was about 8 when I got my Atari, and almost immediately, we realized that the best games were being made by Activision.

Activision had their branding down. Brightly colored labels, with the game title in white. A cohesive art style on the front. Just awesome. 

Activision was originally formed by 5 people - Atari programmers David Crane, Alan Miller, Bob Whitehead, and Larry Kaplan, and CEO Jim Levy.

I don't know how Activision managed to fit so many sprites - so much color - into each game with all of the 2600's limitations. It's like trying to paint a masterpiece while blindfolded and drunk. 

And succeeding. Succeeding *constantly*. I don't know that any game maker has ever had a run like Activision did from 1982-1984. Their game designers got their names front-and-center, and they deserved it. 

This is the first time I've been tempted to expand the High Five concept - I'm making a "Greatest Activision Games for the Atari 2600" list, and I'm leaving some stone-cold classics off the list.  

I could expand this list to 10, and it would probably include 8 of the best games ever created for the Atari 2600. Alas, the ones that missed the cut will have to settle for the Honorable Mentions. 

But hey, I don't make the rules here. Off we go:

5. Chopper Command (1982, Bob Whitehead)

I went back and forth on this entry between Chopper Command and Seaquest. They're incredibly similar games. 

Same sunset (although Chopper Command obscured it with mountains.) Enemies attacking from both sides. 
Chopper Command
Bottom line - Chopper Command was first, and a bit more iconic. Designed by Bob Whitehead - who had previously designed "Home Run" and "Football" for the Atari. Look at those games, and then Chopper Command... and that was only a couple of years later.

Chopper Command was a bit like Defender - scrolling left or right, with the screen shifting when you reverse field, and protecting a group of allies on the ground. 

Seaquest (By Steve Cartwright, who also did Megamania, and later, Tiger Woods Golf) had the "Oxygen running out" concept, which was also awesome - especially because you could just stick the periscope up for oxygen, without fully surfacing. And it had the "rescue the divers" action - often with sharks nibbling their feet. 

Still... it's Chopper Command. It had a scrolling backdrop, and a convoy of trucks to protect. And, it had that cool radar that showed where enemies (and friends) were located offscreen. 

4. Enduro (1983, Larry Miller)

This game blew my seven-year-old mind. Not only were you driving a race car - you were driving it all night

Enduro was a bit like Pole Position - a racecar driving game with a view from behind your car, which remains stationary in the bottom middle of the screen. 

You'd start in the daytime, and then through the snow. Then the sun would start to set... and before long, you could only see headlights. Then the sun started to rise - and then the fog set in and you could only see directly in front of your car. Then the morning, and the sprint to the finish. 
You needed to pass a set number of cars each day in order to continue - I don't know that I ever made it to Day 3. 

If you could make it to Day 5, a trophy would pop up instead of flags. If you took a photo of the trophy, Activision would send you a patch. 

More game companies should offer patches.

3. Robot Tank (1983, Alan Miller)

Robot Tank was, basically, Battlezone. But instead of vector graphics and a night-time setting, you got full sprites and battles taking place in the day, night, rain, snow, and fog.

Robot Tank was by Alan Miller, another of the original Activision programmers. He eventually left, with Bob Whitehead, to form Accolade - he eventually became it's CEO. 

Robot Tank

What really set Robot Tank apart was how you took damage. Taking hits could cause a tank tread to go out. It could disable your radar. It could mess up your cannon. It could even knock out your video, leaving you with nothing but the radar to work with. Too much damage, and the screen would go haywire as your tank was destroyed. 

We used to build couch cushion forts around the TV to play this one. Full immersion gaming experience!

2. River Raid (1982, Carol Shaw)

River Raid was a vertically scrolling jet battle - you flew above a river, attacking boats and enemy planes and bridges. 

Designed by Carol Shaw, who is believed to be the first female game designer, River Raid was actually banned in West Germany for being overly militaristic. 

River Raid
The "river" must have been some kind of Death Star-type trench, and your airplane's top altitude must have been about 10 feet - because your airplane crashed into boats, and if you tried to leave the river and fly over land, your plane would explode. 

You had to watch your fuel - and could fill up by flying over the gas canisters floating in the river.  It doesn't make sense that the enemies would leave you so much fuel, but this is a videogame. In 1982.

30 years later, our video game characters heal instantly by eating turkey legs that they find on the ground in a filthy alley.

1. Pitfall! (1982, David Crane) / Pitfall II (1984, David Crane) 

All right. I cheated. But these two games are so similar that they really go hand-in-hand. They share a protagonist and most of the same graphics. 

Pitfall! invented the idea of the side-to-side adventure game. Pitfall! II took all of the innovations from its predecessor, and perfected the genre. 

David Crane is the guy who had the idea to leave Atari and form Activision in 1979. He developed the "Running Guy" that would appear in Pitfall! as "Pitfall Harry", and would later appear in "Decathlon" (aka "The Joystick Breaker"). 

Pitfall! was an absolute sensation. It sold 4 million copies. It's probably the most important game that Activision ever developed. 

But my favorite game that Activision ever developed - and the true #1 game on this list - is "Pitfall! II: The Lost Caverns", which just pushes the 2600 farther than anyone thought possible. 

While it borrowed quite a bit from Pitfall!, including the sprites for its main character, it was an honest-to-goodness RPG-style platformer. Running on 1970's hardware. I still can't believe this game exists. 

The game starts off looking exactly like Pitfall! Harry is in the same jungle, standing on the left-side of the screen, with a subterranean tunnel beneath his feet. 

But before too long, you drop into the tunnels below.... and suddenly, Harry is - swimming? And falling off of a waterfall? 

Pitfall! II - Things just got interesting.
Soon, you recognize that the caverns aren't just 1, or even 2-3 stories deep - they're more like 20 screens deep. You're trying to save your niece and a "cowardly sidekick cat" (which, if memory serves, was named Quickclaw.) And depending on how you finished the game, there was even a secret ending.

HONORABLE MENTION: Seaquest (just missed the cut), H.E.R.O., Decathlon (may have made the High Five if that 1,500 meter run wasn't in the game), Megamania, Starmaster (for use of the Black/White - Color switch to access the star map). 


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