This article is the second in an occasional series that will highlight local multiplayer games that are available for different consoles. This article looks at the Atari 2600 – the first successful cartridge based console whose library is still growing thanks to a healthy homebrew scene that is still producing games on cartridge.
The 2600 has a large library of multiplayer games but many of them are arcade ports that have a multiplayer mode which involves turn-based play and so are basically single player games played turn about with the winner being the one with the highest score. The games in this article are exclusively 2 player simultaneous games – meaning players interact with each other directly. These came out in the early part of the console’s life before arcade ports of games like Asteroids, Space Invaders and Defender became the library mainstay. Some games here are official releases by Atari and Activision, but there are also a few choice homebrew games that benefit from technical knowledge built up over the many decades the 2600 has existed.
As before I will attempt to cover as many genres as possible so that as many tastes as possible are covered but I would encourage the reader to try all of these as they are all extremely approachable and accessible. There are only two of these games based on shooting at each other for example.
It is with the 2600 that the oft-stated claim that gameplay is more important than graphics is tested to the upmost. There are some games here that are almost 40 years old and will look primitive to 21 century gamer eyes. However they have been selected because they are still fun, and while they might not hold up to as long a gaming session as more modern games , they can still entertain people when played as a batch to provide variety over a long session.
Combat – Atari 1977
Combat is not only the pack-in game that most people got when they bought the console – it is 2 player only. Two players go head to head in 27 different setups split over 3 main game types – tank battle, bi-plane battle and jet battle. The tank game was actually an arcade game so this could be said to be an arcade port. The rules are simple – hit your opponent more times than s/he hits you before the timer runs out (just over 2mins). The main attraction is probably the tank based games, played in an arena with a top down view. You can play in an open field or with one of 2 simple maze layouts. Bullets are steerable or can ricochet off the walls (called Tank Pong) depending on the game setup. There is also an invisible option whereby tanks are made briefly visible when they shoot or bounce off a wall. The bi-plane and jet games are played on a wrap-around playfield with the planes automatically moving and the players only having to worry about steering and shooting, though you can also adjust the speed slightly. Bi-plane matches are viewed side on and move slower, while the jet battles are overhead and are a deal faster. Variations include formations of plane (2vs2 or 1v3 etc.) and there is also the option of having 2 clouds on the screen that obscure any plane while in them. The Tank Pong games are probably the best of the bunch but they are all entertaining. The 2min game time is just right (it’s actually 2’16” and the score flashes for the last 10 secs or so to let players know time is almost up) so if there are more than two players then you can have a good laugh playing winner stays on.
Warlords / Medieval Mayhem – Atari 1981 / Homebrew 2006
This is another arcade port and a very successful one. It’s main draw is that it supports up to 4 players simultaneously using the paddle controllers. It’s looks as if it was partially inspired by a very early Pong derivative called Quadrapong in which 4 players guard their own goal each located on one side of the screen and get knocked out of the game when they let so many balls in their goal. Warlords puts the players’ targets (called kings) in the corners and adds a wall of bricks that protect them that are removed Breakout style when the ball hits them – you are out of the current round when the ball hits your king. The game also supports less than 4 players by adding in CPU opponents but they are pretty mindless on the 2600 game. The game makes up for this by providing a doubles mode for 2 players that has each player having 2 kings each to protect and control of 2 guards which works pretty well. The 2006 update to this game is an impressive upgrade – the arcade game adds in extra balls and the old 2600 port didn’t have that feature but the homebrew update does and also provides decent CPU opponents. But the best way to play this game, just like the original , is with four players. It’s one of the best single screen multi-player games ever on any console – up there with the likes of Bomberman – and the 2600’s paddle control means it’s really the only way to properly play it.
Surround – Atari 1977
Remember the snake game on Nokia phones? Well imagine a 2 player version of that in which you have to box your opponent in – first to 10 wins. That’s the brutal simplicity of this game which was an Atari 2600 launch title and is an obvious inspiration of the light cycle scene in Tron. There was actually an ancient arcade game called Blockade on which this was based – but I suspect more people played this. The game throws in some variations such as steadily increasing speed, wrap-around, and diagonal moves along with a stupid game breaking option – the ability to not leave a trail behind you (a rare mis-step and perhaps the result of Atari’s infamous Friday pot and hottub parties). It looks and sounds primitive but it’s simply brilliant fun. There’s a retarded versus CPU mode which is a waste of time and a Video Graffiti mode which just lets you draw on the screen – an indicator of the sophistication of gamers of the day and the power of the novelty of interacting with a TV – but – this is a great tactical game of skill that remains highly playable today in spite of the primitive graphics and sounds.
Falldown – Homebrew 2005
This is despite the late release, a really simple game that fits into the early 2600 library very well. Players race down the screen – the display of which is made up of a series of platforms that scroll vertically, each with one or two gaps in them that allow you to drop to the platform below. It’s a race to the bottom – and a player wins when the opponents gets pushed off the screen by getting left behind. Sometimes only one player can fit through the gap at the same time. The gaps appear at random and the screen wraps around allowing a player to use that to take a shortcut which , along with some speed powerups, enables a player who has fallen behind to easily catch up. It provides an excellent challenging 2 player game. It being a modern release it looks as good as a 2600 game can and it also provides a challenging vs CPU mode. But of course as always, it’s when played against another person that it’s at its best.
Fishing Derby – Activision 1980
Fishing isn’t the first “sport” one would think would make for a good videogame. Sega’s arcade Bass Fishing games provide some entertainment but those appeared in the late 90s. This is an early Activision game – one of the first batch of games published by them when they broke away from Atari. It is a straight race game – either against another player or the CPU – which provides some decent level of competition, but of course it’s nothing like as enjoyable as when played against another human. Players are presented with an array of fish with the deeper ones scoring more points. The aim is to land 99pts before your opponent. There is a shark just below the surface of the water that will randomly swim around and eat any fish you have on the line. It’s simple game but it makes pretty good use of the 2600’s capabilities to create a quite pleasing game display and it proves to be a compulsive and competitive game and provides a quite original experience on the 2600.
Dodge ’em – Atari 1980
This is an early maze game that pre-dates Pacman but is quite similar in that is an “eat the dots” type of game. It is a lot more primitive in that the maze is reduced to a series of simple concentric tracks that the player has to drive a car around to gather all the dots. There are 4 junctions at which cars can change tracks but otherwise the car travels in one direction. In one player mode, the player’s car travels anti-clockwise around the tracks and the CPU car travels in the opposite direction, trying to crash into the player’s car. The game of course has a 2 player mode that is of a take turns style of play but there is a 3rd mode in which players take turns at gathering points while the other controls the “crash car”. It’s an entertaining, simple game but provides a slightly different twist on the old Pacman style of play.
Freeway – Activision 1981
This game tasks the player with guiding a chicken across a multilane motorway – the aim being to see how many you get across within the time limit. There are several different traffic patterns that provide different levels of difficulty. You can only move the chicken back and forth – no sideways movement is allowed. It’s a enjoyable but ultimately very simplistic game that doesn’t provide much more than a few minutes of entertainment as a solo game – but adding a second player makes all the difference as you see who can get the most across in the allotted time. Two player mode is simultaneous and it can get pretty frantic – transforming the game into a quite competitive experience.
Tennis – Activision 1981
It’s really easy to look at this game and believe it to be incredibly primitive. It is too easy to dismiss this game as just a variant on Pong with a change of view and a nice slap of fake 3D paint applied to it. The game controls are ludicrously simple. You only have to press the button to serve. After that the ball is hit automatically – so making it feel at first even more like a tarted up Pong. But nothing could be further from the truth.
When someone starts to play this against the CPU it is like playing against a brick wall. At first it is hard to win a point, never mind a game. The more you play, the more you start to see how important position is. It dictates whether you play the equivalent of a forehand of backhand shot which has a big input into the direction you return the ball. Also the game detects which part of the racket makes contact and there are several different angles of return that can be used this way.
Timing is important too; as is the height of the ball. Hit it when it is high and you get better speed – and better angles. But to be able to have the time to wait until the ball is higher means predicting the opponent and being in the right position early.
This is a masterpiece of game design. A real gem in the Activision library providing an excellent 2 player game. Atari brought out Realsports Tennis 2 years later and it has similar depth but with a bit more graphical polish.
Outlaw / Gunfight – Atari 1978 / Homebrew 2001
Boot Hill is a very old arcade game that had players controlling their own cowboy gunslinger, the winner being whoever could get the most kills. Outlaw was Atari’s own early port of this game. It mixed gameplay up a bit with limited ammo options and put some obstacles in the way to make shooting more challenging. There are also ricochet shots as an option too. It’s a very primitive game nowadays – the player characters are very large and don’t have much room for manoeuvre and is quite limited in its appeal even for retro game fans. The 2001 remake is a far more advanced version of the game with smaller player characters which opens the game area up a great deal and makes for simple but enjoyable gameplay.
Maze Craze – Atari 1978
The clue is in the name. This is a maze game in its purest form and like Combat is really only a 2 player game. Gameplay is brutally simple – a maze is displayed on screen and players control a red and blue block – first to reach the exit wins. A new maze is generated at random every time so you never run out of levels to play. Gameplay is further enhanced by a suite of options that really push the basic game idea as far as is possible. Depending on the variation you can leave false walls behind you, avoid randomly moving blocks, pick up randomly moving blocks before exiting, have invisible mazes or partially visible mazes. There is also a chase mode – with one trying to catch the other before they escape. All of these options can be combined and it creates over 200 different gameplay scenarios. It’s a very simple game but provides plenty of entertainment for 2 people.
Overall, the 2600 is at its core a local multiplayer machine. It was built in the era of family and friends playing together in the same room. Its early library are in the main multi-player games only with 2 , 3 and 4 players catered for in many cases. This is a reflection of the arcade experience at the time which was only really transformed by the arrival of Space Invaders in 1978-9 which presented a true player vs machine challenge and had a 2 player mode tacked on as a taking turns game – which ultimately took over the arcade and the Atari home library. As a side note it’s worth noting that the 2600 port of Space Invaders features a clutch of 2 player simultaneous versus and co-op modes that are worth checking out.
Despite these games being rather primitive and looking it too, they will provide simple entertainment for anyone with an open mind to look past the graphics. While one game might not hold modern day gamers’ attention for a long time, playing a selection of these games will fill an afternoon or evening session for a group of people. It’s a bit of a pity that these simple game mechanics haven’t received a great deal of attention from modern game developers as they could provide plenty of local and online entertainment with appropriate updates to graphical presentation and underlying rules.
To get the best out of the 2600, always check the manual. These are available online at atariage.com. Many interesting modes and options are explained in these manuals. 2600 game developers didn’t have the luxury of being able to use ROM space to code up an options or menu screen so game options are selected by picking the relevant game number. The default game (no.1) is quite often the most simplistic and rarely the best option – especially in the early library – so be sure to make the effort to refer to the game manuals to get the most out of the games.
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