The Best Atari Games of 1981
By James Grahame
I first stumbled across the Atari Video Computer System at Sears in 1978. I was amazed, but my parents regarded it with deep scepticism -- the console was expensive and the games looked like simple novelties that would be quickly forgotten. Annoyingly, they were absolutely right.
Atari managed to change their opinion in time for the 1980 holidays with the introduction of Space Invaders -- a surprisingly fun port of the arcade hit -- and a new lower price of $144.95 at JC Penny. They weren't the only ones to finally pull the trigger; Atari console sales quadrupled that year.
My parents' timing couldn't have been better, because that holiday season marked the beginning of the Atari VCS golden age. Here are my favorite Atari titles to hit store shelves three decades ago, in 1981. Interestingly, all were arcade ports.
Asteroids (1981, Brad Stewart)
Originally released in 1979, Asteroids was a challenging game to port to the 2600 because of the original's distinctive B&W vector line graphics. It turned out to be a tricky game to code and became the first VCS title to use a bank switched cartridge that allowed 8K of program code. The 2600's low resolution display gave the game a dramatically different look and feel than the arcade original, but the game play was close enough that it didn't matter -- it was a smash hit.
Missile Command (1981, Rob Fulop)
The best thing about the arcade version of Missile Command was the trackball used to aim missiles. The 2600 version had to make do with joystick control, and I'm sure many joystick shafts were broken as players subconsciously twisted their controllers harder and harder in an attempt to make the targeting cross-hairs move a bit faster across the screen. This was another VCS title that paled in comparison to the arcade original, but still offered game play that was fun enough to keep things entertaining.
Video Pinball (1981, Bob Smith)
Atari got surprising mileage from Video Pinball. It was originally released in 1978 as a coin-op, followed soon after by a standalone home console and finally the VCS port. The trick to beating the game is to stop paying attention while you play -- a good background conversation will help you to reach a high score every time (the same approach works brilliantly with Atari's Night Driver). Video Pinball looks nothing like a real pinball machine, of course, but Smith managed to simulate the physics of a real ball and the essence of the game. The biggest challenge for players was learning to use the joystick to control the flippers and plunger without nudging the table too aggressively.
Warlords (1981, Carla Meninsky)
Despite the heroic name, Warlords is actually a Breakout derivative. The playing field features four castles with protective shields under the command of a paddle controller or the computer. The cramped, fast-paced gameplay made it one of the most popular titles of the year and the ability for up to four players to join in made it great as a party game.
As good as these 1981 titles were, the best was still to come. 1982 saw the birth of Activision -- the world's first third party console developer, and perhaps Atari's biggest strategic miscalculation -- and the release of dozens of outstanding 2600 titles. But let's save those games for next year.