#2 Combat, #3 Video Pinball, #4 Kaboom! (Atari 2600)
1970's TV games allowing the family to play Pong was one thing, the Atari 2600 was something different altogether. It still delivered the "family playing together" experience (indeed many first gen titles have no 1 player mode and quite a few offer 4 player modes) but now there was a whole library of games to choose from. It was the first truly programmable console and required you to plug in a cartridge - each one delivering a unique game (at least in theory!) The early days of the 2600 were about the family playing together - and nothing like it was really seen again until the Wii came along.
The first time I laid eyes on a 2600 was in an electrical appliance outlet. It was in amongst the TVs and music centres - and it was set up to play. I was with my brother and 2 cousins and the 2600 was running with the pack-in game Combat - a 2 player only collection of games that lets you go one-on-one against each other in tanks, bi-planes and jets. One point for a hit - highest score after 2min 16 secs is the winner. A simple formula that really does stoke up competitiveness and with enough variations (27 in all) from the basic gameplay to keep up the interest.
The 4 of us were eventually chucked out of the shop after I don't know how long. We stood blinking in the sunlight, drunk from the experience. It was a full-on interactive combat game. That's something we take for granted now but then it was a revolutionary experience. Even the mighty Space Invaders in the arcade didn't provide the one-on-one thrills that this did despite the cruder visuals.
I was hooked at that point - I had to have one. The at-the-time price of £100 was simply beyond my dreams - it may have well been £1 million.
It was some time later (it may have been a year or so) that I learned that my parents had been putting a small amount aside since I was born in a savings plan that would mature when I was 16. The amount due would be in excess of £100 and I was promised that amount, my parents keeping the rest. That was it. I can't remember how long I had to wait but it felt like an eternity. Newspaper ads were pored over, as were mail order catalogues that had started to offer the 2600 and its games with ludicrous credit arrangements that were to be avoided.
I can still remember the long night before the cheque arrived - the money was barely in my possession for 5mins as the shop selling the 2600 was just around the corner from the bank.
This was no passing fad - that old 2600 was kept for years and was played most days - and it was part of the spark that got me into an IT career.
The basic 2 player vs gameplay of Combat means it still packs a punch even today and the simplistic graphics actually hold up as well. I introduced this old console with Combat to my nephews and nieces - the smirks and laughter at the idea of a cartridge game and the single button controller where soon replaced with squeals of enjoyment. There is a point in a Combat game when the scores start to flash which indicates that time is nearly up. Such a simple idea really had a big effect on these kids - shouts of excitement, screams and running on the spot accompanied the final seconds of some games and bragging rights were enthusiastically exercised. There is nowhere to hide with this game - if you lose its because your opponent is better than you. It really opened my eyes to what a primitive but well designed game can do even for the current generation.
I've been playing two other games for the console this week - Video Pinball and Kaboom!
Video Pinball is a very early title for the 2600 and the visuals and sounds are quite crude even for the time. The pinball game genre is a bit of an oddity - pinball players prefer the real thing - and many gamers tend to find it all a bit pointless - but I find the genre entertaining nonetheless. The strength of this title comes from the fact that the hardware can't possibly recreate a pinball machine - instead it delivers an odd bat and ball type of game squeezed into a pinball game layout. It isn't a bad game at all - even today. There are several features to the table to go for and you actually have a fair degree of control as you can nudge the ball around quite a bit (too much and you tilt and your turn ends) - this makes for quite an addictive experience if you can get past the crude visuals and ear assaulting sounds.
Back in the day I could clock this game (it resets at 1 million points) but having recently reacquired this game (complete with manual in box!!) I find it more challenging than I remember. Compared to today's games, 2600 titles are little more than mini-games of course but the purity and ingenuity of these tiny games squeezed into less memory than this blog post takes up, controlled with a simple 8-way joystick and one button, should be an inspiration to modern developers.
Kaboom! is one of the best if not THE best game for the system. Again - a very simple game - you move a stack of up to three buckets horizontally along the bottom of the screen catching bombs dropped from the top of the screen. Miss a bomb and it explodes - setting off a chain reaction that explodes all other bombs on screen resulting in you losing one your buckets. The tough thing about losing a bucket is that you lose the one that is lowest on the screen - meaning until you win that back by passing a 1000pt barrier you have to catch the bombs higher up the screen increasing the pressure. What really makes this game viable is the control scheme - the game uses the Atari paddle controller which until the Wii arrived didn't have a modern alternative. The WiiWare title Bit Trip Beat uses the Wii remote brilliantly to recreate a paddle controller - you hold the remote sideways and twist it and it feels just like an old paddle controlled game.
Kaboom! is a blindingly fast game and it takes this responsive and accurate control scheme to make it - you can play this game via emulation but a mouse or analogue stick are simply no substitute - it really is worth trying to get access to the original hardware to play this game.
Both these games are purely score based - no continues - just the challenge to roll the score over (Kaboom! admits defeat when you do this but Video Pinball carries on). This is hardcore gaming and I love it.
I want to say a big thank you for the responses I have been getting - it really does make posting worthwhile and I find it encouraging. Next week I'll be playing some more modern games just to show I'm not just into retro...
I enjoyed Video Pinball a great deal as a kid. I either rolled the score or got a ridiculously high score (don't remember which) simply by using the generous "nudge" mechanism to keep the ball hung up on an upper scoring tunnel. It certainly wasn't like real pinball, but it was a fun game taken on its own. I believe this was probably based off the Atari arcade machine--I suspect this to be the case, though I have not done the research. In any case, it looked very much like the arcade machine I saw when I went to FunSpot in New Hampshire.
As for Kaboom!, great audio-visuals, particularly for the time, and very easy to pick up and play. However, I never considered it a classic (it too was based off an arcade game and many clones were also produced) because it was just a bit too simple for my tastes and the difficulty ramped up a bit too much. I know I"m in the minority on that one, though.
We got the Odyssey2 instead of the 2600. Friends all had the 2600 and we got our KcMunchkin that was met with raised eyebrows from some of my mates back then. I didn't care, actually loved the fact that I had that quirky little Magnavox/Philips console and still got to play the 2600 at my friends houses.
Love this series. Can't wait for more episodes!
There was only one person with an Odyssey2 in our grammar school that I knew of. Most of us had 2600s. A few had intellivisions. Later, some of us got ColecoVisions. One person had a 5200. Soon enough the focus was more on computers until the NES took off in the latter 80s, but by then I was past consoles for a while.