The 10 best Atari games
Atari's first home video game console, Atari 2600, debuted in 1972. The U.S. branch of the company filed for bankruptcy in 2013, but the brand lives on. In 2021, Atari had a worldwide release of Atari VCS — a combo console/PC device where players can get their nostalgic fix with dozens of Atari 2600 and Arcade titles (and also use it as a hub for your streaming accounts). To celebrate where it all began, we've compiled a list of our favorite Atari games.
1. Pong (1977):
The first game ever developed by Atari Inc., Pong was one of the most influential video games ever created and the first to gain widespread mainstream popularity. A 2-D take on table tennis, Pong has two players controlling paddles and trying to knock the ball into the opponent's screen. That's it. Endlessly cloned and available for virtually every system (and graphing calculator) known to man, Pong is about as simple — and utterly addictive — as it gets.
2. Adventure (1979):
It may look painfully simplistic by modern standards — as your character is a square and the fierce dragons pretty much look like ducks — but for its time, Adventure was a revelation. It essentially created the action-adventure genre and was one of the first games to feature an easter egg. (Game designer Warren Robinett hid his name in a secret room.) What it lacked in graphics, it more than made up for in imagination.
3. Space Invaders (1980):
The Atari 2600 version of the arcade classic proved the system could do a good port and saved a generation of gamers pocketfuls of quarters. You control a cannon on the ground, shooting up at rows of pixellated aliens moving in formation across the screen. They gradually start moving faster and faster as the tempo of the sound effects — and your heart rate — increases until either they're all dead or you're destroyed.
4. Asteroids (1981):
The Atari port may have changed the stylish vector graphics into chunky pixels, but it retained the satisfying gameplay of the arcade original. Unlike other shooters of the day that kept you on one plane, you could pilot your spaceship all across the screen, trying to break up as many asteroids as possible while dodging and shooting flying saucers. Its influence is felt to this day in games such as Geometry Wars and Super Stardust HD.
5. Ms. Pac-Man (1982):
Despite selling millions of copies, the Atari 2600 Pac-Man was widely derided as an inferior port, lacking much of what made the original so great. Gaming's original feminist, Ms. Pac-Man one-upped her hubby in every way and was as close to the arcade as you could get at home, restoring glory to the tarnished Pac name.
6. Pitfall! (1982):
Largely credited with creating the side-scrolling platformer genre, Pitfall! was one of the most influential games of the Atari 2600. The sprawling adventure has you controlling Pitfall Harry, navigating jungle hazards as you swing over crocodiles, jump over scorpions, and leap across the titular pits while collecting treasure. Without Pitfall Harry, there would be no Mario, and there might be no Jack Black, who was featured in the game's commercial.
7. Frogger (1982):
Gaming's most famous amphibian hopped into the spotlight with Frogger, a platforming game that had you controlling a frog through rush-hour traffic and raging rapids to get home under a strict time limit. The game used only the four-way controller and no buttons, but it proved infinitely difficult to master. Its pop culture influence reached all the way to a 1998 episode of Seinfeld, where George Costanza attempted to navigate a Frogger arcade cabinet through the treacherous Manhattan streets.
8. Q*bert (1983):
Another arcade port, Q*bert lost the cool isometric perspective but none of the addictive gameplay that made it such a classic. You play as a long-snouted, armless orange thing as you jump around a pyramid, trying to touch every cube while avoiding Coily the snake and other creatures. Get hit by an enemy and Q*bert curses "@!#?@!," which is probably much nicer than what most players yelled at the screen. Though he hasn't had any recent games, the iconic character showed up in the animated hit Wreck-It-Ralph.
9. Joust (1983):
Who needs horses when you can joust on a flying ostrich? Sure, ostriches can't fly, but that's the fun of Joust, which has you battling other knights on buzzards, collecting eggs, and dodging pterodactyls. The game is all about strategy, as the height of your character relative to the others determines who survives a collision, leading to much frantic button-mashing to flap your ostrich's magnificent wings. It may not make much sense, but it sure was fun.
10. Pole Position (1983):
The arcade hit raced to the Atari 2600 and proved just as exhilarating at home, satiating gamers' need for speed, even without a steering wheel. Pole Position basically created the racing genre, establishing many of the conventions that remain in use in racing games to this day. It may not have had customizable cars or, you know, grass on the side of the road, but for the Atari generation, it was a license to drive.