I asked my parents about their thoughts on their first console.
They worked out that they bought the 2600 before I was born, so at least as early as 1980. Apparently it cost about $500 AUD when Dad bought it. This was at a time when average wages were $250 per week. Doing an estimate, the PS4 costing $550 AUD is MUCH more affordable than the Atari, or indeed many other consoles from times past.
Having the Atari 2600 gave my parents the freedom to choose what the TV screen showed them which was rare for that time. It was also something they could interact with. There was very little else at the time that could replicate this level of interactivity, especially something that could make use of the television.
It’s a strange world to think of, where the ‘modern’ entertainment was so limited. Remember this was an age when my parents (and many other people) had to stay up past midnight to watch Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who. VCRs were still fairly rare in 1980. Conventional wisdom would always put gaming consoles after video tapes, but it was not the case. It is interesting to think that my parents were indeed avid gamers, and my Dad remains one today.
There are a large group of people, to whom the Atari 2600 is their first and only experience with playing video games. Everything else after it is regarded as ‘oh I’m too old for games’ but the 2600 was played by everyone! This console holds some of my earliest video game experience.
Previous articles of mine have focused on specific Atari 2600 games, especially River Raid II. I want to look at my Atari 2600 collection and decide if it was a good one or not. Readers be aware, I bought only a few of these games. Most were bought before I was born! Here is a short review of all my family’s 2600 games.
Ahh, now this is a classic, not a bad version of the arcade original either. I played this heaps, but I remember Dad said you shouldn’t fly around and just stay in the middle and only use teleport to avoid asteroids/UFOs. It was good advice! 7/10
I remember buying this from K-Mart in the LATE ’80s! The game was at least six years old, but K-Mart still had it new. It was $20 and fun. It got too hard though and my tiny brain couldn’t cope with this defender clone. 7/10
I believe this was the Atari 2600’s pack in game. The tank v tank levels were so much fun in what was a two player only experience. With wall bouncing bullets switched on things get tense and you are screaming in delight when your shot hits home. 9/10
High concept, unique control system and unforgettable sound effects. Rescue stranded aliens and defend your mother ship against meteors? Yes please. Apparently it was the first ever console game sequel. I never owned the previous game, Atlantis. 10/10
This game is getting your chicken across a road. It is a big road, a multi-lane freeway to be exact! This is a bad version of Frogger, with no side movement for your chicken. Just forward and back. Also you don’t even DIE when you’re hit by a car, you just get pushed back a bit. Amazing car effects though. 3/10
I played an Amiga version of this, but the 2600 version I bought never worked. Oh, a score… ?/10
Amazingly repetitive game (aren’t they all) but with some very satisfying combat. Control a UFO and laser enemy tanks. Best part is that if you get shot down, you can crash into them! Very satisfying if you get an extra life from that. 8/10
I always walked the wrong way, apparently. I was terrible at this game and never appreciated it for the technical and design accomplishment that it was! 6/10
Terrible compared to the original River Raid? I don’t think so. Complex and with a hint of sim, this was a very enjoyable shooter. My Grandfather agreed! I loved how you could raise and lower your altitude! SUCH REALISM. 8/10
Defender clone. I remember liking it, but being really bad at it. Isn’t that life? 6/10
Complicated space combat simulator. You needed a keypad (sold separately) to manage the hyperspace map. Goal? Shoot down the enemy spaceships before they destroy your starbase. Imagine Wing Commander, but primitive in every way. It was ambitious for the far superior Atari 8bit computers, so when it was converted to the Atari 2600, it was a pale version of the original (which I never played). I would stare at the cover art, wishing for a game to look like that. There was one, it was called Freespace 2. Bah, my copy didn’t even have that sweet overlay! 6/10
Aside from a few other games, there you have it, my (parents’) little collection! I am surprised at what I felt I should give the games. My rating isn’t from playing them again, but more reflecting on what they contributed to my game playing experience and to a wider world of games. Cosmic Ark as a result, stands out as a true classic and as a great experience for me. Check out this sweet commercial for Laser Blast!
As recently as fifteen years ago, video games were something that were for kids and that parents weren’t meant to understand. I never experienced the generation gap in video games. While my mother played only the occasional game (Arkanoid, Duke Nukem 3D) my Dad is the person who got me into video games in the first place. Sure they limited the amount of time I spent playing them (I desperately need exercise, even today) but my parents were people who understood the allure of video games and saw them as another fully fledged entertainment medium.
With this in mind, I didn’t need to worry about converting my parents to video games. Instead I tried for the next level of difficulty, my grandparents! Surprisingly, I didn’t convert all my grandparents into Quake masters (especially since it was the ’80s), but I did have some success. My Mum’s Dad, Eric was a retired motor mechanic and former Z-Force commando was easily the most receptive to my game coaching. His experience with World War 2 was the basis of my own undying love of history, so we had plenty to talk about.
I brought my Atari 2600 up to my grandparents one weekend. Since visiting grandparents doesn’t involved much action, Dad had thought this would be a good idea to keep me from dying of boredom. Grandpa had a vague interest in the game and I was keen on showing off how ‘realistic’ it was. I remember Grandpa being hesitant, but joined me and allowed me to coach him.
gameplay. I never played the original, so River Raid II didn’t have any other nostalgia to live up to. River Raid II had the player control a carrier based jet on a mission to destroy a bridge. To get to the bridge the jet must avoid enemy sea forces, then navigate the river system leading up to the bridge. Trying to stop you are helicopters, jets and anti aircraft guns. Taking off required a seemingly complicated move and often resulted in crashing (just like any game involving an aircraft carrier). The other difficulties of the game were crashing into land and refueling. When you push forward on the joystick, your plane moves further up the screen, increasing in speed and dropping in altitude. This meant while you could fly through the level faster, you would often crash into normally avoidable terrain.
The fuel issue was handed very well. Along with dozens of enemy planes, there were also yellow refueling planes dotted throughout the level. It was a trade-off risking exposing yourself to enemy fire while refueling was always on your mind.
By today’s standards, it is a very simple game. Teaching a seventy-two year old man a ‘simple’ video game when you’re seven years old is not easy. After he got the hang of taking off from the carrier, it was a matter of building up his skills and improving his reaction times in-game. Reaction times were not a problem for this, his special forces training from the ’40s was still present. He could dodge enemy jets no problems and found more in avoiding crashing into the land. I think he and I continued to play it during the weekend and he got closer to finishing it as he learned what to do. Once unfortunately he mistook an enemy fighter for a fuel plane and it promptly shot him out of the air. I remember he was a little embarrassed at his rookie mistake!
The game repeats endlessly, but to finish one round you have to destroy the bridge at the end of the river system with a torpedo and then land on the aircraft carrier. It’s hard to describe how proud of my grandpa I was when he did this, pulling back on the stick and firing launched the torpedo straight into the bridge; Mission Complete. It took him only a day and a half of playing to finish a round, faster than it took me. Looking back on it now, I’m really glad I took the time to show him not only River Raid, but also Silent Service, Silent Service II and IL-2 Sturmovik (which he was very impressed with).
The last video game connection I had with my grandpa was when he was in pretty poor form, after breaking his hip. He was well into his 90’s but enjoyed hearing of a Company of Heroes game I played. I told him that I used a Churchill crocodile on a German bunker and he responded, ‘Oh yes, they would have been annihilated!”
I wrote this as a tribute to him, because he died in June. He was 94 and I’m so lucky to have had him for the first thirty years of my life.
Eric Whatmough 1917-2012