Welcome back to our trip down gaming memory lane with Retro Revisits! The last time we were here, I was telling you about the wonderful days of the Commodore VIC-20 and its incredible ability to display two or even three colors on the screen simultaneously! This time, we’ll be looking at the first console to appear in our family home; the Atari 2600. For numerous reasons, this machine kept me even more under its spell than the Commodore did! A higher color count, improved graphics and no more loading times due to it being cartridge-based. So let’s dive in!

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Atari 2600

So jumping straight into the games, I’ll start you off with this little classic. Centipede is a 2D vertical shooter in which you look to shoot all of the segments from the horizontal moving creepy-crawly of the title. Each segment you hit would turn into a mushroom. While this was happening, the centipede would move back and forth across the screen, getting lower each time it hit the side of the screen or a mushroom. It wouldn’t be game over if the centipede reached the bottom. But, you’d have to do some swift maneuvers to avoid losing a life as it moves back up the screen.

This game is a prime example of simplicity and fun combined. It’s proof if any were needed, that pretty graphics do not make a good game. In fact, the Atari 2600 version of this game had to be adapted from its arcade origins due to the reduced hardware capabilities of the home console. This resulted in the Elf-like character being reduced to a rectangle and the arrows would now be thin lines being fired vertically at a row of circles, which was the Centipede. Mushrooms would also be transformed into small horizontal lines that appeared when you destroyed a segment of your enemy.

Despite this simplistic appearance, it was fun. It’s still fun as I pick the game up to play on occasion. There was also the accidental discovery I made with the game, where if you got into the right position, you could funnel the centipede into an area of well-placed mushrooms and really rack up the points quickly. A glitch, maybe or a legitimate strategy? Who cares? I was six years old!

Screenshot of Centipede for the Atari 2600.

For the next two games on the list, I was able to get my space opera fix by having access to the Atari 2600 versions of The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. Now, If you’ve never seen a Star Wars film, then I really think you should. If you have even a passing interest in Science Fiction, you won’t be disappointed. These are the original 70s and 80s movies I’m referring to. Fantastic storytelling!

Anyway, I digress. The Empire Strikes Back game features the opening part of the film, where you would pilot a Snow Speeder in a side-scrolling Action-Shooter against the Imperial Walkers (AT-ATs). It’s eventually a Survival Mode focused game where you must continue to destroy the AT-ATs before they reach your base.

This is where things got creative. You could just shoot them from anywhere and gradually, you’d damage and eventually destroy them. But that takes a fair few hits and they would reach the base pretty quickly if you just destroyed them that way. So, weak points will occasionally flash up on various parts of the Walker, but they would be quite small and difficult to hit. If you do manage to hit them, it’s an instant kill, but watch out for the weak points that actually become smart bombs. They’ll chase you down and if you’re caught, the instant kill works both ways. It was very simple, but very fun too.

Screenshot for The Empire Strikes Back for the Atari 2600.

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The Return of The Jedi was quite a different prospect. It had two very distinct stages. The overall goal was to destroy the evil Emperor’s second Death Star. The first stage saw you in control of the Millennium Falcon, trying to get past the deflector shield so that you could attack the Death Star directly. To do this, you’d have to get a certain points total so that holes would open up in the shield for you to fly through.

Then begins the second stage. Now you get to shoot chunks out of the Death Star in the hope that you can hit the flashing red core in the center. On the first stage, you’d have Tie Fighters and Vader’s shuttle to shoot at. Now you have all that and the Death Star laser moving from left to right and trying to blow you to bits. The clever mechanic at the time was that it would follow your position on the screen.

If you moved off the left side of the screen and re-appeared on the right, the laser would change direction to follow. The other clever part of this was the ability to use the Atari 2600 console to change the difficulty. One switch would activate or de-activate collisions with enemy ships and the other switch would enable the deadly laser to move all the way to the edges of the screen as opposed to being limited to the width of the Death Star.

Clever stuff. If you got past all of that and survived the explosion, you’d get the privilege of doing it all over again. I have to say the explosion of the space station was like a bonus game itself since it would throw out objects for you to avoid while your score increased. If you got blown up during the explosion, then the score would stop and you’d lose a life.

Screenshot of Return of the Jedi game for the Atari 2600.

I used to play these games at every opportunity, along with Spider-Man too. Now that was very colorful! The idea was to slowly move your blocky web-slinger up a series of buildings, with the ultimate goal being to reach the big bomb that the evil Green Goblin had planted at the top. Now there were several little conditions upon which your success would be based. The amount of web you had at your disposal would always be decreasing whether you moved or not. You could replenish your web fluid by swinging Spidey across the windows of the building and catching the enemies that randomly appear in them.

As you get towards the top of each building, you’ll find the windows stop and the scaffolding begins. This limits where you can sling the web while continuing to climb. In addition, you’ll also find smaller bombs getting ready to explode. These can be treated the same way as the enemies in the windows lower down. If you swing Spider-Man into the bombs, they’ll be de-fused and added to his total web fluid. Defeating the Green Goblin is as simple as just getting past him to make contact with the big bomb at the top.

Okay, it’s not that simple, but that’s what you’re supposed to try and do. The following levels would involve different color buildings. That was enough to keep me interested. Though there was the pesky little matter of the buildings being taller and the bombs exploding more quickly. Then the small matter of your web fluid disappearing faster than a full tank of petrol in a supercar. But I enjoyed it. I enjoyed most things when I was a kid. I wonder what happened.

Shot of the screen for the Spider-Man game on the Atari 2600.

Now I’ve played a lot of games on the Atari 2600. I could go on forever about them, but there’s only so much I could say about Pong. Two paddles moving up and down like a top-down game of Tennis. That’s my review of that game right there. I used to play Combat against my brother. Whether it was a tank level or a plane level, he used to win more than I did. I didn’t have much patience back then and it would cause fights between us. I would lose them too. Oh well.

So this is where we end our latest installment. I hope you enjoyed it. The focus next time moves back to home computers and, specifically, the ZX Spectrum. Until then, we’d love to hear about your retro gaming experiences in the comments below and on social media!

This article was originally published on 7/2/21

Retro Revisits: In the Beginning There Was the COMMODORE VIC-20



Richard Camfield
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