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The History of Video Games #4: Gaming on the Atari 2600 and the 'Great Video Game Crash of 1983'

Updated: Feb 24, 2021


The later, smaller and more economical Atari 2600 Jr.
The later, smaller and more economical Atari 2600 Jr.

Hi again everyone! In the last article, we took a look at the hardware and peripherals of the Atari 2600. Now we will take a look at the software - i.e. games - we played on it.



Arcade Conversions



Most of the early games were very simplistic, and many were conversions of popular coin-op arcade games, such as Frogger, Centipede, and of course, Space Invaders.


Although the Atari 2600 was far less powerful than most coin-op arcade machines, most of the games were faithful reproductions of their arcade counterparts.



Frogger Arcade




Frogger Atari 2600


Video by NML32



Centipede Arcade


Video by Klaus Scholz



Centipede Atari


Video by RickyC



With one exception: Pac-Man. Somehow, someone managed to mess up the conversion of Pac-Man. You would think that such a simple game would be impossible to mess up, right? Yes… and no.


One of the difficulties was that the arcade version of Pac-Man had a surprising degree of hidden depth. This was mainly due to the AI - Artificial Intelligence - of the ghosts.


Did you know that the four ghosts had different personalities, and thus each would react differently to you? Did you know that this was the reason they were given different colours, so you could tell them apart and thus predict their behaviour?

I didn’t as a kid, but apparently, they do, as I only recently found out myself.



Pac-Man Arcade


Four distinct ghosts, four distinct personalities.



Pac-Man Atari.


Er, Pinky, is that you?


Perhaps the people who handled the conversion did not realise this, or perhaps the Atari 2600’s hardware simply could not handle this level of AI. The days of the ‘arcade-perfect conversion’ were still a decade away at this point.



Home Console Originals



As you would imagine there were numerous games made specifically for the home consoles as well. Many of these games were as simplistic as their Arcade Conversion cousins, however, some took full advantage of the home setting. This resulted in games with considerably more depth - and longer play sessions - than would have been practical (for the player) or desirable (for the arcade owners) in an arcade setting.


One of the best examples of these home originals was Solaris. I remember thinking at the time that it was the best looking game I had ever seen and had more depth and complexity than anything I had ever played.

Solaris Atari 2600

Any resemblance these enemies may have to Cylon Basestars is purely coincidental. Video by RadioPoultry



Solaris was a definite high point in the Atari 2600's line up, unfortunately, not all of its games were of such high quality.


There were literally hundreds of games made for the Atari 2600, many of them developed by third parties. Some games were great, some were merely mediocre, whilst a few were simply terrible. This did not nurture consumer confidence, as it turned purchasing games into a massive gamble.


The game might be good, but it could just as easily be absolute trash. This was pre-internet remember, so finding reviews to inform your purchasing decisions was not as easy back then.


You could be forgiven for thinking, "Just stick to first-party games, they should be fine". Unfortunately, this was not the case. Quite the opposite in fact.

Towards the end of the Atari's reign, Atari’s first-party line up was composed largely of cash grab "shovelware" film tie-ins.

One notable example was 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ It sold well due to its association with the high profile film. As a game, however, it was sub-par, inferior even to Pitfall which had been released earlier the same year.



Raiders of the Lost Ark Atari 2600


Pixelated snakes, why did it have to be pixelated snakes?

Video by azzarox6661



Things went from bad to worse for Atari, as then came E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.


Being tied to one of the greatest movies of the early 1980s was a license to print money, or so Atari probably thought. It sold very well initially, with parents and grandparents in particular buying copies as Christmas presents.


There was one problem, however: it was terrible. As in "regarded as the worst video game of all time" terrible. Not only was the game lacklustre in every conceivable way, it was also full of Video Game "Design Sins" that rendered it pretty much unplayable. 



E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial


Yes ET, please do phone home, so we can stop playing this!



Once word got out about just how bad it was, people stopped buying it. Atari had manufactured more copies than they were able to sell, resulting in retailers returning them in bulk. This, combined with the high licencing cost, resulted in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial being a significant financial failure for Atari.

"What did Atari do with all those unsold cartridges?" you may ask. Good question. The answer is simple. They buried them in the desert. Seriously, look it up…


Atari 2600 ET cartridge unearthed in desert.
Atari 2600 ET cartridge buried in the desert, where it belonged. Shame Centipede was there too, it deserved better.

This was 'The great video game crash of 1983'. Atari’s share price plummeted and the company was bought out by Commodore.


Some observers at the time predicted the crash would kill the nascent video game industry completely, and viewed video games as a passing fad that has had its day.


Of course, we know today that this was not the case and the video game industry today is worth more than Hollywood. This is due to the video game crash only affecting consoles in the US. The fledgeling home computer market and the console market in Japan were unaffected, and it was these markets that allowed gaming to both survive and thrive. We will investigate the beginnings of these in the next article:



What were your experiences of gaming on the Atari 2600? What did you like about it, and what didn’t you? What were your favourite games and why? What are your memories of couch multiplayer gaming on the Atari? Did you live through the great video game crash of ’83? How did it affect you? Feel free to write your answers, and anything else you might like to talk about, in the comments section below.



Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at the_nomad78@outlook.com

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Picture Credits.


Atari 2600: By joho345 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


ET in the dump: By taylorhatmaker - Atari E.T. Dig: Alamogordo, New Mexico, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32763260

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