Ah, good old 2600 — originally called the Video Computer System, or VCS, but widely know simply as "the Atari". Folks, this is the definition of classic gaming. It's impressive to see how far some developers have pushed a machine with a measly 128 bytes of RAM - yes, one 8192th of a megabyte. To put this in perspective: if you combined the RAM of every 2600 console ever produced (some 30 million units), you'd get 3.6 GB, less than one typical PC nowadays. Unfortunately, it has the most shovelware of any console to date, so we're here to help you pick the right games from those garage sale bins.
The console itself is worth owning because it looks nice and isn't too costly, but the Atari 7800 is also compatible with the 2600's games (and has a pause button); there are also adapters to use them with the Intellivision II and the Colecovision.
Also, the 2600 had an interesting add-on, the Starpath Supercharger, which greatly expanded the system's RAM and loaded games from cassette tapes.
Much thanks to http://virtualatari.org/ for their java emulator-in-a-browser "Play it now" links.
|Adventure||Action Adventure||One of the earliest action-adventure games, Adventure is a rather abrupt little adventure game that is often considered the predecessor to games like Zelda. The replay value is almost zero, once you've played all three maps and found the magic pebble to get to the Easter Egg, but you should play it at least once.|
|Asteroids||Shoot 'em Up||If you haven't heard of Asteroids, clearly you've been living under a rock for the last fourty years. Move your ship around, shoot the Asteroids for as long as you can. Simple and addicting. Obviously not the same as the arcade original, which had vector graphics, this port used colored sprites (because the 2600 couldn't do vector), which makes it a bit more cheerful I think.|
|Atlantis||Defense||Basically like Missile Command but with some added depth for good measure. Three guns to take out the invaders! Since you're protecting Atlantis, I always figured you're shooting down humans, which would be ironic and awesome.|
|Berzerk||Arcade/Combat||Robots, maze, blaster and you. It's self explanatory.|
|Centipede||Shoot 'em Up||Hide behind mushrooms, shoot mushrooms, shoot bugs, next level. Great fun.|
|Chopper Command||Defense/Shoot 'em Up||Oh shit is dis sum Chopper Command? This game stands as one of the best 'Defender' games on the Atari because YOU'RE FLYIN' CAP'N! Seriously dickloads of fun, it added some much needed speed to a dulling genre. Also one of the first games with HUD-map. Hoo-rah!|
|Combat||Shooter||One of the launch titles for the 2600, it still stands as a great multiplayer game. Combat has been remade and remade again (even though technically it itself is a remake of the Arcade game Tanks), none of them beat how much fun the multiplayer was and the sheer amount of content for an early 2600 game this cart packs.|
|Demon Attack||Shoot 'em Up||Fun Atari 2600 shooter that was pretty popular in its heyday. Also notorious due to a lawsuit: Atari thought it was a ripoff of Phoenix.|
|Dig Dug||Arcade||All the gameplay is perfectly intact, one of the better ports and Atari games even as it's one of the few games to even have music too!|
|Donkey Kong||Arcade / Platformer||Now, obviously, this is not the best port of the original Donkey Kong by any means. If you want an arcade perfect port, look no further than the one of the various NES releases. However, it's a almost a rule to own Donkey Kong if you have an Atari 2600. Why? I'm not sure. But it is. Still fun after all these years, but if you want extreme-authenticity, you're looking at the wrong edition.
Note: Also released on Colecovision with the same must own status.
|E.T The Extra-Terrestrial||Top-down Adventure||THE WORST VIDEO GAME EVER!!!!
...except not really. E.T. has quite a bad reputation, being misblamed as the single cause of the Great Video Game Crash; while it did make matters worse, it could not wreak so much havoc alone. In all fairness, there were much worse games for the 2600 that rarely get mentioned.
As for the game itself, this is an interesting top-down adventure where you must search for phone parts to call your spaceship to get back home, all while avoiding those pesky FBI agents. At the time, it was very unique and innovative. But, to have it in stores by Christmas, Atari gave their developer little over a month to design and program it, while the usual development cycle was about six months. So, it ended up with a number of infuriating design issues. But there is now a fan-made hack that fixes most of them and makes E.T. a far more enjoyable game. Get it here.
|Enduro||Racing||A very solid racing game by Activision. Enduro itself stands for endurance race, so the point is to pass a certain number of cars each day to progress. There are some neat ideas to create challenge, such as fog. Probably the best racing game on the 2600. A classic.|
|Fast Food||Arcade||Weird-ass fucking game, an arcade-ish title where the object is to eat as much fucking food for you as possible. You control a pair of lips, and you literally just try to eat fast food as it flies by you (fast)! The only thing you don't wanna eat are the purple pickles, they're bad. Something great for wasting a bit of time. Every time you 'level up' the screen scrolls "You're getting fatter!" which is just fucking hilarious. The rate of the food flying at you then speeds up (or did you slow down because you're fat?).|
|Frogger||Arcade||You should help a little frog to cross a street, while cars trying to smack you, and then a river, with dangerous obstacles. Note that, while the cartridge version is decent, the Supercharger port is far more faithful to the arcade.|
|Frostbite||Platformer||Activision was the king of the Atari 2600, and made better games than Atari did. In this game you have to jump over ice blocks collect stuff and try not to die, pretty basic. You can use up the ice blocks you earn to change the current.|
|Halo 2600||Shooter||"What the fuck", you surely wonder. "Is this a hoax?" No, it is real. "A coincidence of similarly named games, like Mythicon's terrible Star Fox?" No, this really is that Halo. "Then it must be just a fan game." Yes, that's correct; the fan just happens to be Ed Fries, former vice president of game publishing at Microsoft. Ya know, the guy who convinced Bill Gates that they should make a console. The game was actually released as a cartridge at the Classic Gaming Expo 2010; it is also available for free download, or playable online.|
|Haunted House||Survival Horror||Quite possibly the first survival horror title, Haunted House plays a lot like Adventure in concept. While not really scary by any means, it's still a solid little title especially if you're looking for another title that plays like Adventure.|
|H.E.R.O.||Platformer||It is the Helicopter Emergency Rescue Operation! You play with a badass equipped with a mini-helicopter on his backpack, who must descend on a dangerous cave to rescue miners trapped within.|
|Joust||Arcade||Just like the Arcade game, but in within Atari limits!|
|Jr. Pac-Man||Maze||The only home port of the game, and it's really good! The graphics and sound are great for an Atari game. Has more content than Ms. Pac-Man and is more fast paced.|
|Kangaroo||Platformer||A Donkey Kong like game by Atari, not as good as the Atari 5200 version but still fun and worth a buy if you don't have the stronger systems.|
|Kaboom!||Puzzle||Some crazy jack-hole is dropping bombs everywhere! Using the paddle controller, douse the flames on the bombs before they explode! Multiplayer is endless fun, and allows for some serious friend-trolling. Quite possibly, the world's first counter-terrorist simulation.|
|Keystone Kapers||Platformer||A goddamn criminal have escaped from prison and have run into a mall. As a policeman, now it is your mission to chase him down on the mall and bring him to justice!|
|Mario Bros.||Arcade||Obviously not the best port, but it still has must own status for Atari fans.|
|Millipede||Shoot 'em Up||Centipede but with bombs, so it's arguably better.|
Plenty of missiles were launched towards the city you've sworn to protect, be a man and shoot those fuckers down!
The arcade Missile Command was designed for a track ball; if you can get your hands on a 2600 "trak-ball", it greatly improves the game.
|Montezuma's Revenge||Platformer||The best platformer for the system, or any other system of the era. Makes Pitfall look woefully primitive.|
|Pengo||Maze / Puzzle||Classic Sega arcade game where you have to break blocks in a strategic manner. Very fun, though it's on much stronger systems.|
|Pitfall||Platformer||It's Pitfall, one of the original platformer / explore adventures. What more do you need to know? It's probably the most loved Atari 2600 game of all time, though there are much better games. However, still one of the best. The sequel Pitfall II arrived on home computers and it's worth seeking out.|
|Plaque Attack||Shoot 'em Up/ Dental Hygiene Simulator||Another Activision gem. This one-screen shmup has you play as a tube of tooth-paste defending what appears to be a British person's mouth against the evil damage of not-to-scale junk food. Fast-paced action and an ammo limit (your tube of Colgate doesn't last forever does it?) makes this a fun but nonetheless strategic shooter absolute bliss. Highly recommended.|
|Pressure Cooker||Simulation||A game where you have to make hamburgers according to the chart at the bottom of the screen. It starts out pretty easy, but soon the game turns evil and shafts you on ingredients and speed. It's also pretty addictive, and it's from Activision, so what the fuck are you waiting for?|
|Princess Rescue||Platformer||A very faithful homebrew Super Mario Bros clone. Here's the ROM. Once available as a purchasable cartridge until Nintendo ordered a cease and desist.|
|Q*Bert||Puzzle||Better than your sloppy NES port I tell ya what, the controls are great since it's joystick.|
|Q*Bert's Qubes||Puzzle||Only on this and the Coleco, this is the inferior but still great version. Hop on blocks and collect stuff like in regular Q*Bert but the blocks reset. (An actual cart is quite expensive!)|
|River Raid||Shoot 'em Up||A vertical scrolling shooter. While it lacked the variety of stages of Vanguard, most 2600 fans tend to remember it more fondly, probably because it was a much more accessible and easy to pick up title. Usually makes then top ten list of 2600 games. A solid title. On the Shumps evolutionary ladder, this game is homo erectus to Raiden's Homo sapiens (and Touhou's homo weeaboo).|
|Solaris||Rail Shoter||The best looking game on the Atari 2600, pew pew shoot the aliens and asteroids and stuff! You have to refuel and try to save stranded people along the way while navigating through space to find planet solaris. Lots of depth for a 2600 game!|
|Space Invaders||Shoot 'em Up/Arcade||Do I really even need to introduce Space Invaders? One of the few games that actually shaped the gaming industry into what it is today. Shoot dem' aliens man.|
|Tapper||Acttion/Arcade||A very impressive port, the graphics, the sounds, very accurate and very impressive. Customers want a drink and they want it now! It's your job to get it to them as fast as possible! Also cleary not "Mountain Dew"|
|Vanguard||Shoot 'em Up||One of the original shmups, Vanguard set the way for a lot of your favorite spaceship/airplane shooters to follow! Has levels of both horizontal and vertical scrolling, fast-paced action, and the ability to fire in all four directions! Very fun and challenging. Way before its time, Vanguard stands up as an extremely solid shmup that should definitely get an update.|
|Video Olympics / Pong Sports||Pong||
It's fuckin' Pong. There's really nothing else you need to know. There was so many Pong clones on the Atari 2600 that it became a nuisance and even constitutes its own category. Pong itself though, just good old, official Pong, is always fun. This version is well known for its AI. You can look up the exact algorithm on Google; suffice it to say that it was so good that modern Pong remakes still use it.
|Yar's Revenge||Arcade/Defense||Yar's Revenge is easily one of the best Atari 2600 games ever made. Which is hilarious considering it was made by the same guy who made the abysmal E.T. game. This game is hard. And amazing. The gameplay has a lot of depth and yet is really simple; it simply cannot be described here. It's in your best interest to look up this game! They're doing a modern remake of this, as a rail-shooter with a smexy chick in power armor.|
|Zippy the Porcupine||platformer||A homebrew Sonic the Hedgegog clone from the same guy who made Princess Rescue. Still in beta, but a demo is already out and it's quite impressive.|