It’s hard to believe that, given the massive amount of disdain targeted at the company today, Activision was once one of the most beloved and respected video game publishers in the industry. One could even argue that they were the paramount distributor of first-generation home console games considering their huge catalog of highly regarded games for the Atari 2600.
Activision was founded by ex-Atari programmers who were tired of putting up with getting paid too little for creating games they were given no credit for. Thus, the foundation for what is perhaps gaming’s most successful third-party was laid in 1979, resulting in one of the most creatively impressive periods of any game company in history.
Everything about these early titles appealed to gamers: the stylized cover art, the endearingly cheesy game manuals, the finely tuned gameplay. Activision games oozed awesomeness from every pore. Gamers were rarely disappointed when they popped an Activision cartridge into their 2600 (let’s forget about Oink! for now), and here are what I believe are the company’s best efforts for the system.
Kaboom! is one of those games that you’ll simultaneously love and hate. Its addictive twitch-style gameplay will keep you coming back for just one more round, which will likely end in a similar sort of failure.
The premise behind Kaboom! is that some deviant named the “Mad Bomber” has somehow accrued a massive stockpile of explosives and is haphazardly tossing them off a rooftop somewhere. Your job is to guide buckets of water across the bottom of the screen, diffusing the bombs before touchdown.
The game requires the rotary-style paddle controller, which allows you to guide the buckets with incredible precision. Kaboom! is one of the hardest games for the Atari 2600, but becoming proficient at it provides a feeling of satisfaction that few other titles are capable of providing.
Boxing — as well as its Activision brethren and equally creatively titled Ice Hockey — provides some of the best two-player sporting action on the system.
On the surface, Boxing is nothing spectacular. You get a top-down view of the two pugilists and a numeric counter that displays each fighter’s successfully landed punches at the top of the screen. It comes down to strategic placement of punches and well-timed dodges, not an easy programming feat considering the system’s limited-directional joystick and solitary button.
The computer provides a decent challenge, but the game is at its best when played with a friend, preferably after a few beers to escalate the competition.
It’s both extraordinarily simple and fun, and is still an excellent sports title to pull out at a party to this day.
Dismissed by most as a clone of the arcade hit Defender, Chopper Command was a hard sell to the era’s skeptical gamers. It wasn’t long until doubt was dissolved, however, and the game became one of the most revered titles in the console’s history.
As far as Atari 2600 games go, Chopper Command is a graphical masterpiece. The gorgeous mountainous desert backdrop provides an excellent canvas for the game’s aircraft combat to unfold upon. Chopper Command might also have the best be controls of any Atari 2600 game, as it will react to even the slightest bumps and nudges of the joystick.
The detailed “radar scanner” at the bottom of the screen allows for an incredible amount of strategy and preparation, something most games of the era simply couldn’t match.
There isn’t a more well-rounded Activision release than Enduro.
This game nailed everything: graphics, gameplay, controls, sound; Enduro has it all. Take a look at an early driving game for the system such as Night Driver and you’ll find the difference to be quite enormous. Enduro was the first game where you actually felt like you were driving a cool exotic car; no longer did the imagination need to compensate for what reality lacked.
Your objective in Enduro is to pass a certain number of cars in a set period of time in order to advance to the next day of the epic race. Along the way, you’ll traverse vastly different landscapes with different road conditions.
This is what truly impresses me about the game. When you enter the section of the course covered in snow, the car reacts accordingly. It might not sound like an amazing accomplishment now, but given the Atari 2600’s miniscule memory capacity, it’s a miraculous.
There simply is no better racing game than Enduro — Activision or otherwise — on the Atari 2600.
When Red Dead Redemption was released in 2010, I rejoiced that the open world Western game I’d always dreamed of playing was finally a reality. Nearly thirty years earlier, however, Activision’s Stampede laid the groundwork for Western-themed games.
You’re given control of a cowboy whose objective is to round up a herd of stray cattle. It sounds simple, but Stampede is easily one of the most relentlessly difficult Atari 2600 games ever created. There are several different variations of cattle to capture, each moving at a different speed. The trickiness is derived from the fact that the rider maintains a constant speed, making perfect maneuvering and reaction time an absolute requirement. Let three cattle pass you by, and its game over.
You’ll curse this game for its absurd difficulty level — there are few things more infuriating than the Black Angus cattle in Stampede that stand stubbornly motionless on the playfield while your rider is sent barreling forward at breakneck speed — but you’ll keep coming back for more anyway. That’s the mark of truly great game.
Like the prize heifer at the country fair, Stampede earns a blue ribbon of its own as Activision’s best of show for the Atari 2600.