The Atari 2600 can be considered a true classic console in both age and innovation. Launching in 1977, the woodgrain console certainly looks like it belongs in this decade, but it really pushed what a home video game console was back then with interchangeable game cartridges as well as microprocessor-based hardware.
At a period when Atari was also a leading name in the arcades, the Atari 2600 has stacks of brilliant Atari arcade games brought home to the ‘woody’, so here we take you on a journey to the very roots of when gaming at home exploded, with the best Atari 2600 games.
Released in 1982 by Activision, Pitfall! is an early example of a side-scrolling platformer. You play as Harry, an adventurous explorer who is on a quest to collect treasures while avoiding obstacles and enemies in a jungle setting. The challenge is, you only have 20 minutes to collect all of the treasure!
What makes Pitfall! particularly innovative is not only the side-scrolling nature of the game instead of a classic single-screen arcade style, but also it encourages you to explore every nook and cranny of the jungle.
There are multiple paths to take, hidden treasures to discover, and even secret underground tunnels to navigate through.
Pitfall! is a great-looking game for 1982 and has since inspired countless other games with its gameplay sheer style. A best-selling game for the system, Pitfall! is clearly one of the best Atari 2600 games to play today.
Arriving in 1982 after Atari obtained an official licence from Namco to convert the game, Pac-Man was a game that revolutionized the industry, and was now available to play in your own home!
Now, this is one of the games which would actually appear on many worst Atari 2600 games lists, but I like to think of this as a snapshot in time that must be experienced, for better or worse!
Surely everybody knows all about pac-man right? You know the game, the one where you move around a maze as a pie-shaped yellow character, gobbling up the dots (although in the Atari 2600 version, these are referred to as ‘wafers’ due to the system’s ability to only represent dots as rectangles in this particular conversion!) around the maze-like level.
You avoid ghosts until you grab a power pill and then you can take out the ghosts for bonus points, until you gobble up all the wafers, then on to the next level you go!
As mentioned already, pac-man on the Atari 2600 is a bit of a mess to look at and isn’t totally faithful to the original, but actually, I’m sure loads of kids at the time were pleased to be able to play this classic at home.
Before Mario appeared on the NES, he and his brother had already appeared in arcades as well as on the Atari 2600 with Mario Bros.
Mario Bros. features both Mario & Luigi, in the sewers of New York looking into the presence of unwelcome creatures living below the streets.
In a simple but super fun game, you have to defeat all enemies on each screen, this is done so not by the tried and tested jumping on top of enemies that we know and love today, but by jumping up and headbutting the platforms on which the creatures are walking. Doing this knocks the creatures over, and you then have to walk into them to finish the job.
With POW blocks, sewer pipes, shell creepers (later known as Koopa Troopas), Mario Bros. had many of the hallmarks that the Mario games become famous for. It is super cool to experience this really early vision of Mario, which incidentally is one of the best Atari 2600 games around.
Joust is one of the most iconic games of the Atari 2600 era, it offers a thrilling and challenging arcade-style game that will test your skills, particularly reaction time.
This game, developed by Williams Electronics and released in 1983, was one of the first to introduce cooperative gameplay and features two players riding on flying ostriches trying to eliminate enemy knights.
The gameplay is where Joust truly shines though as it required a blend of strategic positioning and lightning-fast reflexes.
You control a knight on a flying ostrich (obviously!), and your goal is to defeat enemy knights by colliding with them from above. However, if you collide with an enemy at the same height, you will lose a life. The game’s difficulty ramps up quickly as more enemies appear, and you’ll have to use your shield to block enemy attacks while keeping an eye on your surroundings.
Joust is hugely fun and hugely frustrating, but when you pull off a successful kill on an opponent, the satisfaction pays dividends!
Yars’ Revenge, released in 1981 for the Atari 2600 by Atari, is a classic sci-fi game that will take you on an intergalactic adventure. Developed by Howard Scott Warshaw, the same creator of the legendary (for all the wrong reasons!) game E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
You play as a Yar, a winged creature who is trying to destroy the Qotile, an enemy base that threatens your home planet. Yars’ Revenge is an intense experience, as you must navigate through various obstacles and evade enemy fire while taking down the Qotile.
Whilst the visuals are rudimentary, bright colors and sharp lines that capture the futuristic theme perfectly!
A cool fact that developer Howard Scott Warshaw revealed was that the name Yars’ Revenge, derived from then CEO of Atari, Ray Kassar, by simply reversing the letters in his name to Yars! It also features the reversal of his surname, Kassar, with a slight misspelling to further disguise the fact, the game’s story documents the ‘Yars’ seeking revenge for the destruction of one of their worlds ‘Razak IV’.
Dig Dug is a standout title that captured the hearts of players everywhere. And when it was ported for the Atari 2600 in 1983, it brought all the same addictive gameplay to your living room.
In Dig Dug, you play as a miner armed with an air pump that can dig through the ground and inflate enemies until they pop or crush them with rocks located around each level, whilst being careful not to be crushed yourself!! The goal is to clear each level by defeating all the monsters while avoiding their attacks.
With its classic arcade gameplay, Dig Dug has huge replay value trying to beat your best score and reach a higher level.
Did Dug is a great example of how the Atari 2600 delivered faithful ports of arcade classics, despite the graphical compromises that had to be made.
River Raid is a vertical top-down shooter released in 1982 by Activision, it is critically and commercially one of the best Atari 2600 games.
You play as a fighter pilot, navigating above a winding river, taking out enemy helicopters, tankers, jets, and targets such as fuel depots and bridges, scoring points for taking out each.
River Raid actually has a cool feature that gives it huge replay value. Levels are procedurally generated but used to effect where the same world is generated each time the game loads, which is great for familiarity, but the genius is with the enemy AI.
The algorithm used for this uses a random number with each restart, which results in a different enemy AI outcome. So, enemy waves are not always going to react in the same way with each attempt, clever stuff!
Pole Position is one of the most iconic racing games of the 1980s, and is one of the best Atari 2600 games, its release on the Atari 2600 brought high-speed racing action to living rooms around the world.
As one of the first racing games to feature a third-person view that game the effect of 3D, Pole Position was a true milestone in video game history.
In Pole Position, you get behind the wheel of a Formula One car, first of all on a single timed qualifying lap, if you manage to complete the lap within the time given, you then progress to the race.
Pole Position really stood out from other Atari 2600 games for its 2.5D look and fast speed, whilst obviously not competing with the arcade in looks, it certainly captures the spirit of the arcade original.
Crystal Castles was a unique and innovative game for the Atari 2600 when released in 1984.
Offering players a fresh experience with its isometric viewpoint, the game centers around a character called Bentley Bear, who must collect gems while navigating through a series of increasingly difficult stages.
Each stage is broken up into four sections, which are each littered with gems and bonus items. You are faced against various enemies including the gem eaters who are sneakily trying to eat the gems before you get to them!
With each castle offering increasingly difficult stages, you’ll have to come back repeatedly to try to find a strategy that works for you, with plenty of trial and error needed here!
Q*Bert! The classic arcade game that leaves you feeling simultaneously frustrated and delighted. Released in 1983 by Parker Brothers, this game stars Q*Bert, an orange-snouted creature with two legs, two arms, and a serious attitude problem.
The aim of Q*Bert is simple: hop around a pyramid of cubes while changing their colors, avoiding enemies, and racking up points. And for those of us who grew up in the 80s, Q*bert was a familiar sight in arcades, so when it arrived on the Atari 2600, it was a way to bring the party home!
One of the most irritating things about Q*Bert is the controls. Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with them, it is so easy to forget which direction the controller will take you, due to the isometric viewpoint, and almost optical illusion fed to your brain! You will find yourself leaping off the side of the cubes to your demise a lot!
A timeless character, and a timeless game, Q*Bert is a favourite of mine and deserves its place in any best Atari 2600 games list.
If you are a particular fan of Q*Bert, then check out our best ColecoVision games list, which includes a much more near-arcade experience.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Now, this is a bit of a red herring!
E.T. is also known as not just the worst game on the Atari 2600, but also one of, if not THE worst game in the world, in fact, it is cited as the game that caused the crash of the entire video games industry!
I’ve included it on this list as you have to experience the myth that is E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, how can we ignore such a notorious title.
Visually and sonically speaking, E.T. really didn’t have anything to phone home about (sorry!), but what about the gameplay? Well, E.T. was a mess. The goal of the game is to help E.T. find the pieces of his interplanetary phone so he could call home.
Unfortunately, this translated to a frustrating maze of pits and obstacles that would make Indiana Jones cringe. And let’s not forget about the FBI agents who were constantly chasing after you like you had stolen their doughnuts.
This is a game that simply must be experienced firsthand to understand what all the fuss was about!
Defender jetted across from the arcade to the Atari 2600 in 1982, this game has everything a retro gamer could want: spaceships, aliens, and arcade action!
Defender was one of the most challenging games of its time. You play as a lone spaceship defending the planet from wave after wave of alien invaders. And these are not your run-of-the-mill aliens either. These guys are fast, agile, and had a serious grudge against humanity.
Aside from keeping track of the enemy and managing to keep your aim accurate, you have to keep track of the aliens as they try to kidnap people, so you’ll need to whizz around, shoot them, and rescue the now-falling prisoner!
A first of its kind at home, Defender was a huge hit with fans of the arcade game, looking to play non-stop without pumping more coins into the arcade cab.
The game that had you blasting rocks into tiny little pieces back in the day. Released in 1979 by Atari, this game was the ultimate test of reflexes and hand-eye coordination.
Asteroids is deceptively simple – you play as a spaceship flying through an asteroid field, shooting the rocks into smaller and smaller pieces until they disappeared completely.
After each wave, you progress to the next to do it all again! Asteroids gameplay loops until you lose all of your lives, so aiming for the high score is the aim of the game here, a sign that you are the true Asteroids master!
So, with asteroids on the Atari 2600, you are getting one of the most innovative and original arcade games of all time, on one of the most groundbreaking consoles of all time, equalling one of the best Atari 2600 games of all time!
Dragsters were all the rage in the 1970s, so this 1980 release of Dragster arrived to ride that wave of superpowered straight-line racing!
Whilst Dragster may not look like it has much to offer in terms of varied gameplay and levels, Dragster was all about timing – you had to shift gears at just the right moment in order to accelerate and reach the finish line as quickly as possible. But the real challenge was in the precision.
Like most of the games of this era, it was all about the high score, or in Dragster’s case, the fastest time.
A simple but addictive game, Dragster tested both skill and patience, but also provide hours of entertainment and a sense of accomplishment for those who mastered it.
Live your bartending dreams with Tapper, the game which has you running between bars, throwing beers toward your increasingly thirsty punters!
Tapper is a classic Atari 2600 game released in 1982 by Sega, that challenged players to keep up with a never-ending stream of thirsty customers. The gameplay is simple but difficult, requiring precision and quick reflexes to serve drinks without letting anyone get too close.
Work across four different themed bars, the old west saloon, jock bar, punk bar, and the space bar, between each level you are also pitted against the Soda Bandit in a bonus round, where the bandit sneakily shakes up five cans of soda, which are then mixed up and you need to choose the sixth ‘safe’ can choose incorrectly and your get soaked by an exploding soda can – Identical working in a real bar!
These are of course just a small selection of the best Atari 2600 games that came to the classic wood-clad system. In the end, the Atari 2600 was more than just a gaming console. It was a cultural phenomenon that brought gaming into the mainstream and laid the groundwork for the industry we know and love today.
So let’s raise a joystick to our friend, the woody, and to all the classic games that made it such an unforgettable part of gaming history.
Want to play Atari 2600 on your computer or mobile device? Then check out our best Atari 2600 emulator guide and find out which emulators are the best to use.
Of course, Atari wasn’t just known for its home consoles, they produced a wide range of home computers too, one of their later efforts being the Atari ST, which had a furious battle with its nemesis, the Commodore Amiga. Our article on the best Atari ST games shows you some of the greatest examples of Atari’s 16-bit computer.
A lifelong avid gamer and computing enthusiast, Matt has decades of Retro Gaming experience. Now over 40 years old, Matt now even considers himself retro, but fortunately, nobody has developed a Matt emulator (not yet at least!).