REVIEWS: 2600 / Joust / DigDug / Q*Bert

ATARI 2600 REVIEW

As I unbox it, everything visually about this system screams “old school cool”. The wood panel design on the front of the console, the joystick controllers, the VHF/Antennae connector, the way you switch on and off the system and its settings instead of pressing down buttons, it all seems so archaic compared to the touch buttons of the PS4 and XBox One that you don’t even have to press down on. These positive feelings quickly went away as I tried to hook it up though, because I had forgotten how hard it is to snugly connect a VHF output to modern day TVs. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, this image is pretty close to what I’m talking about: http://saundby.com/atari7800mod/images/vidadapt1.jpg  . It didn’t work on my plasma TV, but I do have an older model Sanyo HDTV that I keep specifically for older systems. With a little fiddling I was finally able to get the short VHF connector to be flush enough with the TVs antennae jack that the games didn’t give me a buzzing feedback noise. That’ something to keep in mind if you plan to collect for this system, you need a TV that has a short enough antennae jack to still fit old VHF connectors, or you need to invest in a VHF to antennae adapter.

I fire up Joust and to my surprise it works first try. I would later find that all three games I reviewed loaded problem-free on the first try, something I doubt the NES succeeds at when we review it in a few weeks. Could the reason for this consistency be because the “connectors” for the cartridges are housed mostly inside of the cartridge and aren’t exposed to air like the “teeth” of most Nintendo cartridges? I’m not sure, but for whatever the reason, its a big check mark in the “Pros” column for the 2600. After playing the three games I have to say my favorite thing about the system is the sound. I just love 8-bit and 16-bit sounds and music. While the 2600s sound is lacking a bit compared to the NES after it, it still has that classic feel to it and is still very enjoyable. Visually though, the games look hideous. I have to keep reminding myself that these games are 30 years old. The age excuse isn’t fully valid though when you consider that the 2600 games are noticeably less defined and less colorful compared to their older arcade counterparts. But again we have to remember, this system is one of the first capable of emulating expensive arcade cabinets while still remaining somewhat affordable. It would take a couple decades of refinement to get to where we are now.

One of the most important things that make or break a system are definitely the controllers. The 2600 comes with joysticks and paddle style controllers. The idea of having a joystick is cool, especially considering that arcade games mostly use joysticks and this console is basically an arcade simulator. The actual joysticks that come with the console however are quite sub par. They just do not function well in neither responsiveness nor arcade-feel. There were several instances in play in which I would tell the stick to go one direction and my character would go in an other. Poor Q*Bert suicide jumped off his pyramid at least a couple dozen times. Perhaps I’m just spoiled with today’s joysticks. I’m a fighting gamer and also used to be pretty into modding fightsticks so I’m used to high quality, modern age technology when it comes to joysticks. Its painful to go back to using this crappy unresponsive thing, even when I factor in the 30 years old excuse. When I think about it, the 2600 really is the only system I can think of that came packaged with a straight-up joystick (not counting “thumbsticks” like the PS1’s). Between the 2600 and the PS One/N64/Saturn era, consoles used “D-Pads” on their stock controllers. Actually even those first three systems that did have “thumbsticks” stocked also still had “D-Pads”. I wonder why we stuck with the pad structure for so long and stayed away from joysticks. I can’t really say its due to quality because many of us know arcade cabinets that have great joysticks and are a decade older than those consoles. My best guess would be the cost of manufacturing a high quality joystick was too high during the pad era and developers shied away from joystick layouts for a long time because of it. The paddle style controllers of the 2600 however did respond well and I was happy with how they performed overall. Though they held up well I’m not surprised they weren’t featured on future console designs because they don’t have good places for buttons. The next decade of console controllers would start to show us that the more buttons the better, a paddle design can’t keep up with that style of layout.

After playing the three games for review I also went back and played a couple other favorites like Frogger, Pong and Pac-Man. All in all I had fun with this review, but the question I ended up dwelling on was “Is this a great console because of the actual console or because of its games?” The answer I ended up with is its undoubtedly because of the games. The console and controller itself is not great. These games however are and they are a huge part of gaming history. They’re the first wave of mass produced video games that we played and they introduced millions of people to video gaming. This console is basically a way to bring the classic arcade games of the 70s and 80s into your home without spending thousands of dollars on cabinets. If that is something that interests you then you should definitely collect for the system because it is also one of the cheapest to collect and also isn’t generally hard to find games for. Talking to other collectors, it seems that the console itself holds up pretty well. You don’t have to worry too much about buying a dud system at a yard sale. The one thing I would be picky about when buying it though is the joystick. Find one that the gate seems “clicky” on, it needs to feel balanced between too tight and too loose.

Never Played: JOUST REVIEW

Joust is our 2600 pick for the “Never Played” category. I have seen Joust years ago at an arcade or two, but I’ve never played it.

Joust hit arcades in July of 1982. It was developed by John Newcomer and Williams Electronics, who’s other arcade hit of the time was Defender. Newcomer said he wanted a couple key things when designing the game: for it to be cooperative and to be a flying based game. He had a stipulation on the flying aspect though, he didn’t want it to be yet another space flight game like several arcade hits of the era including Space Invaders, Asteroids and Galaga. He decided on a player-controlled ostrich (or a stork if you’re Player 2) vs computer controlled vultures. An interesting tidbit I found while researching was that he had it narrowed down to two choices: the player riding either an eagle or an ostrich. He chose the ostrich because he wanted the character to be able to both run and fly and thought it was more believable to have an ostrich that could fly than an eagle that could run. Living up to its name, the game is based on you colliding with opponents and only one coming out the victor. Using a joystick and a button you point your character going either left or right and how fast you press the button determines how fast you flap your wings. If you go past one Joust_121side of the screen you will reemerge on the opposite side. The game had a decent reception in arcades. It sold well, but wasn’t in the upper echelon of arcade popularity like Asteroids, Space Invaders or Pac-Man. It wouldn’t come to the Atari 2600 until 1983.

First thing I noticed when getting set-up to play is the artwork is tremendous. There is a warrior, sporting some kind of space goggles, riding a freaking ostrich full speed charging at the viewer. I mean how unapologetically ridiculous is the concept of this game? For the time period the art also looks semi-realistic. As I started to play it I could not for the life of me remember the mechanics. I couldn’t figure out why I would win some collisions and lose others. Are there certain color enemies I can kill and some I can’t? Does the person traveling the fastest win the collisions? Finally I figured out that it is in fact who is the highest during the collision that determines the winner. It also took me a few times of falling to my death to realize that the yellow bar at the bottom of the screen was getting smaller in between waves and that the red box under it must be lava or out-of-bounds or something because I was instantly dying when touching it. I would later see online that the arcade version has much more detail and actually shows that this red box is indeed a fire pit that I should be avoiding. On the 2600 version however, its pretty much impossible to tell the first couple of times you play. I really enjoyed the gameplay concept. It is the perfect level of fast-paced, not so crazy that you can’t tell what’s going on, but fast enough to keep things exciting and to require a decent amount of skill. The tapping of the button is quite responsive and satisfying. I compare the feel of it to swimming during Super Mario Bros games. The level design is clever for this early of a game, sometimes the spread of the blocks make it difficult to ascend for easy kills or to escape the pterodactyl. Oh yea, I forgot to mention, there’s a friggin’ pterodactyl. He would just randomly come in out of nowhere every so many levels and rock my world. I never figured out if you can kill him, let alone how, but he made things very interesting. When I kill opponents, small white dots take their place and they would bounce around the screen until I hit them again for extra points. I later read that these are eggs and they do not bounce around in the arcade version.

All in all this game was an absolute blast and I now know why so many people remember it fondly. The 2600 version is a dumbed down version, with dramatically worse graphics, but it still captures the core of the game well and was enjoyable. I think one of the reasons it plays decently on 2600 is because the poor quality of the arcade stick doesn’t come into play too much with Joust. You’re moving in only two different directions so the stick doesn’t have much of a chance to get confused on your input. Also the button on the 2600 joystick is pretty responsive and I had zero issues with it for this game during hours of play. After I reviewed all three games for this blog post I went back and played even more Joust. I hope that I see it soon in arcade cabinet form and can play the superior version. This is a must own for all Atari collectors.

Game Video (2600): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YDF-s1zlBQ

Game Video (Arcade): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Ga2Dtkg92I

Poll Winner: DIG DUG REVIEW

Dig Dug was the voting winner from you guys, tied with Q*Bert. Q*Bert I had already considered reviewing under the favorite category, so when you guys voted it so high I decided to place it there. This left Dig Dug as the winner of the poll.

Dig Dug was developed by powerhouse Namco and helped the company become one of the most popular early companies of gaming (Pac-Man and Galaga also contributed a bit of course). It released in arcades in April/May of 1982 and sold very well. In Dig Dug you are an explorer, surrounded by tunnels and monsters. By moving through the rectangular level you will dig more and more tunnels. If you dig a connection between your tunnel and the tunnel that a monster is in then the monster will proceed to follow you. You’re equipped with an air pump that you use to explode the monsters (which I had always assumed was a laser gun and didn’t learn until now that it was actually an air pump). You can also kill monsters with the three rocks spread out across the level by digging a tunnel under the rock and making dig dugit fall down onto a monster. After you drop two of the three rocks, whether you got a kill with them or not, a special item will appear in the center of the map that will score you bonus points if you touch it. Once all monsters are cleared you proceed to the next level. A dumbed-down version came shortly after to the Atari 2600 in 1983.

I liked the box art a lot, it is cartoon styled, colorful and fun. You earn points for digging tunnels so my inclination initially was to make laps around the level and eat away most of the dirt before exposing myself to enemies. I had forgotten however that the enemies will simply teleport themselves into your tunnel and be right on your ass before you realize what is happening. If you kill enemies too quickly though you will miss out on all the points you would have earned from digging and from killing the last enemy because when he realizes he’s the last one left he books it out of there. So the key to getting a good score is finding the balance in digging and killing. I figured out that you score more points for rock kills than pump kills and that the farther down into the level you get the kill the more points you earn for it. I had always assumed the dirt was multicolored for aesthetic purposes but its actually to show you how deep to go to get the next higher amount of points for kills. I caught on pretty quick for not playing Dig Dug in years, it was easy enough if you simply want to clear levels. But things get much harder when you try to maximize your score by digging deep or getting rock kills. I killed myself with my own rock more times than I care to admit. I found the gameplay to be pretty solid, its easy enough to learn, but hard to master. I can see why it caught on big in its day.

Now with all the positive notes about this game said, lets talk about how much of a shit-show of a port the 2600 version is compared to the arcade version. Linked at the end of this review, watch video between the two and you will see they look almost like two totally different games. The dirt effects are replaced with just flat lines, the colors are lackluster, the sound isn’t nearly as crisp, I was very disappointed.

Still, the gameplay is unique for its time period and the fun of the concept stands the test of time. In a late 70s/early 80s period filled with different flavors of space shooters, Dig Dug was a design unlike any other. This game is certainly worth owning, but I would suggest picking up the NES version over the 2600 if you collect for both systems.

Game Video (2600): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pQ4ybxhAII

Game Video (Arcade): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dt0_1RhTPHI

Personal Favorite: Q*BERT

Q*Bert and Dig Dug tied for first place when you guys voted. Since Q*Bert and Ms. Pac-Man are my favorite games for the 2600 I decided it would be best to do Q*Bert under the favorite category, leaving Dig Dug as the clear winner under the voting category.

Q*Bert was released in arcades in September of 1982. It would become Gottlieb’s biggest game ever, a company that had made its name in the gaming industry off pinball games since all the way back in 1927. Right from the start it was popular with players and critics alike. It even gave Pac-Man a run for its money in terms of sales totals. Q*Bert is an alien who starts a level atop a pyramid of blocks which stack from one down to seven-wide. He can jump diagonally around the pyramid of blocks and when he jumps on one it lights up to a different color than it was when you began the level. To clear a level Q*Bert must light up every block of the level to the new color, dodging snakes and strange creatures along the way. There are discs on either side of the pyramid that will take you back to the top. Purple creatures will follow you but suicide jump off the pyramid sometimes, green creatures will travel down the pyramid and undo the color changes you’ve made. You can collide with green guys to kill them, but purple guys and snakes should be avoided at all costs. Q*Bert really was the only game of the time period that felt three-dimensional. A big part of the 3D feel is the use of cubes and the 3D designs on the discs. I could be wrong but I also don’t remember many games at that time with characters using diagonal movements qbertinstead of up/down/left/right. The 3D feel combined with the bright neon colors into a game that was unique and creative, not just for that era, it still feels quite unique today. Like with the rest of these arcade – to – 2600 ports, a very dumbed down version of Q*Bert came to the Atari in 1983.

I’m a bit disappointed in the artwork, its not bad, but its no warrior riding a killer ostrich either. I fire up the game and remember that while I absolutely love Q*Bert, this 2600 version is not the Q*Bert I remember. This is an abomination. I can’t see what the hell is going on. I can’t quite tell the difference between the creatures and the balls. The levels are 6 deep instead of 7 and the colorful discs are replaced with short white dashes. One of the best things about the game is its colorful neon vibe and most of that is lost in translation to the 2600. I can get past the visual inferiority after playing it for a spell. What I couldn’t get past is the joystick’s performance with this game. I’ve talked already in this post about how poorly the joystick responds to inputs but in no other game was it as evident as it was with Q*Bert. Poor Q*Bert jumped to his death off the side of the pyramid time and time again as the controller misread my inputs. In instances where you aren’t being chased closely it works well enough, but when a snake is on your ass and you need to make quick movements it just would not keep up. I had had enough of this madness after only a couple hours of play. I don’t know how I used to play this back on our visits to uncle Tommy’s house. I guess it was because at that time I had never played the far superior arcade version.

Don’t let the poor 2600 version of Q*Bert scare you away though. If you see it in arcade cabinet form, you have to give it a play. This game truly is a masterpiece and a gem of its era. I remember playing it every time we got to go to Pizza Hut as a kid of 8 or 9. Our small town in the middle of farm country Kentucky obviously didn’t have an arcade. What we did have for arcade gaming was a laundromat and a Pizza Hut. There was a program we had at school called Accelerated Reader, which rewarded you with coupons for personal pan pizzas for every so many books you read. I was an avid reader and gamer so this thing was perfect for me. I would build up a couple coupons for Levi and I to get free pizza and then mom would take us to Pizza Hut. I didn’t want to go for the pizza though, I wanted to go for Q*Bert. Pizza Hut had a cocktail style cabinet like this one: http://s207.photobucket.com/user/jsenigaglia/media/51048136.jpg.html. I remember it felt so different from other arcade games at the time. The art on the cabinet and on the actual game was vibrant, Q*Bert the character was weird, the whole concept of hopping around on neon cubes that stacked into a pyramid was strange. Q*Bert was its own thing, its own style of game. It wasn’t a side-scrolling beat-em-up, it wasn’t a top down space shooter, it was just Q*Bert.

If you want to own this game but not spend hundreds on a cabinet, I would go with the NES version, skip over the 2600 version. The NES version isn’t as beautiful as the arcade version either, but it is bounds above the 2600 version in quality and is relatively cheap to pick up.

Game Video (2600): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkZhWsiHCqM

Game Video (Arcade): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKIbhaQfs-A

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