When you have a video game collection like mine, it can be hard to play all of the games. This is especially true when additions are made on an almost weekly basis. Still, I appreciate nearly every game I’ve accumulated for this reason or that. In the hopes of improving my writing through continuous effort and promoting ongoing learning of these games, I’m going to compose brief, descriptive articles.
With Ralph Baer’s recent passing, it’s fitting that one of the random games that gets pulled for me to discuss is an Odyssey2 game. As far as I know, there’s little connection between him and Casino Slot Machine!, outside of the fact that it appeared on the successor to the video game console he invented. As was typical with home video games during this era, the casino genre was prevalent on every platform. Personally, it’s hard to get invested in this style of game when there isn’t actual money on the line, and thus, no chance of a payoff. Especially when it’s a single player game! As far as I’m concerned, a slot machine’s best video game representation is as a distraction in the Pokémongames.
Apparently, a single person developed the majority of the Odyssey2’s library. Ed Averett is the name and from 1978 to 1983, he was the primary programmer at Magnavox. He developed Casino Slot Machine! and it was released in North America and 1980 and, like the bulk of the platform’s library, published by Magnavox.
Bridge and Checkers are two of Activision’s earliest games. Designed by Larry Kaplan and Alan Miller respectively, both were released for the Atari 2600 in 1980. These should’ve been some of the first games I wrote about, but I skipped over them because they’re not that interesting. They’re self-explanatory and lack any wacky modes that set them apart from other simulations of these games. If this article was written in 1980, it’d be another story. Having the ability to play bridge or checkers without having a human opponent and do so in the comfort of my home would’ve been great. Chances are though, if you like either of these games enough, you have a friend or two who is similarly into them.
Honestly, I didn’t play enough of these to render a qualitative judgment either. For the 2012/2013(/2014?) Game-a-Thon Olympics, my friend and I passed over these, opting to have them as “in case” games. You see, if one of us barely won the Atari 2600, the other could then ask for a competition in one of these, hoping to sway the platform. Thus, I can’t speak to how the computer AI is in either of these games, or even how to play bridge, which would be the most useful information from a review. Sorry.
Qualifying as both a great score attack and time attack game, Skiing was, personally, an unexpected pleasure in Activision’s Atari 2600 catalog. Designed by Bob Whitehead and released in 1980, Skiing was an exemplary game for my friend and I’s ongoing competition, the Game-a-Thon Olympics.
In the early going, the skier seemed awfully stiff because movement was limited to slight degree changes either left or right. Soon enough though, this was a boon. Rather than holding a direction to avoid obstacles, I could instead push in the direction once (or more if needed) and change direction. In my mind, this lent to more “twitch” style gameplay which had me addicted.
Beyond the simple design and addictive gameplay, Skiing had two types of downhill races, multiple difficulties, and even random courses so there was a lot to do before growing bored. A simple game, like Dragster, that’s deceptively enjoyable and replayable. Finally, included alongside it in Activision Anthology is an unlockable patch (awarded upon completion of game 3 in under 32 seconds) and its original television commercial which includes a faux-Frenchman and lots of cheese.
What could’ve been a laid back fishing trip to the piers is anything but in 1980’s Fishing Derby for the Atari 2600. In it, two opposing fisherman aim to out fish each other, which in this game means reaching ninety-nine points first.
Fish are arranged in rows and are worth more points depending on how deep they reside. Getting a bite seemed hit and miss in my experiences with the game, but with a human opponent, this wasn’t as much of a detriment since both were facing the same problem. If one person was getting strikes consistently and the other wasn’t, it could be a tad funny, maybe. When a fish was on the line, managing it didn’t simply entail reeling it in as fast as possible thanks to the opportunistic shark roaming near the surface. A cute and easy to pick up and play game that, like Boxing, is at its best with a human opponent.
Fishing Derby was designed by David Crane who was arguably the most prolific designers of Atari 2600 games with titles like Dragsterand Pitfall! to his name. He continued developing video games until the mid nineties and is perhaps most known post-Atari 2600 for A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia.
As is the case with most every game on the platform, Boxing for the Atari 2600 is a simplistic version of the real thing. Fortunately, it’s easy to pick up and play and well suited for multiplayer.
Viewed from a top-down perspective, the boxers appear to be two Geodudes in a pigpen in the eyes of Pokemon fan such as myself. The boxers are almost magnetically attracted when they near each other, locking gloves and making it difficult to get a punch in. Only through a side to side shuffle does the opportunity present itself to land a punch; hopefully prompting a long combo, but if the other boxer isn’t against the ropes, there’s slim chance that’ll happen.
The first boxer to score one hundred points is deemed the winner and this roughly translates to one hundred landed punches. When I’ve played it though, I noticed points increasing in value during a combo. Then again, my opponent has had me seeing birdies more than once too – only human counterparts though, the computer boxer is a chump. Without a human opponent, Boxing wears thin fast and I can’t imagine playing more of it without one.
Bob Whitehead designed Boxing, and a healthy list of other games for the Atari 2600 that I’ll discuss in the coming days. He was one of the four designers who cofounded Activision who originally published this game in 1980. Included alongside Boxing in Activision Anthology is a corporate commercial that highlights a few commercials interspersed with commentary from some of Activision’s designers.
More so than ever before, I’ve been researching the designers of the games I’m writing about. The games in question are the Atari 2600 titles I decided to highlight from my collection. I’m fascinated by the stories behind their development and the fact that they were developed either by a single person or a small team. Today I felt like highlighting Maze Craze: A Game of Cops ‘n Robbers.
Maze Craze is a game like those pencil puzzles from childhood, the ones that were mazes where you had to draw your way to the exit. The concept grows dull with no one else around, but two player races are pretty fun. Mocking the pronounced footsteps and occasional user error is part of the game’s charm. Better yet, there are multiple variations on the game that switch things up and keep the game fresh.
Richard “Rick” Mauer was the designer behind Maze Craze and according to him, he was influenced by a Fairchild Channel F game, specifically Videocart-10: Maze.   The only other video game attributed to Rick is the Atari 2600 version of Space Invaders. This game went on to sell 2 million copies and provoked a quadrupling of sales of the Atari 2600.  However, Rick reportedly only made $11,000 for his work on the game and abandoned game development. 
It’s a simple game and one that isn’t very fulfilling without someone to play with, but Maze Craze’s use of familiar maze puzzles proves to be an interesting video game.
Dragster for the Atari 2600 – it’s a drag racing video game designed by David Crane and published by Activision way back in 1980. Burning through the gears and completing a quarter mile as quickly as possible is the aim of the game and with a friend, the few seconds that are spent on a single race stretch into a half hour trying to figure out the optimal shifting pattern while not blowing an engine.
It’s my favorite game on the Atari 2600 partly because it’s so fast. As soon as a race is done, it’s a flick of the joystick and the next race is already counting down. Races already last under twenty seconds but this quick reset makes the proposition of just one more race all the more compelling.
However, being able to get back into the game quickly wouldn’t matter if the underlying gameplay wasn’t enjoyable, and Dragster’s is. The risk/reward gameplay associated with shifting is easy to learn, tough to master, and flexible enough to allow experimentation. It’s not like shifting a daily driver though, unless you’re the type to rev each gear up to the redline, drop the clutch, up shift, and slam on the gas pedal. If so, I need not explain further. Perhaps I should mention that blowing the engine is quite easy and has been the cause of many of my losses.
Like Vin Diesel’s mantra from The Fast and the Furious, playing Dragster is like living your life a quarter mile at a time. It’s fast and fun, but before you know it, time has passed you by.