5 of the Most Confounding Atari 2600 Games Ever
I wasn’t around for the great stock market crash of 1929, but I was alive for the North American video game crash of 1983. It was brutal, I tell you. Hundreds of thousands of desperate, haggard-looking gamers hanging around on sidewalks begging for quarters and holding signs reading, “Will blow on cartridges for money.” Those were hard times, my friends.

When Ken Burns finally gets around to producing a melancholy, sepia-toned documentary on the crash, he will doubtless focus much of his time on Atari. For it was Atari, perhaps more than any other company, that contributed most to the problem by releasing one suspect game after another. Let’s take a look at just five of those games now. I’m not saying that these are bad games, necessarily, just ones that never should have existed. But yeah, there’s definitely overlap here.

#5. Kool-Aid Man (Mattel, 1983)

Kool-Aid Man (Mattel, 1983)

It’s all downhill from the opening sequence.

The Premise

Fulfilling every sugar-addicted, perpetually thirsty kid’s dream, Mattel allowed you to actually be the Kool-Aid Man, with all of his wall-destroying powers. Sadly, you don’t even get to destroy the one wall seen in the game. Instead you spend most of your time as the Kool-Aid Man — shown as a tiny red pitcher — flying around in a backyard in an effort to stop apple-shaped characters called Thirsties from sucking all the water out of a pool through straws. Why? Well as anyone who watched Gleaming the Cube knows, an empty pool is an open invitation to hooligan skateboarders. And once you get skateboarders, you might as well move.

To aid Kool-Aid Man against the Thirsties, floating ingredient letters such as W (water) and S (sugar) can turn him full-size temporarily invincible. Without them, he’s susceptible to getting bounced around the screen like a kid on a sugar high.

Sample Gameplay

Why It’s Confounding

I’m not sold on the premise that creatures who just want to drink water need to be stopped, unless the Kool-Aid Man is really the guardian of some post-apocalyptic, Bartertown-type location where every drop must be preserved at all costs. Actually, that would be a really awesome premise for a game.

And what does Kool-Aid Man have against plain water anyway? Lord knows it’s better for you than all the sugary crap contained in all those Kool-Aid packets. He probably goes around town slapping vegetables out of kids’ hands too. “Childhood obesity… OH YEAAHH!”

#4. Tax Avoiders (American Videogame, 1982)

Tax Avoiders (American Videogame, 1982) screenshot

The Premise

Why don’t I just let the game manual explain this one?

The goal of the player is to become a millionaire, after taxes, in one year. As in real life, there are obstructions to your progress, bureaucratic levels to go through and obstacles to overcome such as governmental red tape, bad investments that lose money, taxes and IRS audits.

The way this shakes out is that your character runs around a screen trying to earn money as the calendar progresses. Dollar signs earn you money, government red tape takes it away (thanks Obama!). Then you move to another screen where you have to land on icons representing your portfolio, as well as various tax-sheltered investments (e.g. solar energy and railroad containers). All the while you are being pursued by a man in a hat who is either an IRS agent (Eddie), a CPA looking to drum up business (Waggie), or a friendly neighborhood investment advisor (Toodles).

Sample Gameplay

Why It’s Confounding

Tax Avoiders is the first — and likely only — video game designed by a self-proclaimed former Internal Revenue Service agent. And it shows because this thing is boring as hell, even by Atari 2600 standards. While I am puzzled as to why someone who was working at the time as a tax consultant would write a game that so blatantly glamorizes cheating Uncle Sam, there is an even bigger mystery out there — what poor soul could be so bored, so completely out of other options for killing some free time, that playing Tax Avoiders seemed like a good decision?

#3. Sneak ‘n Peek (U.S. Games, 1982)

Sneak 'n Peek (U.S. Games, 1982) screenshot

The Premise

If you can’t figure out the concept behind Sneak ‘n Peek by looking at the above screenshot, allow me to summarize for you: It’s fucking hide and seek. No, really. You close your eyes and your opponent hides somewhere in an old house (one of three rooms or the yard). Then you try to find him. There are up to five hiding places in each location. That means there are limitless potential hiding places available, as long as by limitless you mean 20.

Sample Gameplay

Why It’s Confounding

Of all the childhood games to appropriate for the Atari, why hide and seek? It’s easily one of the most annoying ones available. I would play Atari Freeze Tag or Atari Red Rover a thousand times before I would think to play Sneak ‘n Peek. Making things just a bit weirder is the soundtrack, which features digitized excerpts from songs like “Camptown Races” and “Home! Sweet Home!

In the interest of fairness I should point out that the opening scene, which takes place outside the front of the house, is fairly ambitious for an Atari game of this era. Unfortunately it seems the U.S. Games development team blew their creative wad on it, because the rest of the game is profoundly dull.

#2. Star Fox (Mythicon, 1983)

#2. Star Fox (Mythicon, 1983) screenshot

The Premise

The idea behind Star Fox is actually pretty solid, albeit unoriginal (Defender, anyone?). You must recover a shipment of trimetalisium energy crystals before a fleet of enemy ships can beat you to it. Along the way you have to shoot said enemy ships. There is extra danger involved during recovery, as the orange part of the screen prohibits horizontal movement.

Note: This Star Fox has nothing to do with the popular game released for the Super Nintendo in 1993. Mythicon, which went belly up shortly after this game was released, simply never filed a trademark for Star Fox in the U.S. so it was up for grabs.

Sample Gameplay

Why It’s Confounding

So if the concept is decent, what makes Star Fox bizarre? Well, mainly the fact that it’s abundantly clear that not one person with any respect for video game players actually tested or signed off on this abomination. Game play is extremely difficult and not at all intuitive, and the soundtrack sounds like a prototypical version of shitty dubstep.

I can’t say for certain that Mythicon died as a direct result of Star Fox, but I can say for certain that no tears were shed over its demise.

#1. Pac-Man (Atari, Inc., 1982)

#1. Pac-Man (Atari, Inc., 1982) screenshot

The Premise

I won’t insult your intelligence or mine by explaining how Pac-Man works.

Sample Gameplay

Why It’s Confounding

Look, I appreciate the reasoning behind releasing an 8-bit adaptation of an arcade game that can rightly be called a global phenomenon. You’d be stupid to leave that much money on the table. But why this adaptation? Why stake your entire company’s name and reputation on something so vastly inferior to the original in every way? To call this thing a pale imitation of the original doesn’t even begin to describe it.

The main problem isn’t that the Atari version is graphically more crude. That’s just a technological hurdle and is excusable. No, the problem is that every thing that made arcade Pac-Man fun — the sounds, the speed, the different mazes, the game play, even the fruit — is gone. What was released instead is less creative and fun than trying to spell curse words on a calculator.

And it’s not as if porting an arcade game to a more limited system is an impossible task. Space Invaders and Asteroids for the 2600 aren’t mind-blowing in any sense, but you at least feel like you’re playing the same basic game. Atari’s Pac-Man, on the other hand, is like going to see Bruce Springsteen in concert, only John Mellencamp walks on stage and starts singing John Cafferty songs. It’s confusing, insulting, and really fucking annoying.

About the Author

Chris Holmes

Chris Holmes joined the Popdose writing staff only after enduring a humiliating series of hazing rituals. One day he'll write a tell-all book, and then they'll all pay. Until then, you can also catch him at his regular home, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, or you can follow him on Twitter.

View All Articles