Released in September 1977, the Atari 2600—initially known as the Atari Video Computer System (or VCS for short)—defined the early home console gaming era with simple, inexpensive hardware that proved rugged and capable.
Due to a flexible video hardware design, creative programmers stretched the console’s market lifespan far beyond what its designers originally intended, and the platform took the industry to incredible heights. (Just before crashing the whole thing, but that’s a story for another time.)
If you’re familiar with the Atari 2600’s legendary gaming library of over 400 titles, you’ve probably heard of, or even played, games like Combat, Yars’ Revenge, Pitfall!, River Raid, Demon Attack, or popular arcade conversions like Frogger, Super Breakout, Ms. Pac-Man, Centipede, or Space Invaders. Classic games like Adventure and the Swordquest series pioneered home console adventure games, while titles like Basketball, Home Run, and Tennis showed what console sports gaming could be during the medium’s formative years.
The 2600’s library feels incredibly diverse: Dozens of genres appeared on the platform, including platformers, shooters, simulations, word games, and weird stuff that I can’t even describe. I thought it would be fun to look beyond the usual “greatest hits” of the 2600 and instead explore some of the console’s hidden gems—lesser-known titles that tend to get overlooked compared to their famous cousins.
I’ve only picked seven here, but there are dozens more incredible, weird, strange, and amazing 2600 games out there. If you’re interested in playing these yourselves, I recommend tracking down a real Atari 2600 and a CRT TV set (ask around among family and friends) with authentic controllers to give yourself the most authentic experience. It’s easy to pick up a ton of 2600 carts for fairly cheap on eBay (or find a multi-cart like the Harmony). Unlike games for more advanced consoles, these just don’t feel the same emulated.
When you’re done reading, I’d love to hear about some of your favorite underrated Atari 2600 games in the comments. Happy gaming!
Frogs and Flies (1982)
When you’re exploring games on a platform that’s home to dozens of Pac-Man and Space Invaders clones, it’s refreshing to find a game like Frogs and Flies, which is a genre unto itself. You play as a frog in a lush pond who must jump from lily pad to lily pad catching as many flies as possible. You do that by timing your jumps and pushing the joystick button to extend your tongue at just the right time. Meanwhile, a human- or computer-controlled frog also races to eat as many flies as possible before it gets dark. Whomever catches the most by sunset wins. Thirty-seven years after its release, Frogs and Flies (known as “Frog Bog” on the Intellivision) remains a clever and endlessly replayable two-player game.
Indy 500 (1977)
Over the past 40+ years of video game history, a handful of home video games have transcended the usual gameplay experience on their consoles by using special controllers. A few examples? Arkanoid on the NES. Nights into Dreams on the Saturn. Here also, Indy 500 shines as a showcase for the Atari Driving Controller, which is a knob with a single fire button that can be rotated endlessly without any limits (unlike the paddle controllers). The experience of steering your car in Indy 500 with the driving controller is so natural and smooth that you can hardly believe it is coming from such a primitive-looking game. Add in two-player support and plenty of game modes, and you might be looking at the single most future-proof video game published in 1977. This game will always be fun if you have the original controller.
Montezuma’s Revenge (1984)
Deviously difficult but with tight controls, Montezuma’s Revenge stands out as a finely crafted platformer. As Panama Joe, you explore an ancient Aztec temple looking for treasure while avoiding traps and enemies. While this title also appeared on many other platforms, it shines especially bright on the 2600 with its flicker-free gameplay thanks to expert late-era programming work. According to Wikipedia, the phrase “Montezuma’s Revenge” refers to diarrhea gained from a visit Mexico. Luckily, there’s nary a toilet to be found in this game.
Atari 2600 fans often overlook Entombed because it’s merely ho-hum as a single-player game. But add another player, and the game comes alive. Your goal is to guide a tiny stickman archeologist through a shifting, vertically scrolling maze/pyramid without getting trapped against the top edge of the screen. You have a limited number of “make-breaks” that can build walls to thwart enemies (or the other player) or break them as a last resort if you get stuck. With a friend, you can choose to play Entombed competitively or cooperatively, which gives the game extra depth.
Fishing Derby (1980)
As one of the first Activision titles ever released (when third-party publishing for the Atari 2600 was a brand-new thing), Fishing Derby tends to get overlooked in comparison to later Activision classics like Pitfall! and River Raid. Designer David Crane crafted a fun fishing simulation where one races to collect 99 pounds of fish. The fish swimming at the bottom of the lake weigh more, but they’re harder to get because a shark might pull them off your line. Like most classic 2600 games, Fishing Derby works well as both a single-player and two-player game, but the frantic competitive spirit kindled by the 2P game is where the real magic happens.
Star Wars: Jedi Arena (1983)
As one of the most unique games on the 2600, Jedi Arena generally defies genre classification. It’s brilliant as a two-player competitive title with nice graphics and glorious sound. Each player holds a paddle controller that changes the direction of their light saber, which serves as defensive device. The turn of the paddle also determines the angle that a laser bolt shoots out from the flying “seeker” bot at the other player when you push the fire button. Your goal is to break away the other player’s force field and hit them with a lightning bolt. After a while, the seeker builds up a charge and unleashes a torrent of random laser bolts that one must defend against. This may secretly be the best Star Wars video game ever made.
If you throw Dig Dug, Tanks but no Tanks, Mr. Do, and maybe a little bit of Frogger in a blender and churn them all up, you get Thunderground. You play as some kind of battle car digging through dirt while shooting or avoiding enemy tanks. Your goal on each stage is to destroy the six nuclear bases at the top of the screen. I appreciate the fact that Thunderground resisted the trend toward being insanely difficult, which is rare in shooter games of this vintage. It also interests me historically for being a Sega-published game on the 2600 that neither served as an arcade port nor appeared on any other platform. It’s definitely an overlooked gem worth exploring. There’s plenty more out there on the 2600. Have fun, and let me know what you find!