Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600: Introduction!

That's right!  Join us here at EF every day this month as we count down (or up, you know) the best vertical shooting games for the console that started it all, the Atari 2600!  Despite its modest capabilities, the VCS was able to absolutely nail a few video game genres that were populating arcades of the day.  Vertical Shooting games were some of the simplest, yet most popular games and for good reason.  The action is fast, the challenge is high, and the desire to play again and again is almost undeniable. Vertical shooters shine of the 2600 because of their simplicity.  As long as the game can display a player, a target and a shot, you're all set.  Of course, this also opens the door to some incredible and innovative game design.  While it seems almost automatic that a vertical shooting game take place in outer space, the genre is not limited to starship battles.  As a matter of fact, some of the best loved vertical shooters take place over rivers, in fields of mushrooms, or across highways.

The VCS library boasts over 40 games that can be considered vertical shooters.  For the purpose of this list, the genre "vertical shooter" will be defined as:  any game wherein the principal goal of the game, and therefore the game play, is to fire "shots" at targets vertically while the player moves horizontally across the screen.  This may include vertical movement by the player as well, and "shots" may fire up or down as long as their travel is predominately vertical.  A "shot" may be any kind of missile that is emitted from the player and strikes the target to some effect.   Please note that for this project I am only considering NTSC North American releases and only those games released during the original run of the VCS (hence no homebews).

Over the course of the next month, we will take a look at the 30 best vertical shooting games for the Atari 2600.  Games will be judged and ranked based on how fun they are to play, how challenging, the amount of replay factor, and finally, visual appeal.

I've spent countless hours playing these games, both historically and recently.  Along the way, I have enjoyed some old favorites and discovered some new ones!  Where will your favorite shooter rank?  Is Space Invaders overrated?  All will be revealed over the course of the next 30 days!

Didn't Make the Cut
For some games, the dream ends before the ranking even begins.  Here is a quick look at some shooters that weren't tough enough to make the cut.

Air Raid (Men-a-Vision)
What a disaster.  Thank goodness there are only a small handful of copies in the world.  Air Raid is a complete mess.  A decent enough idea, but miserable collision detection and repetitive bland game play take Air Raid right off the plate.  Not like you'd go buy a copy to play anyway, but if you get the chance, you are better off with almost any other game on this list.  I've seen numerous shots go RIGHT THROUGH enemy targets.  Boo.

Assault (Bomb)
Like most of Bomb's games, Assault feels like a game that was 75% developed and then released.  This one really wants to be a Demon Attack clone and features some nice looking enemies and a swank mothership, but the game play is weak and the challenge low.

Canyon Bomber (Atari)
I realize this is an early release and therefore a bit simplistic, but Canyon Bomber thrives on two-player action to make it fun, and even then it can be a stretch.  The idea is nice, but being so early also forces it to miss out on game play elements that could have been developed and implemented with sufficient time and experience coding for the 6502.

Condor Attack/Vulture Attack (Ultravision/K-Tel)
We'll do this in one shot since they are the exact same, very bad game.  Part Galaxian, part Phoenix, but not a quarter as fun as either, these games are total dullsville.  These games define the idea that mega-rare does not mean mega-popular or mega-fun.

Demons to Diamonds (Atari)
I'll take some heat for this one because I know it has its following, but much like Canyon Bomber, Demons to Diamonds really wants two-players in order to generate any real fun.  Smack talk and competition are what drives this game, not challenging game play or design.  D2D is fun, but it's not Top 30 fun.

Space Tunnel (Puzzy/Bit-Corp)
Seriously, what is this crap.  Sloppy controls, touchy collision detection and minimal challenge, I really don't understand this game at all.  It looks like the vertical levels of a game like Vanguard, but it plays like something from Mythicon.  Pass.
Spider Fighter (Activision)

Activision doesn't lay too many eggs, but they do with Spider Fighter.  Move to the left, shoot a lot, repeat.  Boring.  There is absolutely no challenge in this game.  Only one level presents a deviation from the recipe above and that just requires a bit of patience.  I think the idea behind the game is pretty interesting, but the execution fails to live up to that potential.

Warplock (Data Age)
Here's a game that looks absolutely great, but plays like a nap. The collision detection is barely there, but as long as you take your time and are careful you can max this baby out in a few minutes.  Enemy behavior is dreadfully redundant and as long as you don't get cheap-shot killed, you'll be off to dreamland before you know it.  Sure you only get one life, but it's all you'll need.  Oh, and turn the volume off because the game play "music" provokes violence.

Now that you know who's not on the list, it's time to start guessing who ranked where. How high up is River Raid?  It's a classic, but is it top 10 material?  What about Carnival or Shootin' Gallery, which one is better? Millipede or Centipede

The answers to these questions and more all January long as we rank the Top 30 vertical shooters for the Atari 2600.  Join us, won't you?  And feel free to chime in, complain, argue, and berate as you see fit.  That's what the Comments section is all about!

See you tomorrow!


  1. Looking forward to the countdown! I'm not well acquainted with the Atari 2600, so this should be great, thanks!

  2. Thanks Dylan! Vertical shooters really shine on the VCS, at least the good ones! I hope this list will help you get to know our woodgrain pal much better!