Monday, October 10, 2016

A Tribute to Atari 2600 Horror Games

Paying homage to the early forebearers of survival horror ... that is, if you can make out what the graphics are supposed to be, anyway.

By: Jimbo X

Simply put, the Atari 2600 doesn’t get anywhere near as much love as it deserves from today's Super Mario Bros.-weaned video gaming masses. Before the NES, they all seem to think the virtual oceans and the sky and the earth were devoid of form, like in the Book of (not Sega) Genesis, when in reality, the video game industry – both in the arcades and in our living rooms – had been thriving for nearly a decade.

Sure, the 2600 may reek of antiquity. I mean, it does have wood paneling on it, which is about the most outdated thing this side of shag carpeting. That said, despite the meager technical specs of the hardware, the 2600 nonetheless brought us hours of thumb-blister forming fun through console classics like Combat, Pitfall, Food Fight and River Raid. It being the first real home system, the 2600 pretty much introduced all of the gaming genres we've been playing for the last 40 years to our living rooms, turning our dens into virtual SHMUP killing grounds, digital boxing rings and cyber combat zones. And of course, it also introduced us to the idea of home console horror games, effectively giving us the great, great forerunners to Resident Evil and Silent Hill a good 15 and 20 years in advance. Granted, there's not a wealth of solid scary games on the 2600 (as a matter of fact, you really have to liberally define what "horror" is to get the library count in the double digits), but the console nonetheless featured a good handful of cartridges that, in addition to bringing us one-button joy by the buckets, also sought to scare the living dog shit out of each and every one of us.

To help get everyone in the Halloween spirit, I reckoned it was worth our collective whiles to take a look back at 16 pioneering genre games on Atari's beloved console. Granted, not all of them have aged particularly well, but nonetheless, survival horror - as both an abstract concept and a video gaming institution - wouldn't have been possible without their trailblazing handiwork. So plug in your joysticks, boils and ghouls ... it's time to get eight bits of creepy in this mudder-fugger.


Yep, they made an Alien game on the 2600, and it's a blatant ripoff of Pac-Man. You've got the same pellet-munching gameplay, you're hunted by the same pastel-hued, color-coded bad guys and if the inspiration wasn't obvious enough, I swear it uses the exact same sound effects from the Namco coin-op classic. Granted, the game does have the common decency to do at least one thing different: at certain junctures in the game, you can pick up a flamethrower power-up, which I suppose theoretically helps you fight off the facehuggers (during my playthrough, though, the fire button didn't do shit.) And your reward after clearing each screen? You get to play a brazen clone of Frogger, albeit with bright red, yellow and green xenomorphs performing a conga line across the vast emptiness of space ... which, still, is a better Alien experience than Resurrection, I suppose.

Dark Chambers!

Dark Chambers is pretty much a variation of Gauntlet, and for what it's worth, it isn't too bad. You play a guy wearing a lot of orange who fires Creamsicle-hued blocks at adversaries while trying to navigate your way through a subterranean lair (which, yeah, is mostly just repeating patterns of grey, only with differently colored barriers.) Along the way you'll encounter guards wearing a lot of green who sort of resemble overweight Peter Pans, shadowy dudes in black robes and even a sentient skeleton or two. So yeah, it's pretty mundane by today's standards, but all things considered (especially the hardware limitations), it's pretty decent - even if it does sometimes take a million billion hits for your enemies to finally haul off and die. 

Demon Attack!

A shameless Space Invaders clone, Demon Attack at times feels like a really, really pared back version of Satan's Hollow. The adversaries come at you fast and ferociously, and they even have a few tricks up their sleeves (like, splitting into two winged demons instead of exploding like you think they're supposed to.) In terms of aesthetics, there really isn't a whole lot to talk about here, but the gameplay, while minimalist, is for the most part enjoyable. It may not be the best overall arcade shooter on the 2600, but it's definitely one of the better genre games you'll find on the system, for sure.

Demons to Diamonds!

This game deviates from the usual 2600 shooter norm because instead of blasting enemies from ground level, this time around you're the space ship in the sky raining hot laser death on anything and everything that moves. There's really not much at all that can be said of the graphics, but the core gameplay is pretty decent - if not quite a bit more challenging than its genre contemporaries. Also: this game has to have some of the best skulls you will see in any Atari game.

Earth Dies Screaming!

The graphics are really good and the sprites are surprisingly detailed for a 2600 game. Basically, you just spin around and around in your insectoid-pincer death mobile, waiting for intergalactic threats to show up on your radar so you can blast them into outer space hell. There's not a whole lot of challenge to be found here, but I reckon it's a decent way to squander half an hour. Especially if you are high, on like, bath salts and nutmeg.


In addition to sharing its moniker with one of the more underappreciated death-thrash acts of Scandinavia, Entombed stands out from its contemporaries by utilizing a pretty clever gameplay hook. Basically, you control that little purple squiggle, who is apparently falling to his death in a giant pyramid. The game, as such, kinda' becomes the virtual equivalent of one of those old activity book mazes, where you try to find the one proper path out of the death trap. Of course, that's the inherent problem with the game: the stages are the definition of "trial and error," and since the game throws random levels at you, every time you play the game you are just taking a blind free fall and hoping for the best. Needless to say, having snakes and scorpions and shit pop up out of nowhere and insta-kill you because you lack the ability to avoid contact is also a major pain-us in the anus.

Frankenstein's Monster!

I honestly have no clue what the fuck is going on here. The game consists of three tiers, with the idea - I think - being to avoid all of the tarantulas and shit so you can crawl down to the lowest level and retrieve parts(?) for the titular monster. So, naturally, this means you just run around collecting little squares over and over again until the game says "all right, that's enough" and then you start the whole goddamn process over again, this time on a different three-tier stage that has mildly different colored blocks in the background and maybe like, one spider in a different place from the stage proceeding it. Like I said, I assume that's what happens, because as soon as I picked up my first Franken-piece, nothing happened, no matter how many times I offered to Frankie himself as a tribute. Still, I'll give them credit for referring to the main character by his proper canonical title, though.


Fuck this game so hard. Out of all the different genres you could have used for a Ghostbusters game, why did you have to go with the inventory management simulator? Granted, there are bits and pieces of the game that involve things that somewhat resemble traditional platforming and driving stages, but the controls are so awkward and the graphics so ass-ugly that it's often a mystery trying to determine where you are supposed to go and how you are supposed to get there. That this piece of shit was ported to several other systems - including the NES - is just perplexing. I'll take Smash TV ripoffs where you fight KKK members over this one, any day.

Ghost Manor!

I honestly have no idea what the fuck is going on in this game. Aesthetically, the sprites are fairly detailed for a 2600 game, and there's even a little cutscene before the game begins that sorta' serves as exposition on what all's going on. In that, Ghost Manor is an interesting gender reversal of the old Ghosts 'N Goblins and Splatterhouse chestnut, since this time around, you actually play the girlfriend trying to rescue her beau from the clutches of evil. Alas, I just couldn't figure out the control scheme for this one, so I am proud to say a spent a whole 20 minutes of my afternoon running around in a pastel green graveyard trying to keep some blonde ho in a hoop skirt from being eaten by a tie-dyed ghost. Which, in some ways, isn't that bad of a way to squander an autumn evening, I suppose.


From what I gathered, Gremlins serves up two modes of gameplay. In the first type, you run across the screen trying to catch the titular creatures before they eat a line of hamburgers conveniently laid out in rows at the bottom of the your TV. In the second, you run across the bottom of the screen shooting at Stripe and his kin before they eat you. The speed of the gremlins increases as the game goes along, and for the most part, the backdrops are just various shades of grey. I mean, the thing could take place on the surface of the moon, for all I know, and it's not like these things every truly follow the plot lines of the movies they are based on, after all. So yeah, it's ultimately pretty basic - not bad, not good, just really, really rudimentary and totally unremarkable, in every way.


You think video games are violent now? This game came out before Chicken McNuggets were a thing, and it features elementary-aged children being stabbed to death by psychosexual maniacs! Yes, it's the infamous Halloween game for the Atari 2600, and for me, it's the definition of guilty pleasure gaming. The gameplay is almost retardedly simple (run around the house, don't let Michael Myers touch you, hit him with a weapon if you can find one), but at the same time, it has such an AWESOME atmosphere. The little pumpkins representing your life counter. The pastel walls, complete with nuclear green carpet. The fact that your avatar runs around with blood gushing out of her neck even after being decapitated by The Shape. And of course, there's the immortal Halloween theme, which actually sounds surprisingly recognizable (and terrifying) using the 2600's ultra primitive hardware. Act like a tough guy all you want - you know when you are running for your life in the room where the lights keep blinking on and off that you kinda want to pee a little. Admit it.

Haunted House!

And the all-time champion of lazy-ass game design is in the (haunted) hiz-ouse! Seriously, give the designers of Haunted House all the dap in the world for coming up with one of the most brilliant cost-efficient solutions in the history of video gaming. "Hey guys, how about to save space on animation costs, we just set the entire thing in pitch blackness and have the player control a floating set of eyeballs!" That's the kind of American thinkin' that's so stupid, it's actually genius, and Haunted House, however primitive it may be, is nonetheless a surprisingly enjoyable game. You know the drill. Walk around, avoid ghosts and other creepy things, pick up keys and other items and migrate from "totally dark place with green walls" to "totally dark place with orange walls" a good 17 times over. Sure, it's no Yar's Revenge, but it definitely has more nuance to it than you think it would.

Night Stalker!

In Night Stalker, you play notorious southern California serial killer Richard Ramirez as you silently slink your way through the homes of random women and brutally murder them in a cocaine and AC/DC-induced fog of demonic madness. Well, actually, that's not at all what this game is about, but considering how abstract the graphics are, you can pretty much project whatever sort of unofficial storyline on the game you please. Also known in some markets as Dark Cavern, this game is your standard Wizard of Wor top-down maze shooter, in which you run around Pac-Land until the gun power-up materializes on the playing field so you can pop lasers into sundry squiggly indigo and violet asses. It's not inventive at all, but at least the controls are decent. And I don't know about you, but I kinda' like the nice blue-on-blue motif.

Revenge of the Beefsteak Tomatoes!

Yes, it's an Atari game based on Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, only not called that despite being published by the same company that held the rights to the movies! Commandeering a flying crucifix (I think it's supposed to be a helicopter, though), you fly around the screen, avoiding seed attacks from potted plants at the bottom of the screen and the periodic kamikaze attack from the titular, vengeance-driven monsters. Needless to say, there's not a whole lot of depth to the gameplay, but the killer tomato sprites do look pretty decent, I suppose. 

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre!

Surely, you've heard about this one, haven't you? Infamous in its day, the game drew a lot of controversy because it allowed you to take control of Leatherface and run around killing (presumably) innocent victims with the titular whirring implement of death. Granted, it's kind of a laughable assertion now, considering the fact there's no blood and really, all you seem to do when you "catch" your prey is spin them upside down really, really fast. As a standalone game, it's all right. The graphics aren't too bad (although one has to wonder why the programmers felt the need to give Leatherface a big blue chainsaw where his dick should probably be) and the gameplay is just sorta' decent. You hit the big red button to turn on your chainsaw but you have to be careful because it runs out of gas fast. Also, if you touch ANYTHING in the game - fences, cow skulls, runaway wheelchairs, etc. - you freeze in place for a couple of seconds, and there is absolutely no wiggle room. If any pixel of your avatar makes any sort of two-dimensional contact with anything on screen - no matter if you're not touching anything in the in-game 3D space - that's it, buster. All in all, it's a bit of a throwaway game, but it's nonetheless fun monkeying around with the license for a half hour or so.


And last - and depending on your perspective, certainly least - we come to Tutankham. No, not Tutankhamen - apparently, we're talking about his less-heralded nephew the history books somehow forgot to mention. The intent of the game is a little murky, but I gathered this much: you play a dude wearing a hat that runs around a cave (where all the walls look like strips of bacon) and try to find pieces of, well, something, while avoiding being killed by scorpions, snakes and other nasty critters. Control-wise, this game is utter dog shit, with movement that's stickier than a booger in a honey jar. Making matters worse, enemies have a bad habit of materializing right in front of you while you're navigating the catacombs, so oftentimes, death is totally unavoidable. With forgettable, minimal music, crappy sound effects, poor mechanics and visuals that are supposed to be spooky that actually make you want to go try an all you can eat Shoney's breakfast platter instead, not only is Tutankham barely a horror game, it's barely any kind of game. Unless, of course, you consider "games that fuckin' suck" their own genre, in which case Tutankham is clearly the belle of the proverbial ball.

Can't you just feel the terror?

So there you have it folks! Sixteen Atari 2600 games you can - and should - play this Halloween season. Sure, none of them are really all that impressive tech-wise, and to be fair you'll probably get bored playing them in about 15 minutes, but hey, without these suckers we wouldn't have Bioshock and Dead Island and whatever else aspiring school shooters with autism spectrum disorders are playing nowadays. And if you don't have a functioning Atari 2600 nearby? No worries, because thanks to the magic and blatant disregard for intellectual property copyright fostered by the fine folks at The Internet Archive, you can play ALL of the games listed above in your laptop's browser for free dollars and fifty-free cents. So what are you waiting for, Holmes? Point your mouse on over to the Atari side of the Web and enjoy you some very old-school horror games that, despite sucking, paved the way for all of the great, spooky-ass video games like Sweet Home and Haunting Starring Polterguy we would eventually go on to enjoy and treasure. Hey, how can we possibly know where we are going if we don't know where we've already been, after all?


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