It will come as no surprise at all to regular listeners that I’ve got a list of my top ten favourite books, and also that it’s pretty longstanding! At number one we find M.R. James and his Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, a collection of short stories and a masterclass in gothic atmosphere – like Hammer did for horror movies, but in very early twentieth century book form! Then we span rock and roll with The Doors and Motley Crue, and there’s heavy tomes on World War 1 sea battles and Green River serial killers, and there’s more ghost stories and histories of horror movies (which we did meet here before when we looked at Nosferatu on the ZX Spectrum), and giant squids from the creator of Jaws… There’s even a space for The Lord of the Rings, which we also encountered here with my number one favourite game of all time, Feud!
There’s also a few books skulking in no particular order just outside that top ten too – stuff that I’d love to sneak in if no one was counting! Stuff like Jim Morrison’s The Lords and The New Creatures or Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell & Other Poems, or, only marginally less poetic than those, Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, all of which have a lot to answer for! But what I wasn’t expecting when I received this for Christmas 2021 was a visual compendium covering both the Atari 2600 and 7800 to start skulking around there too! Now, I’ve got a bit of form with these Bitmap Books compendiums already, with both the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum ones hanging around my bookshelf for a few years now. And we’ve dived into a couple of Bitmap Books’ more recent releases here too, with The Games That Weren’t last year and Game Boy: The Box Art Collection very recently as I write, kicking us off into 2022! And as I’ve said before, I’ve really enjoyed looking at some books for a change, so here we go again with their Atari 2600/7800: a visual compendium!
Before we even think about the content though, what we have here is my perfect storm of nostalgia and discovery! I might not have owned an Atari 2600 or VCS, but my best friend did, and we spent countless hours in the very early eighties marvelling at the wonders of its science fiction on the TV screen in his living room! Of course, in reality we’d only ever scratch the surface of its 500+ games library though, and he’d move on to the ZX Spectrum long before the likes of Ghostbusters or California Games or Klax or Road Runner would come along, but since then I’ve also become quite the 2600 connoisseur, and while there’s always room to find out more, I’d now number the likes of Alien and Seaquest among my favourite games of all time!
The Atari 7800 is a completely different beast though. Whilst the likes of Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Pitfall! had made Atari a household name, and the 2600 had given them a decent foothold into those households, there was now the aftermath of the North American games crash of 1983 to contend with, as well as competition from the likes of ColecoVision and the mass of home computers marching over the horizon. Rather than being anything like its planned saviour, the 7800 was launched just as Atari was being sold off in the summer of 1984, when it was then immediately shelved for the best part of two years and re-launched with a relative damp squib relative to the NES and Master System around the same time. It eventually did alright though, selling around five million units, but all the same, saw just 59 games officially released in its lifetime, although I think it did play most 2600 games too. Anyway, for all of these reasons, I know virtually nothing else about it… In fact, although I’m hoping this will change as we journey through this new book of mine, to this point I’ve only ever played two Atari 7800 games, and one of those was only last week as I write! The first was Commando, my old Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum vertical run and gun favourite. It doesn’t quite have the polish or sonic oomph of the C64 conversion despite having an extra sound chip implanted in the cartridge, but otherwise it plays similar to that one and it’s a great arcade port! The other game was one of the 7800’s very last games, Basketbrawl from 1990. It’s no-holds barred prison-yard basketball, and actually I was playing it because another Christmas present, one of the Atari Lynx Collections on Evercade VS, included that 1992 port and it was love at first sight so I wanted to go back to its less sophisticated source!
Apart from those, whatever the book tells us now is all new to me, and that kind of discovery is the thing I love the most about this retro-gaming lark, so let’s take a look inside… Actually, before we even get to the book, let’s stop at the 3mm protective board slipcase with its animated lenticular fascia! Hold it one way and in one little box you’ve full-on pixel E.T. portrait, but give it a little twirl and you’ve got the side-on view you know and love from the game! Look in another box and there’s 2600 Pac-Man, and now he’s a ghost! Loads of similar favourites to enjoy – the plane from River Raid moving about, Pitfall Harry swinging on his rope, cops turning into robbers, Froggers…
Onto the book itself, and it’s heavyweight in all respects, whether you go for hardback or soft, weighing in at 17cm wide and 23cm high, with no fewer than 528 pages of edge-to-edge high quality lithographic print, with sewn binding that will help keep it looking good and means you can get those double page views relatively flat too.
There’s so much to go into here that I think we’ll follow the flow of the contents, which starts with an insightful “I was there” foreword from former Activision designer and programmer, and co-founder of Absolute Entertainment, Garry Kitchen, then an even more insightful sixteen pages of Atari history. You couldn’t make up the many faces of Atari covered here, and they’re all beautifully illustrated with development artwork, screenshots and even a photo of a very sorry looking copy of E.T. that looks like it had been buried in the ground for decades, would you believe! From there we get into the games – hundreds of them, spanning the Atari 2600 and 7800 libraries, interspersed with developer profiles and interviews, cover art and dozens of absolutely fascinating glimpses into hardware and peripherals and unreleased prototypes, as well as passion-filled homebrews that keep on coming to this day!
As is usually the case with these books, there’s far too much to go into individually here, so what I’ll do is give you a feel for everything by having a look at a couple of Atari 2600 favourites, then I’ll try and find something I know absolutely nothing about. From there, we’ll move to the Atari 7800, which, as said is pretty much all new to me, so I’ll have a look at something I’ve never even heard of before and then see if I can find something more familiar, and if there’s still time after of all that, we’ll have a really quick delve into the cover art, prototypes and homebrews!
Right, let’s kick off with looking at some of the Atari 2600 games included, which make up the bulk what’s here – I reckon there’s about 180 of them in total, versus around 50 for the 7800. What I really enjoyed was the way they’re all laid out though, with them listed alphabetically on the contents page but not so as you read through, keeping you on your toes about what could be next! It might not be a game either, as some of the interviews or developer profiles or cover art features could crop up anywhere; it’s like they’ve built it for flicking through without the need to flick through it! What I also appreciated was that the first game covered is stripped-down multiplayer war epic Combat, which I think was also the first Atari 2600 game I ever played. We’re not starting there though; instead, we’re going to look at the 2600 port of an old VIC-20 cartridge favourite of mine, GORF!
The format here is a full colour double-page dominated by a huge, close-up screenshot that I wish was its Phoenix-like boss ship level which, apart from the Phoenix one, was one of the most impressive things you’d see in an arcade or anywhere else for that matter back in 1981! Anyway, what we have got instead is its multi-coloured Space Invaders level, and it still looks great regardless. Down one side we’ve got a summary of platform, release date (which was 1982 for this conversion), developer, publisher and original arcade creator, and then on the other page we’re got a few very frank paragraphs on the game itself. In the case of GORF, it tells us that it was just a best-of space shooter when it originally hit the arcades, nicking bits of Space Invaders, Galaxians, Tempest and Phoenix. We then take a look at the 2600 version, which I definitely concur is a pretty faithful port if you ignore the missing level, moving from frantic (and often terrifying!) space shooting to the more tactical boss battle, which unfortunately is neither as impressive in its scale as the VIC-20 port, or indeed Atari 2600’s own Phoenix! Actually, if you had to buy one or the other, go for Phoenix, which also features in the book, and I reckon is probably the best arcade port on the system – it’s just outstanding, and if you think GORF is frantic and terrifying, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise! I’ll gladly play Atari 2600 GORF too though, and once again the book concurs, saying it hits all the sweet spots of the other aforementioned space shooters, making it essential. Great game, and I’m really liking this easy to look at, easy to read coverage so far!
I love my pinball games – in fact, the first retro gaming thing I ever wrote about here was Pinball Wizard on that VIC-20 I mentioned just now! As primitive as that might be by today’s standards though, Video Pinball takes us even further back into the mists of time, to 1981 in fact. Wherever possible, the book is letting those that were there speak rather than speaking for itself, and on this page we get the thoughts of Bob Smith, Atari designer and programmer. He tells us that Video Pinball was the first (and only) cartridge he worked on after he was hired in 1980, when he spent a week playing Superman Pinball then more weeks with graph paper trying to come up with a 2600-compatible pinball playfield before he started coding. The game was debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show the following year and would go on to sell over two million copies, which he received $15,000 for his part in. As simplistic as this all might look now, once you tune in to the ball physics there’s a real game of pinball here, with bumpers, spinners, drop targets, rollovers and special bonuses to seek out, and even nudging and tilting. As Bob Smith also points out in the text here, successful results were addictive, and he’s spot on as far as Video Pinball is concerned!
I’ve genuinely just had to tear myself away from Video Pinball to have a go at a game I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, let alone played, and that’s Commando Raid, which absolutely leapt out of the pages at me thanks to its incredibly evocative war-torn 2600 sunset imagery, and once again we’re talking huge, double-page, full colour sunset imagery! This 1982 shoot ‘em up is further brought to life here by games journalist Craig Grannel, who also highlights that “eye-popping” sunset as trumping the dull night scene in the pioneering Apple II game Sabotage from a year previous that clearly inspired Commando Raid. In both games, you’re in control of a lone gun turret shooting down an onslaught of paratroopers out to destroy it, but he also explains that as opposed to the constant stream of bullets you get on Apple II, the 2600 game allows a single shot at a time while the enemies seem to be attacking in fast-forward, supported by bomber jets as they descend towards the ruins of nearby buildings. Let them land there, and they’ll start to tunnel beneath them towards your weapon, then it’s only a matter of time until game over. I don’t especially mind the single fire mechanism – it’s as quick as your thumb is, unlike something like Gorf, where if you shoot again mid-bullet the first one disappears, but I also don’t find the game massively compelling. It’s mindless Missile Attack, but on the other hand, that sunset is absolutely incredible in action, and I very much appreciate the book giving me the opportunity to discover a brand new Atari 2600 game in 2022!
And that’s a fine place to jump over to the Atari 7800, where we’re talking almost 100% brand new discovery in 2022! And I have to say that the prospect of this fills me with so much excitement because I can already see stuff vying for my attention, and who knows what else is going to grab me and quite possibly grace features of their own here too! And to that end, I’m going to begin with Desert Falcon, which I have never ever heard of until today, but away from retro gaming my hobbies go back way beyond the pioneering age of video games, right back to Ancient Egypt, and I do believe I can see a sphinx staring out at me from this page! This page has to be my favourite page in the book, with its sunburnt orange desert in isometric 3D and soaring, shadowed falcon, not to mention that richly detailed, dirty great sphinx! We’re now in 1987, the developer is GCC, the publisher is Atari, and Desert Falcon is a shoot ‘em up that owes a thing or two to an older arcade game called Zaxxon that you might have heard of! Michael Feinstein, the programmer, picks up the story and confirms that, but also tells us that the falcon is very much doing its own thing too. In fact, the falcon is where it began, and playing it today you can see the incredible attention to detail in the animation that he refers to – taking off, flying, stalling, turning, diving, landing, swimming, hopping and dying are all there, and they spent so long on perfecting all of this that while other original 7800 games were progressing, they just had a bird and dirt on the screen. Which became the game’s internal nickname! As well as the fancy falcon, there’s a collectible power-up element to the game, with different hieroglyphs providing a whole new level of strategy when they’re combined. Now, I’ve never been great at Zaxxon – my brain doesn’t seem to work up and down in isometric 3D – but all the same, I had a load of fun playing this today! It all moves so smoothly, it controls very intuitively, it’s accessible before it gets too challenging, and there’s a lovely (if primitive) Egyptian ditty playing along in the background. And that sphinx when its face starts moving is gorgeous! I’m going to play a bit more of that and maybe we’ll come back to it another time!
When I said we’d look at a 7800 game I was familiar with, it would have been easy to go for Winter Games or Impossible Mission or Choplifter or the like, but actually I’ve gone for something whose name isn’t familiar but the gameplay in the beefed-up screenshot here certainly looks to be! This is another gloriously orange page, but there’s a lot more sky and a lot more jungle on top, and when it first flopped open I thought I’d come across Operation Wolf, but the name said Alien Brigade from 1992, so let’s find out what that’s all about! The book immediately makes the connection, pointing out that while Operation Wolf had been ported everywhere else, it hadn’t been here, but with Alien Brigade the 7800 got something pretty close. Having now played a bit of it, I can’t disagree that the first couple of minutes might as well be Operation Wolf, but then the aliens appear to mix it up a bit because they might look like aliens but they might not, so who to blow to smithereens? The book lets us in on the secret – disguised aliens move slower than human soldiers, but you could also just wait for them to burst out, if you think you’ve got the reaction time… There’s between-level cutscenes and a preview of what’s to come, but while it tries to do its own thing there’s not really much escaping where it’s come from. A nice piece of trivia, which you’ll find all over the place here, is that this was one of the biggest 7800 games in ROM terms, and like it also says, it certainly shows. Very impressive, if not very original!
As predicted, we must be running towards overtime now, so we’re going to close with a really quick look at some of the other bits and pieces in the book. And that’s what I love so much about this book – there’s enough bits and pieces here to keep me going until next Christmas! We’ve covered a handful of games, but there’s literally hundreds more that make up the bulk of this book, as well as those interviews and profiles and so on. There’s also about twenty cover art features, covering both systems and some utterly unique pieces of box art – they’re like time capsules from the early eighties (and sometimes a bit earlier), presented from photos of actual boxes, some of which have seen better days, but that adds another 100% to their authenticity! They’re mostly all classics too, with the likes of Galaga, Pitfall, Millipede and the like, as well as a few like Moonsweeper that I didn’t know, but couple of paragraphs of description and history confirm that one’s a lesser known one to most people! I really enjoyed the prototypes section, although there’s a few more potential classics there that never saw the light of day that I’d have loved to have properly got hold of… there’s ports like Elevator Action that I reckon would have been wonderful on 2600; there’s a load of licensed stuff like The A-Team (which I can tell you is as bizarre to play as the screenshot suggests!) and Lord of the Rings; and how I yearn for this Dukes of Hazzard would-be masterpiece!!! Actually, what I’m going to do here is do a bit of research on some of these because a lot of them will have emerged online in various states, so we can come back to a few here sometime too! Likewise, our final stop-off at homebrews may well inspire the same… Here we’ve got a bunch of ports like Boulder Dash and Thrust and the wonderful but hugely underrated early arcade shooter Juno First; there’s stuff inspired by other stuff, for example Sonic homage Zippy the Porcupine; and there’s also original games (I think!) like Ninjish Guy and Skeleton +, which appears to be a first-person shooter of sorts and must be pushing the 2600 to its limits!
And there we go. A whopping 528 pages of the very best pixel art, cover art and product design on both the Atari 2600 and the Atari 7800. As always with Bitmap Books, the quality is superb, the content is fascinating, and, as I said a very long time ago now, for me this book is the perfect storm of nostalgia and discovery. And that’s exactly why we do this retro gaming thing, right? What about that top ten books list, then? Well, I think for now it’s joining Arthur Rimbaud just outside it, but the more I read it, the more that could change. After all, just like he said, genius is the recovery of childhood at will. And that’s precisely what Atari 2600/7800 – a visual compendium does for me!