To most people, the name 'Atari' will forever be synonymous with its first game system, the Atari 2600, launched in 1977. But few recall that Atari launched a pioneering follow-up gaming platform just two years later—the Atari 800 and 400 home computers.
The 800 platform often gets overlooked in video game history due to a quirk in classification that places it solely in the PC category, thus segregating it from the mainline of console history.
During development, Atari envied the success of home PCs like the Apple II, and the new 8-bit console began to gain computer-like features such as a keyboard and peripherals like disk drives and printers. As a result, the 800/400 not only served as low-price PC, but as a game console with superior graphics and sound capabilities due to its use of custom co-processing sound and graphics chips.
This new console/PC hybrid played host to some of the most important and influential video/computer games of all time, including—just to name a few—M.U.L.E., Archon, The Seven Cities of Gold, and Eastern Front (1941). It was the original platform favored by legendary game designer Sid Meier, and it also served up some of the absolute best arcade ports of its day.
For the next decade after its release, Atari continued to refine the Atari 800 (often called the Atari 8-bit computer platform) with new models such as the 1200XL, 600XL, 800XL, 65XE, 128XE, and XEGS. The ill-fated Atari 5200 (1982) is also a consolized version of the Atari 800 architecture.
Due to its long lifespan, developers (often indie ones) released thousands of incredible games for the Atari 800 platform. Thanks to having an Atari 800 in my family from an early age, many of those entertained both me and my older brother for decades. In fact, I still play the Atari 800 regularly due to the incredible diversity of its gaming catalog.
Below, we'll take a look at just a handful of what I consider some of the platform's most underrated gems. I found whittling this list down to only seven entries very difficult, since there is so much quality software out there. It could easily be three times as long. But you can't go wrong with any game on this list.
Salmon Run (1982)
In Salmon Run, developer Bill Williams created a game that's easy to play, difficult to master, but still very satisfying. You control a salmon swimming upstream in a river to spawn, dodging hungry bears, fishermen with nets, and nasty birds trying to capture you. Your goal is to reach the top of the river, where you'll meet a girl salmon, smooch, then move on to the next level. Another highlight of this game is the amazingly realistic water splashing sound effects. I still wonder how Williams pulled that off.
Dandy is one of the most important video games that the fewest people know about. In creating Dandy, programmer John Palevich crafted a prototype action dungeon crawler that directly inspired the hugely popular and successful Atari arcade game Gauntlet several years later. As in Gauntlet, you (and up to three other players) explore your way through maze-like dungeons, shooting monsters and monster generators, collecting food and bombs (like potions in gauntlet), until you reach the exit.
As an Atari 800 game, Dandy satisfies particularly in its four-player co-op capabilities, which was nice because the Atari 800 shipped with four controller ports built-in. It also included a level editor, which created a huge following of fan-made levels that you can still find collected online to this day.
The Dreadnaught Factor (1984)
With a premise no doubt inspired by Star Wars, the Dreadnaught Factor sees the player piloting a solo fighter craft in an attack against a series of large, Star Destroyer-like spaceships. Your goal, as you tackle one ship at a time, is to bomb out all of the dreadnaught's vents—while also shooting their defensive guns and bombs along the way to make your job easier. Great sound effects and controls make this an all-time classic that is criminally overlooked. Interestingly, this game originated on the Mattel Intellivision, but the Atari 8-bit version is generally more well-known.
Juice reminds many of Q-Bert. In both games, you play as a hopping character who must cover every square on every stage (activating them) while avoiding enemies. In later levels, Juice includes twists like squares that will flip back if you jump on them again, or squares you have to jump on multiple times to clear them. It also includes a neat bonus level where you try to connect the two circuit terminals with a path to let the juice flow, so to speak.
Juice is one of the earliest video games I remember playing; it was ideal for a young player because it allowed for an option that turned off the enemies, making it more like a pure puzzle game. I still play it regularly and probably will never stop.
Publisher: Synapse Software
Necromancer is nothing less than a medieval fantasy acid trip. In this multi-screen game, you star as a good wizard trying to plant trees then guide them safely through a forest while defending against trolls, spiders, wooly worms, and weird hopping creatures. In the end, you face the evil Necromancer himself, but in all my years of playing this game, I have never defeated him, because it gets punishingly difficult at that point. Still, its earlier levels are fun and trippy to play, especially since they're accompanied by unnatural music and sound effects. Quite the unique experience.
The Halley Project (1985)
Halley's Comet looms large in my childhood memories—its centennial approach near Earth in 1986 set America's collective consciousness (and media coverage) alight with interest in space and astronomy. Mindscape's The Halley Project plays on this obsession brilliantly. In the game, you pilot a spacecraft that must visit every planet in a scientifically accurate and scaled simulation of our solar system. I recall feeling mind-blown as a kid piloting my craft across "real" distances to reach these targets. The Halley Project is definitely an underrated masterpiece of staging, suspense, and wonder.
Mr. Robot and his Robot Factory (1983)
In Mr. Robot, you play as a robot who must walk over every platform in each level (clearing the dots beneath as you go) while climbing ladders and dodging enemies with Donkey Kong-like jumps. Mr. Robot can't help but remind me of the classic platformer Miner 2049er (also for the Atari 800), which came out in 1982. Somehow, Mr. Robot's graphics (including a neat use of use of the cycling rainbow palette technique), controls, and music give it a level of polish slightly above Miner 2049er, in my opinion. Both are incredible games if you enjoy challenging puzzle-platformers.
For Further Reading
For an in-depth look at Atari, meanwhile, Jamie Lendino—Editor-in-Chief of PCMag's sister site, ExtremeTech.com—has two books on the subject: Breakout: How Atari 8-Bit Computers Defined a Generation and the recently released Adventure: The Atari 2600 at the Dawn of Console Gaming.
The Golden Age of Atari Home Computers
And check out machines from what I consider Atari's Golden Age, which is roughly 1979 to 1987.