The SMURFS. Arguably one of the most popular cartoon icons of the 1980's. These little blue people took America, if not the world, by storm literally overnight. Once the cartoon aired it wasn't long before stores started loading down their shelves with everything from lunch boxes, vinyl records, figurines, dinnerware, posters, and many other items too numerous to mention. Seriously, anything you could think of to put SMURFS on was available. The Saturday morning cartoon series ran a full 9 seasons (1981-1989) containing 256 episodes.
I loved the SMURFS. Even Atari couldn't keep me from watching my favorite Saturday morning cartoon show. The Atari was on from about 6 until the SMURFS came on which was usually about 9. The first shows aired for about 30 minutes in my area. After the SMURFS I usually tried to watch Saturday Supercade on another channel if it was coming in good. If not then back on went the Atari.
I would pick up SMURF items during the show's run. I had lots of figurines but never could find a Papa Smurf. I had three of the full-length LP vinyl albums and enjoyed them. Some songs I still remember by heart.
"Hey! You forgot 6!"
"You forgot 6."
The the sounds of a rocket ship would take off followed by a pop-rock style beat and music. Yea, you just never forget some things from childhood. The one thing I was blind to was the SMURF games that came out for the Atari 2600. This was due to my owning an Atari 5200 which did not get any games made by Coleco, Mattel, and most other 3rd party software developers that graced the almighty 2600.
I recently acquired a SMURF game for the 2600 titled SMURF RESCUE IN GARGAMEL'S CASTLE. SMURFS? On the 2600? I have to admit my first thought was, "Oh dear. Those poor SMURFS. Even they were not immune to the 2600." Knowing how the 2600 really was not suppose to be capable of decent graphics I only imagined what the game would look like. I cringed to think about how it would play. But I loved the SMURFS so I took a chance on it. Would I see Gargamel? What about Azrael? What was the point of the game? Was I going to run for my life or was I suppose to try to get something back from Gargamel? These questions all popped up in my head because I only had the cartridge. I didn't have the instructions to read that might have gave some insight to what I was suppose to be doing.
On goes the game and I immediately hear that famous "La la lala la la" theme the SMURFS would always sing. And it wasn't that bad. Then I start playing the game. Make it to the next screen and ... couldn't figure out how to jump over that first fence for nothing. I lost all five lives in about 5 seconds...or so it seems. It might have been longer than that. I wasn't counting.
I try another round. Found the jump button! You push UP on the joystick. And if you time it right you can get a double jump that is significantly higher than before. I try the double jump and VIOLA! I'm over the fence. Next screen...a river. No problem. Double jump over that no problem. Next screen. Oooo...a spider! I try just walking down the hole and die. OK. Walking in the hole doesn't work so I tried jumping in it. Success! Pass the spider, jump up the other side and on to the next screen. Another river. I mistimed my jump and ended up taking a bath. Another life lost. I managed to get over it the second time. Next screen. Gargamel's castle. In the top right corner is Smurfette and now it all becomes clear. I'm to strategically work my way through screens, each with its own challenges, to try to reach Gargamel's castle before Smurfette becomes Smurf Stew.
The more I played the game the more I became hooked on it. The game is very colorful and the characters actually look decent. The controls take a bit getting use to but that's commonplace for 2600 games. What is a rarity with most 2600 games is in-game music that plays in the background while there is action going onscreen. Only a few games did that including Pitfall II and Moon Patrol, the latter of which did not do it very well but tried. SMURFS on the other hand managed to get background music and sound effects without either one cancelling each other out. It's like there is a second sound chip in the cartridge somewhere. There probably is truth be told.
What is even more interesting is how well Coleco captured one of the most on-going story lines in the cartoon series. Gargamel, an evil wizard whose schemes almost always never worked, would manage to capture a few SMURFS to try to eat. Eww. It was never clear why the two never got along and I remember a few episodes where the SMURFS actually helped Gargamel and his evil cat Azrael a time or two. By the end of some of the episodes where SMURFS were about to be Smurf Stew the SMURFS captured where always rescued and Gargamel kindly cursing his loss or blaming his cat for them getting away. And that's the plot of the game. To save Smurfette which, surprisingly, was originally Gargamel's creation to lead the SMURFS to Gargamel's castle.
For what it's worth SMURF RESCUE IN GARGAMEL'S CASTLE is probably the first true hidden gem I've come across on the 2600. It's not what you would think. This game is more like the ancestor to the Super Mario Brothers games. It's easily the first, if not the only, side scrolling style platformer for the 2600. Putting it down is hard to do and as you progress the harder the game gets but speeding things up. You will soon be trying to figure out how to jump a fence and avoid a pesky hawk, avoid snakes and rivers, and much more. No, it doesn't scroll but it fits better in that category of gaming than any other as far as I'm concerned.
My original thought on the game before I even played it was quickly laid to rest as soon as I started playing. I understand that this is considered one of the more rare games on the 2600 but should one be found in the wild don't hesitate to pick it up or might miss one of the best games Coleco put out on the 2600. If Donkey Kong on the 2600 is considered their worst then SMURF on the 2600 should be considered their best work. Period. Don't miss it if you find it and if you have it play it more often. Below is a video of me playing the game the first time after I learned the controls. This should showcase all it has to offer and why I feel it is a 2600 hidden gem.
Enjoy the video and I hope you enjoyed this post. And have a SMURFING Day!
What to write about? I know I want to write about the 2600 but I just don't know where to begin. Do I talk more about the iconic woody console or the Junior model? I don't have much to say about controllers because it's either paddle, driving, keypad, or more joystick designs than anyone could fathom. Games? Do I talk more about games that I have managed to pick up since my last post? I might have to think on this a bit more. While I'm thinking...
As I sit here writing this there is a 2600 Junior model sitting in front of me. Recently acquired in unknown condition I spent the better part of a day taking it apart all the way down to the motherboard and gave it a good cleaning. Wondering why I couldn't get bubbles off the chrome strip I finally discovered that the protective covering had never been taken off. Nice surprise. So I removed it. I couldn't let all that moisture remain trapped and ruining that beautiful chrome strip. It still has some color issues I have to work out but is functional otherwise.
Since I'm here, and more Atari games have been added to my collection, I'll do a bit of an updated version of my favorite cartridges. Keep in mind these are personal favorites solely based on two factors...they are favorites and played the most. Let's get started.
Favorite Black Label Carts
I have two black label favorites. Video Chess and Yar's Revenge. Yar's Revenge was a 2600 title I could have seen as a Saturday Morning cartoon show. It wasn't until a recent Squad Challenge that the true nature of this game proved to me just how challenging Yar's could really be. Because of that, and the few years I've been biased about the 2600 in general, that this game moved up the ranks as a favorite and played often. It's arcade-style game play is rock solid and sure to give the joystick a workout.
Video Chess is my go-to black label game when I want to play a relaxing game. I still haven't managed to beat the computer but I enjoy playing Chess and don't really have a human opponent to go up against. I'm not a pro at the game but I enjoy this classic strategy game. I have never found a perfect computerized Chess game either and the 2600 is not without its own flaws. However the 2600 is a very strong opponent no matter which skill level you attempt at trying to win. And it will always plan its next moves carefully but at times it seems as if its first few moves are preset. Still fun, though.
Favorite Silver Label Cart
One of my favorite games on the 5200 is Vanguard so it shouldn't be no surprise that the 2600 port of Vanguard became a favorite. I love the artwork on the label and surprised that it isn't the same one that was used on the 5200 as was often done. Compared to the 5200 port Vanguard on the 2600 seems a bit more challenging and a bit more unforgiving. One mistake can mean sudden death. I also believe this is the only 2600 game I have that has a continue feature. It's also the only one where the player can move diagonally while firing because you can't do that in the 5200 port. Graphics in this game are absolutely stunning and the sounds are not much different from the 5200. I do miss the music that plays during some of the vertical scrolling segments. I also miss the Striped Zone that is absent in the 2600 port. And I have yet to destroy the end boss before it takes me down. Believe it or not, I never knew this was an arcade game for the longest time until I discovered an actual cab during the NES days. Very well made 2600 port with very little to no flicker issues. My favorite shoot'em up on the 2600.
Favorite Adventure Cart
For most other 2600 gamers Adventure might be their favorite adventure-style game but for me Dark Chambers has slightly taken an edge above Adventure. I enjoy having to figure out the levels to find items and exits that are often hidden. I also enjoy having to go through the level screens to figure out how to reach those items. For this reason this game gets more play time than Adventure in my library. I personally think it is even slightly better than the 7800 version. That one looks better but, as NSG has mentioned, if only it would have taken the game play concept of hidden items to find the 7800 version might have been the better game. But, alas, the 2600 once again shows just how well it can capture a gamer's attention and hold it when properly developed for. And Dark Chambers is one of those games. I've not been able to spend as much time with it as I would like to fully enjoy it but what little I have played of it I keep finding myself spending more time in every level trying to find items than what is probably required. Seriously, I've spent about 15 minutes in some levels.
Favorite Pinball Cart
Again, it should be no surprise that Midnight Magic makes for one of my most played 2600 games. I like Video Pinball but at times you just sit there waiting to do something. Midnight Magic manages to capture some of the pure essence that makes pinball tables fun. There are targets, bumpers, a spinner, kickbacks, dual flippers, rollover targets...this game has the basics that are perfectly placed and captures what made some of the early pinball tables memorable. Knock down all the targets at the top and the game goes into double points. The table also changes color and plays a short tune. Knocking down targets again advances the multiplier all the way up to five times the points obtained. Lose your ball, however, and it's back to single points again. Do it right and the player can obtain extra balls. Lose all five balls and the game is over. Easy to pick up and play, no flickering, and it looks good. I'm also a little partial to this game because when I got my very first paycheck the NES and Sega Genesis were on the market. Instead of buying anything for either of those I picked up a new 2600 Junior, Jr. Pac-Man, and this game. All for about $50. I played Midnight Magic the most.
Favorite Arcade Cart
The 2600 got lots of arcade ports. While the limitations of the system kept most ports from looking like their arcade parents the game play managed to remain intact. Two arcade ports stand out in my collection. Space Invaders and Gyruss. Space Invaders was the very first Atari game I remember playing many moons ago on a store display. Dangling from a chain I put the game in and quit playing only when it was time to leave. This game was the one that introduced me to Atari, the VCS, and the only reason why I kept hoping for one.
Gyruss, on the other hand, was a game I remember playing in arcades and enjoyed it immediately. I must have been sleeping when Parker Bros. ported this game over to various consoles. Being fairly new to my collection Gyruss on the 2600 has quickly become a favorite. It might not be graphically impressive but the game play is there and the music that constantly plays in the arcade was put in the 2600 port in all of it's 2-channel glory. And it's really not all that bad. Missing are the sound effects because the music constantly playing doesn't leave room for any sound effects. A valiant effort that is a very worthwhile cart to play. One of my favorite arcade games and one of my now favorite 2600 games. Space Invaders and Gyruss. What more could one ask for?
Favorite Dot Munching Cart
Mouse Trap is an easy to pick-up and play dot munching game where the player controls a mouse. The object is to eat all the dots in the maze of which I'm not entirely certain what they are suppose to be. In each of the four corners of the maze are X's that change the player into a dog temporarily when the fire button is pressed. This helps keep the cats chasing the mouse at bay. A unique feature of this game is the ability to change the maze by opening and closing doors. Doing this can help block cats from catching the mouse. Originally released on the 2600 by Coleco of ColecoVision fame the cart I has is the re-release Atari did with a red label. Still an easy game to pick up and play today. This one and Jr Pac-Man get lots of attention but I find myself coming back to this one more often.
Favorite 3rd-Party Carts
Fast Eddie and Planet Patrol are great 3rd-party 2600 games. I'm sure there are others but I have to base this post on games I have in my collection. Something about Fast Eddie is addictive. The ladders are vary in position with each game played, enemy characters are basic but challenging, and the only real thing the player has to do is collect things like hearts, tanks, fish, etc., to grab a key being guarded by the enemy at the top. It's a bit of Popeye (the collecting hearts part) mashed up with Lode Runner in a easier format. Very colorful game that is fun for hours on end.
Planet Patrol is another shoot 'em up on the 2600. The only real difference is the changing of day to night, destroying enemies and reactors/power plants, and scrolling from right to left over left to right or vertically. A bit unusual. What makes this so appealing to me are the small details of this game. Easy to pick up and play, takes a while to master. I also love the chrome label, something rarely seen. It's very attractive and I could see how eye appealing that package would have been sitting next to other games, fighting to be taken home. It does that now in a large library of 2600 carts.
Favorite Activision Cart
It's almost unlawful to mention the 2600 without thinking immediately about the first 3rd-party game developer known as Activision. Activision literally pushed the 2600 as hard as they could and, in the end, it paid off. Almost every title they released for the 2600 was an instant classic. While I enjoy all Activision games in my collection the two that I go to the most are Enduro and Space Shuttle.
Enduro took me completely by surprise in 1988 when I picked up a used 2600 with a bunch of games. This cart was one of the games included and when I first plugged it in I expected it to be a Pole Position rip-off. The next thing I know I had been playing it for over an hour and forced myself to stop when it was time for dinner. I was in 8th grade then. Enduro left such an impression that I would have an agonizing 24 hour wait time to return home to play it again. To help with that I woke up an hour early to get a game in before having to get ready for school. Space Invaders game me a reason to want an Atari, Enduro gave me a reason to hang on to one. Enough said.
Space Shuttle. Gee, where do I begin with this one? You're a NASA astronaut and your mission is to dock with a satellite in space currently orbiting the Earth. Sounds simple, right? Then you give it a shot and wonder why in God's name you can't seem to leave the planet without killing you and your crew members. Then you grab the manual for some pointers. It is at this precise moment you realize what you have plugged into your 2600. This isn't a game...this is a simulator. The author wanted to capture as much as he could about space flight that he literally went to NASA and participated in learning everything the astronauts have to do and even used NASA's flight simulators used for training. I would have to say that his efforts paid off in probably the only simulation game made on the 2600. The amount of detail in unreal. Every switch on the 2600 does something to the space shuttle. There's a switch for running gear, brakes, deploying parachute when landing...let's see what else?...one to turn on ignition I think...it's unreal! The instructions alone are like a shortened step into NASA's school. The manual is thick and can take a lot of time alone to absorb. But it is also probably the most expensive instruction book made for any 2600 game ever. Full color, exploded views of an actual space shuttle, step-by-step instructions on what you are suppose to do. And it's on the 2600 to boot. I'm not very good at it but I keep finding myself coming back to this simulator because its visuals and sounds are absolutely amazing to me. I consider this one of Activision's, and Steve's, holy grail. If only today's games went this far. I believe there was only one other game to do something similar but it was at least a decade after Space Shuttle. For those that wanted to be astronauts but never did...here's your chance. This is as close as it gets.
Favorite Paddle Game
The 2600 had plenty of games but it also had plenty of controller options. I don't know how many times I would play a 2600 game without paying attention only to realize I needed paddle controllers. For the longest time I felt the paddle controllers for the 2600 could have been better. Once I found Warlords, however, that thought quickly changed. It didn't take me long to realize just how comfortable those paddle controllers actually are. And after hours of playing Warlords the design of the paddle controllers made sense. What makes playing Warlords for hours on end a must on the 2600 is the fact it's a mix of Pong and Breakout put together and then shaken up with steroids in the mix. The 2600 might not be graphically impressive but when it comes to game play it can strut its stuff like no other. Warlords offers four-player game play either solo against three computer players or with a group humans be it they are friends or enemies. And once the action starts it's hard to put down. All you have to do is break down your opponents' barrier to their castle to hit the center of their castle with the ball. That's it. Yea...good luck with that.
Favorite Red Label Cart
Since I did my favorite black and silver label carts I might as well tell my favorite red label cart. I kept wanting to put Solaris on this list but that game makes me rage quit so much that it could take me weeks to return to it. Radar Lock on the other hand is a well done game, by the same author, using most of the same mechanics found in Solaris. This is easily the 2600's answer to those needing an After Burner fix. It looks good, sounds good, uses dual joysticks (one stick is used to select weapons), plays good, and is just all around fun for hours on end. This on is probably one of the more rare red-label carts out there so if you find it I would suggest picking it up.
Favorite Non-Game Cart
One cart in my collection that is not a game at all is Basic Programming. The 2600 is interesting not only from a gaming point-of-view but also from a technical perspective. It's hard to believe a game console designed to do strictly tank and pong games showed that it could do so much more, often times surpassing what it was originally designed for. For the curious this cart would allow anyone with the enthusiasm and patients to write small programs for the 2600 to perform. While it doesn't unlock the full potential of the 2600's inner workings it does give a taste of what it's like to program the 2600. However, with the memory limitation, don't expect to write the next Adventure game as there simply isn't room. Also, once turned off any programs you've written are erased. Pencil and pad are your best friend. I use this one often just to toy around with the system. Kind of neat to see what can be done with it.
The 2600, no matter which model you own, has always been a small system with a big heart. Even the almighty six switch models are not that large. When taken down to just the heart of the system only a small footprint remains. Big things do sometimes come in small packages and the 2600 has proven time and time again that it is very capable of entertaining for hours on end. I still run across games that are just unbelievable in terms of what the developers managed to pull off. Again, here is a console designed for simple Pong and Tank style games. It was never designed to play Space Invaders, Galaxian, Gyruss, Pitfall!, or anything close to Space Shuttle...but it did those things and did them pretty well. Truthfully, the video game genres we have today have their roots dating back to the 2600. This is the console that started it all and it is still showing it can stand its ground against modern gaming hardware. And that, my friends, is no small achievement.