Atari VCS 2600
Image: Jack Yarwood / Time Extension

Originally released as the Atari Video Computer System (VCS), the Atari 2600 was arguably the world's first truly mass-market video game console.

With over 30 million units sold, it became the number one gaming system in North America, taking the popularity of arcade play and transferring it to the living room. 'Atari' became synonymous with interactive entertainment, and the platform would host conversions of the best coin-op titles of the era, such as Space Invaders, Pole Position, Donkey Kong and Pac-Man.

Rebranded the Atari 2600 in 1982, the system's downfall was dramatic; a lack of quality control resulted in a glut of poor games, both from Atari and third-party publishers. The most infamous example is the Atari adaptation of the smash-hit movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which was rushed to market and became one of the most infamous flops in video gaming history – a game so bad that Atari buried thousands of copies in the desert to write off the unsold stock.

The Atari 5200 was a short-lived successor that was discontinued after just two years of sale, but the company returned with a vengeance with its 7800 ProSystem console. A significant upgrade on the original 2600, it maintained backwards compatibility with that machine, allowing buyers to gain access to the 2600's massive library of games – over 400 titles. This was a definitive plus, as only 59 games were officially released for the 7800 during its lifespan.

In 2023, Atari and Plaion announced that the 2600 and 7800 were to make a return in the Atari 2600+, a new system that plays the original cartridge software of both consoles. That means now is the perfect time to reacquaint yourself with the best games for both platforms via this handy list. It's not presented in any order, but is instead a list of games you need to play if you're thinking about picking up an Atari 2600+ soon.

River Raid (2600)

One of the first vertically-scrolling shooters to gain global fame, Carol Shaw's River Raid employed a groundbreaking procedural generation algorithm to get around the tiny memory allocation of the game's 4 KB ROM. The end result is a game that not only challenges your skills and reactions but also feels fresh, even after multiple plays.

Sure, River Raid looks and feels primitive when compared to later vertical shmups, but it's still an important milestone in the evolution of the genre – and retains an amazing amount of playability, despite its age.

River Raid II followed in 1988, but without Shaw's involvement. Another sequel, River Raid: The Mission of No Return on the SNES, was cancelled before it was finished.

Pitfall! (2600)

Assuming the role of the iconic Pitfall Harry, the player must negotiate Pitfall!'s jungle environment to find treasure whilst avoiding hostile wildlife and sticking within a 20-minute time limit.

Developed by ex-Atari staffer David Crane – one of the first game devs to gain a degree of fame within the industry – Pitfall! is often cited as the best 2600 game ever, and the 4 million units it sold mean it's the fourth best-selling game for the platform, behind Pac-Man, Space Invaders and Donkey Kong.

Pitfall Harry has gone on to have a rather profitable career on other formats, with sequels appearing on SNES, PlayStation and GameCube.

Adventure (2600)

Adventure broke new ground for a wide range of reasons; it's often credited as being the first fantasy action adventure, and you could 'continue' after failure, another innovative feature.

Exploring the game's thirty different locations is quite a challenge, as you'll need to deal with three dragons – Yorgle, Grundle and Rhindle – to solve puzzles and finally track down the Enchanted Chalice, Adventure's ultimate objective.

Although it can't claim to be the first video game to feature a hidden 'Easter Egg', Adventure is perhaps one of the most famous; disgruntled with the lack of credit Atari was giving to its programmers and designers, Adventure creator Warren Robinett included a secret room which contained his name – this was only uncovered after he had left the company and the game had shipped to retail.

So famous is this particular Easter Egg that it is referenced in Ernest Cline's novel Ready Player One (and its Hollywood adaptation).

Atlantis (2600)

Programmed by former Atari developer Dennis Koble, Atlantis is a single-screen shooter in which the player must defend the titular underwater city from destruction. Atlantis has multiple bases to control, each of which offers different offensive capabilities.

Regardless of how well you perform your duties, the fate of Atlantis is fixed in stone – the game only ends when all of the bases are destroyed by the enemy.

Publisher Imagic was, like Activision, a third-party outfit formed by ex-Atari staffers – in this case, Bill Grubb, Dennis Koble, Bob Smith and Rob Fulop.

Warlords (2600)

Based on the 1980 arcade game of the same name, Warlords is a 4-player take on the 'wall breaking' concept seen in Breakout – only in this game, the walls surround each player's castle in the four corners of the display.

A flaming ball careens around the screen, and each player must use the paddle controller to deflect it (the fact that these controllers come in pairs is what enables the 2600 version to replicate the coin-op's 4-player setup).

Carla Meninsky handled this 'conversion' and has claimed that its development actually preceded that of the arcade version. Meninsky would later become an intellectual property lawyer.

Combat (2600)

One of the first games for the Atari VCS (it was included as a pack-in at launch), Combat is a 2-player masterpiece, even by modern standards. Controlling either a tank, plane or jet, each player must attempt to take out the other using missiles.

The winner of each timed round is the one who manages to score the most hits against their opponent. While the plane and jet segments are fun, it's the top-down tank level which is perhaps the star of the show; add in variables such as bouncing missiles, and you've got one of the most tense 2-player experiences on the console.

Asteroids (2600)

Atari's legendary 1979 vector graphics title Asteroids was designed by Lyle Rains and Ed Logg, and is one of the company's most iconic arcade releases. Home ports were inevitable, and while the Atari 2600 couldn't hope to replicate the same sharp vector visuals, it did a good enough job to become one of the most popular games on the console.

Brad Stewart and Bob Smith – the developers behind the 2600 ports – only had a 4 KB cartridge to work with, and therefore came up with 'bank switching', a technique that boosted the available ROM size to 8 KB.

Pole Position (2600)

Namco's 1982 racing title Pole Position is considered to be one of the most important early milestones in the racing genre, and would become one of the more popular coin-op releases of the early '80s.

While the Atari 2600 port couldn't hope to imitate the smoothly-scaling sprites of the arcade release, it retained the sense of speed and stern challenge, making it a must-have purchase for any self-respecting Atari fan back in the day.

Mario Bros. (2600)

Before they found global fame via titles like Super Mario Bros., Super Mario World and Super Mario 64, Mario and his brother Luigi starred in this 1983 arcade title, created by Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi.

Mario Bros. is a single-screen action title where the titular siblings must knock enemies upside down before dispatching them with a kick. The Atari 2600 port isn't the best way to experience the game today, of course, but it's still one of the finest games for the console and a surprisingly decent conversion, considering the technological gulf that exists between Atari's system and the arcade original.

Mario Bros. was also released on the Atari 5200 and 7800.

Space Invaders (2600)

A title that arguably needs no introduction, Taito's 1978 classic Space Invaders laid down the foundations of the shmup genre, and turned the company into one of the leading developers of the early arcade industry.

Such was the incredible popularity of the game that it convinced Atari to break from tradition and license it for release on its 2600 home console; up until this point, all of the games on the system were owned and made by Atari (it is, in fact, the first case of licensing in the history of the games industry).

The 2600 port of Space Invaders is a visual downgrade, but the gameplay carried over – and, with over 6.25 million copies sold on the console, it is one of the best-selling 2600 titles of all time. Only the Atari port of Namco's Pac-Man has sold more units.

Ikari Warriors (7800)

A solid port of SNK's 1986 'run and gun' blaster, Ikari Warriors came a little too late in the life of the Atari 7800 to make a massive difference, but it's easily one of the most polished arcade ports of the period.

The action is challenging, the controls are decent, and the visuals are reasonably close to the coin-op. The 2-player mode also adds considerably to its longevity.

Alien Brigade (7800)

A rather late release on the Atari 7800, Alien Brigade takes inspiration from Operation Wolf, presenting the player with a first-person perspective as they mow down alien invaders.

You can play either with the standard controller or the Atari 7800's light gun, with the latter interface providing the most thrilling experience.

Alien Brigade was recently made playable via the Evercade family of systems.

Ninja Golf (7800)

This mixture of golf and arcade action is one of the final games Atari released on the 7800 before it pulled the plug, and it's one of the strongest games on the console.

As the title suggests, in Ninja Golf, you get an odd combo, but it's one that works better than you might think. The aim is still to get your ball in the hole at the end of the course, but, in-between shots, you have to face off against a dazzling range of enemies in action segments.

These include massive dragons, sharks and – of course – other ninjas.

Donkey Kong Jr. (7800)

By the time Donkey Kong Jr. made his way to the Atari 7800, the NES was already on track to dominate the North American games market, and it boasted its own version of the game developed by Nintendo.

Even so, this port is well worth a look if you're after the best games on the 7800. Lovely visuals and a tight challenge make this a treat for arcade fans.

Food Fight (7800)

Developed by General Computer Corporation – the same company that designed the Atari 7800 console – Food Fight is based on the arcade game of the same name, which sees the player character attempting to gobble up ice cream before it melts, all while staying out of the way of a quartet of angry chefs.

Points are scored by hitting said chefs with food. The 7800 port isn't as visually striking as its coin-op parent, but it's just as playable.

Galaga (7800)

Namco followed hard in the footsteps of its Japanese rival Taito in the early '80s, releasing Space Invaders clones Galaxian and Galaga. A critical and commercial space hit upon its release in arcades in 1981, the latter was ported to a wide range of home systems, including the NES, MSX and Sega SG-1000.

The Atari 7800 port came in 1986, when the console was launched. As is the case with a lot of the coin-op conversations on Atari's system, there are better ways to experience Galaga today (some would even argue that was true back in 1986), but that doesn't take away from the fact that this is a fine replication of the arcade original and a fun blast.

Kung-Fu Master (7800)

Another 7800 port of a seminal arcade game, Kung-Fu Master (known as Spartan X in Japan) was designed by Takashi Nishiyama, who would later work on legendary franchises such as Street Fighter and Fatal Fury.

The game is a side-scrolling combat title, but one that mixes in the kind of patterns and rhythms one would normally associate with shmups. While the NES conversion is the one that springs to mind for most players, this is a decent port of the coin-op.

Rampage (7800)

The concept behind Rampage is blissfully simple, so it's easy to see why it was such a success in arcades.

Take control of a giant monster and climb up buildings, causing all kinds of damage – all while avoiding the army and gobbling down humans.

Released on the Atari 7800 in 1989, it confirmed the platform's suitability for hosting relatively faithful coin-op ports, even if the visuals have taken something of a knock when compared to the 1986 original.

Midnight Mutants (7800)

The biggest selling point for Midnight Mutants upon release was the fact that it used the likeness of Al Lewis – famous for portraying Grandpa Munster in the hit TV show The Munsters – despite the fact that the game otherwise has no connection with the show itself.

A scrolling action-adventure with a campy horror setting, Midnight Mutants sees the player character trying to save 'Grampa' from the forces of evil. The ability to explore relatively freely is unique for a 7800 game, and the locations – ranging from graveyards to secret labs – are varied and detailed. There are even some surprisingly large boss enemies to take down.

Like Ninja Golf and Alien Brigade, Midnight Mutants is the kind of game that shows developers were beginning to get their heads around how to make the 7800 really sing; it's a shame, then, that the console's days were numbered by the time it arrived on shelves in 1990.

Joust (7800)

Undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable arcade games of the early '80s, Joust places you in the shoes of a knight riding a flying bird, with the aim being to whizz around the screen, taking down enemy knights.

A second player can get involved if they wish; while Joust can be played co-operatively with both players taking on the waves of foes, there's always the option to turn on your ally and cause them trouble.

Released in 1982, Joust is the kind of game at which the 7800 excels; its hardware is capable enough of supplying a faithful home port, both in terms of gameplay and presentation.

What is the rarest game on Atari 2600?

Air Raid is the rarest Atari 2600 game, and is worth between $10,000 and $33,000, according to Polygon and IGN. The only game released by Men-A-Vision, this 1982 title has a unique blue cartridge with a special T-handle design.

What's the difference between Atari 2600 and Atari 5200?

The Atari 5200 was positioned as a successor to the Atari VCS / 2600, and is based on the technology found within Atari's 8-bit computers, the 400 and the 800. However, it is not compatible with software made for these machines, nor can it play Atari 2600 games. A lack of truly desirable games – and a terrible 360-degree non-centering joystick – resulted in the 5200 being discontinued after two years on sale, with less than a million units sold.

What's the difference between Atari 2600 and Atari 7800?

Designed not by Atari but by General Computer Corporation – the same company that produced arcade enhancement boards for Missile Command and Pac-Man (the latter example became Ms. Pac-Man, and official sequel produced by Midway) – the Atari 7800 was originally due to release in 1984, but wouldn't see the light of day until 1986 following the purchase of Atari by Tramel Technology Ltd. Not only does the 7800 boast better visuals than the 2600, it is also backwards compatible with all 2600 games. However, stiff competition from Nintendo meant that the console would not repeat the same amazing commercial success of Atari's earlier machine.

How many games were released on the Atari 2600?

There are a total of 470 games for the Atari 2600.