The 10 Worst Atari 2600 Games (E.T. Is Not One of Them, Duh)

Yeah, sure, it’s been done, but it’s never been done right, and in this case it’s being done again because we’re deleting the original blog.  So yes, this is a rewrite of a previous article, but everyone loves these things.  However, in this case, there isn’t a proper ‘top ten worst’ list for the Atari 2600. They all include the usual, which typically is based on public opinion, not actual gaming. If you see E.T The Extra Terrestrial mentioned, look away. Yeah, you heard me, that’s actually a good game. Go read the manual like everyone says they don’t. To do a list like this, you need to be familiar with the system, like honestly familiar. If you simply checked out some Youtube videos of some screaming idiot and read some 12-year-old-written reviews on Gamefaqs, you really don’t have a clue. Before we begin, there are a few things to mention. 

First off, I will not be considering any PAL releases because I can’t play them on my Atari, and I didn’t grow up with them since they weren’t released in the US. Second, this list is based on three levels of suck: concept, design, and playability. I don’t care how well something sold, that’s a different issue altogether. If a game was overproduced and it caused Atari to fold, I really don’t care, it doesn’t apply here at all, and how could it? The games here are being judged on the merit of their existence qua game. Are there a ton of E.T. carts buried in the sands? Yeah, but that’s not a reason to call it the “worst” game on earth. Was Pac-Man the “worst” arcade translation in history? No, and it’s not really that bad of a game either in comparison to the shit in this legit list. 

I also thank the wonderful resources and people over at AtariAge, easily the greatest video game site and forum on the Internet. If you’re a fan of the system and have never heard of it, check it out, that’s where these images came from. A certain member there pointed gave me a bit of help with some historical details, but in general all of the information here is coming from personal experience.  By the way, if you’re a retro fan, you should check out Albert’s (site head) store for some of the awesome homebrews he offers. Also, I’d like to thank Youtube’s Highretrogamelord89, who recorded all of these videos (except one) and gave us permission to use them within the blog. Let’s hit it, starting with the least vomit-inducing. 

10. I Want My Mommy

 Just the title of this is an entire article, probably a novel of absolute horror. I Want My Mommy was Zimag’s foray into children’s video games. Nothing new, there are several for the Atari 2600. Some are geared more towards “learning,” but a few were gameplay-oriented. I Want My Mommy took that direction, and really it isn’t that horrible. The problem is the execution. First off, it looks like hell. What you see in the video below is supposed to be a teddy bear avoiding ‘dream demons.’  Second off, the label art and title are demeaning. Why does it matter? Well, being this is for kids it deserves the lowest spot. Can’t really judge the gameplay because it’s supposed to be easy. Sorcerer’s Apprentice is easy, too. Thing is, it’s cool to play. This isn’t, and the fact that it glaringly reveals it’s for children would make any kid cringe. This is “Kid Stuff,” says right on the label! Did you get me Sorcerer’s Apprentice? No, I got you something better, I Want My Mommy, it’s for kids! What a horrible way to make the little ones remember their place in the world, with ‘mommy’ in the title and blatant wanting of said mommy. The damn teddy bear is even crying. Would you really want to own that?  Would you really want your friends seeing this in your collection back in the day?


9. Mr. Do’s Castle

This shocking title deserves a spot, especially since it’s the absolute bomb of the Parker Bros. Atari 2600 library. You’re not going to find another high-quality company’s game sucking as hard as this one, with full swallow. Based on a charming arcade game of the same name, Mr. Do’s Castle is easily the worst arcade port in history. Pac-Man for the 2600 usually gets it, but the reason is based on the status quo. Actually, it’s a playable game. Just because it doesn’t look like the original and was a bummer port, doesn’t mean it’s horrible. But Mr. Do’s Castle takes this to a new level. Not only does it look bad, but all of its difficulty comes from asinine programming. Check out the sprite movements in the video below.  That indistinct blob is Mr. Do, and just watch him swing that hammer! Is that what he’s doing? Too bad he doesn’t seem to stinking hit anything! Another problem is horrid collision detection. It takes forever to figure out. Mr. Do disappears when climbing ladders, he never seems to knock blocks correctly, and the icons are so abstract it’s impossible to discern their hieroglyphic meaning. It needs to be experienced to truly see, but Mr. Do’s Castle for the 2600 is easily the worst arcade port ever made. There is no way to reach beyond what it’s accomplished, and it came from the hands of the same company that released Frogger. The only thing they got right was the soundtrack, which is finely programmed. If the soundtrack was like the rest, this game would have easily fallen around number 4 on this list. It’s also kind of hard to find, so if you want it, you sick bastard, you’re going to have to pay a bit to get it.


8. 3D Tic-Tac-Toe

 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe is one of those games that gets ragged on quite a bit and it sure as hell deserves it. The fact that anyone thought this was a good idea makes you shake your head until your neck breaks. Imagine: “Hey, I have this idea for a game where it’s tic-tac-toe, but it’s like four stacked levels in “3D” (quotes absolutely required)“. Does that sound cool to anyone? The thing about some of these board-to-video-game conversions is it’s more fun to pull the real game out. Though it’s easier to throw in a Checkers cartridge so you avoid the whole set-up, you can’t toss the pieces in the air and throw the board out the window.  We need the ability to command physical control over our game pieces.  But, either way, Tic-tac-toe just doesn’t make any sense as a concept for an Atari 2600 game. All it takes is a piece of paper and pencil. This probably explains the fact that they “hyped” up the play by adding four stacked “3D” levels of tic-tac-toe madness with extra squares. Problem is, it’s a pain in the ass, like a full fist covered with spikes and broken glass. You can either play against another human, or you can play against the computer. It’s pretty smart, so that’s cool, but there are two main problems. First off, when you get enough Xs and Os on the screen, it’s mindnumbing. Second and most important is the computer in advanced levels will take upwards of 20 minutes to make a move. You read that right, it even says so in the manual. If you want a real challenge, you can expect it to last pretty much all damn day, literally. The cover art is hilarious too, did they really think anyone would get the idea the artwork conveys when the title involves ‘tic-tac-toe’? No, never. I actually don’t know anyone who owned this game back in the day. Thank God.


7. Fire Fighter

 Hey, wait a minute, this game is cool! No, I know what you’re thinking, and it’s actually Towering Inferno that’s on your mind. Totally different game. You’d think the guy who programmed Asteroids would make another winner, but this one proves wunderkind is an overused term. Fire Fighter is an odd game, and it actually could have been pretty cool. The graphics are tight and you can tell exactly what you’re looking at down to the poor little victim in the building and the way your fire fighter moves. The controls are smooth, though a bit awkward at first, and it’s easy to play. But then you realize what it’s about, and that’s where this one goes down in flames.  Fire Fighter involves saving people in a burning building and putting out a fire. Problem, the game is simply timed, there is no scoring system, nothing to beat, nothing to strive for. Your goal is to fight fires in the shortest amount of time. Even cooler is they actually go out on their own whether you blast them with water or not. Fire Fighter is here in the list because it’s one of the world’s most boring experiences and offers no real incentive to play. It almost feels like it was made for children due to the weak gameplay and lack of challenge. If you’re interested in going for gold and getting the shortest time, by all means, take this one with you to the psych floor.


6. Space Jockey

 Space Jockey is the perfect example of a genre beaten into the ground and then brought back to life to start it all over again. The guys who made this were actually a subsidy of Quaker Oats, so that’s probably enough for most people to stay away. This is their worst, in addition to being one of the worst shooters in history, if not the granddaddy, dictator extraordinaire of them all. Space Jockey, to be fair, looks pretty good and it’s even got ‘NEW Improved Video Graphics’ written right on the box, whatever in the hell that means. Plus, its concept isn’t exactly stupid.  You’re controlling a UFO that’s apparently attacking the Earth, as evidenced by the helicopters, trees, and such. Wait, you get points for non-moving objects that can’t even attack? Oh well, that’s okay, let’s play! And play…and play…and play and play and play and play and Christ what in the living flames of Hell is this?!!! Space Jockey suffers from one major and important thing, it’s monotonous. Beyond monotonous. This game is so monotonous it would make a metronome explode. Space Jockey offers no challenge whatsoever, and it just keeps going! It never freaking stops! All you can do is shoot, shoot, shoot some more, dodge some pathetic enemy fire and keep on going. There aren’t any new enemies, their attack patterns don’t change, they don’t get any more difficult, and it doesn’t matter if you let them pass by. Space Jockey, like many games on this list, had potential, but it blows it in the worst possible way. This slot almost went to Laser Blast, which has a similar sense of monotony, but what saved it was real challenge.


5. Flag Capture

 Flag Capture is basically a video game version of capture the flag, or well, sort of, actually no, not at all. Basically, this is something of a precursor to Minesweeper. Your goal? Find a flag. How? Via clues that appear when you click on squares.  That’s actually a decent idea, really, for the kind of power the Atari 2600 had. The game is for one or two players, but it’s doubtful you’ll find anyone to share in that experience. Other two-player games, such as Air-Sea Battle, at least have the ‘dude I’ll kill you’ factor when things get crazy and too many drinks have been downed. Flag Capture, well, it’s just boring, there’s not much else to say, just look at the video below and you’ll know.  The clues are a little too vague, such as telling you how many squares separate you and the flag. If you get ‘5’, yeah, it doesn’t help much, and random bombs that end your turn are annoying as piss. Not to mention the absolutely depressing one-player experience it offers, which includes the irritating ‘moving flag’ option where, you guessed it, the flag continues to move around and you end up basically idiot-manchild-mashing the button until you find it. Another reason I put this here is the artwork. Seriously, talk about false advertising. Atari games early on had some suspicious art, but this one is probably the best example of how deceptive it was at times. Where are the pirates?!  Where is this cool ship with the canons and the flags and there’s swords and, who in the Hell made this and where do they live so I can end them?


4. Bugs

 Poor Data Age, they never really got it right except for Frankenstein’s Monster, which is one of the greatest and most overlooked games on the Atari 2600.  What about this one, hmm? Most Data Age releases were trash, and some like Sssnake are typically on lists like this. Bugs, however, is easily their worst. Just listen to this story from the manual: You have been sent to investigate a life form that has been detected on a long-dead planet. Passing through the deadly Cosmic Tunnel, you land on the barren planet’s surface to find an underground world ruled by a race of intelligent Super-Bugs! Honestly, that sounds like a potentially cool game, but Bugs definitely does not deliver. Basically, you control a little aimer and have to kill the “bugs” as they move up the screen. Some of these bugs look suspiciously like salamanders, some have no heads, and others look like sticks… Next problem is the design. Where in the hell are the bugs coming from? Shooting them is boring, but of course Data Age threw in a further annoyance called the ‘Phalanx’. It’s basically an enemy aimer of sorts that comes from the side. If it hits your aimer, you lose a life. What sort of strange dimension are these aimers battling in anyway? Isn’t this the aimer on my ship? Where does the Phalanx really exist? I’ll leave that one for Sartre. But the big issue with this demon spawn aimer is that you shoot from angles, so the only way to hit it is pretty much when it appears on screen. Add to that the fact that Bugs speeds up after about ten seconds, and you just have a disaster. It’s totally unplayable, it’s the definition of it.


3. Karate

The Atari 2600 has plenty of cool head-to-head games where ass kicking reigns. Combat, Fishing Derby, there are plenty of them. Karate, Dolan pls, that’s easy! Who wouldn’t want to play a cool game similar to Activision’s Boxing but with the addition of foot attacks? Seems like an easy victory, but somehow Froggo managed to FUBAR this one up beyond recognition. Well, let’s give them some credit, they simply wanted to cash in and didn’t actually have anything to do with the programming. Then again, the sad attempt to make a buck on this is appalling. Really, just watching the video is enough to see how horrible this game is, check it out below.  The controls are actually quite easy to figure out, but man, what a horrible mess of the remains of human existence. The translation of character movements into sprites does not work, at all. They look to be suffering from scurvy, and there’s pretty much no real collision detection. This effectively kills any strategic elements. I personally enjoy how you get to the edge of the screen and the program immediately warps the players back to the middle. What in the Hell just happened?  What kind of powers do these karate men have that they do not use in the ring?  Are they gifted with the bizarre X-Men power that enables them to warp back into the ring but nothing more?  Please, someone tell me. There really isn’t any real strategy, either, easy controls aside. It’s basically just button mashing, which is the direct antithesis of what this type of game should be like.


2. Star Ship

 Nice box art, looks like about a million forgotten sci-fi novels. Who wouldn’t enjoy this, right? Stars and ships, finally brought together, joined as one for the game of your dreams.  But think about this title. Is the ship made of stars? Does the ship carry stars within its cargo bay? Play Star Ship and you too can answer these questions! I didn’t even know about this terror until I found a copy at a garage sale. Considering Bob Whitehead (Stampede, Private Eye, etc.) programmed it, the situation becomes doubly depressing. That’s the essence of this game, deep-seated, empty, vast depression.  Depression from which no man, no being in the universe, can survive. Prepare thy Prozac, commander.  Star Ship is the bare minimum. It offers the most abstract, empty graphics you’re ever going to see, and the gameplay throws you into the doldrums in a few seconds. Think Star Raiders but without an actual game. There’s absolutely no strategy and the main game simply involves killing as many enemy ships as you can within a time limit. Other options involve dodging objects like a true star ship captain. And the two-player options, awesome! One lets you control the ship and the other guy gets the guns. Apparently, Atari actually removed this game from their stock later on, simply because it was so pathetic. When the company that made such a bad decision with E.T. takes a game off the shelves, best stay away. Trust me, this is the bare minimum. Probably the most simplistic and boring game in the system’s entire library.

1. Fire Fly

 Here it is, my friends. If you don’t agree with this pick, seriously, play it. Find it, learn about it, and then play it. Fire Fly is easily the worst game for the 2600 and probably the worst game in the world. Mythicon and what it represents is one of the reasons for the video game crash, and when you see Fire Fly you’ll understand. They came in trying to be the ‘low end’ guys by selling games at the price of $9.95, which apparently worked at first, but then people realized what they were doing. The issue was all three of their titles are essentially the same code, just altered slightly to make “different” games. However, Sorcerer actually has a little going for it. Fire Fly, holy living, breathing Hell. First off, get a load of the story they put behind this one, that link takes you to a huge bunch of text that’s seriously from the manual. Makes it sound cool, doesn’t it? Just look at this horrible box, look at the video below.  Honestly, how did anyone think this could possibly be published? The “music” is irritating, there are no sound effects, your character is easily the most indistinct sprite in history, and the gameplay is non-existent. Each screen brings a new enemy that the manual tries desperately to explain, but nothing actually means anything. This is one of those things that leaves you utterly dumbfounded. You figure I’d have something clever to say, some sort of silly metaphor to explain it, but you don’t need any of that. Fire Fly is its own metaphor, it’s its own definition, it’s own explanation. What’s Fire Fly like? Just answer Fire Fly to that and you understand everything. Bad day? This day really Fire Flies. This game stands for everything wrong. It’s even beyond the worst evil you could imagine. This is stuff that’s going to be banned in Germany for at least another two-hundred years. Best part? Look at the upper left corner of the box.  What does it say? This is the first frikken game?! They planned more in a series, further Fire Fly titles, at least in theory?! Someone find them and put and end to the madness, go back in time even!


So, you made it this far, but it’s doubtful your sanity level is anything near what it once was.  Your only recourse is to educate yourself, take the time, please, and find the good in the Atari 2600 library.  Aside from what you see above, the system is likely the most important advancement in video game history.  The graphics were awesome for their time, the gameplay often groundbreaking, revolutionary, and even today some of the most standard concepts in games started with this old system.  So don’t let this list fool you, aside from the suck, the 2600 is awesome, and because it was so awesome everyone wanted involved, and sometimes it just didn’t turn out so right.

Written by Stanley Stepanic