I wrote about the history of the video game company Atari earlier this year but one thing I didn’t get a chance to do yet is discuss which of their games I personally love the most. I can’t let an entire article about Atari go by without highlighting their best work, because the games are what Atari is all about! Thankfully I had the chance to play a lot of their classic games thanks to modern compilations like Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, which recently came out to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary. I have been a huge gamer ever since I was a kid but as someone who was born at the end of the eighties during the rising dominance of cartridge-based systems like the Genesis and the Game Boy, I have played very few arcade games on an actual arcade machine. But that has not stopped me from unearthing many classic games out of curiosity like the historian (and video game fan) that I am.

I’m sure there are other Atari games I haven’t played yet that deserve to be on this list so this isn’t definitive, but I have played all the games available on Atari 50 and that compilation features over a hundred games! I narrowed down that list to the twelve games I played that I thought stood out as the most fun.

Breakout (1976, Arcade)

Designed by a young Steve Wozniak before he gained fame at Apple, Breakout was an arcade game in which you moved a paddle left and right at the bottom of the screen to bounce a ball Pong-style against several layers of brick lines at the top of the screen with the goal of destroying them all. A lot more fun and challenging than Pong, the trick of course was to predict where the ball would bounce next so that you will always be ready to bounce it back, but your reflexes had to be lightning-fast in order to win the game.

Asteroids (1979, Arcade)

Designed by Lyle Rains and Ed Logg, this was the ultimate culmination of the shooter genre that began with the video game Spacewar! As a tiny triangle-shaped rocket, the goal of Asteroids was to shoot all the floating space rocks on screen while dodging them at the same time, as well as enemy flying saucers. There was an endless amount of real-time strategy thanks to the fact that if you or an asteroid exited to the left side of the screen you would re-enter the same place from the right side of the screen and vice-versa, meaning there was basically no escape. And there was also an endless amount of danger because when you shoot an asteroid, it multiplied into two smaller asteroids and shooting those would create two even tinier asteroids, and the smaller the asteroids are, the harder they are to shoot. It is really fun but it requires a lot of concentration. Sometimes things will get so hectic you won’t know what hit you before you get blown up.

Lunar Lander (1979, Arcade)

This game was actually one in a group of games in a lunar landing subgenre, but this was the most successful iteration of the concept. The goal was seemingly simple: navigate a lunar landing module to a marked area on the surface of the moon. However the thing that made it challenging was that you couldn’t land too quickly or your lunar lander would crash, and you also had to have precise aim when you hit your marked area. All this while keeping an eye on your fuel supply which could run out but could be refilled by inserting more quarters into the slot of the arcade machine. It really feels satisfying when you are able to pull off a successful landing.

Adventure (1980, Atari 2600)

Truly a landmark game designed by Warren Robinett for the Atari 2600, you controlled a square-shaped avatar who explored a world of castles, dragons and bats (who would steal your items) with the goal of finding a magical chalice. A few things made this game groundbreaking, including the concept of the bird’s-eye view exploration system through which you could freely traverse the land across multiple screens, something that would become the norm for future adventure games like The Legend of Zelda. Of course compared to modern adventure games, Adventure now feels like a bit of a relic, but at a time when the adventure genre was practically non-existent on home video game consoles, it felt revelatory, especially for people who craved more than just shooters and sports games. And honestly having played it myself, it can still be pretty difficult to master and therefore actually kind of addictive. If you have the patience to withstand the frustratingly common occurrence of being chased by dragons and robbed by bats.

Missile Command (1980, Arcade)

Designed by Dave Theurer, Missile Command is one of the hardest arcade games I’ve played but it’s still fun enough to be addictive. Basically you had to shoot down a shower of ballistic missiles from the sky to defend several bases at once by firing anti-ballistic missiles at them from the ground, and it required precise aim and timing to take them all out, not to mention an impressive amount of juggling, because when I say a “shower” of missiles is coming down at you, I mean it!

Centipede (1981, Arcade)

Designed by Dona Bailey and Ed Logg, Centipede was a complex shooter with a deceptively cute aesthetic in which a centipede crawled its way down the screen in a zig-zag pattern and the objective was for you to shoot each segment of the centipede’s body before it could hurt you. The field of play was also dotted with mushrooms, and when you shoot a segment of the centipede’s body it becomes a mushroom as well, simultaneously splitting one centipede into two centipedes both continually crawling down the screen. Trying to destroy these things is challenging enough with all the mushrooms in your way and how fast they move, but you constantly had to beware of danger from other creatures like fleas, spiders and scorpions who also try to hurt you at the same time. The game can be unpredictable but that’s part of what makes it fun.

Tempest (1981, Arcade)

Another game from Missile Command developer David Theurer and this one is also a juggling act. You shoot at all the oncoming enemies down a tunnel before they get close to you with a very convincing illusion of three-dimensionality. This one was difficult to master but the vector art style was super pleasing to the eye and the gameplay shifted as you progressed when the tunnels changed shapes from circles to squares to diamonds to flat surfaces and everything in between, which kept things from getting boring.

Quantum (1982, Arcade)

Designed by Betty Ryan and developed by General Computer Corporation (who were the developers behind Atari’s other big arcade game Food Fight as well as Midway’s Ms. Pac-Man), this fun and addictive game tasked you with circling atomic particles with a light trail and destroying them after completely encircling them, all the while avoiding touching the moving particles, which was hard to do because, like I said, they constantly moved around. It was kind of like playing Operation if Cavity Sam constantly got up and walked around while you tried to surgically remove his funny bone.

Yars’ Revenge (1982, Atari 2600)

Gets my vote for the best original game on the Atari 2600. This one designed by the programming wizard Howard Warshaw puts you in control of an insect-like creature called a Yar, a species that is at war with the evil Quotile. Your goal is to destroy the Quotile on the right side of the screen while avoiding its attacks and its homing missile that follows you around. The way to destroy the Quotile was to penetrate its barrier just enough for you to be able to make contact with it. That will cause your Zorlon Cannon on the left side of the screen to activate, and once you aim at the spot you want to shoot (while moving out of the way upon fire), you can destroy the Quotile, but you have to time it properly because the Quotile is constantly moving up and down the side of the screen. The safety zone splashed across the middle of the screen will keep you safe from most harm but you also cannot shoot from inside the zone. Creative as this game is, in early development it started out as a console port of the Cinematronics arcade game Star Castle, until Warshaw realized the hardware limitations of the Atari 2600 would make it impossible to port that game. Still Yars’ Revenge is surprisingly high-concept for an Atari 2600 game, and not just because Warshaw invented an entire backstory for the game involving the Yars getting their “revenge” on the Quotile over the destruction of their world Razak IV (the game came packed with a comic book that explained all the details of the story). The technical limitations of the 2600 forced Warshaw to be creative when designing and programming the game all the while keeping it as fun as possible. The result is a classic.

Solaris (1986, Atari 2600)

Another highly-regarded Atari 2600 game, this one was developed by Doug Neubauer as a sequel to Neubauer’s hit 1979 computer game Star Raiders for the Atari 8-bit family. Solaris once again had you at war with the evil Zylons, but this time the game used a third-person perspective while flying instead of first-person. What made Solaris so fun was how big it felt. There were 16 different quadrants to explore made up of 48 sectors, and as you warped across the Galaxy exploring those quadrants, you would battle aliens, rescue cadets and refuel your ship to keep going, with the ultimate goal being reaching the planet Solaris and rescuing the colonists there.

Dark Chambers (1989, Atari 7800)

The dungeon crawling game Dark Chambers was actually a reworking of Atari’s earlier dungeon crawler Dandy, a 1983 computer game that was one of the first four-player multiplayer video games ever made (although Dark Chambers is two-player). That game featured a lot of monster fighting, treasure hunting and food scavenging long before Castlevania made it cool. It drew inspiration from Dungeons & Dragons (the name “Dandy” was a play on “D&D”) and it actually inspired Atari’s popular 1985 arcade game Gauntlet, to the point where it resulted in legal action against Gauntlet designer Ed Logg from Dandy designer John Howard Palovich. But complicated development history aside, Dark Chambers is a pretty fun game. It was released for the 2600, 7800 and the Atari 8-bit family, but the version I liked in particular was the 7800 version. Some gamers have even said that the game outshines Atari’s console ports of Gauntlet, despite Gauntlet generally being more popular.

Secret Quest (1989, Atari 2600)

One of my favorite Atari 2600 games was actually one of the last games released for that console and one of its final attempts at competing with Nintendo and Sega, and that’s the adventure game Secret Quest, in which you navigated a series of space stations fighting monsters and solving puzzles before running out of oxygen. It was developed and programmed by Steve DeFrisco at Axlon with inspiration from Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda. It was pretty fun and I found myself getting hooked to it. Compared to the games that Atari was offering at the time, if not compared to what Nintendo and Sega were offering, I thought it was a nice challenge and a nice swan song for the Atari 2600.