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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


Classic Games

Unearthing Atariís Lost 2600 Games

One of the more interesting parts of video game history are the many unreleased prototypes and nearly complete games for the Atari 2600 that were shelved when Atari collapsed during the great crash. Many of these games were announced and far along in development, or even completed but never saw the light of day. Many players probably wondered whatever happened to these highly-anticipated games. Now, decades later, some of these phantom programs have finally emerged back into the open, giving veteran gamers a chance to play what might have been. Join us as we take a look at five of these lost titles and discover how they would have fared if they had been released.

Combat Two Ė Atari 2600 Prototype

This sequel was one of the most anticipated sequels for the 2600 and appeared in several catalogs. Sadly, this was all that most players would hear of Combat Two for many decades. Fortunately, an in-progress prototype was discovered a few years back and put onto cartridge so players could finally find out what Atari had in mind. Probably one of the most familiar titles to classic gamers, the original Combat came bundled with most of the early VCS consoles and remains one of the most common games for the system. Itís easy two-player gameplay held up well despite its somewhat blocky graphics. While the premise is the same, there have been some changes. In Combat Two, your mission remains to destroy the opposing tank before it can destroy you. Unlike the first Combat, you now need several shots to destroy an enemy, and each enemy has multiple lives, giving its scoring system a more traditional arcade feel. The sequel aimed to build on the original game in a number of interesting and innovative ways.

The terrain in C2 is more complex with destructible barriers that players can destroy, grassy areas and rivers that slow players down and an entirely new weapon, the guided missile that changes the strategy significantly. You can only fire the missile when youíre located inside your base, located at the opposing corners of the screen. Each time you fire the missile, it flies towards your opponent and while they have a chance to get out of the way, they usually take a hit. Once you fire a missile, you have to wait a few moments to fire another one. Additionally, you canít shoot it if your opponent destroys your base. This gives Combat Twoís strategy a different feel from the original game, making for a more complex and challenging title. The gameís first two gameplay modes allow you to choose between either standard blocky barriers which you canít cross unless theyíre destroyed or trees which can also be destroyed, but can be traversed but at a slower speed. These two modes stay fairly true to the original game, but the biggest innovation in the sequel comes in its second type of mode, which allows for customization.

Combat Twoís biggest change comes in allowing players to design and build their own layouts before each round. Editing is quite simple, you move the cursor around the screen and press the button to lay down a block, which will then activate in the main game against your opponent. This is really interesting and allows you to experiment with different approaches, maybe ones with more open space to allow you to get right into the action, or fill the screen with difficult barriers for your opponent to tackle. This is one of the few 2600 titles that allows for customization and building your own levels and is impressive in that aspect. Its easy to build levels and test them almost instantly with another player. This approach gives the sequel plenty of variety and replay value. Building your own levels makes the game that much more interactive. Unfortunately, you canít save your designs after each round but itís still an interesting addition to the game. These changes definitely give Combat Two a different feel than its predecessor and make for a deeper and involving title. Itís a bit slower and more thoughtful but still packs some solid gameplay. Itís a shame that this one never came out, since it would have been an innovative sequel that would have made a great addition to the 2600 library.  

Xevious Ė Atari 2600 Prototype

When it was released in 1983, Namcoís Xevious became an instant landmark for its scrolling backgrounds, hidden areas and massive enemies. Structurally, the game was a complex horizontal shooter for its time and presaged titles like Gradius that would arrive several years later. Released by Atari stateside in the arcades, itís little surprise that the company was working on a translation for the 2600, though it was never released commercially. Emerging years later in this prototype form, the effort is impressive from a technical standpoint and does an excellent job in bringing the essence of the arcade game to life on the console. The game has you flying the famous ship across the green fields as you battle waves of enemies across an alien planet.

Most of these take the form of the familiar circular foes from the arcade that can be dispatched in a single shot which come in both black and white models. As you progress through the stages, youíll find additional opponents and battle against other foes. The screens change as you get further into the game, and you fly over rivers which signal a new area and also serve as checkpoints. One of the most important elements that separates Xevious from its contemporaries is its use of a dual shooting mechanism. Instead of shooting enemies on a single flat screen in 2D space, you also use bombs to target ground-based opponents. It definitely feels like a scaled-down version of the arcade game with its simplified play mechanics and blockier graphics, but is still one of the more playable 2600 prototypes. Itís definitely got a lot more depth to it than some much less complete titles, such as the frustrating Tempest, which was seemingly less developed.

The controls are fairly straightforward, with players using a single button to fire both standard shots and launch bombs. In this prototype version tested, the bombs are also assigned to the button. As you fly, youíll see a field of two bars that close together to form the target area, which shows where the bombs will land. Its fairly easy to understand, but it feels a little clunky until you get used to it. This system isnít as elegant as the arcade game, but works in this context, and simplifies the game mechanics somewhat. It plays very smoothly, with tight controls that make it easy to maneuver your ship around the screen, escape enemy shots and drop bombs Levels are fairly simplified from the arcade game and the game doesnít prove that terribly challenging. The stages seem to cycle and there are a limited number of opponent types, such as the snake like foe that crawls across the ground. It limits the gameís replay value through this may be a function of a prototype that hasnít been tweaked enough.

Graphically, Xevious follows the look and feel of the arcade game fairly well, with scrolling backgrounds and the familiar, if simplified elements such as the large phoenix recreated faithfully. Thereís little of the shakiness or glitches that you see in many scrolling shooters on the 2600 such as Espial, and the gameís scrolling is remarkably smooth. There are some cool little details in this prototype, even the spinning grey barriers from the arcade game are present. For an incomplete game, his is a fairly impressive piece of work that could have benefited from additional polish. Xevious shows a lot of potential and with a little bit more variety and polish this title would have ended up as one of the better 2600 arcade ports.

Elevator Action Ė Atari 2600 Prototype

Based on Taitoís hit game, Elevator Action was a remarkably faithful translation of the arcade title from 1983. The gameplay should be immediately familiar to anyone who played the game. You start as a secret agent on a mission to retrieve secret documents from a building. You start at the top and use elevators and escalators to get to the bottom of things. You have to time this carefully and canít go down empty shafts, so you have to be careful or you lose a life. Each floor in the building has a series of doors, most of which are blue in color. Occasionally, youíll find a red one that contains a secret document. You have to collect all of these on a stage in order to move on, so you canít skip them. Along the way, youíll also encounter other agents who are out to get you. Theyíll fire shots at you in order to stop your progress, but you can jump or crouch to avoid their shots. The enemy agents arenít nearly as aggressive as the arcade game and wonít follow you onto elevators, but they can still fire on you unexpectedly from behind closed doors so be careful. One of the more interesting things taken from the arcade game is the ability to shoot out lights, which gives you a little bit of additional cover. As for the action play mechanics, the controls do an excellent job of recreating the feel of the arcade game, with jumping, shooting and riding elevators working very much like the original title. Elevator Actionís slightly slower pace and timing made it a good choice for the 2600, though there are some problems that emerge with the prototype.

The biggest thing youíll probably notice is the gameís lack of sound effects or music, which is a red flag that it wasnít completed. While itís annoying at first, you can get used to it, perhaps our secret agent was penetrating the building in stealth mode. The lack of polish is also evident in several major glitches that show up during gameplay. The biggest of these comes when the player is crouched down or jumping, where the enemy shots donít harm him, making it a bit too easy to escape attacking foes. The other bit flaw youíll probably notice is the uneven AI. Many of the agents seem to appear out of nowhere and fire unexpectedly, which makes it had to get out of their paths. Another problem comes with the elevators themselves, which move up and down fairly quickly, but there are some points where it seems to take them forever to arrive. This makes some floors an exercise in patience that can become quite annoying. Players will also encounter other glitches in this prototype such as the occasional garbled graphics that donít effect gameplay but give Elevator Action an uneven feel. The difficulty doesnít seem to change from one level to another, which makes it a bit repetitive after youíve seen the first stage.

Despite these flaws, this remains an enjoyable game that shows how much a good programmer could get out of the 2600ís hardware. Itís a real shame that so many elements in the game are missing or not implemented fully. This was another unreleased arcade port from Atari, that was announced but never released thanks to the infamous video game crash.  Elevator Action had the potential to be a solid title and would have been an excellent translation had it been completed. Judging by the elements that are present, its an interesting example that shows the potential of what might have been.

Saboteur Ė Atari 2600 Prototype

The back story behind the creation of Saboteur is nearly as interesting as the game itself. Developed by Howard Scott Warshaw, who also created Yarsí Revenge and E.T., Saboteur was the last game he developed for the 2600. As happened to many promising titles, the Ďcrashí of 1983 scuttled the project even though it was nearly complete. The game had a high degree of polish and ambition, with three complete screens to traverse. Saboteur places you in the role of

Hotbot, a space robot who lands on a planet where an evil race known as the Quotile are building a massive rocket and its up to you to stop them. In the first stage, you are placed in the center and have to shoot the other creatures who are racing towards the rocket, building it up in stages as you attempt to stop them. In addition, the famous Yars from that previous game appear from time to time on the walkways, they also work to build the rocker and you have to shoot them, or theyíll add pieces to the rocket, making your mission that much more difficult to achieve.  

On the other hand, you have the Gorfon creatures who take pieces from the rocket and you have to avoid shooting them, which is very hard to do without letting nearby robots go. If this doesnít sound difficult enough, thereís a robot at the top of the screen whoís shooting at you while targeting Gorfons at the same time. Making it through this stage is difficult, but you can even the odds by using diagonal shots to take out enemies and strategically letting some pieces get through to protect the gorgons nearby. if you donít succeed, youíll see the rocket launch and move to the next screen. On the second stage, you move around the screen and try to avoid shots from the Quotile Robot who chasing you around. At the bottom of the stage, you can see pieces of the rocket moving around and you have to shoot them. However, you canít do this directly and have to bounce your shots off the robot and hope they hit the targets below. If you destroy all the pieces before the timer runs out, youíll have won and return to the first stage. However, if you donít succeed, the robot will face off against the warhead in one final battle.

This final stage is a solo battle against the warhead itself. The warhead fires shots at you which you have to avoid while moving around and trying to destroy it. This is easier than it sounds because the robot fires multiple shots and moves quickly. When you face off against this final enemy, the pressure mounts because itís difficult to destroy, especially if you get to the later levels. Destroying the warhead only delays their plans, because once its destroyed, the Qoutiles begin the process anew and you return to the first screen, where the action moves at a quicker pace. You have even less room for error at the later stages and this is where the game becomes more challenging for even good players. Saboteurís structure is a bit more complex and ambitious than most 2600 games, but thatís what makes it so appealing. Thereís none of the monotony that plagues most 2600 shooters which gives it a strong replay value. Its controls are excellent and you have plenty of maneuverability on the second and third stages. The bright, colorful graphics use the consoleís abilities effectively with excellent animation and sprites. Watching the rocket lift-off the screen is a dramatic and effective way that adds to gameís overall excitement and polish. The sound effects are excellent and fit well with the overall mood of the game which gives Saboteur plenty of polish  Overall, Saboteurís ambitions are evident throughout and this excellent action game would have been well-received had it been released.

Given its polished visuals, solid mechanics and exciting play, Itís a real shame that Saboteur  never came out, but thereís a happy ending since itís been released in cartridge rom form and on many recent plug and play consoles. This makes it one of the few Ďlost classicsí accessible for most players. Playing the game today shows that it has held up well thanks to its solid gameplay, multiple stages and appealing visuals, making it a great addition to any classic playerís library.

Sinistar Ė Atari 2600 Prototype

While it might seem improbable that the Atari 2600 could be home to a decent translation of the intense arcade game, Sinistar proves that with a little imagination, the feel and challenge of a much more complex machine can be effectively transferred. Unfortunately, Sinistar was never released on the 2600, but a mostly complete prototype had been discovered along with several other titles. For the long-time fan, Sinistar proves the 2600 was more than capable in many ways. The game follows the basic structure of the arcade game to a surprisingly faithful degree. The biggest compromise in this version comes in the firing mechanism where youíre regular shots are placed on automatic, with the fire button reserved for releasing bombs. Itís a little hard to resist the temptation to fire some of these off at first, but once you get the hang of things and learn not to fire accidentally, the rhythms and pacing are excellent.

You begin flying in open space, looking for and shooting meteorites that release the Sinibombs encased in them when destroyed. You have to look out for workers, who are also looking to mine the rocks, for their own reasons. There are also gunners who are firing at you. Destroying these and collecting as many bombs as you can is essential. While you are in combat, the workers are also busy constructing the Sinistar itself. Once built, the tone of Sinistar changes completely as an ominous monotone roar fills the screen and the chase begins. Looking at your radar, you can see where the Sinistar, which helps you plan your attacks and escape. However, it can see you and charges towards your position relentlessly.

Once engaged, your only option against it is to release the Sinibombs and hope they destroy a piece of the Sinistar. This is where those bombs youíve been collecting come into play. You can collect up to 20 at a time and since it only takes 18 successful shots to completely destroy the Sinistar itself this should be a piece of cake. However, itís tricky to land these attacks successfully since the boss is in constant motion and you have to shoot from behind. An effective strategy is to goad the boss into a position parallel to yours and run away, shooting bombs as you escape its path. This isnít as easy as it sounds and makes the playing game and surviving the Sinistarís attacks surprisingly difficult and challenging.

Youíll probably use all your initial rounds during your encounters and will have to collect more while the Sinistar is active, which makes things even harder. It will probably take most players multiple attempts before theyíre able to destroy the Sinistar for the first time, but its definitely a satisfying accomplishment. Visually, the game is well-done by 2600 standards, with a clean-look to the playfield thatís stable and colorful, though the Sinistar itself is a little blocky. Sound effects are good, with ominous pulsing when the Sinistar appears as the main highlight. Controls are fairly fluid with steering and movement very nicely done. Overall, this prototype is nicely polished and feels almost complete, and would fit in well with other late-period arcade translations on the 2600 such as Galaxian and Phoenix. The biggest drawback to Sinistar is that it can be frustrating if youíre not up to the challenge, but Sinistar rewards persistent players with fast-paced space shooter that delivers some of the best play action on the 2600.

Note: For the sake of authenticity, all games were played on the original hardware and controllers.

- Michael Palisano