Atari VCS at 40: The 10 Best Games

The Atari VCS, first released 40 years ago, was home to a host of brilliant games that still resonate today

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8. Pitfall!

Platformers were still in their infancy in the early 1980s. While single-screen affairs like Donkey Kong had been ported to the Atari 2600, something as simple as side-scrolling wouldn't become popular until much later. Think about that – moving a screen up and down was part of the language of games, but left to right was a crazy thing you only saw in Defender clones.

Pitfall! bridged the gap – swinging across it on a vine while yodelling a bleepy Tarzan yell – by having 255 separate screens connected horizontally. For comparison, one of the Atari's other famous multi-screen games Adventure had only 30 screens. Pitfall! was massive. To find all the hidden treasures within its 20-minute time limit required navigating both the jungle and an underground full of scorpions and brick walls. Each time you exited one of those tunnels you traveled three screens left or right. It was a kind of fast travel that let you slowly map and master this jungle world.

The real fun was in the leaping and running. Designer David Crane began by creating a running sprite, walking around his office trying to get the position of his arms and legs right just as Jordan Mechner would for that other famous multi-screen platformer, Prince of Persia. Only after he'd perfected the running man animation did Crane start to think about what to put in his path, and then the snakes, scorpions, pits, and crocodiles emerged. Leaping away from quicksand as it filled the space where you stood or bouncing across three crocodiles in the moment they closed their mouths was one of our first tastes of how an entire game could be built around the simple joy of jumping.

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