Some Atari 2600 cartridges are much harder to find than others. In most cases, there's a good reason for this: Nobody bought them back in the day, because they stank. With the exception of the famously disdainful Pac-Man adaptation, games that are very common, ones that you see in every thrift shop and at every flea market, are very enjoyable to most gamers -- or were when they came out, anyway. In all but exceptional cases, such as games that suffered lack of due promotion, titles are sparse today that didn't sell well in the '80s because they were no fun.
Therefore, if you only collect games because you like to play them, and care little about amassing a collection just for the sake of quantity, you need not envy those who own "rare" titles; majoratively speaking, you're not missing much.
I don't own any super-rare carts or prototypes, like Chase the Chuckwagon or Cubicolor, but my argument obviously exists outside that scope. Strictly in terms of game play, many of the most insipid video games ever released to the unfortunate public are, logically, now less common than titles like Asteroids and Missile Command. This overview of the worst 2600 programs (or the worst in my opinion, but hardly arguable as such, as you'll see) is mostly made up of that less-than-common fools' gold, but you'll see some prevalent titles here too. I'm not going to pick on certain late-'70s games that Atari made, because those were programming ventures undertaken when the pioneers knew little about their own machine, and they were among the first of their kind and probably did entertain the earliest gaming enthusiasts with the very novelty of new types of games. Now, without further ado (bad drum roll): the worst of the worst!
COCONUTS (1982, Telesys)
This is a very emotionally moving video game. It's so dramatic that it may drive you to tears if you read on.
All you have to do is picture some happy kids at the department store asking their happy father to shell out thirty-odd dollars for the neat-looking game with the monkey illustration on the box. Then picture the happy family taking it home, sticking it into the VCS in the den and turning on the power. Picture the dazed look in the father's eyes as he thinks about what else he could have spent that thirty beans on. Picture the confused, hurt looks on the kids' faces as they realize that Atari does not always equal God of Fun. Picture the mom patting the kids on the head. We now have a distinctly non-happy family. Then a little argument starts, and someone pulls out a gun...
Coconuts looks pretty for a 1982 game. Our hero Stanley prances around in excellent cartoony detail (although with jerky animation) under his hardhat and umbrella; Coco the Monkey pops from position to position in the well-drawn trees above, hurling coconuts straight down at Stanley, who has to dodge them (sort of like an anti-Kaboom!). If his umbrella is hit, only his hardhat remains for protection; when that's taken out, his bare head can take one more hit before the brief "uh-oh" tune is played once more and the game is over. Your score depends on how many coconuts you've dodged.
The graphics are okay, then; but nothing can make up for the terrible game play. It's a very, very boring game. It seems like a rough draft or demo. These tiny coconuts are falling toward this huge guy, and they're so easy to dodge that you could be playing another game on another TV at the same time without getting hit. The coconuts are thrown in "waves," and you start a new one by pressing the fire button; but these so-called waves often exist of only one coconut apiece. I'm serious!
Adam once told me that this was actually level one of a multi-level game that another company was planning. Telesys somehow acquired and decided to release only this installment in Stanley's supposedly varying adventures. Not that it would have been any better if all of the vapor-levels were this innocuous.
This is one of the worst games on any platform, and it therefore deserves a special pedestal. Someone dreaming all his life of making a truly bad game couldn't hope to reach this level of badness. Quite an accomplishment.
PICNIC (1982, U.S. Games)
You wanna know why the industry underwent a shakeout in the mid-'80s? Just play Picnic.
Some jittery, aesthetically displeasing bugs are flying around two huge burgers sitting at the bottom of the screen. These do not look like burgers; their size and blockiness put Surround to shame. Also on the ground, between the burgers, is a big, solid square. It's supposed to be one of those bug-zapper things.
Using a paddle controller to move your flyswatter from side to side (it doesn't look like a flyswatter; it looks like one of the tiny sub-demons in Demon Attack), you're supposed to wait until one of these spasmatic bugs emits a vertical line at one of your burgers. This means he's sucking up part of it. As he's doing it, you hit the fire button to "swat" him (turn your flyswatting demon briefly upside-down). Timing is everything. In fact, it's the whole game. It's tedious, boring, and not viscerally pleasing in the least.
Swatting a bug sends him flying into a screen border, against which he bounces. This happens a few times (like Brutus when Popeye punches him in that game). If the bug lands in the zapper, you get bonus points or something.
Big, square chunks are sucked out of your big, square burgers until the picnic's over and you get to go home -- yayyyy!
Dull, repetitiveand pointless-feeling, this game deserves many accolades for its palpable amount of all-encompassing badness. All you can do is shake your head sadly and pull out the cartridge. Let's hope that the next one you insert isn't...
AIRLOCK (1982, Data Age)
Not only did this programmer succeed in concocting a thoroughly bad game, but he managed to add high amounts of unrewarding frustration.
Your little character's trapped inside a sinking submarine. The water level's rising along with your blood pressure (see above paragraph). You find yourself on the lowest of four floors; you have to run across each one before the time limit's up. If you don't make it to the top in time, you get a cute picture of the submarine sinking with your guy inside. If you make it across a corridor to the elevator at the far end, grabbing two lines dangling from the ceiling along the way, you move up a floor and the old one fills with water.
To pick on something that should be superficial, our hero is a little stick-figure that runs in jerks with absolutely no animation. This shouldn't matter, but man, does it add admirably to the overall badness! There are two little squares in the floor of each corridor that you have to jump over as you run, and these are in the exact same place in every hallway. There's also a little bad guy traversing back and forth across each floor. The game-play consists of timing your jumps to get over the moving bad guys and the stationary squares, as well as leaping up to grab the two lines you need to complete each floor.
Here's where the real badness comes in: There are only certain points at which you can successfully jump to the left or right, and these are very scarce. The main reason is that your guy stays in the air a very long time and his jumps are very high and wide. If you had the tolerance, you could memorize every single jump in the game (all eight or so).
If one of these long, slow jumps plants you even partly on one of the squares on the floor, your leap stops with an abrupt farting sound (CLUE! See the contest mentioned elsewhere in this issue). By the time you realize that you can't even start a jump near a square, a roving baddie catches you. Even though you don't care enough about the game to win, you're swearing at it. It's just designed very, very badly. If you'll recall the end of OC&GS Vol. II, Issue #2, this game gave Adam a nervous breakdown. That's quite an achievement for an aspiring bad-game programmer, don't you think?
SORCERER and FIREFLY (1983, Mythicon)
These and other games were sold as special bargain-price titles (ten bucks apiece) by Mythicon, who might, if the games offer any evidence, be the only company in gaming history at which the founder, accountant, P.R. man and programmer were all the same guy.
These two games are, quite literally, the same program with different graphics plugged in. It's more interesting to look at the illustration on each of the cartridge labels than to play the games themselves. There's no substance to even really criticize. They almost don't even exist. That's quite a waste of ten dollars, don't you agree?
Your character is supposed to fly across each screen from left to right, exiting into further screens until you (quickly) get back to the first one. On each screen is a bad guy that you can either ignore (this is very, very easy) or shoot. Most bad guys render a treasure when shot. Grab the treasure for points! (Phewww...)
If you opt to ignore the bad guys, the object of this game becomes primarily to move from left to right over and over again. It's like a primitive screen-saver that you have to operate manually.
This is funny: When you die, your character assumes a horizontal dead-person guise and is overtaken by forced downward movement. In other words, you're supposed to fall to the bottom of the screen. But you can control yourself while you're falling, except that pushing up on the joystick stops the plummet and hovers your carcass indefinitely. You can still move left or right while you're doing this, if you're good with diagonals.
So not only are these games badly conceived, but they're badly coded as a bonus. True winners! If you get really sick this winter and you drug yourself up so much that you can barely move, plug in a Mythicon game to get your coordinative fix until you're healthy again and you can move on to something much more engaging, such as Canyon Bomber.
FROGS AND FLIES (1982, MNetwork)
You sit there on a lily pad that looks like a graphics crash, competing with another frog by jumping across to the opposite pad and back, timing your jumps to tongue flies out of the air. That's it. No, really. That's IT.
In a previous issue, I suggested using this cartridge as a doorstop, but I've rethought this. If you're like me, then some of your friends know about classic games, and if they were to come over and see what was holding your door open, they'd think that you had become a really boring person, or perhaps that you were going through a phase of depression. Instead, use it as a Roach Motel. Just coat its insides with honey, stick it far into the cabinet under the sink, and you're set!
CHUCK NORRIS: SUPERKICKS (1983, Xonox)
This half of one of Xonox's double-ended cartridges must be played to really sink in. It's beyond terrible. Strong enough words haven't been invented. It's surreal in its negative vibes.
First off, it's so poorly structured that it's difficult to figure out what in the hell you're doing, even with the documentation handy; and by the time you do get some sort of grip on it, you don't want to play anymore. You'd rather beat your head against a spinning table-saw blade. It's SO bad.
YOU are Chuck Norris! (Ahem...) You're advancing your way up the left part of a forked road (there are probably more road patterns, but I've never played long enough). You have a time limit that decreases very quickly when you step on the grass median. I'm not sure why Chuck gets hurt by grass all of a sudden. I'll bet that he hated the game when it came out. It makes him look like such a wimp. After you walk a few steps, the game freezes and then changes to an empty screen. A little Chuck and a little bad guy are about to fight, so I guess the frozen game has meant that you've encountered someone.
You halt and assume a badly rendered Karate pose when you press the button, and there you're stuck for a few seconds, until Chuck decides that the kick's over, the lighting was good and the scene has been wrapped. While all this posing's going on, the bad guy walks right up and chops you a few times until you're dead. You can't touch him or he'll smack you, and yet pressing the fire button to put yourself into the pose does nothing to hurt the guy, no matter how good your timing is. Even if it did (Adam says you have to kick him in the head), it would be a dull, uneventful game with absolutely zero redeeming qualities. Admirable!
ZAXXON (1982, Coleco)
Oops. I'm sorry. The actual title as it appears on the cartridge label is The OFFICIAL Zaxxon. Oh, really? Did anyone consult Sega on this?
This coin-op translation is drastically wrong from the beginning, because you're not flying diagonally anymore. You're flying straight up. The space fortress is still scrolling underneath you, and your spaceship still has a shadow, but it looks about as 3-D as the print you're currently reading.
Okay. Fine. Let's see if it's a good game if the player pretends that it was never a completely different-looking coin-op.
Uh-oh! It's still a bad game!
The thing is, the people at Coleco, bless their little britches, still tried to program a game that involved altitude adjustment. You have to climb or dive in order to attain the level of the bad guys you want to shoot, and you have to get yourself over walls. But it's really hard to tell what altitude you're at during any given moment. The shadows certainly don't help, although I have the terrible feeling that they're supposed to.
Especially unpleasant to play, 2600 Zaxxon outlasts even the most far-flung role-playing games in longevity. At any time for the rest of your life, plugging in this cart will cause you to feel bad in many different ways.
Even people who don't like to play Zaxxon will feel as if they're covered in sores and have suddenly wandered into an oasis of soothing lotion when they go from this game to any translation that comes even close to the coin-op original. It is like being on a plane, I admit; it's very realistic in that sense. Playing it long enough will make you nauseous.
The coin-op designer probably didn't complain because he died of a heart attack when he first saw this. Over-bad! Applause! -- CF
[Feb. 2012 note: I find it difficult to believe that I didn't include Swordquest: FireWorld, King Kong or Warplock. Maybe I had to block them out for a few years. Understandable.]