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9 old arcade games Atari's next owner (or you!) should revisit

Playing the classics isn't always about nostalgia -- often, they have forgotten game design that can be utilized even today. Developer Steve Fulton outlines his favorites (with video!).

Steve Fulton, Blogger

January 25, 2013

6 Min Read

Game developer Steve Fulton is an unabashed fan of the classics, but sometimes the oldies offer more than nostalgia -- often, they contain genuinely good game design that can still be tapped into today! The following was originally written as a community blog post by game developer Steve Fulton. We liked it so much that we prettied it up, added some video, and made it a "real" Gamasutra story. Thanks to the Old Classic Retro Gaming YouTube channel for providing all of the following videos. Back in the 70s and 80s, Atari Inc. created dozens of coin-op games that were designed to hook players in, take their money, and by the end, have them beg to play one more time. Nolan Bushnell described these games as "Easy To Learn, Tough To Master," and they were the genesis of the today's casual and mobile game market. With Atari’s impending bankruptcy and sale, it’s time they looked back at some of their little known coin-ops that could be translated into hit mobile and downloadable games. Who knows, some of these could be hits for the company's next owner!

Dominoes (1977)

Atari's Dominoes coin-op was a version of "snake" where each player guided a set of "dominoes" that grew longer and longer as they stayed alive. The object was to not run into your "dominoes" or the dominoes of the other player. I used to play a single player version of this (collect things on the screen and don't die) on my cell phone every day, and it was extremely addictive. This concept could easily be moved into the 21st century by going back to the original themes of "dominoes" as a single-player, snake-style game and adding gates, jumps, obstacles, etc. in arenas with ever-increasing complexity.

Canyon Bomber (1977)

At first glance, Canyon Bomber looks like an action game. You have planes with bombs, and you are destroying stuff. However, at closer glance you can see that this is not the case. When you drop a bomb into the "canyon" it destroys some rocks, but other fall into place where the ones destroyed once rested. If you added a "color" to the bombs, and had that color bomb only destroys rocks of the same color, you would get a game that resembled a balloon-pop style game, but with added action elements. You could even take this one further, adding a story and a second on-screen opponent, thus getting a game much like Puzzle Quest.

Avalanche (1978)

This game has been described as the "reverse" of Breakout. It's a "catch the stuff" style game later popularized by Activision's game Kaboom! on the Atari 2600. The rocks at the top of the screen fall, and you must catch all of them, or die trying. With added bonuses, multipliers and power-ups this could be great concept for an intriguing little game.

Super Breakout (1978) (Progressive)

Super Breakout took the "ball hits bricks" concept of it's 1976 discrete logic brother and added several new versions, including "cavity" (with multiple balls) and "progressive" (where the walls just kept on coming). Atari should have never given up the concept-crown of this game to the Arkanoids of the world. The most compelling version in this game, "progressive," should be blown out with the same type of power-ups and extras that grace every other game that ripped this one off over the past 30 years.  

Sky Diver (1978)

It seems simple. A guy jumps from a plane and you guide him to the surface while managing free-fall, pick-up flags, etc. A game with progressively "lower" jumps (and maybe even bonus "base-jumps"), a scrolling playfield, with items to collect and enemies to avoid while in freefall and parachute mode would be very compelling. Add a military component, and the urgency to land a set number of troops within a certain time-frame to attack an enemy base, and you might have a winner.

Smokey Joe (1978)

In Smokey Joe (the single-player cousin to Fire Truck, seen above), you guide a fire engine to a (theoretical) emergency through very dangerous streets. That was it. You never actually made it to the emergency, you just drove until time ran out. An update would have several different types of fire engines racing to an actual fire. The more that arrive in a timely manner, the better chance you have of being successful. The better job you do, the more money you have to upgrade your trucks and buy new ones.

Quantum (1982)

One of the first arcade games created for Atari by Ms. Pac-Man creator GCC was this amazing "drawing" game. Other than its obvious inspiration from Qix, Quantum was far ahead of its time. The action is simple: draw around a set of particles while avoiding the pulsars. The more particles you can encircle at once, the more points you get. It's that simple, that basic, and that brilliant. If there is one game on this list that the next owner should develop into a casual title immediately, it is this one. They are simply losing money by otherwise sitting on it.

Cloak And Dagger (1983)

This puzzle game was developed as a tie-in with the movie of the same name. Each level is puzzle that needs to be solved by getting from one side of the floor to the other. The player can shoot and optionally light the bomb at the center of each room. Dr. Boom's minions get harder and more numerous as the game progresses. This coin-op was not very popular when it was first released, but time has been kind to the depth and the concept of this game. With a few enhancements (i.e. different weapons) this could be a very effective action puzzler.

Food Fight (1983)

Finally we come to my all-time favorite "lost" Atari coin-op. Like Quantum, this one was designed by the geniuses at GCC (who would go on to design the Atari 7800 console, and the exact replica of this game for that platform). Your job in this game is to eat  the melting ice cream cone on each screen. Sounds easy? Well, there are several evil chefs trying to stop you buy throwing food in your direction. You can use the same food to stop the advancing chefs. Bonus rounds with unlimited ammo (watermelons) and an instant replay function really put this one over-the-top.   With re-thought mobile interface, this game could (and should) be a hit game in the modern era.

About the Author(s)

Steve Fulton


Steve Fulton is the co-founder of 8bitrocket.com, a web site dedicated to news, reviews and tutorials about making online games in Flash. Its sister-site, Atarinerd.com, is dedicated to retro game news and stories of misspent youth. Steve is the co-author of The Essential Guide To Flash Games, a book about Flash/Flex AS3 game development to be released in early 2010. Steve's day job is working for a major consumer goods company where he has developed hundreds of online games and web sites.

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