Pushing the Crusty Old Atari 2600 to its Absolute Limit!

In the past, I’ve showcased games and scene demos which pushed the Sega Genesis and Commodore 64 to their absolute limits. Programming wizards accomplished visuals on both systems that stretch the bounds of belief.

But then, how low can we go? What’s the oldest, weakest machine it’s possible to get such interesting visuals out of? Would you believe…the Atari 2600?

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That’s right, the grand daddy of them all. Not the oldest home game console but the first to have interchangeable cartridges and meet with widespread success. The popularity of it guaranteed that nostalgic coders would pick it up, dust it off and see what they could do with it.

.Bin is one of the results, made by the demo group Flush. Remember this is a console where exploiting glitches and utilizing smoke and mirror trickery weren’t just necessary to get the most out of the system, but often just to make anything resembling a game in the first place. So what they managed with .Bin is nothing short of staggering:

Obviously they went way over the usual ~4k size of 2600 games with this 32k beast of a demo. But that’s possible on standard 2600 carts with bank switching, it just would’ve been prohibitively expensive back in the day.

Just when you think you’ve seen the absolute most that can be done with a machine, some insanely smart programmer pushes it just that little bit further. Moving the goal posts, pushing into the frontier of the unknown. KK/Altair^DMA did just that, blowing all our minds with Chiphead:

How was this done? How is it possible? Most Atari 2600 games looked like differently colored squares shooting smaller squares at each other. But then knowledge of the machine’s limits only serves to make stuff like Tricade, by Trilobit (below) all the more impressive:

But what about games? Even back in the day, there were a few star programmers who squeezed the most performance out of the 2600 you could reasonably ask.

The first game, an Activision title from 1984, is H.E.R.O. It’s about as close to Metroid as you could expect on such a constrained system:

Made in 1986, Solaris arguably does H.E.R.O one better with a smooth pseudo 3D landscape and impressive looking space effects:

Battlezone was about as much as you could expect from a home version, given the original was a truly 3D wireframe title displayed on a vector monitor. Activision, master of good 2600 graphics, managed smooth colorful visuals on this title:

Then there’s Jungle Hunt, the home port of the arcade game Jungle King, which somehow had parallax scrolling on the lowly 2600 hardware (not to mention several discrete stages and coherent gameplay, a rarity on the platform):

Now, here’s Space Shuttle simulator. A NASA licensed home sim of the now defunct space shuttle. Featuring a large complex HUD and multicolor sprites, this was pretty astonishing at the time.

Here’s Keystone Capers, similar to a mix between Pitfall and Elevator Action, notable for being multi-screen (like pitfall) but also having complex colorful graphics with minimal flicker:

I haven’t covered modern day indie 2600 titles as I plan to make a future article devoted to those games. But what you’ve seen here should be eye popping enough if you ever had a 2600 of your own growing up, or are familiar with how limited a machine it was. Stay tuned for more!

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