Who is the face of Nintendo? That's easy: It's Mario. Just as well, it could be Link, or even Donkey Kong. Let's take a step back, one generation. Who is the face of Atari?
In the way we think of game consoles in terms of generations, the Atari VCS (later known as the 2600) has morphed into a sort of blank generation, even though it is an essential link between the extremely primitive consoles of early-to-mid 1970s, and the 8-bit systems that would follow it. Yet, something about Atari is mysteriously and forcefully separated from the continuity of gaming as we think about now. Obviously the Atari was much more than the endless wave of (mostly) Pong boxes that preceded it, but what is Atari? We all know that Atari violently imploded, and we know about E.T. and the landfill in New Mexico, and… what else?
My dad was ten years old in 1983, when the home gaming market famously crashed. His first home console was an Atari 2600. At some point during the second half of the 1980s, his Atari, and all that he had acquired to go along with it, would find their way into a large black road case that would be stored away. The dust that settled on the exposed connector pins on some of the cartridges would remain until I blew them off again, roughly two decades later—around when I was ten, this time..
Busting open this trove of paraphernalia as a kid (and again a few weeks ago), the 2600 and its miniature mountain of cartridges were all strewn together into a congealed plastic mass, with yards of black cables from power supplies, joysticks, paddles, and coaxial splitters. Props to Atari: For being boxed up in a room for years that is often not heated or cooled, nothing was broken except one paddle controller. It was an impromptu time capsule, untouched (though heavily dusted) by time. It had only seen the light of day once before when I was younger, and before that it had been my dad's.
Breaking open this Atari chest, I was going to play these games that my dad had played, and try to navigate the past with a joystick, through an extremely sparse display of light, pixels, and sound.
Each game in the box went one of two ways. Either I understood a game immediately, or it befuddled me entirely. I know exactly what's happening in Pitfall! But I have no idea what's happening in a game like Haunted House. Contextually, I'm disadvantaged because none of the manuals survived their 30+ year voyage to get to my apartment, but my dear old dad claims he never had the manuals, either—or that he never paid attention to them.
The only game in the bin that rode the line between straightforwardness and incoherency threaded the needle ingeniously by using action adventure leanings to effectively cut its own intense puzzle design. This game was Raiders of the Lost Ark, designed by Howard Scott Warshaw for Atari, released in November of 1982. Howard Scott Warshaw is often remembered for having designed E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, but his first published game at Atari was the now-classic Yars' Revenge. It was on the strength of Yars' Revenge that Warshaw would take on Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Above: A longplay of Raiders of the Lost Ark
Raiders is dense. It's like a text adventure that's only further abstracted by having a visual interface. Raiders has thirteen screens, and most players will be lucky to get beyond the initial three. Now that I know how the game works and know how to beat it (even though I haven't pulled it off), I find a strange sort of appreciation in the game. The game is so meticulous in how it makes the player approach and execute each situation that it's no trivial task to beat the game even with a guide. By bridging the gaps between puzzle scenarios with pixel-perfect traversal, marauding thieves, and a handful of enemies, Raiders becomes something deeper than nearly any of its contemporaries.
Even from the exact moment the game begins, it's stunning in its willingness to subvert expectation. The game requires two joysticks to be played, and the standard player one stick is not the one that controls Indiana Jones. Instead, the left stick controls the inventory. "That had never been done before," says Warshaw. "I actually made the player one controller the inventory so when someone tried to play the game that way, they would know something was wrong. You couldn't do the game with the controller scheme the way it was. You couldn't have the inventory and action with one joystick. It was an unusual thing to do, but I was okay with doing unusual things. I wanted to use the machine in the most innovative way I could."
(One such innovation: Warshaw left out information about a key item from the manual. Why? "Uh, just to make it tougher," he explained. "I was always arguing with marketing to keep stuff out of the manual.")
Even with the manual, Raiders gives you very little. It tries to put the player in the shoes of the famous fictional archeologist, by forcing the player to use all of their cunning, and having the player butt their heads into obstacles—a lot. Conceptually, this feels right—It would be false to have a game where Indiana Jones is just shooting nazis, and it would be equally untrue to turn it into Pitfall! with a pixelated hat .
With the limited resources of the time, Warshaw made a great effort to meaningfully translate the experience of the source material into the interactive space, which in itself was a novel idea—the only contemporary to Raiders in this regard is Alien, which also released in 1982, though specific dates are hard to come by.
When I tried to rally interest in my dad in old NES and Atari 2600 games when I first unearthed them, I remember him being pretty negative on that era of gaming. I remember him saying that those games were rendered worthless by following generations. But when I booted up Raiders and hit the reset switch just recently, something was different. Something changed.
My dad was visibly enthusiastic as we went from screen to screen, puzzle to puzzle. His ideas on how to progress in the game were half-correct, and half-crazy theories he had developed as a kid. "We played this game for hours and hours and we would bash our heads against it," my dad said. "Nobody could ever figure it out. Friends, neighbors—we would always die. We would get bit by tsetse flies or we would be digging in the wrong place or our parachute would get caught on the tree—we never figured it out."
I walked my dad through the game and was shocked by how far he and his small-town band of friends had gotten decades ago. I was skeptical that anyone could complete the game without some series of minor miracles. In Raiders, you need to wait for an item to appear that isn't in the manual, try to get another item to spawn, go to a certain area to teleport to a different area, then use a key and walk straight down a platform and on and on and on.
The thing about playing Raiders is that I feel like I'm on the other end of a 34-years-running cross-country game of telephone with a visionary genius. Hindsight is 20/20, but even then, now that I know the solutions to the game, it makes sense, in a way. There are instances where I can't quite grasp the logic leaps in a sequence of events, but somehow it all seems right. It seems plausible. The same way you might hear a song with a complicated rhyme scheme, and your brain tells you that a rhyme just happened, but you can't immediately figure out how. Even if the game is occasionally obtuse on purpose, I want to give it credit for trying to put the player into the shoes of someone trying to solve an incredible riddle.
"I would like to go play it again now that I just have some sense on how to beat it," my dad tells me. I know how to beat Raiders, now, too. I've seen it done in several videos, but I keep finding myself trying to do it. Knowing it's possible isn't enough. The fact that the ark of the covenant is in a different spot in the mesa field each time, the danger of thieves stealing an instrumental item—those mechanics add up and make each session a little unique.
In 2016 the Atari 2600 library is to video games what silent movies are to film. For the uninitiated, it's tough to know what you're looking at. Games as a medium have moved so far that the dichotomy of good and bad ceases to exist for this era, and instead, it's all charming instead. Ambition, mystery, and sheer weirdness win out over anything else.
Is Pitfall! still better than E.T.? Maybe by a slim margin at the most, because E.T. has all of that history and naivety and legend tied up in it, and Pitfall!, on the other hand, is just pretty good game. That's all. In our modern era, the things that excite me with Atari are things like raw ambition, and Raiders of the Lost Ark is extremely ambitious. It's an earnest attempt to capture the spirit of Indiana Jones in the space of roughly 8KB. I would call it a triumph in that regard.