The vast majority of the early VCS games covered so far were games that the developers were personally interested in putting together. Whether these were ports of popular arcade games, conversions of tabletop timewasters, or novel concepts, marketing had largely stayed out of the way on what games came along and focused on selling them. But there were exceptions, even at this stage, of which Brain Games is one.

The crux of the marketing department’s request involves the VCS’s mix of controllers. You’ve got the two major ones that were packed in with the console itself from the get go: the joystick and the paddle controllers. The vast majority of the games on the platform use the joystick, which is surprisingly flexible for having one button. A smaller number use the paddle controller, which is much more limited in the types of games that it excels at; developer Larry Kaplan noted that marketing specifically requested that the programmers create games that use the paddles to ensure that users were still getting use out of them, which is why he put together Street Racer for the VCS’s 1977 lineup. The VCS also hosted two other controller types though: The driving controller, used in the system’s heyday with only Indy 500; and the keyboard controller.

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We’ve seen a slow progression of video game sports through the 1970s up to this point, both on the VCS and off of it. Pong was a deeply simplified version of ping pong, and all the other sports games on the original Magnavox Odyssey were functionally the same basic thing. The same holds true for a number of early arcade sports renditions: hockey becomes Pong with a specific goal area, Volleyball and Basketball become vertically oriented versions of Pong, and so on. Racing games got to become their own genre pretty early on, however, and baseball followed shortly thereafter. 1978 would prove to be a watershed moment for one particular sport, however, as a full, non-Pong version of Basketball made its debut on the Atari VCS.

Coincidentally release at the same time as another basketball game that came out alongside the Magnavox Odyssey2 in 1978, Atari’s VCS version of the sport is seemingly the first commercial attempt at the game to really try and translate the major appeal of basketball into a video game. Creator Alan Miller has noted that he played on his high school basketball team, and as the eldest of six kids had spent a lot of time in his youth coming up with games for everyone to play; it seems likely that he wanted to try and translate a sport he enjoyed to the VCS, and he largely succeeded.

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This game is something of a treat for these early years of the VCS. Not only is it an original game concept, it’s actually a pretty nifty title in its own right. Flag Capture doesn’t exactly have name cachet like Combat or Outlaw, and arguably it’s one of the more overlooked non-sports games from the console’s first few years, but it’s absolutely a treasure.

Flag Capture, released as simply “Capture” by Sears, is the first game that developer Jim Huether wrote for Atari. In interviews, Huether has said that he originally wanted to port the board game Stratego to the console. For the unfamiliar, Stratego is a two player game where each side sets up a field of soldiers and bombs, but their opponent has no idea which is in which space (and vice versa). You simply have to approach with one of your pieces and attack; if it’s a soldier, whoever has the higher rank will win the battle (with the exception of the spy, who can kill anyone he attacks first). If someone other than a miner lands on a bomb, they are removed from the board, otherwise the bomb is removed; it carries on like this until someone finds their opponent’s flag piece. This is a lot of complexity to ask from a 2k Atari VCS cartridge and on a single screen, so rather than try to adapt Stratego in its entirety, Huether boiled it down to the underlying idea behind the game: finding a flag before your opponent.

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Coming as it did at the tail end of westerns’ day in the sun, the old American west might not be the most popular setting in video games, but it has popped up a few times over the years, from Wild Gunman to Sunset Riders up to the recent Red Dead Redemption games. But if you want to see an early example of a video game western, then Outlaw has you covered.

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