the release of the Atari keyboard controllers in the fall of 1978 necessitated the development of games that actually use them. Atari’s developers were in need of game ideas that could play to the keyboards’ strengths, and as such turned primarily to existing mental puzzles and computer programs. We saw this last time with Larry Kaplan’s Brain Games, a collection of basic memory and mathematic games, and we’ll see it again next time with Hunt & Score. But for now, we’ve got Codebreaker, which is the VCS rendition of a pair of logic puzzle games with fuzzy origins; one dates back at least to the early 1900s and the other to around the 1500s in its current form, but is probably really a variant of a number game that goes back to the earliest days of human civilization.

The original version of the first game on this cart is known as Bulls and Cows for reasons I haven’t quite managed to put together. In that rendition, one player comes up with a secret, four-digit number and the other must try and guess it in as few turns as possible. After the second player gives their guess, the first player lets them know how close it is by telling them the number of cows – the number of digits that are correct but in the wrong position – and the number of bulls – the number of correct digits in the right spot. If the second player gets four bulls, they win the game. The game is probably better known under the name Mastermind, a codebreaking game using colored pegs instead of numbers that was first published commercially in 1971 by Invicta Games.

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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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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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I don’t think it’s a secret that baseball, as a sport, doesn’t lend itself well to early video game consoles. One team is always going to have nine players on the field, while the other is dealing with their batter, along with any base runners they might have on the field at the moment. Meanwhile, the consoles in question typically are limited in resolution, controller input options, and memory. But that didn’t stop programmers and developers from trying their best to translate the popular sport to the video game machines of the day, and eventually they succeeded in making some really good renditions of America’s pasttime. Unfortunately, Atari’s Home Run, released by Sears as simply Baseball, is more of an iterative step on that journey rather than one of the benchmarks.

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Ask someone what they know about Tron, and odds that if they know it at all, it’s probably because of the light cycle sequence. In it, cyclists create walls of light behind them as they move, trying to trap their opponent and cause them to crash. As it happens, that idea didn’t originate with Disney, but dates back to the 1976 Gremlin arcade game Blockade. And as we’ll see, Blockade would find itself cloned time and again, including by Atari for the VCS with Surround.

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From early on, video games have been translating the games people play in the physical realm to the digital. Sometimes this manifests as a sport, like racing cars, but it can also take the shape of something you might play in everyday life. One of the earliest computer games was a 1954 computer conversion of blackjack done on an IBM-701 by Los Alamos engineers to break down the best ways to play the game, and it would prove to be a popular target for computer programs in the 1960s and 70s, with early renditions such as David Frailey’s September 1967 version for DEC’s PDP computer line, and another written in BASIC that was included in David Ahl’s seminal book, 101 BASIC Computer Games.  With this kind of background, it’s not terribly surprising that the card game was routinely among the earliest releases on the first programmable consoles, either.

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When the Atari VCS launched in 1977, there were two racing games that went out alongside it. Indy 500 is almost without question the better of the two, and features some of the best racing action on the platform in its lengthy life. 

The overhead perspective and game mechanics seen in Indy 500 were pioneered by Atari in its March 1974 single-player arcade game Gran Trak 10, the company’s first true racing game. Gran Trak 10 was inspired by a pen-and-paper game called Racetrack published in the January 1973 edition of Scientific American. Developer Steve Mayer felt like the calculations used in that game to determine the movement of cars along a track could be used in a video game. Larry Emmons did the circuit design, and eventually Ron Milner came on board to help them finish the game, which included several firsts for arcade games: it’s the first game to use a ROM chip to store sprite data rather than hard-coding characters on the board. It’s the first game to use a dedicated monitor rather than repurposing a television, and it’s the first game to use interlaced video for its display. Essentially, the game will draw all the odd-numbered scanlines first and then circle back around for the even-numbered scanlines, which allowed for higher resolution and smoother animation. Despite all these innovations, Gran Trak 10’s production was a debacle, with manufacturing problems, pricing problems and expensive parts. The issues were great enough that even though the game sold around 10,000 units, Atari still took a hit in 1974 that put them $600,000 in the red. The game was nevertheless reportedly successful for arcade operators.

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