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5 best Atari 2600 games and how to play them now

The Atari VCS / 2600 was the first main home games console and effectively created the games industry as we know it. Here are our five favourite games for it.

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For many 1970s kids, the Atari 2600 was their first real taste of video games at home. It was hugely expensive at the time though – the cartridges relatively more so – so not everyone had one. Indeed, we were lucky to own an Atari Video Computer System (as it was originally called) from around 1981 and that meant school friends often spent time around ours playing the small selection of games we managed to get our hands on.

That meant we didn’t get to see the vast library of titles that ended up being released for the ground-breaking console. However, the ones we did play, we played to their death. And they’ve remained lodged in our memories.

Here then are our five favourite Atari VCS / 2600 retro games. There were several others that could have easily made this list (Defender and Asteroids, for starters), but these are the ones that left the most lasting impression.


Released: 1979

The oldest game on our list, which also, admittedly, looks it, Superman is actually a reasonably complex action-adventure. You must repair a bridge destroyed by Lex Luthor and collect him and his henchmen to take them to jail, all of which being scattered across different screens.

You can also be turned back into Clark Kent through contact with Kryptonite, and only finding Lois Lane will revert you to Superman. Then there’s the hugely annoying helicopter that steals the bits of bridge you’ve already found and placed. It looks simple, but is far from it – much like most of the best Atari games of the era.

Space Invaders

Released: 1980

One of the greatest arcade machines made for an amazing home game, with this conversion being one of our favourites of all time. Not only does it nail the basics right – including the sense of urgency as the invaders near the bottom of the screen, later levels get truly insane.

The game even has invisible invader levels, where you can only tell where they are by the speed of the audio. We can’t express in words exactly how addicted we were to Space Invaders on the VCS.

Missile Command

Released: 1980

Naturally, there were plenty of Atari arcade adaptations released for the company’s home games machine, but it was Missile Command that topped the list for us, thanks to its simplicity.

It may have lacked the graphical flourish of even the coin-op, and the gameplay was trimmed back a bit – with only one base to fire from. However, that turned out to be to its benefit as it made it more controllable with a joystick rather than the arcade machine’s trackball.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Released: 1982

One of several big movie licences, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was the best for us. It focuses entirely on the AT-AT Walker scene, as they head to destroy the Rebel base on Hoth.

You control Luke Skywalker’s snowspeeder in this sideways scrolling shoot-em-up that bears a slight resemblance to Defender. But the main difference is that you only have the enormous AT-ATs to defeat. It wasn’t easy neither.

River Raid

Released: 1982

We’ve chosen another shooter as our last pick, with River Raid being one of the first Activision games we owned (we never managed to get Pitfall). In many ways it inspired most vertical shoot-em-ups from the early 80s and on, as you fly up the screen, blasting the enemy depots, helicopters and the like.

One really innovative feature for the time was fuel points, which you had to travel over to refuel your plane. Otherwise, you would crash if you ran out. This gave you something else to be aware of as you played. And that’s one of the main reasons it made the list.

How to play Atari 2600 games today

Considering its age, it’s not exactly tough nor memory intensive to emulate Atari VCS / 2600 games.

One emulator we like is Stella, which is available for Windows, macOS, and Raspberry Pi (among a few other platforms). There are also thousands of ROMs to play through it, available from several sources.

Our favourite website for them though is Atari Mania, which has almost 10,000 games to download for the Atari 2600 alone. We can’t stress enough that you must own the original first though.

If you don’t want to go down the emulator route, there are other ways to get your hands on some of the true classics of the 70s/80s. For example, there are plenty of mini consoles in the Atari Flashback series, including the Atari Flashback Gold which includes 130 games and two paddles, as well as the original style controllers.

Atari Flashback Gold – 50th Anniversary Console

This mini console has 130 classic Atari games preinstalled and comes with original-style controllers and two paddles. Among the games are three of our top five – Space Invaders, Missile Command, and River Raid.

One last way to play the games we’ve chosen, plus thousands of other Atari 2600 / VCS games, is through a browser. Javatari is a browser emulator and you can play (or download) them through the direct links below.

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Rik Henderson
Rik Henderson
Rik is a professional journalist with more than 35 years experience across online, magazines and television broadcasting. As well as the creator of GamesLifer, he is the News Editor of, while his previous work includes stints as editor and group editor on several monthlies and weeklies covering video games and technology. He has also been a series producer on daily and weekly TV shows, and has presented and guested on multiple TV series too, including GamesMaster, Games World, Game Over, Virtual World of Sport, Live TV, Greatest Christmas TV Ads, and The Apprentice.