The Games That Really Ruined The Atari 2600
It's common knowledge to those who lived through the early 1980s part of videogame history that the ruin of the American videogame market was mostly caused by the glut of Atari 2600 videogame cartridges being released -- in fact, too many games than could meet the demand for them.  While this in itself wasn't bad, what made it bad was that a good deal of those games were simply bad games -- bad graphics, bad sound, bad gameplay, bad everything.  The badness got to the point where very few people would even buy the games even when they started getting discounted to below the $20 mark at most stores.  The "quality control" licensing system that came into effect when Nintendo came to revitalize the dead game market in the mid-to-late 1980s just simply didn't exist with any of the parent game console companies of the early 1980s.  When Activision, a third-party game company that formed when several former Atari programmers decided to break away from Atari when they realized they weren't getting any royalties or even name recognition from the games they programmed, won their right to exist after Atari's attempted lawsuit to shut down the company for making Atari 2600 games outside their control, it opened up a gate that allowed more companies to develop games for the Atari 2600 -- even those that produced other game systems that competed with Atari's.  Of course, nobody then had the foresight of seeing how this opened gate of third-party support would also bring in companies whose only desire was to make bucks from games first and to make games for playing as an afterthought.
While it's easy to blame the third-party game companies for allowing the market to crash by putting profits before gameplay in their marketing strategies, Atari was the main instigator of the whole mess.  Even worse, Atari contributed to the mess of bad games by promising products that raised home gamers' expectations and then letting them down when the resulting product delivered little or nothing compared to those expectations.  The following games listed are prime examples of what Atari offered people that didn't come through when they were released:
Atari 2600 Pac-Man box design1. Pac-Man -- By 1981, the Atari 2600 enjoyed the distinction of being "the system that brought arcade games home", with games like Asteroids, Missile Command, and Space Invaders being the major sellers that enjoyed as much popularity at home as did their arcade counterparts in the same time period, despite the differences that existed between the arcade versions and the Atari versions of these games.   The company thought they could do no wrong, and by early 1982, when Atari announced that a home version of the popular arcade game Pac-Man was coming for the Atari 2600, home gamers couldn't wait to get their hands on it.  To celebrate its release, Atari had designated a "Pac-Man day" in April 1982 where Pac-Man and his fellow ghost enemy Blinky appeared in public in various major cities, passing out player guides for the arcade Pac-Man game and even visiting area hospitals to greet sick children.
Atari 2600 Pac-Man game screenWhen this was all over and people bought copies of 2600 Pac-Man, however, things weren't all that happy.  The game only managed to capture the core concept of the coin-op original, but everything else attached to it was left out.  The maze was a boring array of rectangular passageways, all yellow with a blue background; the ghosts were all one color and flashed a lot onscreen, turning a vague shade of blue when the power pellets were eaten; Pac-Man himself didn't move as smoothly as he did in the arcade; the various bonus items that appeared below the ghost box were replaced by a rectangular object called a "vitamin" that only awarded 100 points when eaten; the sound effects included an annoying series of dings and boops, totally unlike the chomping and gulping sounds of its inspiration.  If that wasn't enough, even though the 2600 Pac-Man did include a two-player option, it didn't offer enough game variations, let alone even good ones like those in Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Missile Command -- there was just simply four speed levels for the ghosts and two for Pac-Man, plus the difficulty switches that controlled how long the monsters stayed blue when a power pellet was eaten.
Magnavox's K.C. Munchkin game screenMore salt thrown into the wounds created by this inferior version of Pac-Man would be that before Pac-Man came out for the 2600, a similar game called K.C. Munchkin was released for the Odyssey 2 at the tail end of 1981.  While it bore vague similarities to the arcade game that inspired it -- having a sparse collection of moving dots to eat as well as multiple, editable, and even invisible mazes -- K.C. Munchkin was deemed too close to imitating Pac-Man to the point where a legal lawsuit by Atari (who held the home game rights to Pac-Man) drove the Odyssey 2 game off the market.  Also, when 1982 came to a close, Atari brought forth the 5200 system and its version of Pac-Man which, despite its horizontal orientation of the game screen, was much closer to the coin-op original than was the 2600 version.  Perhaps the biggest insult to injury was that, though through its Atarisoft division they would develop home versions of various arcade games for the various personal computer systems of the early 1980s as well as for the ColecoVision and Intellivision, Pac-Man showed up for the Intellivision, but the ColecoVision version was never released and remained undiscovered until the time of Classic Gaming Expo of 2002.  Given the excellent quality of this unearthed gem of a game, one could almost imagine the feeling ColecoVision owners (some of whom also were Atari 2600 owners) had of being shafted yet again by Atari at the time this would have entered the market.
Fortunately, Atari learned enough of a lesson from this botched release of Pac-Man that, by early 1983, Ms. Pac-Man made its debut on the 2600, and players noted with much surprise and delight the things that made Ms. Pac-Man fun to play in the arcades was preserved with very few flaws on the Atari home version.  Of course, it would still be years before someone would hack this game into Pac-Man Arcade, and another group of programmers who formed Ebivision would work on a belated Pac-Man clone of their own called Pesco, interestingly based off on a more improved home version of its predecessor.
Atari 2600 E.T. box design2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial -- 1982 was a year when movie licenses really began to migrate their way over into being arcade and home videogame titles.  Walt Disney's Tron, which in itself was a movie about videogames, appeared in the arcades as two separate videogames (the other game, Discs Of Tron, coming out a year later) as well as on the Intellivision and the Atari 2600.  Parker Brothers, the board game company, entered into the videogame market with Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back for the Atari 2600, which played like Defender using Imperial Walkers and Snowspeeders in place of the usual aliens and ships.  And Atari, through its former parent company Warner Communications, scored licenses to develop games based on two popular movies of the time, Lucasfilm's Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Atari 2600 E.T. game screenWhile E.T. was a pretty good movie to watch -- featuring the story of a young boy befriending an abandoned alien being who, with the boy's help, salvages various household parts to construct a "phone" with which to call his people while avoiding being discovered and studied by a bunch of government agents and scientists -- one can't help but wonder if this movie really had anything that could be transformed into a videogame experience.  The people at Atari thought it did, and so the game was made just in time for parents to buy it at Christmastime 1982.  Of course, in order to get the game out by that time, programmer Howard Scott Warshaw was given only five weeks to fully program the game, leaving very little time for playtesting or any kind of "quality assurance".  The end result was a game where, for the most part, the player-character kept falling into pits that he needed to levitate his way out of time and again, and for children and beginners this meant way too many times.  This problem is not helped by one of the characters, the government agent that appears in Game 1, who comes along to cause our little alien avatar trouble by stealing objects such as the "phone" parts from him.  The overall result for Atari was a lot of unsold E.T. cartridges that got crushed and dumped into a New Mexico landfill and millions of dollars wasted, something that didn't sit very well with Warner.
Interestingly, this didn't stop Atari from creating more videogames based on movies -- its arcade division, which eventually broke away from the home videogame and computer division which was sold to Jack and Sam Tramiel who were from Commodore Business Machines, produced the Star Wars arcade game that was successful both in the arcades and in the homes once Parker Brothers got the rights to translate the game for home game use.  It didn't stop 20th Century Fox from having a shot at producing games based on their movies, which included the rather questionable Porky's for the 2600.  Neither did it stop other companies from doing the same, even up to this day when another company by the name of Atari brought forth Enter The Matrix as a cross-ported home game.  However, as far as bad movie-to-game translations go, E.T. was among the worst of the lot and Atari 2600 owners had to deal with it.
Atari 2600 Swordquest: Earthworld box design3. The Swordquest series -- Another Atari 2600 game that became great in the early 1980s was Atari's own Adventure, which was loosely based on the TSR Games' Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game series.  Though rather primitive compared to its inspiration, Adventure marked a first as far as a home videogame that would span multiple interconnected screens and would have objects the player would use, that along the way would be switched with other objects, to complete the quest.  Another reason for its fame was that its programmer Warren Robinett left a secret room with his name in it that players could discover by finding a certain object hidden in one of the many rooms and bringing it to another place where the object would allow him access into that secret room.  Two other adventure-style games, Superman and Haunted House, would be released shortly thereafter.
Atari 2600 Swordquest: Earthworld title screenHowever, with competing systems like the Intellivision and the Odyssey 2 churning out much more advanced adventure-style games in the vein of Dungeons & Dragons -- Mattel having acquired the license from TSR Games to develop games based on and using the role-playing game title, and Magnavox using a mix of videogame and board game elements for their Quest For The Rings -- Atari was hard-pressed to come up with a suitable replacement for their increasingly antiquated Adventure game.  Originally, as far as is known, Atari planned to do a sequel of sorts to Adventure in 1982; then later in the year, that plan was modified so that the follow-up game would now be a series in itself -- the Swordquest series that would span four worlds, each on four different cartridges, solving puzzles that would unlock clues contained within the pack-in comics developed by DC Comics (which were pretty good had they been sold as stand-alone stories) for finishing the game and reaching its goal.  Moreover, to further whet the appetites of serious gamers, each game in the series would have a playoff contest where the winner of that contest would be awarded a valuable prize related to the game itself -- a talisman necklace for Earthworld, a chalice for Fireworld, a crown for Waterworld, and a Philosopher's Stone for Airworld -- with the final ultimate playoff contest rewarding a valuable sword.  All of the prizes were created by Franklin Mint, at that time a company also owned by Warner.
Atari 2600 Swordquest: Fireworld game screenAs great as all of this has sounded, things about this game series started turning bad from the first day players got Earthworld, the first game of the series.  To call that or any part of the series an "adventure game", let alone a "game", was an abuse of the term.  All it really contained was a player-character that ran around from room to room, finding and switching around objects contained within the rooms, and playing various mini-games in order to access others.  None of this really sat well with gamers who hoped to see a game more along the lines of what was being offered by Mattel and Magnavox being made for the 2600 (truth to tell, Mattel was even in the process of porting their Intellivision Dungeons & Dragons games for that system).
While the perceived lack of defined goals in the game, as well as the perceived lack of anything that would deem these games an "adventure game", deterred casual gamers from considering getting or continue playing them, the Swordquest series games at the very least had some hardcore gamers who attended the playoff contests to win the assigned prizes of the first two games.  But then came the next problem: Warner was selling off the computer and videogame division of Atari to the Tramiels, who then sought to streamline the company by eliminating the excessive spending surrounding its products.  The Swordquest series, unfortunately, became a casualty in this streamlining; indeed, at the point the Tramiel takeover happened, the third game Waterworld was being sold as an Atari Game Club exclusive title, which meant very few people would see it on retail shelves.  The playoff contest for Waterworld took place, though with cash prizes of lesser value than the crown were rewarded instead.  By the end of 1984, however, nothing more was done in the Swordquest gaming series; the Airworld game was cancelled, and whatever prizes that would have been awarded in that game's contest and the final playoff contest reportedly became the property of the Tramiels.  DC Comics never got to create the pack-in comic that would have been included with the final game in the series.
About two decades later, projects concerning both the final installment of the Swordquest series and an actual sequel to the Adventure game have been in the works, though this time for the Atari 5200.  While Swordquest: Airworld ended up being stuck in "development hell", the Adventure II game was eventually released to critical acclaim at AtariAge, even if the game itself seems to repeat elements of the original game using advanced-style graphics. In 2017, the Swordquest series itself has been resurrected in comic book form to tell a different story related to the original video game saga, about the quest for the unreleased Airworld game.

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