Nick Montfort at Grand Text Auto has posted a short list of Atari 2600 games that are worth studying, or that are representative of some aspect of early video gaming. He also gives his thoughts on some of the reasons why early video games are worth looking at, which come close to my own. When you take away the layers of production in modern games — the cinematic camera angles, the orchestral music, the bump-mapped 1024 textures — you’re left with little more than raw gameplay. If you’re looking to draw parallels between games and other media, you’ll lose a lot, but if you’re looking to isolate and examine various rules and mechanics of games, it can be very useful (unless you’re looking at 3D mechanics). It’s why I always use Space Invaders instead of Grand Theft Auto as an example of emergent gameplay (ask me about it sometime if you feel like being bored).
And because I am congenitally unable to resist a list-making exercise, here are a few 2600 games that I think are interesting, but aren’t on Nick’s list:
Megamania! I think this is a better evolution of the slide-and-shoot mechanic than Demon Attack, although I suspect it’s a matter of personal taste more than anything. Where Demon Attack’s aliens move in an unpredictable and annoying random walk, Megamania’s are fixed in repeating patterns. Those patterns, though, bob and weave in a fashion that’s both pleasing to watch and hard to track, presaging aesthetic shmups like Ikaruga.
Kaboom! Takes the slide-and-shoot mechanic and turns it completely on its head. You can’t shoot at all, and instead of dodging the enemy’s missiles, you need to catch them.
Mountain King In the same way that Pitfall presaged the linearly-scrolling adventure platformer (i.e., Super Mario Bros.), this is an early example of games that involve exploring a large, continuous, two-dimensional world (i.e., Metroid). It’s also a prime example of how an arbitrary time limit can completely wreck an otherwise reasonable game.
Pooyan Actually, this game doesn’t illustrate any interesting gameplay mechanics (despite being fairly unique), and the 2600 port is pretty bare-bones. I just like to say the word “pooyan” out loud.