The Absolute Best Atari Action Games of All Time

Atari 2600 wood veneer version on isolated background

The Absolute Best Atari Action Games of All Time

Atari brand name has changed ownership a couple of times since 1972 and is currently owned by French publisher Atari SA. Before 1982, Atari was the dominant force in the home video game industry. The company aimed to develop arcade games and bring in the ‘golden age’ of arcade games, which lasted from 1979 to 1983. Many iconic arcade games such as Asteroids, Space Invaders and Pac-Man came out during this period. This era would also usher some of the best Atari action games, but most would come out in the 80s.

Atari moved into the home console market as integrated circuits became cheaper. In 1977 Atari would release the Atari Video Computer System (Atari VCS), later known as the Atari 2600. The cartridge-based 2600 came with two paddle controllers, two joystick controllers and a game cartridge. This would initially be Combat but later was changed to Pac-Man. While the 80s would bring several more consoles from Atari, such as the Atari 5200, 7800, XEGS and Lynx, the Atari 2600 remains their most popular and well-known console and is essentially synonymous with Atari itself.

Atari 2600 was the dominant 2nd generation video game console in the US, mainly due to the port of Taito’s Space Invaders arcade game. The following year would, unfortunately, bring what’s now known as the ‘video game crash of 1983’. The market became over-saturated with many low-quality games from unheard-of third-party developers. This led to a greater supply than demand, as companies only produced games for their platforms. Atari lost its dominance and consumer confidence. Its port of Pac-Man received awful press for its poor graphics compared to the arcade version. Add in the rise of affordable home computers, and Atari never recovered.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Retro gamers fondly remember the once-ubiquitous Atari 2600. The brand also invented many genres we know and love today. Without further ado, let’s look at the classics that defined the video game generation.


screenshot of Q-bert
A few challenging elements make Q-bert an interesting puzzle game to play.

Originally a 1982 arcade game, Q*bert/em was published for the Atari 2600 in 1983. While strictly 2D, Q*bert was played with an axonometric perspective, which gives the game a 3D look. Quite the bizarre-looking game, Q*bert takes place on a pyramid of 28 cubes. Players control the strange orange character known as Q*bert. Also, they must hop diagonally between the squares to turn them into a target color.

Initially, the squares will remain their target color, but later on, they’ll change color every time Q*bert steps on them. Coily the snake chases Q*bert, and Ugg and Wrongway, hop along the sides of the cubes, trying to catch you. If that wasn’t bad enough, Slick and Sam are also present. They hop down the pyramid and revert the colors of cubes away from their target color. The game ends if Q*bert touches an enemy, falls off the pyramid or is hit by a bouncing ball.

Q*bert has built such a legacy as part of video game history. Many publications have praised its graphics, colors and unique gameplay, notably Electronic Games and Computer and Video Games. Fans of tricky games, retro games and puzzle games will relish playing Q*bert if they haven’t. It’s easily one of the best Atari action games you can find.

Jungle Hunt

screenshot of Jungle Hunt Atari game
Even though the graphics weren’t great, Jungle Hunt was Taito’s most successful game after Space Invaders.

{amazon link=”B001UYZVUO” title=”Jungle Hunt] was also a 1982 arcade game that came to the Atari 2600 shortly after. Although the graphics were limited, the plot was quite dark. The unnamed hero rescues a woman from cannibals and even from inside a cauldron. In the original version, Jungle King, the character resembles Tarzan. However, in the rebranded Jungle Hunt, the character has more of an explorer feel.

The gameplay has a few variations within its four scenes. Swinging between vines, avoiding crocodiles and dodging boulders are all part of the game. Jungle Hunt was among the first games to also introduce parallax scrolling. This is where a character moves at a different speed to the background. While rather primitive, this did help to add some depth to the game. If you’re looking for the best Atari action games, this is one of the titles to add to your collection.

Mario Bros.

screenshot of Mario Bros Atari 2600 game
Mario Bros is worth playing as one of the best Atari action games.

Ported to the Atari 2600 in 1983, Mario Bros. essentially kicked off the Mario franchise, although it was technically a spin-off from the Donkey Kong series. This legendary game has been ported to various consoles, and was one of the best-selling games of 1983. The premise involves Mario and Luigi investigating the sewers of New York. However, you couldn’t deduce this from playing the game.

The gameplay centers on defeating enemies as they come out of the sewer pipes by jumping on them. Players can only run and jump in this game. Certain elements would become staples of the series, such as flipping koopas onto their backs and spinning coins. The game also introduced the POW block, which knocks all enemies onscreen onto their backs. Once you defeat all enemies, you move on to the next stage.

Space Invaders

screenshot of Space Invaders Atari 2600 game
Armed with your trusty laser cannon, the goal is to shoot and kill all the aliens before they reach the bottom line of the screen.

emSpace Invaders was so popular it’s almost synonymous with arcade games altogether. If you haven’t played it, you’ve probably watched someone else play it or at least heard of it. Retro gamers consider it among the most influential video games ever made.

As a shoot-em-up action game, Space Invaders sets you up against aliens trying to destroy the world. You can earn bonus points by destroying a special flying saucer that occasionally appears. As you vanquish enemies, their movement speed increases along with the game’s music. This adds a sense of panic that was quite rare with games of the time.

While the arcade version got a mixed reception, the Atari 2600 home version had spectacular results. As the first licensed port of an arcade game, Space Invaders helped quadruple sales of the Atari 2600. The game became the first title to sell more than a million cartridges, earning its place among the best Atari action games. The nostalgic experience of the original arcade game isn’t easy to replicate. If you can play this on the Atari 2600, it still comes close to recreating that magic.

Ms Pac-Man

Screenshot of MS-Pac Man game
Easily one of the most influential series ever, Ms Pac-Man has received some accolades. 

Her male counterpart is more familiar and arguably more successful, but when it came to the Atari 2600, this wasn’t the case. While being a big seller, the port of the original Pac-Man arcade game was universally panned by critics due to its subpar graphics. It wasn’t until the release of Ms Pac-Man that the franchise would see great success on a home console. Maybe the adage got it wrong. Perhaps behind every great man, there’s an even greater woman. Ms Pac-Man is credited with being the first female protagonist in a video game.

Most will be familiar with the gameplay mechanics; travel around a maze, swallow up the yellow dots and avoid the ghosts. Several updates to the original gameplay followed, including more visible walls, additional warp tunnels and semi-random ghost movement. As well as this, the graphics were slightly superior to Pac-Man.

Entertainment Weekly called Ms Pac-Man one of the top ten games for the Atari 2600, while Time considered it the 5th best video game of all time in 2016. As one of the games that helped define a generation, and many gamers’ childhoods, Ms Pac-Man is certainly one of the best Atari action games.

Donkey Kong

screenshot of Donkey Kong Atari 2600 game
As the stages progress, the difficulty increases, with obstacles speeding up and Donkey Kong throwing barrels at you faster.

Not only was this the first game in the emDonkey Kong series, this 1982 title was also Mario’s first appearance in a video game. It was the first game with a story told on screen and the first with the damsel in distress storyline. In Donkey Kong, the player controls Mario (Jumpman) as he tries to rescue his girlfriend from Donkey Kong. Interestingly, his girlfriend was originally known as Lady and then as Pauline. Princess Peach wouldn’t debut as Mario’s romantic interest until the 1985 release of Super Mario Bros.

Donkey Kong involves traveling vertically up platforms using ladders and jumping, avoiding gaps and obstacles. Eventually, the character reaches the top and rescues Pauline. You receive bonus points for jumping over obstacles, including the barrels Donkey Kong throws, destroying objects with a hammer, collecting items and completing a stage in good time.

A prime example of simple yet completely addictive gameplay, Donkey Kong was successful worldwide upon release. It was one of the Atari 2600’s best-selling titles. Counting all the versions, Donkey Kong did generate approximately $4.4 billion in revenue as of 2015. This is hugely impressive, considering its age and relative simplicity. As a truly iconic game, Donkey Kong needs to be in your collection if you’re after the best Atari action games.


screenshot of Pitfall Atari 2600 game
Treasures consist of silver and gold bars, money and diamond rings, all offering different points.

Even though many legendary franchises emerged during this era, emPitfall! had huge success. Many consider it one of the first platformer games. It was the best-selling video game for the Atari 2600 from 1982 to early 1983 and was the top video game on the Billboard charts for over a year. There isn’t much story to go on, but the game didn’t exactly need it to be wildly popular.

Just like with many arcade games, Pitfall! had a time limit, namely 20 minutes. During this, the player controls Pitfall Harry as he tries to collect 32 treasures, jumping over pits and avoiding obstacles such as logs, fire, and all manner of jungle critters, from crocodiles to scorpions and snakes. There’s even an underground tunnel under each screen, accessible by ladders or falling down a hole. These allow the player to move screens quickly to collect more treasures. However, sometimes they are blocked off, which requires backtracking.

The Atari 2600 version of Pitfall! received the ‘Best Adventure Video Game’ award at the 4th annual Arkie Awards. Renowned for its intense, fast-paced platforming action, Pitfall! broke ground in this genre. The game did influence many of the 8-bit and 16-bit titles that would come afterward. Gamers filling out their retro collection can’t pass up this game. It rightly sits at the top of the best Atari action games list.

Frequently Asked Questions

When did the Atari 2600 come out?

The Atari 2600 came out in September 1977 in North America.

What was the first Atari 2600 action game released?

The first Atari 2600 action game was Air-Sea Battle, launched with the console in 1977.

What was the last Atari 2600 action game released?

The last Atari 2600 action game was Fatal Run, released in 1990.

Which was the best Atari 2600 action game?

The Atari 2600 was practically known for pioneering the platforming genre, so many of its titles could be considered groundbreaking action games. However, Mario Bros, Donkey Kong and Pitfall! are regularly cited as standout titles, along with the Pac-Man series. Q*bert is another iconic title, but some other classics include Crystal Castles, Frogger and Dig Dug. Definitely try these games out if you can.

Which Atari 2600 action game sold the most units?

The best-selling Atari 2600 action game was Pac-Man, selling 8 million units.

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