While we think of survival games as a uniquely 21st-century invention, they date back to the start of video gaming itself, and there are some great Atari survival games. Even though it went by different names before the official emergence of the survival genre in the 1990s, the survival game was still very much alive.
From sports games to action-adventure games and even racing games, survival games were popping up everywhere disguised as established genres. Looking at the absolute best Atari survival games of all time, it’s clear to see the genre was already getting its start way back in the early 1970s.
Let’s take a look at the history of survival games and how the genre got to where it is today. From there, we can run through the seven best Atari survival games of all time.
Even with the limited number of Atari games in comparison to the thousands of games that hit modern-day consoles, there are plenty of great options to choose from. The choice wasn’t easy, by any means, but these seven titles represent the very best Atari survival games of all time.
History of Survival Games
Survival games often fall under the categorization of action-adventure games. At this point, they really deserve a categorization of their own. Typically centered on a player stranded or abandoned on their own, survival games task players with working tirelessly against elements and assailants in order to survive.
Some have open worlds, others don’t — regardless, you can be certain most survival games involve managing resources and finding or creating items to use in defeating the bad guys.
With the release of Minecraft — first in beta back in 2009, then in a wide cross-console rollout from 2012 on — the survival video game subgenre boomed like never before. It’s sold around 240 million copies in the years since its launch, and it only continues to grow.
The game has been so incredibly popular, you wouldn’t be wrong for thinking Minecraft effectively initiated the survival genre itself. This isn’t actually the truth, however. As a matter of fact, survival games have a history that dates back to the beginning of video games themselves.
Before there was a designated survival game genre, you could see survival elements in various established genres such as sports, action, and beyond. The simple objective of survival games — stay alive for as long as you can — could accurately describe a number of games across countless subgenres.
Still, it wasn’t until the release of the first survival game UnReal World (1992) that the definition of “survival game” took shape. With this, several earlier de facto survival games could be identified (such as the best Atari survival games below, all but one of which pre-date UnReal World).
Modern Day Survival Games
As video gaming became more advanced near the turn of the century, survival games evolved in turn. From the establishment of survival subgenres, such as survival horror, to the improvements to graphics and scope of existing survival games, the genre truly came into its own as the 1900s transitioned to the 2000s.
SOS (1993) for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Resident Evil (1996) for the PlayStation are particularly excellent highlights from this point in the survival game’s history. The late 1990s and early 2000s took the survival game from its arcade origins and helped transform it into the immersive, complex genre as we know and love it today.
From the Game Boy‘s Survival Kids (1999) to the PlayStation 2’s Disaster Report (2002), survival games pushed the genre to its limits by adding unique spins to the classic survival setup. Then, of course, came Minecraft. First released on PC in a beta phase back in 2009, the game is the epitome of what makes survival games so great. Naturally, it set the stage for the next decade-plus of survival games.
Terraria (2011), No Man’s Sky (2016), PUBG: Battlegrounds (2016), Ark: Survival Evolved (2017)… In the 2010s, the survival game genre was having a real moment (and continues to have one still to this day). It’s undoubtedly one of the most profitable and highly saturated genres in modern-day video gaming.
Unsurprisingly, survival games are estimated to have brought in nearly half a billion dollars in the first half of 2017 alone — and it’s only grown from there in the last five years. There’s no doubt we have the best Atari survival games to thank for the genre’s continued success.
7. Robinson’s Requiem (1994)
The only game on this list of the best Atari survival games of all time to officially come out after the survival genre was defined in the early 1990s, Robinson’s Requiem makes for one of the greatest of its genre to ever hit the iconic console brand.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the game follows its main character as he attempts to escape a hostile planet and faces off against various threats in an effort to make it out alive. It was referred to as mind-blowing at the time, probably due to the fact that the survival genre was just beginning to officially stretch its legs.
|Available Platforms||3DO Interactive Multiplayer, Atari Jaguar, DOS, Atari ST, Classic Mac OS, AmigaOS |
(originally published exclusively for the Atari ST, Atari Falcon, and Amiga)
6. Pong (1975)
Ah, Pong. The game that started it all: the first hit video game, the first step toward the video game industry as we know it, as well as one of the very first arcade games. And, as it turns out, one of the very earliest (and very best) instances of an Atari survival game.
Released in arcade form in 1972 before being ported to the Atari in 1975, Pong and its simple gameplay make for a perfect example of what makes a great survival game. Keep the ball going for as long as possible by controlling your player’s paddle. That’s really all there is to it.
|Available Platforms||Arcade, Atari, et al.|
5. Survival Island (1982)
For a game called Survival Island, it might be surprising to learn that a portion of Survival Island actually takes place in the ocean leading up to the titular island itself. The game centers on the shipwrecked main character as he maneuvers his way around obstacles while he paddles, runs, and searches his way toward a hidden temple. While the survival genre would not be officially established for almost a decade, Survival Island is no less one of the best Atari survival games ever made.
|Available Platforms||Atari 2600|
4. Survival Run (1983)
One of two Atari games released by the Milton Bradley Company, Survival Run was an early entry into the survival game genre that was initially marketed as a shoot-em-up game. It’s become something of a rarity in the decades since its release, but not for the fun survival gameplay.
The real draw is its unique Cosmic Commander Controller attachment, which replaces the Atari joystick with a big, Battleship-looking controller that plugged right into the Atari. It’s a collector’s item today, but there are still plenty of copies and controllers floating around out there for a pretty penny.
|Publisher||Milton Bradley Company|
|Available Platforms||Atari 2600|
|Developer||Milton Bradley Company|
3. Haunted House (1982)
Serving as one of the best Atari survival games of all time and one of the first entries in the survival horror subgenre to boot, Haunted House places the player in a cursed mansion and sends them off in search of three pieces of a broken urn.
The objective is to recover all the pieces and escape the titular haunted house without being killed by the evil spirits that haunt the place. It hit the Atari 2600 in February of 1982, and the survival game subgenre was never the same. Its influence can be felt in Resident Evil and beyond.
|Available Platforms||Atari 2600|
|Release Date||February 1982|
2. Space Invaders (1980)
Here’s something you might not have known: the success of Space Invaders on the Atari 2600 managed to quadruple sales of the 2600 itself. Eager gamers who loved playing the game in arcades since 1978 clamored at the opportunity to play it at home, as well.
And it’s for a good reason, too. Space Invaders remains one of the most instantly recognizable and seriously addicting early survival games. Not to mention its status as one of the best Atari survival games of all time. It’s just barely edged out of the top spot by the following game.
|Available Platforms||Arcade, Atari 8-bit family, Atari 2600, Atari 5200, SG-1000, NES, mobile|
|Mode(s)||Single player, multiplayer|
|Release Date||March 10th, 1980|
1. Pac-Man (1982)
Frequently referred to as one of the best video games of all time, Pac-Man also holds the honor of being the best of the best Atari survival games ever. It was initially released in arcade form in 1980 before being ported to the Atari 2600 in 1982.
Pac-Man arrived on the console with a whole bunch of hype behind it already. Naturally, its success on the Atari was a given. (Just think about how popular it was in arcade form for two years prior!) Pac-Man remains the blueprint for simple survival video games. Its iconic main character, dastardly ghosts, and helpful Power Pellets are still relevant 40 years later.
|Available Platforms||Arcade, Atari 2600, PC, NES, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Game Boy, Game Gear, Neo Geo Mobile, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 4|