Like many folks here at AA, I've been playing video games for a long time and had the opportunity to experience Atari games when they were new back in the early 80s. Over the years, I ended playing many of the games, their arcade originals, the computer variants, seeing them in catalogues and reading about them in magazines or books.
For a few years in the 80s, I was in place were Atari cartridges were a rare sight and the only common games that folks would play at home (if they were lucky) were the Spectrum and Timex computers. Consoles were unheard of, except for the few folks like me that came from a different country. So there was this lull in my life, where I knew things were happening but didn't see it myself until I came to Canada. Once here I started collecting and playing Atari games at a great rate. All of the sudden I was finally able to play Pitfall, Jungle Hunt, Berzerk, etc.
And then in recent years as I rekindled my hobby of collecting Atari (and Intellivision) games, I ended discovering some more games. So over the years, there were some games that surprised me how good or fun they were.
At the top of my list of the games that pleasantly surprised me, has to be H.E.R.O. Until about a couple of years ago (!) I had never played it and the main reason that I ended up getting was because I had decided that I would collect every Activision cartridge made for the Atari. It has the traditional Activision traits: sharp graphics, great colour combinations, great sound effects, original game concept, solid controls, and quite much fun. What really surprised me is the variety in the game and how gradually complex the games get. I would probably place H.E.R.O. in my top 10 Atari 2600 games.
Another game that impressed when I first got back in the early 90s, was Pitfall II. I was really impressed on how detailed and varied the caverns are, especially when you compare it to the original. The original was groundbreaking for sure (even more so when you think of the technical implementation), but its sequel is even better. The music was pretty impressed and like many others I ended finding out that it was implemented on a specialty chip which was remarkable. The point that blew me away was the spawning points! That made the game a bit more easier and worthwhile playing, especially when you get really deep into the game.
One of the first games I picked up at the local thrift store in 89 or so, was Solaris. This is such a great and engrossing game. The scrolling is probably the best of any of the Atari games out there and it's such a fun game to play. I love it how when you move around you have some inertia which makes the playing of the game somewhat more realistic. I can easily immerse myself when playing this and lose a good half hour. It would have been hard to imagine this game to exist in 1981 considering the capabilities of the VCS back then. It seems that the designer put all of his experience into this game, to produce such a great game.
Since I owned Decathlon back in the day, it was mostly because I loved the arcade game Hyper Olympics. I spent a lot of my allowance on it. Well, Track&Field is a game that stretches the system and adds great playability. I still enjoy playing Decathlon more but I was very impressed by T&F when I finally bough the game last year. It is the game I was hoping for when I was younger. It has all six events as the arcade, allows you to select your initials and you get to play against the computer.
There was one game I never played in the arcade or recall any of my friends having, and this game was Joust. I have to admit, just looking at the pictures in the catalogue or even seeing it in the arcade, didn't impress me much. What impressed is when I actually got to play it on the Atari 2600. This is such a fun and challenging game. The controls are very tight and the animation/movement of your character is spot-on. The clincher for me was the two-player mode though. That was so well done and it's impressive that the humble console can deal with all the characters on the screen so well!
Finally, as I was trying the complete the collection in regards to some game companies, I stumbled upon another gem a couple of years ago. This game was Sega's (I didn't know they made Atari games) Tapper. This is such a fun game. It has similar traits as Pressure Cooker (which is one of my favourites), but the playability, control and even the simple graphics really surprised me how good this was. It has 3 different screens which add quite a bit of variety and the difficulty is very interesting. This has been one of my go-to games for the last few months.
Honourable mentions go to: Bump'n'Jump, Warlords, Starmaster and Air Raiders.