Launched in 1977 as the Atari VCS, the 2600 console was a pioneer in the gaming industry that introduced an entire generation to a whole new form of entertainment!
Credited with popularizing microprocessor-based hardware, this wood grain gaming machine allowed the fun and excitement of the arcade to be experienced all from the comfort of your living room. Fistful of quarters no longer required!
One of the most popular video game genres to come out of this time was racing!
Far from the gorgeously complex simulators of today, these charming titles expanded the imagination by using the latest in computer technology to convince the very first home-based gamers that a pile of pixelated blocks really could be a Formula 1 car ready to tear up the track. And you know what? It worked!
In the years that followed, the Atari 2600 would be home to a staple of early racing games – many of which have gone on to become some of the most influential titles in history and laid the groundwork for a garage full of modern games ranging from Forza Motorsport to Gran Turismo.
However, which remain the shiniest showroom models of all? Let’s find out right now with a look back at
The Best Racing Games For The Atari 2600
Pole Position (1983)
An evolution of the Namco electro-mechanical racing games of the late 1970s, Pole Position was originally released to arcades in 1982 before being ported over to the Atari 2600 the following year.
Putting players behind the wheel of a high-performance Formula 1 car, the game tasks you with completing a time trial lap before being able to take part in a race at the Fuji Racetrack. After qualifying, players compete against seven other CPU-controlled cars in a championship race that must be completed before time runs out.
Praised by critics and consumers for both its realistic graphics and fast-paced gameplay. Pole Position was not only the first of its kind to include a qualifying lap, but also feature a track based on an actual racing circuit.
The series quickly became the gold standard of the genre, it is still considered by many to be one of the best racing titles to come out of the 8-bit generation.
Designed by Spider Fighter writer Larry Miller and published by Activision in 1983 for use on both the 2600 and ZX Spectrum, Enduro consists of maneuvering a car through a long-distance race known as the National Enduro.
Players must pass a certain number of cars each day, which will then allow them to continue racing into the following day. A total of 200 cars must be passed on Day #1, while all subsequent days of the race can only be completed if the player overtakes 300 cars.
Adding to its difficulty, Enduro also features a rather interesting day/night spectrum, which reduces visibility with the passage of time, and forces players to change up their driving style due to surprise road hazards and changing weather conditions.
Applauded for its strong graphics and intriguing concept, this award-winning title is often considered to be one of the most innovative and complex racing titles to come out of the early 80s.
Grand Prix (1982)
A top-down style Formula 1 racing game designed and programmed by David Crane, Grand Prix sees players racing around four different circuits with varying degrees of difficulty.
Published by Activision, the game is presented as a time trial and uses additional cars and a selection of track hazards as obstacles in the way of crossing the finish line within the allotted period.
Driving over an oil slick will cause your car to lose traction and skid while colliding with other cars will significantly reduce your speed. Once every scale mile, players will also cross a narrow bridge. Colliding with any of the bridge walls will cause your car to stop and force you to slowly gain speed in order to continue racing.
Praised for its graphics and required skill, Grand Prix remained a top title well into 1989 and is still regarded as one of the best racing titles within the 2600 game library.
Programmed by Pitfall writer David Crane, Dragster is one of the very first video games to be developed by Activision.
Focusing on the sport of drag racing, which was enjoying a nice rise in popularity at this time, the goal of the game is to either beat your opponent’s car across the screen or to race against the clock for the best time.
Beloved by gamers for its unique premise and clever execution, it’s a fun and simple racer that set the stage for plenty of other great Activision titles like Enduro and Grand Prix – both of which you’re also going to find on this list! While critics were split on it,
Dragster was such a favorite with fans that over 500,000 copies were sold by the time all was said and done, which, by 1980s gaming standards, ain’t too shabby at all!
Street Racer (1977)
One of the nine original launch titles for the Atari 2600, Street Racer was programmed by Larry Kaplan and offers gamers several different racing scenarios to take part in.
Everything from drag racing to slalom competitions and even dodging oncoming traffic is an option here, and up to four players can compete in a race simultaneously by using the paddle controllers.
Unlike other games on this list, Street Racer wasn’t the biggest hit with critics. Nor has it aged particularly well. As one of the earliest games on the vintage Atari 2600, it suffers from unattractive graphics and a color pallet guaranteed to burn your retinas.
While it may not be able to offer the ingenuity of Enudro or the sexiness of Pole Position, this Atari classic packs plenty of vintage charm along with loads of engaging gameplay that has made it a favorite of retro racing fans for close to 50 years now.
Wrapping Up The List Of Classic Atari 2600 Racing Games
Despite its limited hardware capabilities, the Atari 2600 managed to host a handful of memorable racing experiences that captivated would-be race car drivers during its heyday. These titles laid the foundation for the future of racing games and showcased the creativity and ingenuity of game developers of the time.
While the graphics and mechanics may seem primitive by today’s standards, they still managed to capture all the excitement and they still do to this day. Now with a nostalgic trip down memory lane included.