Saturday, January 14, 2012

Cover to Cover: Activision Atari 2600 1989 Catalog (cover-p.1)

Most retro gamers will remember that Activision (of present-day Call of Duty fame) got its start when ace Atari 2600 programmers Larry Kaplan, David Crane, Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead left Atari to start their own company.  Activision was one of the few first-wave videogame publishers to survive the mid-80s industry crash, and apparently old loyalties died hard, as Activision was still publishing and distributing games for the Atari 2600 and 7800 as late as 1989.  The 2600 was old news in the Nintendo Entertainment System era, but Atari fans certainly couldn't blame a lack of software for the system's eventual demise.

So our latest Cover to Cover series is going to page through Activision's 1989 catalog, packaged with the company's "revival era" products.  We start with the cover, which indicates a little consolidation had gone on in the industry, and promotional budgets were low:

Activision had acquired the Imagic brand, and continued to distribute the company's best-known games.  ABSOLUTE Entertainment was an independent publisher whose founders included a couple of ex-Activision alums, including David Crane and the Kitchen brothers, and apparently they relied on Activision for distribution.

I also note that the big sweepstakes offer on the cover consists of a whopping $250 and free software -- the warehouses were probably still well-stocked after the sudden demise of the Atari 2600 market, so we may reasonably conclude that nobody was about to ante up big money to promote these last few titles.

That didn't stop Activision from creating and publishing new games, though -- the catalog features the new titles most prominently, and these are among the rarer Atari 2600 games today.  Kung-Fu Master brought Irem's classic coin-op (also well-known as the NES title Kung Fu) to the venerable 2600.  (I have to take issue with the catalog copy, though, as I believe Froggo's Karate was the first karate game ever designed for the 2600 -- it dates way back to the ill-fated Ultravision console.)

Kung-Fu Master was a good choice for the aging 2600, as the graphics worked well with a vertical color-table approach; the 2600 couldn't muster much detail per scan line, but it could change colors for each line to produce some dramatic and subtle effects.  This version couldn't match the NES' agile sprites, but its color scheme is a better match to the arcade, the game's horizontal scrolling is pulled off creditably, and it plays well.  And at $22.95, it was reasonably priced by 1989 standards.

The rest of this page is devoted to clearing out some old Activision stock -- Megamania was an intense fast-paced shooter; Skiing was looking pretty dated but was always more playable than its Intellivision counterpart, which should have been called Falling; and the classic Freeway may well have inspired Konami's Frogger.  These have been made available in numerous Activision anthologies in recent years, with pricing that puts $14.95 per game to shame -- cartridges were still expensive to produce, even when they were 4K or 8K.

Tomorrow, the journey continues!


  1. Where do you find all these catalogues?

  2. I've just accumulated them over 30-plus years of gaming -- getting them scanned and online at least opens up the possibility that I might be able to get rid of them someday. :)

  3. Playing teams that purposely lose just seems boring.