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Old school, here we come! The titans of the pre-1983-crash console war were the Atari 2600 and Mattel’s Intellivison. Everyone seems to have owned or knows someone who owned an Atari 2600. I own an Intellivision, which to this day still works. My cousins had an Atari, so I got to play my share of both consoles.

The woes of the Atari 2600 are stories of gamer legend at this point, but is the 2600 as bad as the legends suggest? Are the fans of Intellivision just full of hot air when they sing the praises of the console? Let’s find out.

Round 1: Price and Specs

The Atari 2600 was 100 dollars cheaper than the Intellivision at debut retail price. The 2600 had a higher clock speed CPU and better resolution (by 1 pixel), but the Intellivision allowed for 16 colors to be displayed on the screen simultaneously, vice 2 back ground colors and 2 sprite colors for the 2600. The color palette was bigger on the 2600. The 2600 had a larger set of accessories available, but the Intellivoice was the best accessory of the generation. Case in point:

The Intellivision controller was more complicated than the 2600 joystick and button controller, almost to the point of being too complicated. Indeed, to play an Intellivison game, you either had to have intimate knowledge of the controls or remember to keep the plastic keypad overlays for the game you wanted to play.

You can check the table located here for more details about the innards of each unit.

Round result: Draw. I don’t want to factor in how the power of each unit was applied in the games that came for each console, as that’s a whole section unto itself. The 2600 does have a lower price point and more accessories, but to me, the Intellivision had the best accessory, and the additional price to get the console in the first place was worth it, especially once you do factor in the quality of the software. Speaking of the software …

Round 2: The Games

The Atari 2600 games library dwarfs that of the Intellivision.  According to Wikipedia, the list of 2600 games is 565 versus 152 for the Intellivision.  Given such a large difference in total library, surely the 2600 would be the front runner for winning this category.  Not so fast.

Glancing through the list of games, both the 2600 and Intellivision libraries have the same types of games: lots of arcade style action games, with a few RPGs, sports games and edutainment games thrown in for flavor.

So the round is also a draw, right? Wrong. Take a look at the following vids from Pac Man on the 2600 and Pac Man on the Intellivision:

The 2600 version looks like trash compared to the same game on Intellivison. Now take a look at Lock ‘n’ Chase:

Same thing as Pac Man, the 2600 version looks terrible when compared to Intellivison.

The final direct comparison I want to do is Burgertime, first for the 2600 and then for Intellivison.

It’s like this across the board. Any direct comparison between a 2600 game and an Intellivison game of the same name is going to look better on Intellivision. Fortunately for the 2600 fans out there, we’re not just looking at the direct comparison between the 2 consoles; rather, we’re also going to look at the full library for 2 consoles as well.

The Atari 2600 has a couple of the most well-known titles in the history of videogames. Adventure was used heavily in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a novel about gamers trying to find the ultimate easter egg. In the “Anorak’s Invitation” speech, Adventure is cited as the first videogame with an easter egg before it is revealed an easter egg is hidden somewhere in the OASIS, and whoever finds the egg will be the sole heir to a massive fortune.

The other very well known Atari 2600 game is E.T. the Extraterrestrial. If there’s a Mount Rushmore of bad videogames, E.T. is the mountain the faces are carved in to. I’ve played it; however, I cannot describe how fundamentally and monumentally terrible this game is. In hindsight, giving less than 6 weeks of development time for a game licensed from a movie is catastrophic folly. A thought to be urban legend about a New Mexico landfill full of unsold E.T. games was proven to be true in 2014.

This is not to say the Intellivison library was without fault. Koolaid Man is properly awful. The game had two stages. In stage 1, the player plays 2 children running around a haunted house to collect the ingredients for Koolaid: Sugar, water, and Koolaid mix. A group of Thirsties is trying to stop the kids from collecting the ingredients.

If the player is successful in making some Koolaid, the tubby, sugar-rush-in-a-pitcher Koolaid Man himself bursts through a brick wall and stage two begins. Stage two involves the titular character flying about the haunted house collecting phantom fruits for points. The goal is to nab the thirsties before the timer runs out. Once that’s done, return to stage one on a slightly higher difficulty level and repeat forever.

Another double plus ungood game in the Intellivision library is Masters of the Universe: The Power of He-Man. Masters is another two stage affair. The first stage sees He-Man flying a ship, bombing Skelletor repeatedly, and shooting fireballs. Stage two involves He-Man running across various sets avoiding fireballs and lightning bolts thrown by Skelletor. When He-Man gets to the other side of the screen, he and Skelletor sword fight briefly before moving to another locale. After three screens, the player repeats the stages.

That said, it’s the great games in the Intellivision library that sets the entire library, and the console, apart from the Atari 2600. This is the point in the commentary where I gush.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin is the best RPG of the era, period. I’ll go so far as to say Treasure of Tarmin can hold its own against all the NES era RPGs, too, including Final Fantasy. Tarmin is better than The Legend of Zelda, though comparing the two games is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison, but the comparison is apt as a means to describe exactly how good Treasure of Tarmin is.

The second example of Intellivision library gold is also a counter-point to E.T. Mattel squeezed about as much as a gaming company could from the original Tron movie, getting 3 games total out the title. Tron: Maze-a-Tron rode the ragged edge of being too slow and complicated for an arcade style game; similarly, Tron: Solar Sailer suffered the same issue. Tron Deadly Discs, on the other hand, is arcade action at its finest. The player steps into the shoes of Tron himself to fight off wave after wave of the MCPs henchmen. Deadly Discs is most similar to Discs of Tron in the arcade, but I believe Deadly Discs is better thanks mostly to control scheme and mechanics. Just watch while I swoon.

There are more games to talk about.  Utopia, Body Slam: Super Pro Wrestling, or Night Stalker are all very, very good games.  Even some of the weirder titles in the library like Snafu or Vectron combine dynamic and solid gameplay into a rewarding experience.  Sure, the Atari 2600 has it’s favorites, too, but are Asteroids or Yars’ Revenge that much better than Astrosmash, Space Hawk, or Demon Attack?  Not really.

Round result: Intellivision by an impossibly wide margin. The libraries of the Atari 2600 and Intellivision just don’t compare. In every scenario, the Intellivision library has a higher number of better quality games, and the Intellivision version of every game for both the 2600 and the Intellivision is far and away better.

Final Round: Legacy/Cultural Impact

The Atari 2600 outsold the Intellivision 10:1, which should end the conversation about impact immediately. E.T. helped induce the crash of 1983, an event every videogame fan has at least heard about.

I spoke earlier about Adventure being used in Ready Player One as a plot point, but an Intellivision game was also used. When Wade first enters Aech’s basement, they are playing Astrosmash, one of the better Intellivision space games. However, it’s obvious the easter egg in Adventure is the more important reference throughout the story.

Both the Atari 2600 and Intellivison have had compilations made for more modern consoles.   The Xbox 360 Game Room included a limited set of both Atari 2600 and Intellivision games.

Round result: Atari, but not necessarily in a good way. Atari is remembered as much for infamously bad games as it is for the famously good ones. Everyone, it seemed, owned a 2600, which is part of the reason references to and about the 2600 endure. Fame and infamy have cemented the 2600 in our minds.

The Intellivision is by far the better console. The cultural impact and lower price point of the 2600 isn’t enough in my mind to overcome the Intellivision’s overwhelmingly better library of games.

What do you think? If you were trapped on a desert island and had only a 2600 or an Intellivision to play, which would you choose?

Todd Wohling

A long time ago on an Intellivision far, far away my gaming journey started with Lock n' Chase, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons The Cloudy Mountain, and Night Stalker. I earned both a BS-Physics and a BS-Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Today I spend most of my time on PC. I left a career of 14 years in aerospace in Colorado, so I could immigrate to Norway.