A little while ago I stumbled across an article on an Australian gaming website called Hey Poor Player. There, a guest writer put up a list entitled “TOP 5 GRAPHICALLY IMPRESSIVE 8-BIT GAMES“. It then went on to list Sonic The Hedgehog for the Sega Master System; Metal Storm for the NES; Little Samson on the NES; Wonderboy 3 for the SMS; and for #1, Kirby’s Adventure for the NES.

Now those are fine examples of titles that did look good and I can understand that if you’ve only played those two systems that you might not branch out into other contemporaries.

There are many fans of the NES or SMS who believe that those two systems define what 8-bit looks like. Now “Top 5” is a definitive, absolute statement. As you know me, I already reject the idea that there is such a thing as “8-bit graphics” as that it is better defined by the era of the hardware than it’s bitness. The problem is that this ignores many other systems which in some events pulled off what are arguably more impressive effects given their hardware.

So let’s make that argument andtake a look at some other impressive efforts, particularly from the “Atari 8-bit computer” line. I’m also happy to point out Commodore 64 (check out Mayhem in Monsterland or Wrath of the Demon) or ColecoVision or IntelliVision or Vectrex, etc. Or even the SMS itself – I think that Phantasy Star really should be mentioned when it comes to impressive graphical work and if I was picking, I would replace Wonderboy III with it (not that WB3 looks bad, it’s just PS looks better IMO).

Now regarding the Atari’s, most of their hardware is 8-bit and until Nintendo took over the market around 1986/87, Atari was synonymous with “video games”.  The Atari 2600 was the first major selling game console hardware in the world and it was designed in 1976. It was a full 8-bit machine, limited by a paltry 128 bytes of RAM (yes, that is right..bytes, not kilobytes. This post would be far too large to fit into a 2600’s memory).

Now the NES was designed around 1982/83 with the Famicom. It was made to use “mapper” chips to get around the other core limitations so that use was fair, although this had already been done for the 2600. Whether that was adding additional RAM (see the impressive Tunnel Runner) or the SARA chip (Pitfall II), it showed that you could push things a little farther along than everyone thought. But you didn’t always need extra chips to go beyond the original limitations. One of most impressive examples is Solaris, released in 1986. Compare it to a 2600 launch title like Star Ship and you’ll easily see how far programming came in 10 years.

There are some other impressive games for the Atari 2600 but in interest of space, I’m going to jump ahead to the Atari 7800. This was being designed at the end of 1983/84 and was one reason why Atari passed on distributing the NES in America. They had just been burned by the 5200 (I’ll get into that in a moment) thanks to no backwards compatibility, so the prospect of launching another non-BC system was one of several reasons used to pass on it. The 7800 on the other hand, was fully BC with the popular 2600 and would be more powerful than the 400/800/5200 line that had served the company well for a few years. Thanks to the Tramiel buyout and subsequent payment dispute(the 7800 was designed by a 3rd party), the system’s original July 1984 launch was scrapped until 1986. It never received the full developer support that the 2600 did and jumping over some other issues, I don’t think we ever got to see the system pushed to its full potential, getting at best 2nd generation games. But even then, it managed some cool looking games such as Ninja Golf (color, parallax scrolling), Desert Falcon (one of the few 7800 titles to use the high rez mode), & Midnight Mutants (detailed levels, huge bosses that took up a good chunk of the screen). Those games are found in this video, albeit very briefly:

Now for the Atari 8-bit computer line, also known as the Atari 400/800 computers, the Atari 5200 (a consolized 400 with analog joysticks) and later the 800XL, 65XE and the XEGS. The latter 3 featured 64KB of RAM to put them on par with the Commodore 64 and benefitted from getting massive libraries of games. When you could copy games on floppy disc, spreading them around was a cinch. The hardware was originally designed as a follow-up to the 2600 but improved on it in many ways. The 5200 was a disaster for several reasons but outside of that, the hardware was able to get matured software that flexed some muscle. The XEGS in particular was a ploy to compete with the NES directly, based mainly on the strength of the existing library but that also gave us a number of commercial releases through 1992 or so. To highlight many of these effects, I put together this handy little video:

Sure, call me biased but I have to think that using fractals to create 3D environments on stock hardware is far more impressive than making a flickerless and colorful platformer. Or the other first person efforts on the XL/XE systems that move around fluidly. A great comparison is BallBlazer between the NES and the Atari computers (although the 7800 version does have the sharpest graphics and fastest speed).

Either way, I enjoy the NES and SMS and what their output was but don’t forget Atari! Which Atari games do you think looked the most impressive?



About Shaggy

I addition to my professional work in the arcade industry which has ranged from operator to consultant, I like to write about other subjects that interest me as well...if I can find the time.

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