Halo 2600 (Atari 2600)

  • Gameplay
  • Audio
  • Visuals
  • Entertainment
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Review written by Stephen Deck; originally published 01/11/2022 on Teacher by Day, Gamer by Night

Everyone talks about game remakes – and rightly so – but what doesn’t get enough attention are game demakes – when you take a game and make a dramatically scaled-back version for older hardware.  The most famous is probably the Chinese NES demake of Final Fantasy VII, but the most impressive as well as the most fun in my opinion is definitely Halo 2600, the aptly named Halo demake for Atari 2600.

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2001’s Xbox was the powerhouse console at the top of the spec lists of the 6th generation of console gaming, and 1977’s Atari 2600 was the behemoth 2nd generation console that took the world (or at least America) by storm.  What do these two have in common?  Aside from being filled with Activision games of various quality, not much.  Except for Halo.  Created by Ed Fries, the guy who led the team that created the first Xbox and was key in acquiring studios like Rare and Bungie, Halo 2600 is a surprisingly good answer to the question “What if Halo had been created 20 years earlier?”  It’s obviously got no story told outside of the instruction manual (as was the case with pretty much all of the 2600’s games) and very crude sprite graphics, but it’s probably the best game ever to fit on a 4 KB cartridge, at least in my opinion.

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When you start the game, you’re greeted with a 2600 version of the Halo theme.  The game itself plays a lot like a mix of Adventure and Berzerk.  The combat is a lot like Berzerk in that you have to shoot enemies while avoiding getting shot yourself, and the game seamlessly progresses from screen to screen like Adventure.  The enemies – really fantastically done sprites of Grunts and Elites – can shoot in any direction, but your pixel Master Chief can only shoot left or right, so it’s important to get a feel for the controls and the timing of your attacks.

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As you go through the game searching for keys to unlock the energy gates blocking your path, you’ll get a gun upgrade (I like to imagine it’s an upgrade from the assault rifle to the sniper rifle), a shield upgrade that lets you survive a single shot, and a boot upgrade that doubles your speed.  While there’s only so much detail the 2600 can cram into a landscape, you do see a variety of trees, rocks, and weird energy…things…as you progress.  The culminating challenge is a final boss, a flying saucer-looking enemy, that you have to shoot several times to take out.  If you manage to defeat the boss, congratulations!  You beat the game!  It immediately restarts but with a red title screen indicating that you’ve progressed to “hard mode” which really just has you play the game again but moving at like one-quarter speed.

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Halo 2600 may not stand up to the likes of Halo Infinite for a deep and engaging narrative experience, but it’s an extremely impressive demake that manages to cram the core “feel” of Halo into just four measly kilobytes.  AtariAge, bless them, sold physical cartridges of this back in 2013 complete with box and instructional manual, although I imagine that most people played this on an emulator or a Harmony flash cartridge.  Regardless of how you play it, it’s one of the 2600 I most readily recommend, and it’s a must for those of in the intersection of “Halo fan” and “retro gamer.”  It would be nice if there were a score counter or some enemy randomization for replay value, but it’s a damn fun game nonetheless.

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