You might as well go ahead and count 1982's Phoenix among those fantastic titles. Phoenix for the 2600, of course, was Atari's port of the Centuri arcade game which arrived in 1980. The formula for the game is very familiar to Space Invaders fans -- hostile aliens hover above the player's ship and try to shoot the intrepid gamer before he can zap them.
However, Phoenix added a few new wrinkles to the formula. First of all, there were very distinct waves of invaders coded into the game. The first two consisted of "bird-like" aliens which swooped around in circular patterns on the screen. The third and fourth waves featured larger birds with wings that could be blasted to bits, but the "middles" of the avian targets had to be shot to kill the aliens. The final wave was a single alien protected by a large, heavily-shielded ship which moved slowly and relentlessly toward the hapless player.
Also, the player could avoid shots by activating a shield around his ship. The shield only lasts a few seconds and the player can't move while it's activated. Fortunately, shots can be fired through the shield. While this offers some protection from nasty aliens, it also means the shield can disappear at just the wrong time and leave the player with a face full of nasty lasers. Ouch!
While Phoenix was never a huge hit along the lines of Space Invaders, Galaxian or the fantastic Galaga, it still attracted enough attention to become a port on the 2600. While the graphics aren't nearly as good as the arcade version, they look great for an Atari game. For one thing, there's not just a whole lot of nasty screen flicker to interfere with the game. Also, Atari games were often plagued with mono-colored graphics. That's not the case here as the aliens in the first through fourth waves are all shaded with two colors, and the final stage features a brightly-animated ship. The aliens and player's ship all move smoothly about the screen.
Fortunately, with that smooth animation comes crisp, predictable control. I absolutely hate a game that features such poor control the player has to fight with the joystick almost as much as the aliens. The player is given the task of moving his ship along a rigid, horizontal plane, and the control is quite responsive. That, of course, means the player can curse his reflexes rather than sloppy controls when killed. The fire button, of course, fires a single shot while pulling back on the stick activates the shield.
The sounds aren't great, but they're not distracting, either. You get the general bloops, blips and explosions that you'd expect from an Atari game. While it's obvious sound was not a major consideration in this game, at least there's nothing annoying about the racket generated by this title. Once nice touch about the game is the "shimmering" background music which injected a sense of urgency into the arcade game was preserved well in the 2600 port of Phoenix.
In terms of difficulty, Phoenix isn't exactly dead easy. In the fifth phase, blasting the
Phoenix pilot is quite difficult as he is well protected by the multi-colored blocks of his ship. In addition to having to chip away at the ship, the player runs across a thin, blue layer which rotates and has to be chewed up pretty well before a clear shot at the pilot can be had. So, it takes a good number of shots to get at the pilot, and the player gets bombarded with fire while trying to finish the level. Believe me, clearing that level out without losing a good number of ships is quite a task.
While Phoenix will never replace such must-have titles as Space Invaders or Demon Attack, it's still a fine addition to any Atari 2600 library. And, it's very likely you can find it for next to nothing as it's a fairly common cartridge.