Despite the hardware limitations of the Atari 2600, clever programmers found ways to make the most out of it in surprising ways. Take this “game” for example which seems as if it were a sim that might have strayed in from the world of PCs. This was Space Shuttle, released by Activision for the system in 1983, and which would also be ported to the PC world on platforms such as the Apple II and the ZX Spectrum later on.
The game put would-be pilots into the cockpit of the Discovery as it is sent on a mission to recover an erratic satellite for repairs and safely land back on Earth. Simple concept, but the real meat was in the execution which turned the Atari 2600 into a early precursor of the kind of mega-controller that was packed in with games such as Steel Battalion for the first Xbox.
An overlay turned the switches on the 2600’s panel into the controls for the backup and primary engines, cargo doors and landing gear, and activating the countdown. Another sheet provided a valuable checklist of procedures needed for everything to succeed from launch to final approach. This was a full featured game that merged the console and the single-button joystick into an incredibly sophisticated pieces of hardware.
The 30+ page manual was also thick with details on everything from how to initiate a de-orbit burn to correcting your Y and X axis while tracking the satellite you need to capture via one of the sub-screens. The last few pages also contained a glossary of terms and a labeled diagram of the shuttle itself for players that want to look beyond what is presented by the game or the described gameplay. It even has a few tips from the designer himself, Steve Kitchen, to help players understand how to get the most out of their experience.
There was also a page listed all of the status indicator messages that the game could generate if you wanted to check on how you were doing in the game such as if you should close the cargo bay doors before leaving orbit or if you’ve run off the runway for touching down too late — though you probably didn’t need one for that last.
And like many Activision titles, it even offered to send you a patch if you scored high enough to rank up to Space Shuttle Commander.
This was a tough “game”, but it was also a remarkably bold addition to the Atari 2600’s largely arcade-based action library. The good news is that separate difficulty levels eased players into the simulation with varying levels of automation. The “Autosimulator” setting basically ignored the console switches and literally played itself with minimal input from the player using the joystick — kind of like the very easy setting in Platinum Games’ Bayonetta leaving you only to remember one button. You also don’t have to worry about fuel in this and the “Simulator” mode after it.
For more extreme pilots, there was the third option, the Flight #3 STS 101 pick, that required you to watch your fuel and will abort the mission on critical mistakes. Based on how much fuel you had left after a mission, you’d be given a rank. So for anyone that wanted that patch, the final option was the way to go.
Still, regardless of whatever mode you picked, it was always a rush whenever the shuttle would take off into space. The sound effects were great and the simulator was a quality experience all around — even if I had no idea what I was doing half the time.
Space Shuttle was only one of many other “shuttle” simulators that would come out to celebrate NASA’s durable spacecraft and the astronauts that flew it, but remarkable for thinking outside the box by turning Atari’s 2600 console into a competent and fairly complex sim that used it as a flight panel. It’s that kind of rare ingenuity that made this not only something of an innovative title, but also a great example of the kind of creativity developers often turn to in making their ideas work. And which would also set the Activision steamroller moving.