I vividly remember being ~13 and sitting in front of a TV, at a friend's house, playing Space Invaders on his Atari 2600. He'd just gotten it for Christmas and I knew I had to have one. With cash in hand, my Mom took me to an appliance store where I proudly became a paying member of the ensuing video game craze.
As my collection of "arcade" titles grew, so did my need to buy more game carts. It was my crack - the one thing I simply HAD to have. I loved arcades and the idea that I could play renditions of these games at home - saving more quarters for trips to the arcades.
Atari 2600 - Technical Specifications
The Atari 2600 is a video game console released in October 1977. It is credited with popularizing the use of microprocessor-based hardware and cartridges containing game code, instead of having non-microprocessor dedicated hardware with all games built in. The first game console to use this format was the Fairchild Channel F; however, the Atari 2600 is credited with making the plug-in concept popular among the game-playing public.
The console was originally sold as the Atari VCS, for Video Computer System. Following the release of the Atari 5200, in 1982, the VCS was renamed "Atari 2600", after the unit's Atari part number, CX2600. The 2600 was typically bundled with two joystick controllers, a conjoined pair of paddle controllers, and a cartridge game-initially Combat and later Pac-Man.
The Atari 2600 was wildly successful. During the 1980s, "Atari" was a synonym for this model in mainstream media and, by extension, for video games in general, similar to "Nintendo" and "PlayStation" in the later 1980s and 1990s respectively.
Atari Inc. had purchased an engineering think tank in 1973 called Cyan Engineering to research next-generation video game systems, and had been working on a prototype known as "Stella" (named after one of the engineers' bicycles) for some time. Unlike prior generations of machines that used custom logic to play a small number of games, Stella's core was a complete CPU, the famous MOS Technology 6502 in a cost-reduced version, known as the 6507. It was combined with a RAM-and-I/O chip, the MOS Technology 6532, and a display and sound chip of their own design known as the TIA, for Television Interface Adaptor. Beyond those three, the first two versions of the machine contain just one more chip, a standard CMOS logic buffer IC, bringing the total chip count to the very low and cost-effective number of four. Some later versions of the console eliminated the buffer chip.
Programs for small computers were generally stored on cassette tape, disk or paper tape. By the early 1970s, Hewlett Packard manufactured desktop computers costing thousands of dollars such as the HP 9830, which packaged Read Only Memory (ROM) into removable cartridges to add special programming features, and these were being considered for use in games. At first, the design was not going to be cartridge-based, but after seeing a "fake" cartridge system on another machine, they realized they could place the games on cartridges essentially for the price of the connector and packaging.
In August 1976, Fairchild Semiconductor released their own CPU-based system, the Video Entertainment System. Stella was still not ready for production, but it was clear that it needed to be before there were a number of "me too" products filling up the market - which had happened after they released Pong. Atari Inc. simply didn't have the cash flow to complete the system quickly, given that sales of their own Pong systems were cooling. Nolan Bushnell eventually turned to Warner Communications, and sold the company to them in 1976 for US$28 million on the promise that Stella would be produced as soon as possible.
Key to the eventual success of the machine was the hiring of Jay Miner, a chip designer who managed to squeeze an entire breadboard of equipment making up the TIA into a single chip. Once that was completed and debugged, the system was ready for shipping. By the time it was released in 1977, the development had cost about US$100 million.
The unit was originally priced at US$199, and shipped with two joysticks and a Combat cartridge. In a move to compete directly with the Channel F, Atari Inc. named the machine the Video Computer System (or VCS for short), as the Channel F was at that point known as the VES, for Video Entertainment System. The VCS was also rebadged as the Sears Video Arcade and sold through Sears, Roebuck and Company stores. This model was manufactured by Dimerco Electronics.
When Fairchild learned of Atari Inc.'s naming, they quickly changed the name of their system to become the Channel F. However, both systems were now in the midst of a vicious round of price-cutting: Pong clones that had been made obsolete by these newer and more powerful machines were sold off to discounters for ever-lower prices. Soon many of the clone companies were out of business, and both Fairchild and Atari Inc. were selling to a public that was completely burnt out on Pong. In 1977, Atari Inc. sold only 250,000 VCSs.
For the first year of production, the VCS was manufactured in Sunnyvale, California. The consoles manufactured there had thick internal RF shielding, and thick plastic molding around the sides and bottom. These added weight to the console, and because all six switches were on the front, these consoles were nicknamed "Heavy Sixers". After this first year, production moved to Hong Kong, and the consoles manufactured there had thinner plastic molding. In 1978, only 550,000 units from a production run of 800,000 were sold, requiring further financial support from Warner to cover losses. This led directly to the disagreements that caused Atari Inc. founder Nolan Bushnell to leave the company in 1978.
Once the public realized it was possible to play video games other than Pong, and programmers learned how to push its hardware's capabilities, the VCS gained popularity. By this point, Fairchild had given up, thinking video games were a passing fad, thereby handing the entire quickly growing market to Atari Inc. By 1979, the VCS was the best-selling Christmas gift (and console), mainly because of its exclusive content, and 1 million units were sold that year.
Atari Inc. then licensed the smash arcade hit Space Invaders by Taito, which greatly increased the unit's popularity when it was released in January 1980, doubling sales again to over 2 million units. The VCS and its cartridges were the main factor behind Atari Inc. grossing more than $2 billion in 1980. Sales then doubled again for the next two years, with almost 8 million units selling in 1982.
In 1980, the VCS was given a minor revision in which the left and right difficulty switches were moved to the back of the console, leaving four switches on the front. Other than this, these four-switch consoles looked nearly identical to the earlier six-switch models. In 1982, another version of the four-switch console was released without woodgrain. They were nicknamed "Darth Vader" consoles due to their all-black appearance. These were also the first consoles to be officially called "Atari 2600", as the Atari 5200 was released the same year.
During this period, Atari Inc. expanded the 2600 family with two other compatible consoles. They designed the Atari 2700, a wireless version of the console that was never released because of a design flaw. The company also built a sleeker version of the machine dubbed the Atari 2800 to sell directly to the Japanese market in early 1983, but it suffered from competition with the newly released Nintendo Famicom.
In a survey mentioned by Jeff Rovin it is reported that more stores reported breakdowns of the Atari 2600 system than any other, and that Atari repair centers seemed to have the most trouble with consoles manufactured in 1980. In one case it is stated that a system was repaired five times before static electricity from a carpet was discovered as having caused the problem. The controllers were also a source of breakage because of the way they could be gripped by a player holding it with their fist, allowing players to get carried away and over control, which was less likely with other systems released at the time, such as the Odyssey 2, which had controllers that were nearly half its size.
Sears Tele-Games 2600s
Early Atari 2600 that was branded "Tele-Games" and sold by Sears
Atari Inc. also continued their OEM relationship with Sears under the latter's Tele-Games brand label, which started in 1975 with the original Pong. Sears released several versions of the 2600 as the Sears Video Arcade series from 1977 to 1983. These include the Rev. A "Heavy Sixer" model in 1977, the Rev. B "4 switch" model in 1980, and the US version of the Atari 2800 branded as the Sears Video Arcade II in 1983. Sears also released their own versions of Atari Inc.'s games under the Tele-Games brand, which included the Tele-Games branded variations of text and picture labels. Three games were also produced by Atari Inc. for Sears as exclusive releases under the Tele-Games brand: Steeplechase, Stellar Track, Submarine Commander.
During this period, Atari Inc. continued to grow until it had one of the largest R&D divisions in Silicon Valley. However, it spent much of its R&D budget on projects that seemed rather out of place at a video game (or even home computer) company; many of these projects never saw the light of day. Meanwhile, several attempts to bring out newer consoles failed for one reason or another, although Atari Inc.'s home computer systems, the Atari 8-bit family, sold reasonably, if not spectacularly. Warner was more than happy anyway, as it seemed to have no end to the sales of the 2600, and Atari Inc. was responsible for over half of the company's income.
The programmers of many of Atari Inc.'s biggest hits grew disgruntled with the company for not crediting game developers and many left the company and formed their own independent software companies. The most prominent and longest-lasting of these third-party developers was Activision, founded in 1980, whose titles quickly became more popular than those of Atari Inc. itself. Atari Inc. attempted to block third-party development for the 2600 in court but failed, and soon other publishers, such as Imagic and Coleco, entered the market. Atari Inc. suffered from an image problem when a company named Mystique produced a number of pornographic games for the 2600. The most notorious of these, Custer's Revenge, caused a large number of protests from women's and Native American groups because it depicts General George Armstrong Custer raping a bound Native American woman. Atari Inc. sued Mystique in court over the release of the game.
Atari Inc. continued to scoop up licenses during the shelf life of the 2600, the most prominent of which included Pac-Man and E.T. Public disappointment with these two titles and the market saturation of poor third-party titles are cited as big reasons for the video game crash of 1983. Suddenly, Atari Inc.'s growth meant it was losing massive amounts of money during the crash, at one point about $10,000 a day. Warner quickly grew tired of supporting Atari Inc., and started looking for buyers in 1984. Although not formally discontinued, the 2600 was de-emphasized for two years after Warner's 1984 sale of Atari Inc.'s Consumer Division to Commodore Business Machines founder Jack Tramiel, who wanted to concentrate on home computers. He froze all development of console games, including a 2600 Garfield game and an Atari 5200 port of Super Pac-Man.
Atari 2600 Jr.
The Atari 2600 in its 1986 cost-reduced version, also known as the "2600 Jr."
In 1986, a new version of the 2600 was released (although it was planned for release two years earlier). The new redesigned version of the 2600, unofficially referred to as the 2600 Jr., featured a smaller cost-reduced form factor with a modernized Atari 7800-like appearance. The redesigned 2600 was advertised as a budget gaming system (under $50) that had the ability to run a large collection of classic games. With its introduction came a resurgence in software development both from Atari Corp. and from a few third parties (notably, Activision, Absolute Entertainment, Froggo, Epyx, and Exus). The Atari 2600 continued to sell in the USA and Europe until 1990, and in Asia until the early 1990s. Its final Atari-licensed release was KLAX in 1990. Over its lifetime, an estimated 40 million units were shipped, and its video game library reportedly numbers more than 900 titles with commercial games released for this system all the way until 1991. In Brazil, the console became extremely popular in the mid-1980s. The Atari 2600 was officially retired by Atari Corp. on January 1, 1992, making it the longest-lived home video game console (14 years, 2 months) in US game history.
The basic layout of the 2600 is fairly similar to most consoles and home computers of the era. The CPU was the MOS Technology 6507, a cut-down version of the 6502, running at 1.19 MHz in the 2600. The 6507 included fewer memory address pins -13 instead of 16 -and no external interrupts to fit into a smaller 28-pin package. Smaller packaging was, and still is, an important factor in overall system cost, and since memory was very expensive at the time, the 6507's small 8 kB of maximum external memory space wasn't going to be used up anyway. In fact, memory was so expensive they couldn't imagine using up even 4 kB, and when they got a deal on 24-pin connectors for the cartridge socket, they were only too happy to thereby limit the games to 4K. Later games got around this limitation with bank switching.
The console had only 128 bytes of RAM for runtime data that included the call stack and the state of the game world. There was no frame buffer, as the necessary RAM would have been too expensive. Instead the video device had two bitmapped sprites, two one-pixel "missile" sprites, a one-pixel "ball," and a 40-pixel "playfield" that was drawn by writing a bit pattern for each line into a register just before the television scanned that line. As each line was scanned, a game had to identify the non-sprite objects that overlapped the next line, assemble the appropriate bit patterns to draw for those objects, and write the pattern into the register. In a telling reveal of its Pong heritage, by default, the right side of the screen was a mirrored duplicate of the left; to control it separately, the software had to modify the patterns as the scan line was drawn. After the controller scanned the last active line, a more leisurely vertical blanking interval began, during which the game could process input and update the positions and states of objects in the world. Any mistake in timing produced visual artifacts, a problem programmers called racing the beam.
The video hardware gave the 2600 a reputation as one of the most complex machines in the world to program, but those programmers who understood it realized that such direct control over the video picture was also a source of flexibility. One advantage the 2600 had over more powerful competitors such as the ColecoVision was that the 2600 had no protection against altering settings in mid-line. For example, although each sprite nominally had only one color, it was possible to color the rows differently by changing the sprite's color as it was drawn. If the two hardware sprites were not enough for a game, a developer could share one sprite among several objects (as with the ghosts in Pac-Man) or draw software sprites, which was only a little more difficult than drawing a fixed playfield. The Pitfall! screenshot below demonstrates some of these tricks: the player is a multi-color sprite, one sprite is multiplexed for the logs and the scorpion, and the swinging vine is drawn by shifting the position of the "ball" on each scan line. Despite the hardware limitations, many Atari 2600 games have a lot of action on the screen, creating an engaging experience.
Additionally, the 2600 supported several types of input devices (joysticks, paddles, keyboards, etc.) and third-party peripherals, and many of these peripherals were interchangeable with the MSX and several other Japanese systems. In some cases, it is possible to use the Atari joysticks with the Sega Master System and Mega Drive/Genesis, though functionality may be limited. However Master System and Genesis controllers work quite well on the 2600.