The Atari 2600 console was released in 1977, and this is the console which is given credit for making the use of microprocessor based hardware and ROM game cartridges in place of dedicated hardware with built in games popular across the industry. Although the Fairchild Channel F was actually the first console to use this type of design the Atari was so successful with the general public that the console began the wave that would make the use of microprocessors and ROM cartridges into the industry standard. The console was initially released under the name Atari VCS which was short for Video Computer System. In 1982 Atari released their Atari 5200 console and the VCS would become known as the Atari 2600 after the consoles Atari part number CX2600. The majority of 2600 consoles which were sold came in bundles featuring two joystick controllers, a pair of connected paddle controllers, and a game cartridge featuring either Combat or Pac-Man. The Atari 2600 was one of the most popular and successful video game consoles during the 80’s and the name Atari still holds massive recognition in the video game industry and the history of video games. IGN ranked the 2600 as the second greatest console of all time because of its roles in both the initial boom in the video game industry as well as its role in the crash of the market during 1983. IGN referred to the 2600 in their article as “the console that our entire industry is built upon.”
History of the 2600:
In 1973 Atari Incorporated purchased Cyan Engineering to research the next generation of video game consoles. At this time Cyan Engineering had already developed a prototype console by the name Stella after one of the engineer’s bike. The Stella unlike most previous systems used an entirely CPU core which ran using MOS Technology 6502 although in a reduced expense version called the 6507. The 6507 was then combined with RAM and I/O chip, the MOS Technology 6532, and finally a display/sound chip of the teams own design called the TIA (Television Interface Adapter). The next evolution of the system added another chip in the form of a CMOS logic buffer IC bringing the chip total to four relatively inexpensive pieces. Some later models however would remove the CMOS logic buffer IC in order to reduce cost. The ROM system of program storage came from innovations by Hewlett Packard who was manufacturing Read Only Memory (ROM) as a replacement to cassette tapes. These removable ROM cartridges where then used in video games due to the low cost of manufacturing games in this manner with the majority of the expenses being simply the connector and the packaging for the cartridge itself. In 1976 Fairchild Semiconductor released its CPU based console under the name Video Entertainment System (VES) however at this time the Stella was not quite ready fro production. Although the Stella was not ready the release of the VES spurred Atari to speed up development in order to release their console before the market was flooded with clone systems which had occurred during the Pong era. Unfortunately Atari Incorporated did not have the funds necessary to complete development at this time and an employee named Nolan Bushnell turned to Warner Communications and sold the company to them in 1976 for $28 million and the promise that the console would be released as soon as viably possible. The hiring of Jay Miner turned out to be a key to the success of the quick release of the console when he managed to take the entirety of the TIA wiring and equipment and pack it into a single chip allowing the system to be shipping ready in 1977 after nearly $100 million had been spent on development.
The Stella was released onto the market with an initial price tag of $199 and shipped with two joysticks, a copy of the Combat cartridge. At the time of release there were also eight additional games which could be purchased separately from the console. When the Stella was released the console was renamed to the Video Computer System in order to directly compete with the Fairchild Video Entertainment System. In addition to the VCS there was also a model released by the Sears Roebuck Company featuring the name Sears Video Arcade which was available for purchase through Sears and Roebuck Company stores. Following Atari’s release of the VCS Fairchild decided to rename their console the Channel F and at this time the price cutting console war had begun. With the competition of the Channel F and the VCS the old Pong clone consoles became obsolete and were soon being sold at ridiculously low discount prices causing a large number of the clone companies to go out of business. In the Atari VCS‘s first year of sales the company managed to sell about 250,000 units which was not a remarkable number compared to many other console releases. During that first year of production the Atari VCS was being manufactured in Sunnyvale, California and the consoles had very thick internal RF shielding and very thick plastic molding around the sides and bottoms of the console which added a lot of weight because each of the six switches were located on the front and led to the early models receiving the nickname “Heavy Sixers.” After a year in of manufacturing in California the manufacturing of the consoles was relocated to Hong Kong where the systems were produced using much thinner plastic molding which reduced the console weight. By 1978 roughly 550,000 of the 800,000 units had been sold resulting in a loss which Warner Communications had to cover and led to disagreements which would eventually drive Nolan Bushnell to leave the company.
Sales of the Atari VCS were initially slow because the general public had become burnt out on the many Pong consoles, however as publishers began to push the limits of new hardware and the public realized that there were more games that could be played than ever before sales began to improve resulting in the rapidly rising popularity of the VCS. At this point Fairchild Semiconductor pulled out of the video game market leaving the VCS in control leading to massive sales for the VCS during the holiday season of 1979. During 1979 the Atari VCS sold approximately one million units making it the most successful year for the console thus far. Atari’s next move was to gain the licensing rights for the incredibly popular arcade game Space Invaders from Taito which served to drive the console popularity even higher with the sale of two million units by 1980 and the company grossing roughly $2 billion. Sales of the console continued to climb astronomically over the next two years and by 1982 the Atari VCS had sold around 10 million units, and the number of Pac-Man cartridges reaching 7 million units. Once 1982 came about the company was producing the consoles for about $40 and selling the consoles for about $125 while game cartridges were being produced for roughly $5 or $6 to manufacture and $1 or $2 to advertise and being sold for$18.95.
During 1980 the console received a slight revision which moved the left and right switches to the rear of the console leaving only four switches on the front of the device and the addition of a wood grain panel. In 1982 the console received another makeover when the company released another four switch model without wood grain which were nicknamed “Darth Vader” due to their all black coloration. The “Darth Vader” model was the first to officially be sold under the name Atari 2600, and later that year Atari would unveil its 5200 console. Also at this time Atari released additional 2600 family compatible consoles including the 2700 which was a wireless model of the console which never saw the market due to glitches, and the 2800 which was a sleeker looking model that was released in Japan during 1983. Despite the sleeker looking appearance the 2800 suffered at the hands of its competition in the Japan the newly released Nintendo Famicom. The one major complaint by the public concerning the Atari 2600 was that fact that it was a delicate device leading to Atari support centers receiving tons of business for both the consoles as well as the delicate controllers which were often damaged by players during use.
Decline of the 2600:
Atari’s success allowed the company to grow substantially and in fact at one point the company had one of the largest research and development divisions in Silicone Valley however a lot of the funding was spent on projects which would never see the light of day. One problem with the company was that game developers began to get upset at not receiving credit for their work leading to many programmers leaving the company and forming independent software companies including Activision which was founded in 1980 whose game quickly gained massive popularity. During this time Atari continued to purchase licensing rights for popular games like it had done previously with Pac-Man. When many of the recently acquired licensed games failed to live up to expectations combined with the saturation of sub par third party games it had a major impact in beginning the market crash during 1983 which resulted in massive profit losses for Atari and Warner Communications. Eventually after losing a large sum of money Warner sold the Atari Consumer Division to Commodore Business Machines during 1984.
The Atari 2800 was simply a repackaging of the 2600 console for the Japanese market and it was released in 1983. The 2800 proved to be largely unsuccessful because it was competing with the newer Nintendo Famicom which dominated the Japanese marketplace. One unique factor about the 2800 was that it was capable of supporting four controllers compared to the usual two, as well as the of non-protruding wedge shaped switches and a silver and red color scheme. Later Sears gained interest in the 2800 model and began to produce their own version under the Tele-games label and it was released in the U.S. as the Sears Video Arcade 2 and came with two controllers and the game Space Invaders.
Atari 2600 Jr.:
This edition was released in 1985 featuring a smaller more cost efficient form and a more modern appearance and it had the capability of running a large library of classic games. The release of this console edition helped to fuel new software releases from the Atari Corporation with the final release of Klax in 1990. During the lifetime of the console in general about 30 million units were sold and the console boasted a game library of about 900 titles before the console was officially retired in 1992.
- After 30 Years, Donkey Kong Gets A Proper Port To The Atari 2600 (kotaku.com.au)
- Atari 2600 portable ( Multari ) (imagamegeek.co.uk)
- Conan takes on the Atari 2600 (joystiq.com)
- A Timeless Classic Returns to my Collection (gamesliveforever.com)
- Atari and Nintendo: Atari’s Missed Opportunity (30plusgamer.com)
- Princess Rescue for the Atari 2600: Sorry Mario, But Our Princess is in Another Console (technabob.com)
- Atari classic Pitfall reborn for iOS (reviews.cnet.com)
- Conan O’Brien plays the Atari 2600 on Clueless Gamer (destructoid.com)
- Conan tackles the Atari 2600 and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (polygon.com)