The Atari 2600 – A Look Back


It was an exciting time for video games.  It was the late 70’s, Pong was amazing folks everywhere, arcades were taking off, video games had arrived.  If you’re like me, one of your earliest memories of mainstream video games is probably the one and only, the Atari 2600.

Believe it or not, once upon a time video games were not accessible in homes.  In fact, in the late 70’s, the idea of video games just started taking off in a big way.  Who would have thought that it would be possible to play various games right in the comfort of your home? A man by the name of Nolan Bushnell did.   He had a genius idea – to somehow bring masses of video games to the home market.  Not just one ugly machine that played one or two simple games, but an ugly machine that could play multiple games.  Don’t get me wrong here.  The Atari 2600 wasn’t the first console to make it to the market (that would belong to the Magnavox Odyssey) but it was the first home console to offer what it did and to completely take over.

Let’s take a look at some specs of the Atari VCS:

CPU – 8bit at 1.19MHz

RAM – 128 bytes

ROM – External game cartridges

Video Resolution – 160×192 NTSC, 160×228 PAL

Color – Able to push 4 colors on screen at once with a 128 color palette

Controls – Two 9 pin slots for Joysticks

Simple times, eh?

It was released in 1977 and was named the Atari VCS (Video Computer System).  At this point in time, it hadn’t garnered much popularity.  Also around this time, an extremely popular arcade title was sweeping the nation!  This title was Space Invaders, baby.  The folks at Atari saw how popular it became and decided to license the game for the Atari VCS.  This was an interesting point in history because instead of just copying the idea and labeling it as something generic like, “Space Rape”, they actually had the license to the original title and look.  What did this do?  Oh hell, it completely elevated the sales of the Atari VCS in 1980 and made it THE choice for home gaming.  Space Invaders was THE killer app.  Everyone had to have it!

There is another interesting thing that happened around that time as well.  You see, developers didn’t get credit or much financial gain from the games they created on these systems.  All games would be a product of Atari and that was it.  But a few folks took a stand against this and formed the first ever third party developers for console systems.  This publisher was called Activision.  It’s amazing when you think about it.  Today, third party developers seem like such a common thing, imagine what it would be like if no one took a stand?

During the next few years, the Atari VCS (which became known as the Atari 2600) saw a ton of success.  Everyone was getting into home gaming.  There were a lot of must own games being released and eventually it carried a library of greatness.  Games such as Pitfall, Crystal Castles, Frogger, Asteroids, Defender, Missile Command, Donkey Kong, Combat and Adventure (to name a few).  How could you go wrong?!  Well, you over saturate the market with a bunch of shit.

Unlike the NES, the Atari had the problem of not having any type of quality control or licensing to develop games for it.  Everyone and their mother could publish games for the Atari which caused an abundance of games.  Now, you may think to yourself “Lots and lots of games?  How can that be a bad thing?!”  Oh, my friends, it can be.  You see, there was just so much garbage available that people were getting burned left and right.  Today is a bit easier, you can easily find information on games and there are a ton of game reviews available with a few clicks of the mouse.  But back then, this wasn’t exactly easy.  So there were a ton of games being created for the Atari 2600 from companies that really had no business creating games.  It was all about making a quick buck and cashing in on the success of the Atari.  We had games coming from companies such as Quaker Oats, Purina, Coca-Cola and even Ralph Lauren!  And let’s not forget the horrible movie license game – a trend that still continues.

In the end, it was the folks at Atari who were their own worst enemies.  They were living the high life off of the success of the Atari 2600 that they didn’t really think ahead too much.  Maybe it was a case of ignorance and thinking consumers would gobble up anything they shoved in front of them?  Who knows for sure?  But instead of looking ahead at their next system, they stuck to the Atari 2600.  And then came the two biggest mistakes that most point to as the reason for the eventual crash – Pac-Man and E.T.  Atari loyalists thought they were going to bring the fun of Pac-Man from the arcades right to their home.  Instead, they got a really bad version of Pac-Man that wasn’t easy to look at, and had rough controls.  It just wasn’t Pac-Man.  Fans were really upset over this.  E.T was a huge movie success at the time.  Everyone was talking about E.T.  The game however, was a rush job that was created in a very short time frame just to capitalize on the name.  It failed horribly and so did Atari.

In 1983-84, consumers were sick of the abundance of low quality titles and big name titles that turned out to be extremely poor.  They turned their back on Atari and the rest is history.  The crash occurred and nearly bankrupted Atari and the industry all together.  People weren’t excited about video games anymore.  It was a very doom and gloom time.  There was even that eerie story (which is true) of how Atari took all of their excess copies of E.T and other game cartridges, and dumped them in a land fill somewhere in the desert.  Things were just that bad and it seemed as if video games were just a quick fad soon to be forgotten.  Luckily, Nintendo came along and restored the faith.  But that is another story.

The life and death of the Atari 2600 is a fascinating story.  There was a lot of uncertainty back then with the way things were run and organized.  Atari showed future companies the right way to do things (accidentally of course).   We have to remember that this was all new back then.  No one really knew what they were doing, so mistakes were going to happen.  Even now mistakes happen, but we learn from them.  And luckily, we learned a lot from the failures of Atari.  Look at the gaming market as it is today.  It’s a huge market where so much money is made that it’s beyond ridiculous.  We have to thank them for that.

As a common theme to my ‘A Look Back’ articles, I decided to get out the old Atari and relive some of those fond memories.  Yes, this is the original Atari VCS that my family bought back during those days – not one I collected off of eBay!  It’s probably something that I’ll never part with as it’s such a nostalgic emotional ride.  To actually own that same exact thing that you and your family were having a blast with 30 years ago… awesome feeling.

But does it still work?  At first it didn’t.  I opened it up and had a look inside of it.  Things looked normal (and rather simple).  What I did was switch the video cable with another one I had laying around that I knew worked.  Presto!  The good ole’ Atari now works, and is rocking… except for the controllers.  They aren’t working so hot (oops!) I guess I’ll have to take a better look at them later.  It’s pretty funny seeing an Atari 2600 running on an HD LCD though.

I can remember my dad connecting the Atari to our old wooden boxed TV (I swear all TV’s used that wooden look back then.)  I have this memory where he and I were playing Pac-Man and it was just really cool.  Hey, I was only a few years old, all games were fascinating!  I also remember my family out and about somewhere, and for the life of me I have no idea where we were, and we stopped at this store.  I remember seeing Flash Gordon and Burger Time for sale.  We were allowed to get one game and I think we all agreed on Burger Time, which was the best decision I think even to this day!

It was a good time for us kids and even the adults.  I’m pretty damn happy that I was able to live during that time and witness it all… even if I were only a few years old.  You know how younger people always ask older people questions like, “Oh!  You lived through that, what was it like?”  Well, now that I’m getting older, I’m starting to realize that I do have a lot of stories to tell and I got to live through the beginnings of the video game craze.   I got to see it grow into what it is today.  That’s pretty cool, besides the getting older part.

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