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Atari 2600

Updated on March 6, 2017
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Martin is an experienced software developer with a passion for retro machines and gaming.

Atari 2600

The Atari 2600 is a video game console that was released in October of 1977.

It must surely go down as the gaming console that kick-started the use of microprocessor based technology and switchable cartridges containing game code. This machine represented a huge step forward when compared to consoles having non-microprocessor dedicated hardware, with all games 'built in' to the system.

It also revolutionised home gaming and was a real leap forward in quality of both graphics and sound. The 2600 remained a super popular choice for a number of years until the 8-bit generation of home computers came along.

Machines such as the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum became mainstays of home gaming and the likes of the Atari consoles faded into the background..

So let's take a look at the console that is the forefather of modern machines from the likes of SONY and Microsoft.

The Original Atari 2600

The Atari 2600 Is One Of The Most Famous Home Consoles Ever
The Atari 2600 Is One Of The Most Famous Home Consoles Ever

Establishing The Atari 2600

The Fairchild Channel F was probably the first cart based system which had been released in the previous year, 1976.

Despite this, the Atari 2600 is credited with making the plug-in and play concept popular among home gamers and arcade fans.

Originally known as the 'Atari VCS' which stood for Video Computer System, the console's name was changed to the 'Atari 2600', which was taken from the unit's Atari part number CX2600 in 1982, following the release of their more advanced Atari 5200.

The Atari 2600 was typically sold complete with two joysticks, which were those classic Atari sticks that we all know and love, a conjoined pair of paddle controllers and one game for you to play.

The bundled game was initially Combat 4, which was later switched to the classic Pac Man.

To be fair the official Atari version of Pacman was really, really inexcusably poor; especially when you consider the Atari 2600 was the perfect home gaming console to play this on.

Despite these small flaws in marketing, the Atari 2600 went on to be a massive seller throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s.

As the 1980s wore on, 'Atari' was a synonym for this model in mainstream media and became the name that represented video games in general, especially in the United States.

In later and current years 'Nintendo' and 'PlayStation' have a similar effect.

A TV Advert For The Atari 2600

Atari 2600 Price Cutting

The initial price of the Atari 2600 was US$199 including the two joysticks and a Combat 4 cartridge.

It was up against the aforementioned Channel F from Fairchild, which was known as the VES or Video Entertainment System.

However, both systems ended up in the middle of an intensive round of price-cutting.

Stand alone Pong clone type consoles which were made obsolete by these newer and more powerful machines sold off their boxes at budget prices.

Sadly, many of these clone type manufacturers ended up out of business (which is always a shame), and both Fairchild and Atari were selling their consoles to a public that was completely fed up with 'Pong' type games.

Fairchild decided to stop manufacturing consoles, which in hindsight was an extremely poor decision: They had decided that video games were nothing more than a 'passing fad'.

With Fairchild dropping out of the race it left Atari with a clear road to produce both gaming hardware and software.

From this point on Atari would go from strength to strength...

The Atari 2600 'Woody'

The Atari 2600 also known as 'Woody'
The Atari 2600 also known as 'Woody'

Atari Space Invaders on the 2600 console

Pushing The Atari 2600 Hardware

Programmers soon began to push the Atari hardware further and more impressive titles were created for the machine.

Getting more and more out of the machine led to more exciting games, which in turn led the Atari 2600 becoming increasingly popular.

By the time 1979 had arrived the Atari 2600 was the best-selling Christmas gift (and console), mainly because of its exclusive content.

Roughly 1 million units were sold in that year alone!

Atari struck a good deal and licensed the smash arcade game Space Invaders, which increased the unit's popularity further still.

This home conversion of Space Invaders contributed to a whopping 2 million units being sold the following year. We all know just how popular those Invaders were...

These official licenses coupled with the cartridge system was the key to the success of the Atari 2600.

The mere fact that you could play hundreds of different games on one console with ease was way advanced to what had been on offer in the recent past. It really was a whole new concept for the home gamer.

A TV Advert For Atari Space Invaders

An Impressive Atari 2600 TV Advert From 1982

Yars Revenge On The Atari 2600

Embark On An Adventure...

Atari 2600 Model Revision

In 1980 the Atari 2600 was given a minor design revision in which the left and right difficulty switches were moved to the rear of the console.

In 1982 another version of the four-switch console was released without woodgrain chassis (people nowadays tend to prefer the original woodgrain version which is nicknamed 'Woody').

These newer 1982 units were nicknamed 'Darth Vader' consoles due to their all-black plastic appearance.

Appearances aside, it was still the same console underneath and was completely compatible with all of the existing Atari games.

These models were also the first consoles to be officially called Atari 2600, as the newer and more powerful Atari 5200 was released the same year.

As programmers increased their knowledge of with the hardware, more and more games were released.

It's vast (for the time of release) array of colours ( which allowed a whopping 128 in NTSC mode) displayed full colour graphics in games; a far cry from the monochrome days of those bat'n ball 'Pong' style efforts.

Not only that, the system was capable of producing decent sound effects and musical jingles.

Programmers learned how to maximise the use of the Atari's bitmapped sprites and could even make game characters change colour 'on the fly', again a superb feature in a video game at that time.

Over the years Atari themselves developed many classic games such as Yars Revenge, Adventure and the seminal Breakout.

Other well known developers such as Activison created titles such as Pitfall which sold over an incredible 4 million copies.

River-raid from the same company was also an excellent game that went on to be a huge seller.

The Atari 2600 cannot be underestimated; it really is a machine that ushered in the modern era of home console gaming and remains a popular retro item to this day.

The 'Darth' Atari 2600

The Less Sought After 1982 Revision Of The Atari 2600 - The 'Darth Vader' Atari
The Less Sought After 1982 Revision Of The Atari 2600 - The 'Darth Vader' Atari

The Classic Pitfall On The Atari 2600

The Awesome Shooter River Raid On The Atari 2600

Prepare To Qualify In Pole Position On The Atari 2600

Games that are a must play on the Atari 2600 console

If you pick up one of these machines, please try and give the following games a go.

The likes of Moon Patrol and River Raid were tailor made for this console and there is still some enjoyment to be had from them, even today.

All of these titles are well worth your time:

  • Frostbite
  • Keystone Kapers
  • Moon Patrol
  • Pitfall
  • Pole Position
  • River Raid
  • Solar Fox
  • Space Invaders
  • Yar's Revenge

All of these titles are classics for the Atari machine and are well worth adding to any Atari collection.

FrostBite on the Atari 2600

FrostBite is a worthy game for the Atari 2600 console
FrostBite is a worthy game for the Atari 2600 console

Tap Your Feet To Atari 2600 Moon Patrol


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