Atari VCS four-switch "wood veneer" version, dating from 1980 to 1982
|Also known as||Atari VCS (before November 1982)|
|Type||Home video game console|
|Introductory price||US$199 (equivalent to $803.65 in 2017)|
|Discontinued||January 1, 1992|
|Units sold||30 million (As of 2004)|
|CPU||8-bit MOS Technology 6507 @ 1.19 MHz|
|Memory||128 bytes RAM|
|Best-selling game||Pac-Man, 7 million (As of September 1, 2006)|
The Atari 2600 (or Atari Video Computer System before November 1982) is a home video game console from Atari, Inc. Released on September 11, 1977, it is credited with popularizing the use of microprocessor-based hardware and games contained on ROM cartridges, a format first used with the Fairchild Channel F in 1976. This contrasts with the older model of having dedicated hardware that could play only those games that were physically built into the unit. The 2600 was bundled with two joystick controllers, a conjoined pair of paddle controllers, and a game cartridge: initially Combat, and later Pac-Man.
For five years, 1977 until November 1982, the system was officially sold as the Atari Video Computer System, abbreviated as Atari VCS or simply VCS. Following the release of the Atari 5200 in November 1982, the VCS was renamed to the "Atari 2600", after the unit's Atari part number, CX2600.
Ted Dabney and Nolan Bushnell developed the Atari gaming system in the 1970s. Originally operating under the name "Syzygy", Bushnell and Dabney changed the name of their company to "Atari" in 1972. In 1973, Atari, Inc. had purchased engineering think tank 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 use custom logic to play a small number of games, its core was an 8-bit CPU combined with a RAM-and-I/O chip and a display and sound chip known as the Television Interface Adaptor (TIA).
In 1976, Fairchild Semiconductor released their own CPU-based system, the Video Entertainment System, the first to use ROM cartridges for games. Stella was still not ready for production, and Atari didn't have the cash flow to complete the system quickly. 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.
Launch and success
The unit was originally priced at US$199 ($804 adjusted for inflation), and shipped with two joysticks and a Combat cartridge (eight additional games were available at launch and sold separately). In a move to compete directly with the Channel F, Atari 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. When Fairchild learned of Atari's naming, they quickly changed the name of their system to become the Channel F. Both systems were now in the midst of a vicious round of price-cutting, however: 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 were selling to a public that was completely burnt out on Pong. In 1977, Atari sold 250,000 Video Computer Systems.
For the first year of production, the Video Computer System was manufactured in Sunnyvale, California. The consoles manufactured there had 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 founder Nolan Bushnell to leave the company in 1978. Despite Bushnell's retirement in 1978, Warren Robinett's invention of the first action-adventure game, Adventure, was developed the same year and changed the fundamentals of gaming as it unlocked a game with a "virtual space bigger than the screen". 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. By 1979, the VCS was the best-selling Christmas gift (and console), due to its exclusive content, and 1 million units were sold that year.
Atari then licensed the arcade hit Space Invaders by Taito, which greatly increased the unit's popularity when it was released in January 1980, doubling sales to over 2 million units. The VCS and its cartridges were the main factor behind Atari grossing more than $2 billion in 1980. Sales then doubled again for the next two years; by 1982, the console had sold 10 million units, while its best-selling game Pac-Man sold 7 million copies. The console also sold 450,000 units in West Germany by 1984. By 1982 the 2600 console cost Atari about $40 to make and was sold for an average of $125. The company spent $4.50 to $6 to manufacture each cartridge and $1 to $2 for advertising, and sold it for $18.95 wholesale.
Third party development
The small group of game programmers at Atari grew disgruntled with the company for not crediting developers and for not sharing in the profit of games. After Rob Fulop's port of Missile Command sold over 2 million copies, Atari rewarded him with a certificate for a free turkey. Three Atari programmers left to co-found Activision in 1979, and their games quickly became as popular as those of Atari itself. Atari attempted to block third-party development for the 2600 in court, but failed. Rob Fulop co-founded Imagic, with his first game for the company, Demon Attack, becoming a hit.
Other VCS-focused game development companies that sprang up in the early 1980s include US Games, Telesys, Games by Apollo, Data Age, Zimag, Mystique, and CommaVid. Mattel and Coleco, each already producing its own more advanced console, created simplified versions of existing titles for the 2600. Mattel used the M Network brand name for its cartridges.
Decline and Redesign
Atari continued to acquire licenses for the 2600, the most prominent of which included Pac-Man—which critics slammed as "Flicker-Man"—and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which was designed and programmed in six weeks. Public disappointment with these two games and the market saturation of poor third-party titles are cited as triggers for the video game crash of 1983. In September 1983, Atari buried 14 truckloads of cartridges and other equipment in the New Mexico desert; an event later labeled the Atari video game burial. Warner quickly grew tired of supporting Atari, and started looking for buyers in 1984.
By mid-1984 most software development for the 2600 had stopped except by Atari and Activision. The 2600 was de-emphasized for two years after Warner's 1984 sale of Atari, Inc.'s Consumer Division to Commodore founder Jack Tramiel, who wanted to concentrate on home computers. He ended all development of console games.
In 1986 Atari Corporation released a redesigned model of the 2600, supported by an ad campaign touting a price of "under 50 bucks." The same year, Atari also introduced the Atari 7800 ProSystem, a third generation console backward compatible with 2600 cartridges. With a large library of games and a low price point, the 2600 continued to sell into the late 1980s. Atari released a final batch of titles in 1989-90 including Secret Quest and Fatal Run. The final Atari-licensed release is the PAL-only port of the arcade game KLAX in 1990.
In 1980, the VCS was given an update 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 Atari rebranded the console as the "Atari 2600," a name first used on a version of the four-switch model without woodgrain, giving it an all black appearance.
Atari continued their OEM relationship with Sears under the latter's Tele-Games brand, which started in 1975 with the original Pong. (The company Telegames, which later produced cartridges for the 2600, is unrelated.) Sears released several models of the VCS as the Sears Video Arcade series starting in 1977. In 1983, the previously Japan-only Atari 2800 was rebranded as the Sears Video Arcade II.
Sears released versions of Atari's games with Tele-Games branding, usually with different titles. Three games were produced by Atari for Sears as exclusive releases: Steeplechase, Stellar Track, and Submarine Commander.
The Atari 2800 is the Japanese version of the 2600 released in October 1983. It was the first release of a 2600 designed specifically for the Japanese market, despite companies like Epoch distributing the 2600 in Japan previously. It was released a short time after Nintendo's Family Computer, which became the dominant console in Japan, and the 2800 did not gain a significant share of the market. Sears released the 2800 in the US in 1983 as the Sears Video Arcade II packaged with two controllers and Space Invaders. Around 30 specially branded games were released for the 2800.
Designed by engineer Joe Tilly, the 2800 has four controller ports instead of the two of the 2600. The controllers are an all-in one design using a combination of an 8-direction digital joystick and a 270-degree paddle, designed by John Amber. The 2800's case design departed from the 2600, using a wedge shape with non-protruding switches. The case style was used as the basis for the Atari 7800's case designed by Barney Huang.
Atari 2600 Jr.
The 1986 model, unofficially referred to as the 2600 Jr., features a smaller, cost-reduced form factor with a modernized, Atari 7800-like appearance. The redesigned 2600 was advertised as a budget gaming system (under US$49.99) that has the ability to run a large collection of classic games. Though released after the video game crash of 1983, and after the North American launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the 2600 was supported with new games and television commercials promoting "The fun is back!" Later European versions of the 2600 Jr. include a joypad, which is also featured with the European 7800. Atari released several minor stylistic variations of the 2600 Jr. design: the "large rainbow" (shown at right) , "short rainbow," and an all-black version sold only in Ireland.
The CPU is the MOS Technology 6507, a version of the 6502, running at 1.19 MHz in the 2600. Though their internal silicon was identical, the 6507 was cheaper than the 6502 because its package included fewer memory-address pins—13 instead of 16.
The designers of the Atari 2600 selected an inexpensive cartridge interface that had one fewer address than the 13 allowed by the 6507, further reducing the already limited addressable memory to 4 kB (212 = 4096). This was believed to be sufficient as Combat was itself only 2 kB. Later games get around this limitation with bank switching. The maximum supported cartridge size is 32 kilobytes.
The console has only 128 bytes of RAM for run-time data that includes the call stack and the state of the game world. There is no frame buffer. Instead the video device has two bitmapped sprites, two 1-pixel "missile" sprites, a 1-pixel "ball", and a 40-pixel "playfield" that is drawn by writing a bit pattern for each line into a register just before the television scans that line. As each line is scanned, a game must identify the non-sprite objects that overlaps 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 is a mirrored duplicate of the left; to control it separately, the software may modify the patterns as the scan line is drawn. After the controller scans the last active line, a more leisurely vertical blanking interval begins, during which the game can process inputs and update the positions & states of objects in the game world. Any mistake in timing produces visual artifacts, a problem that programmers call "racing the beam".
The 2600's video hardware is therefore highly flexible, but also challenging to program. One advantage the 2600 has over more powerful contemporary competitors such as the ColecoVision is that the 2600 has no protection against altering settings in mid-line. For example, although each sprite nominally has only one color, it is possible to color the rows differently by changing the sprite's color as it is drawn. If the two hardware sprites are not enough for a game, a developer may share one sprite among several objects (as with the ghosts in Pac-Man) or draw software sprites, which is only a little more difficult than drawing a fixed playfield. The Pitfall! screenshot (section: "Games") demonstrates some of these tricks: the player is a multicolor 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.
Atari established their system design in order to be compatible with the cathode-ray tube television sets in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Atari 2600 uses different color palettes depending on the television signal format used. With the NTSC format, a 128-color palette is available, while in PAL, only 104 colors are available. Additionally, the SECAM palette consists of only 8 colors.
The VCS originally shipped with two types of controllers: a joystick (part number CX10) and pair of rotary paddle controllers (CX30). Driving controllers, which are similar to paddle controllers but can be continuously rotated, shipped with the Indy 500 launch title. After less than a year, the CX10 joystick was replaced with the CX40 model designed by James C. Asher. Because the Atari joystick port and CX40 joystick became industry standards, 2600 joysticks and some other peripherals work with later systems, including MSX, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari 8-bit family, and Atari ST. The CX40 joystick can be used with the Master System, and Sega Genesis, but does not provide all the buttons of a native controller. Third-party controllers include Wico's Command Control joystick.
Atari introduced the CX50 Keyboard Controller in June 1978, along with two games that required it: Codebreaker and Hunt & Score. The CX22 Trak-Ball controller was announced in January 1983 and was compatible with the Atari 8-bit family.
In 1977, nine games were released on cartridge to accompany the launch of the machine, including Air-Sea Battle, Star Ship and Street Racer. During the console's lifetime, Atari, Inc. and Atari Corp. published many titles: these games included Adventure (often credited as starting the action-adventure game genre), Breakout, and Yars' Revenge.
Rick Maurer's port of Taito's Space Invaders, released in 1980, was the first VCS title to sell over a million copies—eventually doubling that. It became the killer app to drive console sales. Versions of Atari's own Asteroids and Missile Command arcade games, released the following year, were also major hits.
Atari 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, was protested by women's and Native American groups because it depicted General George Armstrong Custer raping a bound Native American woman. Atari sued Mystique in court over the release of the game.
The Atari VCS—and later as the 2600—was wildly successful in the late 1970s and early 1980s, to where "Atari" was a synonym for the system in mainstream media and, by extension, for video games in general.
The Atari 2600 was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame at The Strong in Rochester, New York, in 2007. In 2009, the Atari 2600 was named the number two console of all time by IGN, who cited its remarkable role as the console behind both the first video game boom and the video game crash of 1983, and called it "the console that our entire industry is built upon".
Clones and reissues
Modern Atari 2600 clones remain on the market. The Atari Classics 10-in-1 TV Game, manufactured by Jakks Pacific, emulates the 2600 console and includes converted versions of 10 games into a single Atari-brand-lookalike joystick with composite-video outputs for connecting directly to modern televisions or VCRs. The TV Boy includes 127 games in an enlarged joypad.
The Atari Flashback 2 console, released in 2005, contains 40 games (with four additional programs unlockable by a cheat code). The console implements the original 2600 architecture and can be modified to play original 2600 cartridges by adding a cartridge port, and is also compatible with original 2600 controllers.
In 2017, Hyperkin announced the RetroN 77, a clone of the Atari 2600 video game console. Unlike recent clones in the Atari Flashback series, the RetroN 77 will play original cartridges as opposed to containing pre-installed games. The console was expected to launch during the 2017 holiday season. The Retron 77 comes with four pack in homebrew games; Astronomer, Baby, Muncher 77 and Nexion 3D.
The Atari 2700 was a version of the 2600 using wireless controllers.
The Atari 2000 (model number CX-2000) was a version of the Atari 2600 intended to be released as a cheaper alternative in 1982. Although identical in specification to the original 2600, the 2000 included built-in controllers and an unusual case design originally intended to be black, but later recolored blue. The project was halted in favor of the Atari 2600 Jr.
Atari started work on a replacement to the 2600, called the Atari 3200. It was to be compatible with 2600 cartridges, and was rumored to be based on a 10-bit processor, although design documents shows it was to actually be based around the 8-bit 6502. It was still unfinished when preliminary game programmers discovered that it was difficult to program. Atari cloned the Atari 3200 into the Sears Super Arcade II, but this was never released.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Atari 2600.|
- Gamasutra's A History of Gaming Platforms: Atari 2600 Video Computer System/VCS
- Inside the Atari 2600
- A history of the Atari VCS/2600
- batari Basic page