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Atari 2600 Video Computer System

The Atari Video Computer System (VCS), later called the Atari 2600, is the world’s first popular home video game system. The Atari VCS revolutionized the way we thought of video games and popularized the concept of a game console in the home. The Atari 2600’s massive success made it a pop culture icon and turned Atari into a household name synonymous with video games.

The 2600 was introduced in September, 1977 and remained in production until 1992, going on to become one of the longest-selling, most popular video game systems in history. Its one-button joysticks and graphics are basic, fun, and can be incredibly challenging. It was initially designed to play simple games like PONG and Breakout, but as sales skyrocketed, savvy programmers devised creative new ways of pushing the 2600’s limits. Paddle Controllers, Touch Pads, Trak-Balls and add-on peripherals also came to define Atari gameplay. The Atari 2600’s legendary shape was created by designer Fred Thompson, and engineered by Doug Hardy.
 

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Icons of a generation.

Atari 2600 Video Computer System Games

The Atari 2600 is overflowing with culture-defining games. Asteroids, Missile Command, Space Invaders, Centipede, Warlords, Defender, Super Breakout, Pitfall, Galaxian, Dig Dug, Pac-Man, and hundreds more defined a generation. Atari was the first to license an arcade games for play on a home console and when Atari released Space Invaders, sales of the Atari 2600 quadrupled almost overnight. Space Invaders became the first “killer app” for any console, and shot the 2600’s popularity into the stratosphere.

 
 


 

Ignite the phosphorescence.

There’s stunning beauty in the simplicity of Atari 2600 games. It’s fun and strategy boiled down to their most basic elements. The lack of advanced graphics prompts your brain to imagine beyond the screen. The most simple-looking games become a catalyst for amazing imagination-fueled adventures. Particularly late at night in the warm analog glow of pixels blasting across the TV screen. Ignite the phosphorescence and experience Atari’s electronic LSD.

Yars' Revenge Atari 2600 Video Computer System Game


 

 

Howard Scott Warshaw Atari ET Yars' Revenge

“Turning the television from a passive medium into an active medium, that was what we knew we were doing, and that was super exciting to be the pioneers in that field. It just blew people away!”
 
– Howard Scott Warshaw, Atari Game Designer

 

 


 

As culturally significant as the Coke bottle.

The Atari 2600’s joystick is as much a cultural touchstone as the Coke bottle. For almost 40 years its silhouette has been an icon for video games. The Atari 2600 has its own postage stamp, Yars’ Revenge is in the Museum of Modern Art, and some of the E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial cartridges once buried in the New Mexico desert now belong to the Smithsonian. The Atari 2600 is living history. It introduced us to the basic concept a console. It was all popularized for the very first time by Atari 2600.

Atari 2600 Joystick

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Atari games, the way they were meant to be played.

Too often the Atari experience is lost in translation. Atari Flashback consoles have brought classic games to a whole new generation, and emulation democratizes gaming for everybody. But many times there’s something missing. It’s a feeling. An ethereal emotion triggered through the glowing phosphorescence of a television set, or graphics flickering along the curvature of a screen. When you play an Atari game the way they were meant to be played – on an actual Atari – you’re getting the genuine experience. The feel of the joystick in your hand. The responsiveness of the paddle. The artwork on the cartridge label. It’s a window back through time. It all adds up to a sum greater than its parts and it’s an experience that cannot be replicated any other way. Real Atari systems touch our hearts, and that’s something that’s truly magical.

 
 


 

The absolute sexiness of Atari prototypes.

Prototype Atari games and consoles can be insanely rare. They’re cool because they open a gateway into the minds of their creators and hint at an alternate history of what Atari could’ve been. Collecting prototypes is digital archeology. It’s an adventure hunting down lost prototypes and uncovering their hidden secrets. ROM revisions and differences from retail games begin to surface. Those artifacts from the past help to tell a story of their creation. Many Atari prototypes came in black label ”Lab Loaner” cartridges. Then you have the absolute sexiness of the Mario Bros. prototype shown below. It’s essentially two prototypes in one: a Mario Bros. EPROM prototype of the game, placed inside a clear engineering sample cartridge. How awesome to think that this would be one of the very first video game cartridges in the world ever to bear the name “Mario Bros.” and take Mario & Luigi on their first adventure together.

Atari 2600 Mario Bros. Prototype Cartridge Clear 7800 5200 Nintendo NES Famicom Arcade

 


 

Homebrew up the wazoo.

The Atari 2600 has one of the largest, fastest growing, most vibrant homebrew communities in all of classic gaming. Though the Atari 2600 ended its run in 1992, new games are still being developed and sold today. They’re being created and designed by the same people who love to play them: gamers, hobbyists, people who love Atari just like you. Homebrewing gives hobbyists a chance to build something they love and share it with the world. For the rest of us, they’re breathing life into the 2600 and giving us more new games, year after year.

 
 


 

 

Manny Gerard Atari Warner Communications

“In 1981, this is a company that made operating profits of something like $375 million dollars. It was beyond comprehension, the fastest growing company in American history. This was an explosion! Even those of us who were in the middle of it were shaking our heads going ‘Oh my god, this is amazing!’ We were the most successful coin-op company, we were the dominant consumer company, and we went around literally saying to ourselves ‘What are the categories of games, what are the capabilities of the 2600, where is this industry going?’”
 
– Manny Gerard, Co-Chief Operating Officer, Warner Communications 1974-1984

 

 


 

Atari Mindlink 2600 7800 Prototype

Atari MindLink System

Atari MindLink was a wireless game controller in the form of a headband that allowed users to interact with video games using just their “minds”. A $99 box set with game cartridge included was being readied in time for the 1984 holiday shopping season, but was canceled when Atari, Inc. was sold.

While MindLink couldn’t exactly read your brain waves, it did read the electrical impulses from your head and used IR to wirelessly transmit them to an Atari 2600, 7800, or computer where they moved objects on the screen. Race cars would turn, paddles would move and planets would be destroyed. An eye-tracking module was proposed as the MindLink system’s next big leap, so that on-screen objects could be moved merely by looking at them. Using your hands to play video games would have looked like a baby’s toy.

 

More about Atari MindLink

 
 


 

 

Walter Isaacson Steve Jobs Atari

“The Atari experience helped shape Steve Jobs’ approach to business and design. He appreciated the user friendliness of Atari’s “Insert quarter, avoid Klingons” games. That simplicity rubbed off on him, and made him a very focused product person.”
 
– Walter Isaacson, Writer & Journalist

 

 


 

Atari 2800

Atari 2800 Japanese VCS

Atari entered Japan in 1983 with the Atari 2800 – a sleek new Atari 2600 with features specifically designed for the Japanese market. The Atari 2800 had four controller ports, flush-mounted option buttons across the face of the console, and an innovative all-in-one controller design that integrated Atari’s 270° paddle controller into an 8-way joystick stalk.

The 2800 was the first Atari system specifically designed for the Japanese market and was released with about 35 of Atari’s most popular games. Atari faced real competition from Nintendo and did not sell well in Japan compared to the Famicom (NES) released that same year. The Atari 2800 remains the only truly “rare” Atari console that is still quite challenging to find.

 

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Retroist Podcast Atari
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Retroist Podcast Presents Atari 2600


 

 
Listen to the Atari 2600 story, now on the Retroist podcast.

Subscribe:   iTunes  |  RSS  |  Learn more

 

 


 

 

Atari 2600 Tech Specs

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Price
$199 at launch (Atari 2600 VCS, 1977)
$49 at relaunch (Atari 2600 Jr, 1986)

 
 


 

Retail Availability
1977 until 1992

 
 


 

Graphics
Atari 8-bit graphics40-by-192 resolution and 128 colors with support for 160-by-192 resolution by combining sprite and play field pixels; TIA Custom Graphics & Sound Controller.

 
 


 

Sprites
2 Players and a Missile. 2 Player sprites: 8-by-192 pixels (NTSC). Player, ball, and missile sprites use pixels that are 1/4 the width of playfield pixels (unless stretched). Ball and missile sprites: 1-by-192 pixels (NTSC). 20 Pixel register mirrored or copied, left to right, achieving width of 40 pixels.

 
 


 

Processor
6507 (Cost-reduced custom 6502)

 
 


 

Speed
1.19 MHz

 
 


 

Memory
128 Bytes RAM (internal RIOT chip), additional RAM may be included in game cartridges. 4K Cartridge ROM without bankswitching, 32K+ with bank switching.

 
 


 

Audio
Atari 2600 TIA (Television Interface Adaptor) custom chip, 2 channels of 1-Bit monaural sound with 4-Bit volume control.

 
 


 

I/O
I/O handled by TIA (Television Interface Adaptor) and RIOT (6532 RAM-I/O Timer) chip. Joystick and console switch I/O handled byte 6532 RIOT and TIA. 2 Joystick ports, 1 Cartridge bay, Power, RF Output. Six console switches: Power, Color/BW, Player difficulty settings (A and B), Select, and Reset. Game cartridges can assign alternate meanings to switches, with the exception of the Power switch.

 
 


 

Input
Atari Joystick

Atari Paddle Controllers

Atari Driving Controller

Atari Trak-Ball Controller

Atari 2600 Keypad Controller

Atari 2600 Kid’s Controller

Atari 2600 Star Raiders Video Touch Pad

Atari ProLine Joystick

Atari 7800 Control Pad

Atari XG-1 Light Gun

Atari MindLink Controller (unreleased)

Independently produced Atari-compatible controllers

 
 


 

In the Box
Atari 2600 Video Computer System Game Console

Atari Joysticks (2x)

Atari 2600 Video Game Cartridge (Originally Combat, eventually replaced by Pac-Man)

Television Connections (RF Switch Box + Cable)

Power cord

Warranty card and Instructions

 
 


 

Why 1984 was like “1984”.

Why 1984 was like “1984”.

 

Manny Gerard Atari Warner Communications

“ET comes out, and ET is not so great, and somewhere towards the end of the year I’m starting to wonder ‘Are we making our numbers?’ Which leads to one of the worst nights in my life. On December 7, 1982 I get a call from Dennis Groth, who was the Chief Financial Officer of Atari, and he says ‘Manny, here’s the new budget.’ and it’s a HUGE shortfall from what we’ve been told. It was unraveling hard and fast, and we didn’t have any ready solutions. The wild upside ride was over. I did NOT understand the extent of the downside ride that was coming.”
 
– Manny Gerard, Co-Chief Operating Officer, Warner Communications 1974-1984

 

 

“1984” began on December 7, 1982. It was a Tuesday morning. Something had gone terribly wrong. During a routine stockholder meeting Atari announced financial projections of a 10-15% increase in profit, falling far short of the 50%+ that had been expected. Wall Street analysts were shocked. Just imagine if this were to happen today at Apple or Google.

To make matters worse, Atari’s CEO Ray Kassar had sold 5,000 shares of stock in Warner Communications only 23 minutes prior to the announcement, resulting in allegations of illegal insider trading from the Securities and Exchange Commission, who accused Kassar and Atari Inc. Chief Financial Officer Dennis Groth of trading stock with illegal insider knowledge. Atari’s parent company, multi-media conglomerate Warner Communications, watched in horror as their stock lost nearly 40% of its value on the next day, leaving Warner susceptible to a hostile takeover which Rupert Murdoch would attempt in 1983.

 

 

Howard Scott Warshaw Atari ET Yars' Revenge

“I wasn’t thinking that something was really messed up until late ’83. I was starting to see enough signs in the company that things were starting to unravel. This is slipping away. The train is derailing, it’s not going to keep riding, and what am I going to do next?”
 
– Howard Scott Warshaw, Atari Game Designer

 

 

The December 7th events contributed to a sudden, violent recession that nearly killed the video game industry. Atari had been the fastest growing company in American history. By 1984 it was hemorrhaging more than half a Billion dollars. (Yes, Billion with a “B”.) Atari’s growing financial predicament, along with accusations of illegal insider trading by the SEC and other factors culminated in Ray Kassar’s resignation from the company. The video game industry had fallen off a cliff.

Warner Chief Executive Steve Ross had tapped James J. Morgan to replace Kassar, and lead Atari into a new era. Morgan was recognized for his steadfast leadership and ability to connect with employees in the trenches. While competitors like Mattel and Coleco were shuttering their video game ventures, Atari was implementing a series of strategies to strengthen the company and spark a new video game revolution.

1984 would see the 7800’s introduction as Atari’s flagship model featuring arcade-like gameplay, and the 2600’s fresh redesign and new low price. A futuristic game system and new chipsets were being readied for the next generation of Atari computers and arcade machines. Brilliant advertising was to coincide with Atari’s sponsorship of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Warner was again assuring James Morgan and the public that Atari was here to stay and had the long-term backing of Warner Communications, with Ross and Morgan jointly announcing that Atari would consolidate its sprawl of 50+ buildings into a new, high-tech Silicon Valley campus the following year. James Morgan, while far from perfect, was performing miracles and Warner was promising not to give up on Atari.

Warner lied.

 

 

Howard Scott Warshaw Atari ET Yars' Revenge

“So they got rid of Ray Kassar, and they brought in a guy from Phillip-Morris. And when he came in Atari had 10,000 employees, and within about four or five months Atari had 2,000 employees. I really got that we had lost 80% of our staff.”
 
– Howard Scott Warshaw, Atari Game Designer

 

 

What Morgan didn’t know was what top brass at Warner Communications had kept secret all along – Atari was for sale. For weeks, Steve Ross had been personally presenting Atari to potential buyers like Disney and Phillips, while assuring the public and James Morgan that they wouldn’t sell. Desperate to get Atari off the books, Warner broke the company into pieces, retaining the arcade division while selling off Atari’s Home Consumer Division and other assets in what many saw as a fire sale.

It was the deal of a lifetime. Steve Ross had personally called Commodore founder Jack Tramiel to pitch him the idea of buying Atari. Tramiel had recently left Commodore under dark circumstances and was attempting to re-enter the home computer industry with his sons. Steve Ross convinced Tramiel that purchasing Atari and positioning it as a computer company would be the best way to fight Commodore. Ross worked a deal with Tramiel where Warner Communications essentially lent Jack Tramiel the money to buy Atari.

Thousands of Atari employees were fired, and announcements of “stormtroopers” entering the building were broadcast over the PA system. Employees tossed games and equipment out of office windows and into their cars. On July 1st, 1984 Atari as the world had known it came to an end. Nintendo was about to replace Atari as the brand synonymous with video games.

 

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