If you are old enough and/or you have studied the history af video games you’ll know that Atari MEANS video games. The company that back then has been the fastest growing compnay in all the US, capable to release tons of games and make astonishing profits was the same company that redefined, or better DEFINED video games how we know them today. Well, their flagship, their marvellous masterpiece, the Video Computer System, better known as VCS and even better as Atari 2600 have just turned 40, since it has been released on September 11th, 1977.
So, one day late I’d like to conjure up the story of the 2600, a console I’m very fond of since it was the one that started my experience of retro games collector.
The story in a nutshell
Resuming the story of Atari 2600 in a nutshell is just crazy.
In the early 70s Nolan Bushnell and his Atari were doing very well. They released some successful arcade products and in 1975 they released an home console, one of the first, that was a clone of the super famous PONG. The success was immense since it was finally possible to play and arcade game comfortably on the sofa of the living room and in a few months the console sold 150k units: definitely a remarkable number for the times.
The next step was to create a console that allowed players to enjoy some of the most important arcade games, graphically more advanced and with the possibility to change from game to game. The project, codename Stella or CX2600, was based on the MOS 6507 CPU. In 1976, the release of the Fairchild Channel F proved even more that the concept of a cartridge based console was the road to take but Bushnell was short on money and his console were still far from being completed. Knowing that if he had waited further he would have been out of the competition, he sold his company to Warner Communications that quickly boosted the development until they released on September 11th, 1977 the Atari VCS.
The VCS was retailed at 199$, quite a lot of money back then and it was sold along with two controllers, a paddle and the game Combat; other 8 games were available at the launch. In the first months nobody would have thought the VCS would have been successful: the video game market was not yet exploded so the sales were lukewarm. However, after some months of break-in, in 1979 Atari started to release its famous arcade ports and the sales started to grow expomentially so the VCS, first became the reference among the home consoles and then virtually the only protagonist in a dispute without contenders for the control of the gaming market.
The “first” life of the VCS ended in 1982: after Mattel released the more powerful Intellivision, Atari started to develop the successor of the VCS and in 1982 put on the market the 5200, rebranding at the same time the VCS as 2600. To give an idea of the success of the console, in 1982 Atari registered a turnover of 5 billion dollars. In a market now dominated by 2nd generation consoles but in which still it could be found some 1st generation veterans (PONG clones) so consoles with just one game, Atari was more than a major and had a range of titles that was impressive: more than 70 games.
Then, the crash. We all know more or less how whan happenened in 1983 and, being Atari the major contender, was the one that concurred to the implosion of the market and the one that suffered the most, at least in terms of turnover. The fail of some highly advertised titles, such as PacMan and E.T. led Atari almost on the brink of bancruptcy.
The huge losses led Warner Communication to sell the computer division (that was a few year before the more profitable division of the whole company) to Commodore former CEO Jack Tramiel that christened it Atari Corporation.
The copany was reorganized, the price of the 2600 was cut to 40/50$, trasforming it in an extry-level console (even because it started to be an old piece, being 7-8 years old, but with an immense games library); this intuition extended its lifespam and the 2600 along with all its restyling (Darth Vader and Atari Jr. overall) was still sold until the beginning of 90s outside the US after more that 15 years from the original release, literally an aeon in the home console history. That was possible because the successors of the console, Atari 5200 and 7800 never reached the peak of sales of he original one and Atari itself was more interested in developing software for the 2600.
The CPU of the 2600 is a MOS 6507, son of the 6502, one of the most famous chip ever produced, that lived in the heart of products like Commodore PET, Apple II, Atari 8-bit line, BBC Micro and Vic-20. The 6507 is actually a downsized version of the original 6502, with a reduced number of pins: this allowed to save some space but on the other hand reduced the amount of memory to 8k, further reduced to 4k for the expansion port, instead of the 64k initially available on the 6502 chip.
The Atari 2600 was a successful and longeve console and we can say the same about its controllers. The famous single-buttoned joystick was so popular hat some of the later consoles had the same port on their units (I can cite as an example the Sega Master System released in 1987, 10 years later the release of the 2600).
The graphics of the Atari 2600 were managed by Television Interface Adapter (TIA) that generates a screen of 160×192 pixels with a palette of 128 colors (with a maximum of 4 per line without tricks). Since I’m not an engineer and since my english is quite limited I cannot fully describe how TIA works but I can tell it was designed by Jay Miner, one of the designers of the Amiga.
This is a huge chapter
During the lifespan of the Atari 2600 more than 500 games were released a number that is remarkable even today, so you can imagine how it could have been back then. Depending on the source the number can vary but for sure it’s a big one. Initially all the games were produced exclusively from Atari and in some case licensed to Sears. It was absolutely common at the time that the parent company had the monopoly on the production of the games but the things changed in 1980 when the first third-party company, Activision, released 4 games compatible with Atari. This event had huge implications back then: Atari sued Activision, led by four former Atari developers but eventually lost the case, opening the door to a swarm of third-parties products that flooded the market with (in some cases) games with very limited playability if not complete distaster (and this was another of the causes of 1983 crash).
Initially there were only 9 games available for the 2600: Combat, sold bundle with the console, Air-Sea Battle, Basic Math, Blackjack, Indy 500, Starship, Street Racer, Surround and Video Olympics. The graphics were still quite rudimental but they were in line with other conoles released in the same period.
What made Atari famous and rich beyond belief were the conversion of the popular coin-op games of the times. That was possible giving the huge financial resources of Time Warner that secured the most expensive (and profitable) licenses: Atari released in 1978 Breakout, in 1980 Space Invaders, in 1981 Asteroids, in 1982 Centipede and Defender, just to cite the most important.
Another genre Atari pioneered was that of the games based on movies: we’ve already cited E.T. for which Time Warner cough up betwen 20 and 25 million dollars, a ridiculous amount of money in 1982, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, always on 1982.
In the Atari 2600 games library can be found everything, from shining gems to trash, even because they had no controls on the games released from the console from the third parties (and this explains why Nintendo introduced the Seal of Quality and severe restrictions regarding the games published by third parties and why this strange move was a success): you can find superb games like Yars’ Revenge, Battlezone, Pole Position, Solaris and Commando Raid or horrible titles like Pac-Man, E.T. and Pac Kong.
For sure some ot the most famous games of the 80s belong to the Atari 2600: Millipede, the Swordquest series, Joust, Dig Dug and Adventure all hit the Atari masterpiece. A huge part of Atari success came also from third parties, especially from Activision and Imagic: some of their best games were also the best selling games for the console and/or some of the best games ever released, of course considering they’re now more than 30 years old. From Acivision we can cite Keysttone Kapers, River Raid and their most successful game, Pitfall! that is also the 2nd best selling games for the 2600 after Pac-Man with more than 4 millions copies sold (and considering Pac-Man troubled story we can almost consider Pitfall! the best selling game…); from Imagic, a company that emerged among others not only for the quality of their games but also for the care they put on the packaging, we can remember Atlantis, Star Voyager, Demon Attack, Cosmic Ark and Dragonfire (of which I proudly own a copy).
The last licensed game released for the console in America was Secret Quest in 1989 while in Europe Acid Drop was released in 1992. Yes, 1992. And yes, someone released a game for the 2600 while Ninendo was putting on sale the SNES.
There are at least 20 games for the console that sold more than a million copies (a number that was impressive at the time):
- Pac-Man (7,7 millions)
- Pitfall! (4,5 millions)
- Asteroids (3,8 millions)
- Missile Command (2,7 millions)
- Space Invaders (2,5 millions)
- Demon Attack (2 millions)
- Frogger (2 millions)
- Mario Bros. (1,6 millions)
- E.T. (1,5 millions)
- Donkey Kong (1,4 millions)
- Adventure (1,3 millions)
- Breakout (1 million)
- Laserblast (1 million)
- Freeway (1 million)
- Kaboom! (1 million)
- Yars’ Revenge (1 million)
- Atlantis (1 million)
- Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1 million)
- Cosmic Ark (1 million)
- Megamania (1 million)
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (1 million)
- River Raid (1 million)
Being one of the most popular and successful consoles of all time, a large community of homebrewers started to develop games and today we can count almost 50 new games with the number bound to increase year after year.
For some years, Atari 2600, with more than 30 millions units sold, remained the best selling console of all time; the record was eventually broken by Nintendo with its NES in the late 80s when the console became famous all over the world.
The success led some companies to release consoles that was compatible or backward compatible with the 2600. Coleco released for its ColecoVision an expansion that transformed the console in a proper Atari 2600 allowing people to play the widest range of games available at the time; always Coleco release a proper clone, the Gemini. Atari itself, when released the 5200, developed it in order to ensure backward compatibility with the immense 2600 library.
The 2600 has been the peak for Atari that never replied the numbers and the turnovers they had with this extraordinary piece. On the contrary it seemed like everything they made after the 2600 was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In 1982 they released Atari 5200 but the sales were dramatic: only 1 millions of units sold. The successor of the 2600 came on the market during the turmoils of 1983 and was discontinued two years after, in 1984. The love that the public was showing for the 2600 was killing Atari projects: just to have an idea, Coleco in 2 months sold more that 150k adapters for the ColecoVision (the ones that transformed it into an Atari 2600) and in the end Coleco won the “war of the poor” over the 5200.
in 1984 Atari canned the 5200 willing to release another console which eventually came out in 1986. At that time the company that only a few years earlier was the uncontested leader in the gaming market was now struggling to survive, killed by the “new consoles” released elsewhere, namely in Japan. Namely NES. The 7800 had an even more dramatic fate: it sold the same amount of units than the 5200 but in a longer amount of time with the most successful game being Pole Position II which sold slighltly less than 1 million copies, just because it was sold bundled witht he console. Atari 7800 was officially discontinued January 1st, 1992: during the same year, units of the original Atari 2600 were still sold around the world.
The two consoles were doomed to the catastrophe from the beginning, since Atari prefered to continue to develop titles for the 2600 instead of “forcing” third parties to relase new games for the 5200 and 7800.
Even with handhelds Atari had no fortune: the Lynx, the first console of that kind released by the company, between 1989 and 1995 sold only 3 million copies. For comparison, Lynx’ direct contenders were Game Gear, which was an half failure but sold 11 million copies and Nintendo Game Boy, the most successful handheld of all time which sold, in its various forms, way more than 100 millions units.
Atari’s swan song was in 1994 when Jaguar was released. Even if, at first, the sales were encouraging, the difficulties the programmers encountered to develop games, the consequent limited library and in the end the birth of a new successful contender, Sony with its PlayStation, killed once for all Atari’s wishful thinking. Discontinued in 1996 after the misery of 250k units sold, the Jaguar led Atari to failure.
In almost 20 years, from 1977 to 1996, the company experienced and extraordinary success and a miserble ending in one of the most incredible rollercoaster enterprises in history.