Atari VCS label variations
by Scott Stilphen
Determining if a cart you have is an original release or a re-release depends mostly on what type of label(s) it has. You can’t rely on any one specific detail; there are many factors involved: type font/color, picture/no picture, overall layout, etc. Atari had its products made at company-owned facilities in various locations around the world (besides the U.S.), such as Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, and Taiwan. Changes in software, hardware, or packaging did not affect all of these at the same time, which makes tracking down the original release version of a certain item even more difficult. The information listed below should help to sort out the confusion in many cases, but to be 100% sure on a given cartridge. I suggest trying to obtain some of the older catalogs.
|Full Color Picture style|
|Silver picture style|
|Children’s Computer Workshop Series (CCW)|
|Jim Henson’s Muppets|
|Charles M. Shultz’s Peanuts|
|Sear TELE-GAMES labels|
|ANOMALIES, MISPRINTS, AND ONE-OF-A-KINDS|
1. Matte-black style (1977-1980)
This 1st style features cartridges with a matte-black (flat) finish, and colored text. Some of the cartridges have a colored border surrounding the text on the end label as well. Besides the title, the face of the cartridge also shows the game variations listed by number. Some titles were issued in two (or more) different-colored text. For example, Bowling appears with both red-lettered and blue-lettered labels. Furthermore, there are several sub-styles with the matte-black look:
1a. Numbered end labels (1977)
Only the original 9 releases appear with this style. The last 2 CX #’s of the title appear on the end label. A limited few have a colored border on the end label as well. The titles are:
02 Air-Sea Battle
61 Basic Math
11 Indy 500
03 Star Ship
12 Street Racer
21 Video Olympics
1b. Controller info added (1978)
Labels now have the controller type info listed, with Surround* being the first. The type and Atari logo are smaller. Those with larger ™ and ® symbols are earlier releases than those with smaller symbols. The number on the end label is dropped as well.
* Although the original release doesn’t list it, a label version of Surround has been found having the controller type info listed AND having a numbered end label.
Breakout, Home Run, and Hunt & Score are the only 3 known (besides some of the original 9 releases) that were made with a colored border on the end labels. They also featured a colored border on the front labels, which the originals did not have!
A number of titles were released with 2 different colors (ex. Brain Games can be found in both blue and red).
1c. Copyright symbols and dates added (1979)
The copyright © symbol is now added to the label. Of the 12 carts released this year, only one (Superman) had a copyright date (1979).
1d. Font change (1980)
The font on this variation is slightly different in later 1980 releases (note the letters “d”, “e”, “p”, and “y”). All ™ and ® symbols are small again. Some titles were re-released with this change. Earlier titles, such as Adventure, have the older font. Copyright dates on older titles still being produced (or re-released) now have a different (later) copyright date.
2. Full Color Picture Style (1981-1982, 1986-1988)
In 1981, Atari changed the label style to a more colorful, artistic look. These labels have a full-color picture that matches the box. The type colors used in previous titles remain the same, with a new color (purple) being added. The first cartridge to have this new label style was Video Pinball, followed by Missile Command, Asteroids, and Warlords; the last was Star Raiders. Older titles (those produced before 1981) were “upgraded” to this new style, but still retain their original release dates (although the original 9 titles display a © 1978 instead.). Some titles were produced in more than one color of text. A large Atari logo (normally black, but sometimes white) is featured in the lower-left corner, with the CX # in the lower right.
2a. Controller type error re-releases (1986-1988)
Between 1986 and 1988, many titles were re-released using the then-older type 2 label style, with b&w boxes and manuals (and occasionally the labels as well). There are several anomalies found in these re-releases, the first being the typo in regards to what type of controller the game uses. The label states “for use with Paddles”, regardless of whether or not the game requires them. Most of these were “fixed” before release with a piece of black tape over the typo. The Atari logo and CX # may also be smaller. The known games with this error are:
A Game of Concentration
Fun With Numbers
2b. Controller type omitted re-releases (1986-1988)
Some of these make no mention of what type of controller is used. Another difference with these is that the artwork on certain titles extends beyond the normal picture area, and may also be cropped differently than the original release. The Atari logo and CX # may also be smaller. Known carts that have this distinction are:
Fun With Numbers
A Game of Concentration
2c. Smaller Atari logo and CX # re-releases (1986-1988)
Hard to believe, but a few re-releases actually had the correct controller type info on the label! The one minor difference between these and their original 2nd-style release version is the smaller Atari symbol and CX #.
3. Silver picture style (1982-1985)
In late1982, Atari adopted another label style. The VCS was now being referred to by its product code number – “2600”. The background color was changed from black to silver. A color picture remains centered on the label, and below this are the manufacturing notes and credits. All end labels are now printed in red. The 1st few releases using this design have the credits in very small type, with no copyright date listed. Curiously, the Atari “Fuji” logo no longer appears. The first cart to use this style was Raiders of the Lost Ark.
3a. Original version (1982-1983)
Instead of having “game program” at the top of the front label, it now says “Atari 2600 ™” (with “TM” in black). The game title is printed against a red stripe, which stretches across the entire label. Few 1983 releases use this label version. Aside from the re-issue of Atari Video Cube as Rubik’s Cube in 1984, some of the last titles were RealSports Soccer and RealSports Tennis.
3b. Larger picture, graphics-styled titles, cart design change (1983)
A minor change was made – the color picture was enlarged, and on the top-left, “Video Game Cartridge, Atari ® 2600 ™ VCS ™” is printed, with “Atari 2600” at the top-right. The red stripe now only covers the width of the picture.
Starting in late 83, the game titles on the front label were “stylized” rather than appearing in plain text (not counting the RealSports line, which started in 1982.). Dig Dug, which features an unusually large red title band, appears to be the last title before this change takes place. This trend would continue up until the last released cart, Klax. A few of the early silver-labeled carts, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, were re-released with this change.
Dig Dug also seems to be the 1st cartridges with an “unlocked” dust cover, followed by Pengo (which was produced with both types).
3c. Extended picture artwork (1984)
The picture artwork now extends beyond the normal picture area.
3d. Re-releases (1985-1988)
A number of older 1st and 2nd-style label carts were re-released with the 3a-style design. Some 1983 3b titles were re-released with the 3a design, and sometimes feature later copyright dates. The silver background on all these re-releases isn’t exactly the same reflective-silver type as the originals (one exception to this is Gremlins, which was originally released in 1986 and was the last 3rd-style title.). By 1988 the background was a light gray. Other ways to identify these is the copyright info is often in very small type, controller type info is usually missing, and the “TM” trademark on the “ATARI 2600” logo is red instead of black (the 87 and 88 re-releases of Ms. Pac-Man is one exception to this). The picture artwork also extends beyond the normal picture area, and may be cropped differently than the original release.
Starting in 1986, some cart cases had two holes on the top half, one under each upper corner of the label.
4. Red labels (1986-1990)
This was the 4th and final major label style. The background coloring is a brownish red, with white or black lettering. The pictures are not as wide as the prior styles. “Atari 2600 Video Game Cartridge” is printed in white across the top of the front label, and the end label includes “Atari 2600 VCS”.
4a. Black & white pictures (1986)
The first (and only) 3 carts that have b&w photos are Jr. Pac-Man, Midnight Magic, and Solaris (some of these were re-released a year or two late with color pictures, and the copyright date on the label reflects this). This was also the last year that Atari cartridges had the unlocked dust cover. Also, the original releases of Jr. Pac-Man and Midnight Magic were the only 4th-style carts to have a solid top cart casing – all other titles have the casings with the upper-corner holes.
4b. Color pictures (1987-1990)
All labels now have color pictures, and carts no longer have any dust covers. This final label version would continue up until the last released cart, Klax. All of the third-party (PAL?) re-releases also use this style, as well as a few older Atari titles that were re-released. The known re-released titles are:
Dig Dug (most red boxed games have a silver-labeled cart!)
(Rare PAL 4th-style re-releases)
Children’s Computer Workshop Series (CCW)
These labels have a checkered grid over a yellow background. A color picture appears on the front, with “Atari 2600” in the upper-right. The only games to use this style are:
Alpha Beam with Ernie
Big Bird’s Egg Catch
Cookie Monster Munch
Oscar’s Trash Race
Grover’s Music Maker, Honker Bonker, Monstercise, and Counting with the Count/Count’s Castle (all unreleased prototypes) would have also used this label style.
Jim Henson’s Muppets
These labels have a checkered grid over a purple background. A color picture appears on the front, with “Atari 2600” in the upper-right. The only game to use this style is Pigs in Space. Miss Piggy’s Wedding (an unreleased prototype) would have also used this label style.
These labels have a checkered grid over a red background. A color picture appears on the front, with “Atari 2600” in the upper-right. The only game to use this style was Snoopy and the Red Baron. Good Luck, Charlie Brown (an unreleased prototype) would have also used this label style.
These labels have a checkered grid over a blue background. A color picture appears on the front, with “Atari 2600” in the upper-right. The only game to use this style was Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Donald Duck’s Speedboat Race, Dumbo’s Flying Circus, and Snow White (all unreleased prototypes) would have also used this label style.
These were originally were made with a similar 1st matte-black style label, and later changed over to a similar 2nd-style label. Most titles can be found in both styles, and with 2 different product numbers (ex. Canyon Bomber was made with a 1st-style label, with either “49-75115” or “6-99828” product #’s). A few also have some type font variations. Some Sears titles feature different artwork from their Atari counterparts! 1982 was the last year these were released, and the last known game released in both Atari and Sears packaging was Star Raiders (in September 1982). A label variant of Raiders of the Lost Ark exists with a normal silver label on the front, and an orange Sears-style end label. Atari announced it as a November release, but it was the first silver-labeled cart sold through Sears, which would put it on the shelves in late September/early October before Earthworld was released. No silver-labeled Atari carts have any Sears-labeled counterparts, so this is exactly where the Sears label variants era ended.
(Rare picture label and manual for Breakaway IV)
(Very rare artwork for Tank-Plus, as found on a full, unused sheet of labels. Note the 1976 copyright date. This doesn't correspond to the arcade coin-op Tank game, or even Tank II or Tank III, but rather Tank 8!)
Games made for use outside the U.S. were distributed under the Atari International (U.K.) name. Labels (and sometimes title and program graphics) differ slightly from their U.S. counterparts. PAL titles in the 1st style have a “P” after the CX # on the front label. 2nd and 3rd-style carts have a small “p” on the end label. 4th-style carts either have a small “p” on the bottom of the cart casing (Ikari Warriors seems to be an exception. The PAL version doesn’t have any notation of this.).
In the early 1980’s, prototypes were widely used by many companies for troubleshooting any programming bugs (via play-testing). This debugging stage also allowed them to make any necessary program additions, marketing decisions, and packaging designs. They were also sent to various trade magazines for both publicity and reviews. With a few exceptions, these prototypes are easily recognizable by their labels, which are completely black with white lettering. There may be a black end (1st-style) label (without any writing on it), or none at all.
The original “lab label” was a blank 1st-style label, with simply a white sticker on it with the game’s title.
The large majority of Atari prototype carts will have this type label. “Loaner Cartridge” is printed across the top of the front label, with the game title below that (usually on a white sticker or white area) in the center. A date (or date code) may also appear here. Under that, a “Return to….” info section appears, stating to return it to either Jan Boehm or the Prototype Lab (although one has been found with a typed label attached instructing for it to be returned to Guy Hollingbury). Sometimes the game title is not attached, or it might be the only thing printed on the front label. Be wary of fakereproductions that look very similar.
Prototypes from the 86-91 usually have the complete opposite scheme - an all-white label with some text on it.
Prototype carts from GCC are the other exception to the black-only labels. The text layout is similar to the type B labels, except the background is blue, with white areas to write information in. Often there are copies of the same game with the type B label.
► 16-in-1 – Although yet to be confirmed as an actual Atari release, this cart features the same label style as the 32-in-1.
► 32-in-1 – This cartridge has a light green label with black lettering. This is the only cart known to not have an end label. The PAL notation is a “P” after the CX #. For some unknown reason, a number of Activision games (including hacks of some) are included, along with a game from Vidtec and CommaVid. An interesting side note is that the checkers game is the Activision version – not Atari’s! A 7800-labeled version was sold outside the U.S. with 7800 systems (as a pack-in), but it’s exactly the same as the 32-in-1 cart.
► 1986, 1987, & 1988 3rd-style re-releases – Most have artwork with edges that extend past the border area, much like the original Combat boxes. Most all of these usually omit the controller type info. A few titles also omit any Atari copyright dates!
► Air-Sea Battle – The 1987 re-release has slightly different and larger text.
► Asteroids - The Sears version released in 1980 shows there are 64 game variations on the front label, which is incorrect (there are 66). This was fixed in the 1981 release.
Also, a cart with a 12 2 R datestamp has been found with thicker lettering on the end label:
► Atari Video Cube – Later became Rubik’s Cube. Only the name and product # were changed.
► Baseball – This was the early name for Home Run. At least one cart has been found.
► Baseball – This alternate box was shown in a commercial featuring Ozzie Smith. The game is likely Super Baseball. The box shown for the 7800 version was also different (it uses the same artwork but the title is RealSports Baseball instead of Baseball).
► Basic Math – Later became Fun With Numbers
► Brain Games – The 1986 2nd-style re-release omits the controller type info.
► Breakout – This 1986 “International” NTSC re-release features a 2nd-style label with an orange background instead of black, and different/larger lettering on the end label.
► Canyon Bomber - The 1986 and 1987 re-releases have (R) after the titles, instead of TM.
► Casino – A PAL version was found designed with “PAL” actually stamped onto the front label.
► Centipede – The 1985 re-release has an orange label instead of the traditional red (of this label style), along with a different (slightly larger) font
► Championship Soccer – Later became Pele’s Soccer. It’s interesting to note that when originally released, the box had a sticker on it with the full Pele’s Championship Soccer name, and the manual is titled with the full name, but “Pele’s” doesn’t appear on the cart label!
► Combat – There are 2 different versions of the 1979 “Made in Taiwan” re-release- one has a very glossy ‘finish’ while the other is completely flat. It appears that these finishes were not produced with any other titles.
► Computer Chess (Video Chess) – This original 1-of-a-kind version was made especially for Nolan Bushnell. The front label was “blank” (no title) and on upside-down, but the end label was labeled as such.
► Countermeasure - This picture was found in the 1983 Rev 1 2600 system manual. Note the artwork is that of 5200 Countermeasure!
► Crazy Climber - Pictured in the Atari Age magazine (V.1, No. 5) with a 2nd-style label style, but as of yet none have surfaced to proof its existence. Most likely this was an advertising “prop”.
► Crystal Castles - The re-release (picture #1) doesn’t list the copyright date or controller info, but notice the slightly different artwork and title “logo”. Part of the background is now filled in and the caption “Bentley Bear’s A-maze-ing Adventures” is added.
► Dark Chambers – This game was released in 1988 but programmed in 1983. This is noted on the label and is not a mistake. Question is – why did it take 5 years to get released?
► Defender - This 1986 PAL re-release features a 2nd-style label with blue background on the front and end labels.
► Defender II – The artwork is reversed on all known releases (picture #2).
► Dig Dug – The 1988 re-release features all the copyright and controller type info in italics.
► E.T. – Some labels feature slightly different artwork- the diamond-shaped windows on the spacecraft are larger on one.
► Galaxian – Versions (dated 1983) exist with a larger type font on the end label. The 1987 re-release omits the controller type info.
► GATO – A picture of a labeled cart in a 2600JR appeared in a German ad. Whether or not Atari actually had any plans to make a port of this 8-bit computer title is unknown, but a 7800 port was being worked on (a prototype exists).
► Golf – A 1st-style label has been found with a large “L” sticker on the front, the meaning of which is unknown.
► Joust – A PAL version exists that has the typo “Atar Corp.” on the front label (no “i”). An NTSC version has also been found with a “p” (PAL) end label.
► Hangman – A rare 1986 re-release.
► Home Run – The 1988 re-release, besides omitting the controller type info, has the title is written in red type as 1 word (instead of 2), plus the end label type is larger
► Hunt & Score – Later became A Game of Concentration.
► Ikari Warriors – The PAL version isn’t marked as such anywhere on the cart (or box?).
► Mario Bros. – The re-release (picture #1) has the 3a-style version label (and the extended artwork of the 3c-style), even though the game was originally released with the 3b style!
► Maze Craze – 2 different versions of the end label are known to exist. The bottom picture is the more rare version.
► Midnight Magic – Two different versions of the original 1986 release version exist. The original release has “Midnight Magic” in black lettering on the front label while all others have white lettering. Also, the white-lettered version doesn’t have a dust cover. The PAL version has a typo on both labels (3rd picture) .
► Millipede – In addition to the 4th-style re-release, a PAL “hybrid” label version exists with features of both the 3rd and 4th style labels (middle picture). The label shows a 1988 copyright date, however the (4th-style) multi-language box shows a 1987 date. The manual lists both dates!
► Missile Command – The original release has the titles in lower-case text on both the front and end labels. Later issues have the front label title in caps. Final issues in this style have both the end and front label titles in all caps.
► Motorodeo – At least 1 cart has been found with an upside-down end label.
► Ms. Pac-Man – A label version has been found without “Atari 2600” on the front (also note how crooked the picture is). This might possibly be a pirate (Polyvox?) label, and not an acual Atari release.
► Othello – This was the last game released with the 1st-style label. It’s the only one that has the title in capital letters, and the only one having the game variations text aligned to the center of the label. A “hybrid” version has been found with a 2nd-style front label and a 1st-style end label, which (if it can be confirmed that it wasn’t simply a manufacturing error) would make it the first picture-labeled cart.
► Pele’s Soccer – The 1986 re-release has a typo on the front label that says “Atari Game Program Instructions” where the controller type info should be.
► Pengo – A PAL version exists with a 2nd-style label (and the extended artwork of the 3c-style), which also has the controller type error.
► Pigs in Space – The PAL version has a pink label.
► Pole Position – A typo exists with the end label printed as “POLE POSITN”. There’s also rumored to be a version printed as “PLOE POSITION”. There are also two versions of the front label.
► Pong Sports – Some carts have a slightly different font style on the end label.
► Quadrun – Several fake “Lab label” carts have shown up. Most often these are made with a laser printer, and are affixed over a production cart label, such as Centipede. Notice the slight differences in the text size and font used: A few have also been found with the date 02-08-83 on them. If it has a later date (11-17-83) there may be a label underneath it with the earlier date. The board inside is an actual production board (not an EPROM).
► Race (Sears) – The label version numbered 99821 doesn’t have the controller info listed.
► Raiders of the Lost Ark – At least 3 different end label variations are known to exist. The 2nd end label has the same type font as Sears carts – was a Sears version of ROTLA in the works? The 1986 graphic logo re-release (picture 3) also omits the (*) Lucasfilm copyright information.
► Sears TELE-GAMES – Some titles have a slight color change on the end labels (from orange to yellow).
► Sky Diver – The 1986 re-release features all-white lettering.
► Space Combat – A Space War cart with the Sears name, and also missing the game variation information. If you look closely you can see another label underneath the front label!
► Space Invaders – The original release doesn’t have the Taito TM on the label (this version has the original text font whereas the corrected version has the revised font). The 1987 re-release has a gray 3rd-style front label, but a 2nd-style blue color end label (except that the font is thinner). This title also has the distinction of being the only known game released under all 4 major label styles, as well as the 2 Sears label styles.
► Space Mission – This was the original name for Star Ship, and was featured in an ad from the December 1977 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine. Most likely this was an advertising “prop”, although one was apparently sold on Ebay in July 2005.
► Star Ship – Re-released in 1982 with a label that incorporates parts of the 1st 3 label styles. “Atari 2600” is printed in large white letters on the front label, and a glossy black background with colored lettering on the titles. This is the only game known to be released with this label style.
► Stargate – Some of these were printed using the actual arcade “font” lettering on end labels, besides the standard lettering font. The middle picture is a 1985 re-release, while the last is the 1987 one.
► Stellar Track – Normally the text is in orange, but a few were made with green instead.
► Street Racer – A PAL version was found designated with a large, white “P” sticker on the front label.
► Super Breakout – The Sears version was released as an exclusive (in 1981), a year before the Atari version, yet both carry a “© 1978” date on the label. Why is this? Some Atari versions have also been found with a “© 1983” date (but it is unknown if these are original releases or re-releases). The Sears version is also one of the only (?) 1st-style carts to have the game title on the front label. Also, the ’86 re-release has a pink-lettered end label.
► Super Football – A few rare versions exist with “Atari 7800” printed on the end label.
► Superman – The 1st release of this game has a program glitch that was fixed in the re-release. You can tell the difference between the two (in regards to the 1st-style labels): on the glitch version, the trademark and date appear on one line; in the fixed version, they appear on two lines. A label error also exists that states the game is for 1 player only, instead of 1 and 2 players.
► SwordQuest EarthWorld – The 1986 re-release has a “fancy” font lettering on the end label.
► TAZ – The 1988 re-release features all the copyright and controller type info in italics.
►Track & Field – This 1984 release inadvertently uses the same product number (CX26127) as Gremlins on the label. The picture and background are B&W with red title lettering. This is the only cart known to have this label style.
► Video Pinball – The original release has the titles in lower-case text on both the front and end labels. Later issues have either the end label or front label title in caps. Final issues in this style have both the front and end label titles in all caps.
► Video Olympics – 4 different versions of the 1st-style end label exist. A 2nd-style label re-release exists with the title in yellow lettering on the front label and green on the end label. Also, 3 different-colored end labels have also been found in this style.
► Warlords – The Sears version seems to be the only one that had copyright info printed on the end label.
* Some of the pictures (especially those in the last section) were culled from various sources over the years.
If you have any updates to add, please contact us!