Atari 2600

foreword by Kevin Oleniacz, John Hardie, and Scott Stilphen

Today's game player thinks he lives the good life. And who's to argue? The graphics quality and sophistication of video games keeps getting better and better. And with every new game and console being hyped as "the next big thing," it's high time that we remembered THE thing - the real deal that transformed video games from a mere curiosity enjoyed by a few into an industry that's now several billion dollars strong and driven by marketing types crunching numbers instead of code. Much of the credit for legitimizing the industry belongs to the Atari VCS, and in our opinion, it represents the single biggest leap forward in the history of electronic entertainment. Before it became the platform of choice, the gaming market lacked cohesion and continuity. The VCS turned the spotlight away from single-purpose Pong machines to the software-centered systems which have dominated the field since the late 1970's.

Atari wasn't the first to introduce a home programmable system - RCA and Fairchild both preceded it, and the Odyssey2 debuted at roughly the same time. And starting with the Bally Astrocade and Mattel Intellivision, subsequent machines were vastly superior pieces of hardware. Atari gets the credit (and deservedly so) because it alone had the talent, perception, and will to make the kind of games that converted non-players into enthusiastic participants.

Not that Atari charged into this sunlit future without a hard push from behind. The concept of a software-centered game hobby was so foreign to the company, which made its first mark with single-use coin-op units, that it originally opposed (initially, quite aggressively) the concept of third-party software. In fact, Atari originally intended the VCS to last for no longer than one or two holiday seasons (much like the dedicated systems before it), that they handicapped the system with a paltry 128 bytes of RAM in order to keep the machine affordable for the few years that they would sell it.

Released in October of 1977, the VCS really didn’t start to take off - and leave competitors sucking air - until a home version of Space Invaders was released in January of 1980, which was the first "killer ap" for a game machine in history. Its success validated the software-driven formula, or as founder Nolan Bushnell described as the razor/razorblade theory.  It also reinforced the idea that porting a successful arcade game would translate to success in the home market – an idea that was taken to extremes, and eventually applied to non-gaming subjects such as movies, TV shows, and toys.

Between 1981-83, the VCS’s software library began to rapidly expand as system sales increased, thanks to unprecedented third-party support, led by Activision.  As with most of these software-only companies, Activision was founded by designers who left Atari after realizing their talents there were vastly underpaid.  Although some of Activision’s biggest hits were revamped versions of coin-op games (Boxing, Chopper Command, Kaboom!, Megamania), their original games (H.E.R.O., Pitfall!, Pitfall II, River Raid) were perfectly tailored to the strengths of the VCS’s hardware.  Imagic soon followed with a similar mix of arcade-inspired original games (Atlantis, Demon Attack, Dragonfire). Board game maker Parker Brothers brought home hit arcade games (Frogger, Q*Bert, Super Cobra) as well as games based on licensed names (G.I. Joe, James Bond, Spider-Man, Star Wars). Several movie and television-based games came courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox - M*A*S*H, Flash Gordon, and Porky's were among the titles which were backed by huge marketing hype by the company. Venerable coin-op producer Sega got its start in home gaming with coin-op translations of Tac-Scan, Congo Bongo, Buck Rogers and others. CBS brought out arcade translations (Gorf, Omega Race, Wizard of Wor), supported with full-scale advertising campaigns. Following the credo of, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, rivals soon joined in. Under the M-Network name, Mattel translated simplified versions of Intellivision games. Coleco later followed with its own translations. North American Philips, parent company of Magnavox, got as far as announcing upcoming VCS titles (which never made it to market). Even non-entertainment companies like Quaker Oats entered the market (under the name U.S. Games)!

To really get a good idea of how popular the 2600 was at the time, there were actually five games designed specifically to promote other products: Kool-Aid Man (Kool-Aid), Chase the Chuckwagon (Dog Chow/Puppy Chow), Tooth Protectors (Johnson & Johnson toothpaste), Pepsi Invaders (Coca-Cola), and Polo (Ralph Lauren).  The VCS also saw the world’s first ‘adult-only’ games.  Wizard Video offered video versions of horror films Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, while Mystique and others delved into X-rated territory with Bachelor Party, Custer’s Revenge, and X-man. None of these games were particularly violent or sexy per se (given the system’s limitations) but they spawned their share of controversy nonetheless.

Besides software, a multitude of controllers, peripherals, and accessories edged their way into consumers' budgets. Amidst the dozens of dual-button, rapid-fire joysticks appeared two remote-control units (by Atari and Gamate), a Tron arcade stick (M-Network), an Asteroids-type button-only controller (Starplex), and a miniature joystick (Amiga's Power Stik) designed to fit in the palm of your hand. In contrast, The Boss (Wico) is an oversized stick resulting in somewhat awkward control. Devices such as the Game Selex (Starplex), ROM Scanner (Marjac), Video Game Brain (RGA Int.), and the Videoplexer (Compro Elec.) allowed instant access to several cartridges at the push of a button or turn of a dial. The Supercharger (Arcadia/Starpath) and the Kid Vid (Coleco) interfaced with a tape recorder. A Foot Craz Controller (Exus) and the Joyboard (Amiga) required interaction with one's feet. Milton Bradley's Flight Command and Cosmic Command controllers were packaged with Spitfire Attack and Survival Run, respectively. These bulky peripherals are more or less gimmicks, as standard joysticks can perform equally if not better. A few Atari titles, such as BASIC Programming and Star Raiders, are used in conjunction with special keyboard controllers, but perhaps the best and least supported special controller is Atari’s Driving Controller – Indy 500 was the only game made for it.

A handful of companies announced computer add-on modules, such as Atari (The Graduate/My First Computer) and Unitronics (Expander), but only Spectravision’s Compumate saw (limited) release. Starpath released a memory-upgrade with the Supercharger that used cassette-based games. Via a modem, the Gameline Master Module offered gaming services over phone lines.  Both Amiga and Parker Brothers were working on modem-based devices. Answer Software's Personal Game Programmer-1 is a very rare peripheral with a purpose similar to today's Game Genie and Game Shark.  Androbot also attempted to offer a robotic device similar (but more sophisticated) to Nintendo’s NES R.O.B., but it only got as far as the prototype stage.

The fact that the video game marketplace was still in its infancy allowed even small start-ups to have a fighting chance against the goliaths of the industry. Data Age, Spectravision, Telesys, CommaVid, Venture Vision, Sunrise, Ultravision, and Apollo were among those that were so small that they wouldn't have had survived in today's brutal market climate.  By 1982, however, the VCS’s software library was reaching saturation point, with an alarming number of third-party publishers wanting a piece of the Atari pie.  Unfortunately, this resulted in a glut of product on store shelves.  For every Pitfall! and Ms. Pac-Man, quick-buck artists put out clunkers like Sssnake and Sorcerer. Atari didn't help matters with inferior ports such as Defender and Pac-Man. At the end of ‘82 Atari announced their 4th-quarter sales estimates, which only showed a 10-15% increase, instead of the 50% they originally predicted. Mattel quickly followed with an announcement they were expecting a 4th-quarter loss.  The news sent Wall Street goes into ‘panic’ mode and the Dow dropped 29 points in 2 days as investors dumped video game stocks.  The news forced Imagic to withdraw their public stock offering, which was scheduled to occur only a week later.  Atari ended the year by releasing E.T. – a game that was rushed into production (being programmed in a record 5 & ˝ weeks!) in order to reach stores by the holidays – the results of which were (predictably) poor and, coupled with the nearly $40 price tag, ended up being returned to stores en masse. By the following year, sales for everything plummeted. Even though there were approximately 10 million VCS systems in circulation in the U.S. alone by this time, nearly all of the ‘82 start-up companies closed down in ‘83, but instead of throwing their unsold product out (as Atari did), they gave it to retailers, who dumped it in their stores for next to nothing.  Atari’s effort to ‘retire’ the VCS, by releasing the ill-conceived 5200 (which led to the VCS being renamed the 2600), only added to Atari’s woes.  By the end of ‘83 Atari was looking at half a BILLION in losses.

In retrospect, if all those 3rd-party companies hadn't dumped their product on the market, Atari (and other stable companies like Mattel, Activision, and Imagic) could have recovered from mistakes like Pac-Man and E.T. Instead, much like E.T.'s ending, the whole industry went into hibernation until someone (Nintendo) came along to revive it. Given that there was no precedent to rely on for guidance, who would have known in 1982 that whole market would come crashing down just two years later? But the cyclical nature of the industry is much better understood today, and any system – no matter how popular or successful it is – only has a realistic lifespan of 5 years.  Not that Atari didn’t try to with the 5200, but it was an attempt doomed to failure from the start, and most companies don’t eat their “cash cows” without great hesitation.

As consolation - for historians and collectors anyway - the 2600 is unquestionably the most interesting system to research and collect for. Part of it has to do with the large number of pirate companies outside of the U.S., such as HES, Home Vision, Suntek, and Video Gems.  Although a few turned out some original titles, most games were either direct copies or hacks of (which varied from a few simple cosmetic changes to a seemingly “new” game). The combined number of pirate 2600 games currently outnumbers official releases 10-1, with more and more new titles being discovered! Also, because of the infamous crash, many rarities exist for the system. Some companies only produced one or two titles, while others were never released but were later discovered in prototype form. Games like Berenstain Bears, Out of Control, Miner 2049er II, and Up 'N Down barely made it to market. Others like Ultravision and Venture Vision were simply not very well funded and closed ship soon after bringing out their games onto crowded store shelves. Since an inordinate amount of games were finished but never released, it has led to individuals scavenging to find titles that were hitherto not known to exist. Unreleased titles that have joined the land of the living code since the last edition include 3-D Ghost Attack, Actionauts, Androman, Depth Charge, Entity, Harem, Lasercade, Looping, Meltdown, SAC Alert, Targ, and Wings.


Go to Digital Press HQ
Return to Digital Press Home