For more than a generation the word Atari was synonymous with video gaming. The largest part of this was due to one simple creation: a cartridge-based console. It wasn't the first, but it was the one that lit the spark that fired up a revolution. The one that showed the coolest of electronics came in wood grain. The one that allowed family's to switch out games whenever they fancied. Perhaps not an inventor, but a pioneer. This is the Atari VCS, also known as the 2600. With a shelf life that spanned three decades, this is the granddaddy of all modern gaming and whether you love it or hate it...A level of respect and admiration is demanded.
The industry-birthing Video Computer System started its legendary life as a next-gen prototype from the minds of a think-tank eventually bought by Atari in 1973. It was codenamed Stella. During the production of Stella, Nolan Bushnell managed to sell Atari to Warner on the strength of the idea and a promise of a soon to be retail-ready version in hopes of eliminating pre-release clones. The year that Warner bought Atari for Stella was also the year the very first interchangeable cartridge-based console was released (the first of the second generation) known as the Fairchild Channel F (originally known as the Video Entertainment System but changed to its more frequently known name following the VCS' release in '77). Atari were already known for their official line of Pong consoles in the early seventies and were the company behind the initial arcade release. It was Atari's relationship with Sears stateside that allowed then to quickly gain a leg-up running into the next-gen race, with Sears' own licensed rebrand of the VCS known as the Sears Video Arcade.
Initially retailing in North America at $199 complete with a cartridge (Combat) and two joysticks, Atari hit the ground running. They sold 250,000 units in its debut year and soon overtook their direct rivals (Fairchild) heading toward the end of the decade. Although a success, all things considered, it wasn't until Fairchild essentially handed Atari the market, Warner continuing to bail Atari out with extra-funding, etc. that success was truly noted by it becoming the hottest Xmas pressie of '79 in the United States. Atari had arrived and no-one was going to stop 'em. 'Cept themselves. When Space Invaders hit the console, it was pretty much game over for any pretender to the crown. Atari were king and the VCS was the throne on which they controlled.
Being one of (if not the) fastest growing companies in the history of America, Atari seemed near God-tier. At the time, if you didn't own Atari, you knew someone who did. Or if you didn't, you had some how played one or at the very least knew just what one was. This was way before the NES, Nintendo were just that company who did Donkey Kong and co. All this points to Atari being the reason for the original video game boom of the late 70's. But remember what I said before? As I'm sure you know, as you're on a site called RetroGameGeeks; Atari were also responsible for the first major crash. But all this is for a different article, for a different time, as important as it may appear. As the crux of the matter is the positives over negatives and we love to play dem games.
Yet, we also love tech specs. Yeah, they may seem irrelevant here considering, but you know what? Why not!? The VCS/2600 used ROM carts as its main form of interchangeable media. Its CPU was a cost-reduced 6502, known as the MOS 6507 clocking in at 1.19MHz, the VCS also contained 128 bytes of RAM with 4kb ROM. The A/V processor was the internal invention; the Television Interface Adapter, or TIA for short. TIA (NTSC specs) allowed for 40x192pixels playfield resolution with 8x192 player sprites and 1x192 ball/missile sprites (hell yeah), with a maximum res of 160x192 and 128 colours with a max of 4 per line. Audio-specifically TIA gave 2 channels of 1bit mono with 4bit vol control. The aforementioned RAM was within a MOS RIOT Chip and the previously mentioned ROM was the game cartridges themselves. The MOS RIOT also controlled the inputs, i.e.: switches and controls.
If you want peripherals and console redesigns...Well, yeah. You've come to the right place with this bad boy. The loved and loathed in equal measure Atari Joystick was the most commonly used input device. It was simplistic in design but perfectly executed in pick-up and play characteristics. One stick, one button. Job done. The console also featured Paddles (twisty twisty!), track-ball's (ooh!), a keypad and even a driving device to bring home the realism. Yurp. Oh, did you know in the US it even had an online gaming service? No, for real. GameLine allowed users to download games through a telephone connection to play on the console. Madness, right? Viva eighties. The multiple redesigns have lent distinctive names dubbed by fans and press across the globe, also. We're talking the Heavy Sixers, the classic Woody, the Atari Jr. and more! Great for collectors who just gotsta have 'em all, eh!?
Soooo...The games. Uhm. This list if to list would be disgustingly exhaustive to the point that your eyes may bleed. I shall save you that, coz I'm nice. But I shall more than happily rave over a certain handful of titles. We're talking the mighty Yars Revenge (two levels on loop, tackling a high score...rings a bell, right?), the often frustratingly rewarding Centipede, the odd as in certainly different but still for other reasons technically impressive port of Battlezone (seriously cool, faux-3D colour raster graphics over here yo')...Oh and Jungle Hunt, Pitfall!, Super Breakout, Asteroids and of course Pong. To name a few. The console featured ports of near enough every major arcade title and licenses for pretty much anything you could think of. Even the most random. One of the most derided games on the system is also one of the most beloved by some (some how, you may ask) in Pac-Man, which was the consoles best selling game by far even if it underperformed spectacularly by Atari's wild-eyed expectations. The likes of Q*Bert, Missile Command, Frogger and of course...SPACE INVADERS!! All found homes in the home with the Atari VCS/2600.
Although defocused at many a point in time, the 2600 (as it was redubbed prior to the gaming grim reaper knocking on the door) was finally officially discontinued in 1992 by Atari. It is the single longest run any home video console has had under its true-brand (sorry, TecToy - don’t hate me). Then you all sit there and wonder why people have such a raging nostalgia for this lil thing? Eeesh, peeps!
The Atari VCS/2600 has a legacy like no other. Straight up, pure and simple. If you haven't played Atari at some point in your life, you're missing out. Primitive? Well, d'uh. But the fun factor of fighting for that high score is something that will never die in the heart of the most ardent retro game fanatic. We here at RetroGameGeeks implore you to go dig into one of the deepest library's you'll ever have the pleasure of encountering. There were some duds, but the absolute classics make up for the dullest. Its a disservice to the rich history and to yourself to remain ignorant. The Atari: the granddaddy of 'em all!