The Atari 2600, originally branded as the Atari Video Computer System or Atari VCS for short until November 1982, is a home video game console from Atari, Inc. Released on September 11, 1977, it is credited with popularizing the use of microprocessor-based hardware and games stored on ROM cartridges (a format first used with the Fairchild Channel F in 1976) instead of dedicated hardware with games physically built into the unit. The 2600 was bundled with two joystick controllers, a conjoined pair of paddle controllers, and a game cartridge: initially Combat, and later Pac-Man.
Atari VCS four-switch "wood veneer" version, dating from 1980 to 1982
|Also known as||Atari VCS (prior to November 1982)|
|Type||Home video game console|
|Introductory price||US$199 (equivalent to $822.77 in 2018)|
|Discontinued||January 1, 1992|
|Units sold||30 million (As of 2004)|
|CPU||8-bit MOS Technology 6507 @ 1.19 MHz|
|Memory||128 bytes RAM|
|Best-selling game||Pac-Man, 7 million (As of September 1, 2006)|
|Successor||Atari 8-bit family / Atari 5200|
The Atari VCS launched with nine simple, low-resolution games in 2 KiB cartridges. The system found its killer app with its version of Taito's Space Invaders in 1980 and became widely successful, leading to the creation of Activision and other third-party game developers as well as competition from home console manufacturers Mattel and Coleco. By the end of its primary lifecycle in 1983–84, games for the 2600 were using more than four times the ROM of the launch titles with significantly more advanced visuals and gameplay than the system was designed for, such as Pitfall! and its scrolling sequel Pitfall II: Lost Caverns.
Atari invested heavily in two games for the 2600, Pac-Man and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, that became commercial failures and contributed to the video game crash of 1983 which ended the market relevance of the 2600. Warner sold off the home console division of Atari to Commodore CEO Jack Tramiel. In 1986, the new Atari Corporation under Tramiel released a lower-cost version of the 2600 and the backwards-compatible Atari 7800, but these were not enough to turn things around, and ultimately it was Nintendo that led the recovery of the industry. Atari finally ended production of the Atari 2600 on January 1, 1992. Across the system's lifetime, an estimated 30 million units were sold.
Atari was founded by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney in 1972. Their first major product was Pong, one of the first successful arcade games. By 1975, Atari had released a Pong home console, competing against Magnavox, the only other major producer of home consoles at the time. Bushnell recognized, however, the limitation of custom logic burned onto the circuit board; this allowed only one game (and its variants), meaning that any new game would require a completely different console. Because development of a console cost at least US$100,000 and time to complete, and had only about a three-month shelf life before becoming outdated, it was a risky business model.
By 1974, Atari had acquired Cyan Engineering, an electronics company founded by Steve Mayer and Larry Emmons (both former colleagues of Bushnell and Dabney from Ampex), and started Atari's Grass Valley Think Tank, where they developed new ideas for arcade games. Due to Bushnell's concern about single-game consoles, the Grass Valley team started working on a home console with multi-game support. Mayer and Emmons determined that a home console would require newly invented microprocessors to support multiple games, but such microprocessors cost US$100–300 at the time, far outside the range that their market would support. In September 1975, Chuck Peddle of MOS Technology created a low-cost replacement for the Motorola 6800, the MOS Technology 6502, and introduced it at the 1975 Wescon trade show in San Francisco. Mayer and Ron Milner attended the show, met with Peddle, and later invited Peddle to Cyan's headquarters to discuss using MOS's microprocessors for a game console. Mayer and Milner negotiated a deal for the 6502 chips at US$8 each, which was sufficient to begin development of a console; however, further discussions determined that the better solution would be the MOS Technology 6507, a more restrictive but lower-cost version of the 6502. Cyan and MOS also enlisted Synertek, a semiconductor manufacturer whose co-founder, Bob Schreiner, was good friends with Peddle, to act as a second source for the 6507.
By December 1975, Atari hired Joe Decuir to help design the first prototype, codenamed "Stella" (the name of Decuir's bicycle). A second prototype was completed by March 1976 with the help of Jay Miner, who had managed to fit the entire Television Interface Adaptor (TIA), to send graphics and audio to the television display, into a single chip. The second prototype included the 6507, the TIA, and a ROM cartridge slot and adapter, each cartridge holding a ROM game image. Believing that Stella would be a success, Bushnell acquired the entire Grass Valley Think Tank and relocated them to Atari's new headquarters in Sunnyvale, California by mid-1976, putting Steve Mayer in charge of the project. Bushnell feared that once this unit was released, competitors would try to copy it, and preemptively arranged with all integrated chip manufacturers who were interested in the games market to deny sales to his competitors.
Fairchild Semiconductor introduced its Fairchild Channel F home console in November 1976, beating Atari to the market with ROM cartridge technology. This pressured Atari to finish Stella more quickly, but the company lacked the funds to do so. Bushnell considered taking Atari public but instead sold the company to Warner Communications for US$28 million; subsequently, Warner provided approximately US$100 million in new funding, allowing Stella to be prioritized and fast-tracked. By 1977, the product had advanced far enough to brand it as the "Atari Video Computer System" (VCS) and engage Atari's programmers to develop games for it.
The unit was showcased in mid-1977 at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show with plans for retail release in October. However, Atari encountered production problems during its first batch, and its testing was complicated by the use of cartridges. Ultimately, the consoles were shipped to retailers in November 1977.
Launch and success
At release in September 1977, the unit was originally priced at US$199 ($823 adjusted for inflation), and shipped with two joysticks and a Combat cartridge (eight additional games were available at launch and sold separately). Atari sold between 350,000 and 400,000 Atari VCS units during 1977, attributed to the delay in shipping the units and consumers' unfamiliarity with non-dedicated consoles.
1978 was a challenging year. About 800,000 units were manufactured, but only 550,000 were sold by year's end. This required further financial support from Warner to cover losses and caused Bushnell to leave the company. Although Warren Robinett invented in this year the first action-adventure game, Adventure, changing the fundamentals of gaming with the first game featuring a "virtual space bigger than the screen", Atari had suffered the loss of programmers David Crane, Bob Whitehead, Larry Kaplan, and Alan Miller, the company's "Fantastic Four", who had programmed most of the successful VCS games to that point. The four left Atari, disgruntled over Warner's oversight of the company and treatment of programmers, and formed Activision, which introduced third-party software to the VCS.
The VCS was the best-selling console during the 1979 holiday season, with more than 1 million units sold, but Atari saw new competition from the Mattel Intellivision and Magnavox Odyssey², which also used ROM cartridges.
Atari licensed the arcade hit Space Invaders by Taito. Its release in January 1980 doubled console sales to more than 2 million units. The VCS and its cartridges helped Atari earn more than $2 billion in 1980. Sales then doubled again for the next two years; by 1982, the console had sold 10 million units, while its best-selling game Pac-Man sold 7 million copies. The console also sold 450,000 units in West Germany by 1984.
In 1982, Atari launched its second home console, which it named the Atari 5200; to standardize its naming, the VCS was renamed to the "Atari 2600 Video Computer System", or "Atari 2600" for short, derived from the manufacture part number CX2600. By 1982 the 2600 console cost Atari about $40 to make and sold for an average of $125. The company spent $4.50 to $6 to manufacture its cartridges, plus $1 to $2 for advertising, and sold them for $18.95 wholesale.
Third party development
Activision, formed by four former Atari VCS programmers, started developing third-party games to be used on cartridge systems, including the VCS, in 1979. Atari attempted to block the sale of the Activision cartridges, but lost in court, allowing other third-party VCS game developers to flourish. One such developer was Rob Fulop, who had created the VCS version of Missile Command. More than two million copies of Missile Command were sold and, for this milestone, Atari rewarded him with a gift certificate for a free turkey. Fulop promptly left Atari. Fulop co-founded Imagic, and his first game for the company, Demon Attack, became a hit in 1982.
Other VCS-focused game development companies that sprang up in the early 1980s include US Games, Telesys, Games by Apollo, Data Age, Zimag, Mystique, and CommaVid. Mattel and Coleco, each already producing its own more advanced console, created simplified versions of their existing titles for the 2600. Mattel used the M Network brand name for its cartridges. Third-party titles competed with Atari's share of VCS games, accounting for half of VCS game sales by 1982.
Decline and redesign
With third-parties competing for market share, Atari worked to maintain dominance in the market by acquiring licenses for popular arcade games and other properties to make games from. Pac-Man, despite having numerous technical flaws, still sold more than 10 million copies. Heading into the 1982 holiday season, Atari had placed high sales expectations on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a game programmed in about six weeks, as to capture the strong interest in the film. Atari produced an estimated four million cartridges, expecting the title to sell well. However, the game was poorly reviewed, leading to only about 1.5 million units sold.
Atari, through Warner Communications, reported weaker results than expected in December 1982 to their shareholders, having expected a 50% year-to-year growth but only obtaining 10-15%. Coupled with the oversaturated market due to hardware and software competition, Atari's weakened position led investors to start pulling their funds out of the video game market, beginning a cascade of effects known as the video game crash of 1983 that devastated the North American industry. In September 1983, Atari sent 14 truckloads of unsold Atari 2600 cartridges and other equipment to be buried in a landfill in the New Mexico desert, known as Atari video game burial. While the burial had long been an urban legend, with reportedly millions of cartridges buried there, the site was excavated in 2014, with Atari representatives affirming that only about 700,000 cartridges had been deposited there. The burial remains recognized as a reminder of the end of Atari's dominance of the market.
Warner, tired of supporting Atari, started looking for buyers in 1984. By mid-1984, software development for the 2600 had essentially stopped except for that of Atari and Activision. The 2600 was de-prioritized after Warner's 1984 sale of Atari, Inc.'s Consumer Division to Commodore founder Jack Tramiel; Tramiel shifted the business' focus to home computers and ended all development of console games.
The North American video game market did not recover until about 1986, after Nintendo had introduced the Nintendo Entertainment System in North America. Atari Corporation released a redesigned model of the 2600 in 1986, supported by an ad campaign touting a price of "under 50 bucks". With a large library of games and a low price point, the 2600 continued to sell into the late 1980s. Atari released a final batch of titles in 1989–90 including Secret Quest and Fatal Run. The final Atari-licensed release is the PAL-only port of the arcade game KLAX in 1990.
The Atari 2600's CPU is the MOS Technology 6507, a version of the 6502, running at 1.19 MHz in the 2600. Though their internal silicon was identical, the 6507 was cheaper than the 6502 because its package included fewer memory-address pins—13 instead of 16. The designers of the Atari 2600 selected an inexpensive cartridge interface that has one fewer address than the 13 allowed by the 6507, further reducing the already limited addressable memory to 4 kiB (212 = 4096). This was believed to be sufficient as Combat is itself only 2 kiB. Later games circumvented this limitation with bank switching.
The top bezel of the console originally included six switches: power, TV type selection (color or black-and-white), game selection, player difficulty, and game reset. The difficulty switches were later moved to the back of the top bezel. The back bezel also included the controller ports, television output, and power adapter outlets.
The 2600 does not have a frame buffer. Instead the video device provides two 8-pixel bitmapped sprites, two 1-pixel "missile" sprites, a 1-pixel "ball", and a 40-pixel "playfield" that is drawn by writing a bit pattern for each line into a register just before the television scans that line. As each line is scanned, a game must identify the non-sprite objects that overlap the next line, assemble the appropriate bit patterns to draw for those objects, and write the pattern into the register. Similar to its predecessor Pong, the right side of the screen is a mirrored duplicate of the left; to control it separately, the software may modify the patterns as the scan line is drawn. After the controller scans the last active line, a slower vertical blanking interval begins, during which the game can process inputs and update the positions and states of objects in the game world. Any mistake in timing produces visual artifacts, a problem that programmers call "racing the beam".
The 2600's video hardware is therefore highly flexible, but also challenging to program. One advantage the 2600 has over more powerful contemporary competitors such as the ColecoVision is that the 2600 has no protection against altering settings in mid-line. For example, although each sprite nominally has only one color, it is possible to color the rows differently by changing the sprite's color as it is drawn. If the two hardware sprites are not enough for a game, a developer may share one sprite among several objects (as with the ghosts in Pac-Man) or draw software sprites, which is only a little more difficult than drawing a fixed playfield. The Pitfall! screenshot demonstrates some of these tricks: the player is a multi-color sprite, one sprite is multiplexed for the logs and the scorpion, and the swinging vine is drawn by shifting the position of the "ball" on each scan line. Warren Robinett, the programmer for Adventure, described numerous tricks that he had to do to complete Adventure to both fit it within the memory limitations of the Atari 2600, as well as creatively use the graphics capability to create a multi-screen maze for players to navigate, using the "missile" sprite to create the maze's walls.
The Atari 2600 was designed to be compatible with the cathode-ray tube television sets produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and uses different color palettes depending on the television signal format. With the NTSC format, a 128-color palette was available; while in PAL, only 104 colors; in SECAM, only 8.
A side effect of how graphics work on the 2600 is that all games are required to run at either 60 frames per second (NTSC) or 50 frames per second (PAL).
The VCS originally shipped with two types of controllers: a joystick (part number CX10) and pair of rotary paddle controllers (CX30). Driving controllers, which are similar to paddle controllers but can be continuously rotated, shipped with the Indy 500 launch game. After less than a year, the CX10 joystick was replaced with the CX40 model designed by James C. Asher. Because the Atari joystick port and CX40 joystick became industry standards, 2600 joysticks and some other peripherals work with later systems, including the MSX, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari 8-bit family, and Atari ST. The CX40 joystick can be used with the Master System and Sega Genesis, but does not provide all the buttons of a native controller. Third-party controllers include Wico's Command Control joystick. Later, the CX42 Remote Control Joysticks, similar in appearance but using wireless technology, were released, together with a receiver whose wires could be inserted in the controller jacks.
Atari introduced the CX50 Keyboard Controller in June 1978 along with two games that required it: Codebreaker and Hunt & Score. The similar, but simpler, CX23 Kid's Controller was released later for a series of games aimed at a younger audience. The CX22 Trak-Ball controller was announced in January 1983 and was compatible with the Atari 8-bit family.
There were two attempts to turn the Atari 2600 into a keyboard-equipped home computer: Atari's never-released CX3000 "Graduate" keyboard, and the CompuMate keyboard by Spectravideo which was released in 1983.
The initial production of the VCS was made in Sunnyvale, using thick plastic for the casing, and with all six console switches on the front panel. Production of the unit was moved to Hong Kong in 1979, where a thinner plastic was used for the casing, reducing the system's weight. These two versions are commonly referred to as "Heavy Sixers" and "Light Sixers" respectively, representing the six front switches.
In 1980, the difficulty switches were moved to the back of the console, leaving four switches on the front. Other than this, these four-switch consoles looked nearly identical to the earlier six-switch models. In 1982 Atari rebranded the console as the "Atari 2600", a name first used on a version of the four-switch model without woodgrain, giving it an all-black appearance.
Sears Video Arcade
Atari continued their OEM relationship with Sears under the latter's Tele-Games brand, which started in 1975 with the original Pong. (The company Telegames, which later produced cartridges for the 2600, is unrelated.) Sears released several models of the VCS as the Sears Video Arcade series starting in 1977. In 1983, the previously Japan-only Atari 2800 was rebranded as the Sears Video Arcade II.
Sears released versions of Atari's games with Tele-Games branding, usually with different titles. Three games were produced by Atari for Sears as exclusive releases: Steeplechase, Stellar Track, and Submarine Commander.
The Atari 2800 is the Japanese version of the 2600 released in October 1983. It was the first release of a 2600 designed specifically for the Japanese market, though companies like Epoch had distributed the 2600 in Japan previously. It was released a short time after Nintendo's Family Computer, which became the dominant console in Japan, and the 2800 did not gain a significant share of the market. Sears released the 2800 in the US in 1983 as the Sears Video Arcade II packaged with two controllers and Space Invaders. Around 30 specially branded games were released for the 2800.
Designed by engineer Joe Tilly, the 2800 has four controller ports instead of the two of the 2600. The controllers are an all-in one design using a combination of an 8-direction digital joystick and a 270-degree paddle, designed by John Amber. The 2800's case design departed from the 2600, using a wedge shape with non-protruding switches. The case style was used as the basis for the Atari 7800's case designed by Barney Huang.
Atari 2600 Jr.
The 1986 model, unofficially referred to as "the 2600 Jr.", features a smaller, cost-reduced form factor with a modernized, Atari 7800-like appearance. The redesigned 2600 was advertised as a budget gaming system (under US$49.99) with the ability to run a large collection of classic games. Though released after the video game crash of 1983, and after the North American launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the 2600 was supported with new games and television commercials promoting "The fun is back!" Later European versions of the 2600 Jr. include a joypad, which is also featured with the European 7800. Atari released several minor stylistic variations of the 2600 Jr. design: the "large rainbow" (shown at right), "short rainbow", and an all-black version sold only in Ireland.
In 1977, nine games were released on cartridge to accompany the launch of the machine, including Air-Sea Battle, Star Ship, and Street Racer. Atari, Inc. was the only developer for the first few years of the VCS, releasing Adventure (often credited the first action-adventure game), Breakout, and dozens of other games.
Rick Maurer's port of Taito's Space Invaders, released in 1980, is the first VCS title to have more than one million copies sold—eventually doubling that. It became the killer app to drive console sales. Versions of Atari's own Asteroids and Missile Command arcade games, released the following year, were also major hits.
Each early VCS game is in a 2K ROM. Later games like Space Invaders, and even River Raid from 1982, increased this capacity to 4K. The VCS port of Asteroids (1981) is the first game for the system to have used 8K via a bank switching technique. Some later releases, including Atari's ports of Dig Dug and Crystal Castles, are 16K cartridges.
Two Atari published games, both from 1982, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Pac-Man, are frequently blamed for contributing to the video game crash of 1983. To clear inventory and save money in wake of the crash, Atari shipped about 700,000 Atari 2600 games, including unsold lots of Pac-Man and E.T., to a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1983. Until 2014, there was skepticism of how much Atari had buried there, in some cases estimates of millions of cartridges, creating an urban legend of an Atari video game burial. The legend was verified in 2014 when interested parties were able to dig up a portion of the landfill and confirmed the presence of unsold Atari games.
A company named Mystique produced a number of pornographic games for the 2600. The most notorious of these, Custer's Revenge, was protested by women's and Native American groups because it depicted General George Armstrong Custer raping a bound Native American woman. Atari sued Mystique in court over the release of the game.
The Atari VCS—and later as the 2600—was so successful in the late 1970s and early 1980s that "Atari" was a synonym for the system in mainstream media and, by extension, for video games in general.
The Atari 2600 was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame at The Strong in Rochester, New York, in 2007. In 2009, the Atari 2600 was named the number two console of all time by IGN, who cited its remarkable role as the console behind both the first video game boom and the video game crash of 1983, and called it "the console that our entire industry is built upon".
Clones and reissues
Modern Atari 2600 clones remain on the market. The Atari Classics 10-in-1 TV Game, manufactured by Jakks Pacific, emulates the 2600 console and includes converted versions of 10 games into a single Atari-brand-lookalike joystick with composite-video outputs for connecting directly to modern televisions or VCRs. The TV Boy includes 127 games in an enlarged joypad.
The Atari Flashback 2 console, released in 2005, contains 40 games (with four additional programs unlocked by a cheat code). The console implements the original 2600 architecture and can be modified to play original 2600 cartridges by adding a cartridge port, and is also compatible with original 2600 controllers.
The Atari VCS microconsole, planned for release from Atari Interactive by 2019, is designed on a miniaturization of the Atari 2600, including the option for its faux wood paneling. This microconsole is designed to play several Atari 2600 games under emulation on a Linux operating system, as well as potentially other games for computers and other gaming systems.
The Atari 2700 is a version of the 2600 which uses wireless controllers.
An Atari 2600 variant, known by its production code "CX2000" and nickname "Val", was found as two 1982 prototypes at the New York and Sunnyvale Atari facilities, respectively. It was an attempt to make a new version of the aging 2600. Its design, with two integrated joystick controllers, was the result of human factor analysis by Henry Dreyfuss Associates. The project never saw market production.
Atari started work on a 2600 successor called the "Atari 3200". It was to be compatible with 2600 cartridges, and was rumored to be based on a 10-bit processor, although design documents show it was to be based on the 8-bit 6502. It was unfinished when preliminary game developers discovered that it was difficult to program. Atari cloned the Atari 3200 into the Sears Super Arcade II, but this was never released.
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