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A History of Gaming Platforms: Atari 2600 Video Computer System/VCS
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A History of Gaming Platforms: Atari 2600 Video Computer System/VCS


February 28, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 8 Next
 

Software

With miniscule system memory and Motorola's 8-bit 6507 microprocessor running just over 1 MHz, the VCS seems at first glance anything but a powerhouse. Sound is limited to two channels, but, if thoughtfully programmed, can support decent sound effects and music. Graphics, while displayed at a fairly low resolution and with limitations on the number of flicker-free objects per line, can nevertheless draw from an impressive 128-color palette.

Colors and color cycling became the VCS's signature feature, enabling interesting effects that helped extend the effective life of the console far beyond what could have ever been imagined. There was just enough inherent power in the VCS with the right combination of clever programmers over the years that it became one of the first systems to support nearly every game genre and related accessory imaginable.

At first, success was elusive. Even though several of Atari's first game releases were translations of their own arcade titles, none were popular enough to send consumers rushing out to buy the console. Atari's prayers were answered in 1980, when Taito/Bally Midway's arcade blockbuster Space Invaders was converted to the VCS.

That killer app was followed the next year with Asteroids, Atari's first home-grown, smash-hit arcade game translation. Asteroids also introduced bank-switching, a technique that allowed access to cartridge memory beyond the prior 4KB limit. Although the earliest VCS cartridges were generally 2KB - 4KB in size, greater memory sizes -- including modern homebrews at 32KB and beyond -- allowed for increased depth and complexity, contributing to the system's impressive longevity.

Screenshot from Atari's Yars' Revenge (1981).

Another notable early title was Atari's Adventure (1978), a pioneering graphical action adventure. It was also among the first games with a notable "Easter Egg." Gamers who found or knew the secret could find a hidden name: Warren Robinett, the game's programmer. Robinett included the Easter Egg to protest Atari's policy of keeping programmers out of the spotlight and thus immune to better offers from rival companies.

This corporate policy led to the departure of four prolific and talented programmers -- David Crane, Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller, and Bob Whitehead. They founded Activision in 1979, one of the earliest and best third-party software developers.

Activision raised the bar on VCS game quality. Their landmark titles include Pitfall! (1982), one of the first running and jumping multi-screen games, Space Shuttle - A Journey into Space (1983), a surprisingly sophisticated flight and mission simulator, and Private Eye (1984), a multi-screen action adventure game.

Screenshot from Starpath's SuperCharger-enhanced Escape from the Mindmaster (1982).

Atari was never a stranger to litigation, though courts seldom ruled in its favor. Atari was, however, able to settle a 1972 dispute with Magnavox over arcade Pong by paying a relatively small one-time licensing fee.

This arrangement was much more favorable than those Magnavox reached with Atari's rivals, who had to agree to less favorable deals to avoid litigation. Magnavox, with the engineering expertise of Ralph Baer, won videogame patent court cases for many years to come. Atari mimicked Magnavox's aggressiveness but not their success in the courtroom. When Atari challenged Activision's right to produce games for the VCS, they eventually lost in 1982.


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