[Gamasutra's A History of Gaming
Platforms series continues with a look at the seminal Atari VCS, also known as the Atari 2600, the undisputed star of the early console rush - at least until the Great Crash of 1984. Need to catch up? Check out
the first three articles in the series, covering the Apple II, the Commodore 64 and
not the first video game console and astonishingly primitive by
today's standards, the Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS) became
a fundamental part of Eighties culture and remains one of the most
revered 8-bit gaming platforms ever designed. However, the explosive
growth triggered by the 2600 led to The Great Videogame Crash of
1984, which toppled the industry and threatened the future of
electronic gaming in America.
1977, Atari released what is perhaps the most famous of the
pre-Nintendo videogame consoles: the Video Computer System (VCS),
later known as the Atari 2600. The company had scored an earlier
triumph for the burgeoning industry with its Pong
console, but the deluge of cheap knockoffs threatened its future.
Like the other new videogame systems at the time, the Fairchild Video
Entertainment System (VES) and RCA Studio II, the VCS sold only a few
hundred thousand units early on. However, an influx of funds from
parent company Warner Communications supported Atari during the
fledgling videogame market of the late 1970s, which was still
transitioning from fixed-game devices to interchangeable
cartridge-based consoles. This combination of Warner's financial
support and increasingly exciting games helped Atari sell millions of
VCS consoles by 1980.
iconic CX40 joystick.
was able to attract the best and the brightest... It was such an
(Nolan Bushnell, Atari 7800.com Website, 2001)
first VCS units shipped with two joysticks, a single pair of paddles,
and the two-player Combat
cartridge, which contained several tank and plane action games. The
eight other game titles, several of which were loose interpretations
of Atari's popular arcade games, were Air-Sea
and Video Olympics.
Although these games were simplistic and not much better than games
for rival systems, their variety hinted at what was to come. Indy
500 even came packaged
with two steering (driving) controllers, adding to the system's
initial array of impressive control options that would be expanded on
over the life of the system.
cover of a 1981 Atari Inc., catalog for the VCS.
first systems, known today as "heavy sixers," featured
dense internal RF shielding (giving the system its weight) and six
chrome selector switches for power on/off, color/black and white,
player A difficulty, player B difficulty, select, and reset. The
design featured sharp angles with black plastic and the famous
In 1978, Atari released a revised model with
lighter RF shielding and a slightly streamlined case. The last VCS
revision, released in 1980, moved two of the six switches to the top
of the unit. In 1982, Atari released the Atari 5200 SuperSystem. To
standardize the product line, the VCS officially became the Atari
2600 Video Computer System, or simply Atari 2600. This design was
streamlined like the previous revision, but with an entirely black
from Atari's Sky
demonstrating early VCS graphics techniques.
success peaked in 1982, after which a glut of poor third-party game
titles and bad licensing decisions caused heavy losses throughout the
industry. Product dumping, with high volumes of poor-quality games
sold at or below cost, caused full-priced, high-quality game sales to
By 1984, The Great Videogame Crash had taken a lot of
companies out of business, due in no small part to Atari's own
inflexible inventory requirements at retail outlets the year before,
with the company requiring retail outlets to stock more product than
consumer demand could support.