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

By Matt Barton,Bill Loguidice

[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 the Vectrex.]

 

Although 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.

History

In 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.

Atari's iconic CX40 joystick.

"Atari was able to attract the best and the brightest... It was such an exciting thing." (Nolan Bushnell, Atari 7800.com Website, 2001)

The 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 Battle, Basic Math, Blackjack, Indy 500, Star Ship, Street Racer, Surround, 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.

Inside cover of a 1981 Atari Inc., catalog for the VCS.

The 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 wood-grain styling.

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 exterior.

Screenshot from Atari's Sky Diver (1979), demonstrating early VCS graphics techniques.

Atari's 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 suffer.

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.


In that same year, Warner Communications sold a large portion of their interests in Atari, their former money maker, to ex-Commodore executive and founder, Jack Tramiel, who had no desire to pursue the stagnant videogame market.

Tramiel shelved both an unreleased 2600 redesign and its backward-compatible next-generation successor, the 7800 ProSystem (7800), in favor of new Atari computers.

Existing 2600 and 5200 inventory remained in the various sales channels and continued to sell, but two years passed before Atari attempted to reclaim their dominance in the home videogame market.

By this time, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) had established itself in America, and Atari was forced to play catch-up. Ironically, Atari could have distributed an earlier version of the NES if a prior agreement hadn't fallen through.

A few new 2600 cartridges were made available in 1985 by companies such as Activision, but there were no new Atari systems to go with them. However, after the NES revived America's passion for videogames, Atari firmly reestablished its presence in 1986 with the long-awaited releases of the mothballed Atari 2600 Jr. and 7800.

Box, cartridge and manual styles from Atari changed dramatically over the years, as demonstrated by the manuals shown here with the 1977 version of Combat on the left and the 1983 version on the right.

The Jr. was Atari's most significant design departure from the original heavy sixer, featuring a small and thin, black and silver enclosure, which mimicked the styling of the larger 7800. Pushed as a budget-friendly option in comparison with other systems, the 2600 continued to sell fairly well in what had become a very different market.

The Jr., with cosmetic revisions, continued to represent the VCS line until production was stopped completely by the early 1990s. Atari itself ceased to exist as a company in 1996. The name and intellectual assets have been sold and bought several times since.

Gate-fold boxes were only used on the early software releases, like Air-Sea Battle (1977), shown open here with its cartridge and instructions.

In 2003, to take advantage of the well-known name, France's Infogrames Entertainment SA, itself a software development and publishing company dating from the 1980s, rebranded its global operations as "Atari." It acquired the rights to the name after purchasing Hasbro Interactive. This new entity established itself as a major software publisher for consoles, portables, and computers.

One of Atari's Driving Controllers, which was packed in with Indy 500 (1978).

Finally, after about four years of other manufacturers releasing TV Games of variable quality based on classic Atari VCS games, the new Atari got it right. Its second attempt in 2005, the Atari Flashback 2, featured accurate renditions of 40 old and new VCS games. In fact, internally, right to its compatible controller interfaces, the Atari Flashback 2 so accurately recreates the original VCS hardware that it can even be hacked to incorporate a cartridge port, continuing a home videogame legacy that began almost 30 years earlier.


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.


Atari's loss to Activision may have been a boon for the company. When Atari finally agreed to endorse third-party software development for the VCS in exchange for royalties, many companies jumped at the opportunity to cash in on a potentially lucrative market. Unfortunately, these new companies weren't all Activisions.

One of the best was Imagic, another company composed of disgruntled former Atari employees. Imagic's shooters Demon Attack (1982) and Cosmic Ark (1982) are still considered classics by many Atari fans.

For every Imagic, however, there were companies like Ultravision, whose clunky one-on-one fighting game Karate (1983) and copycat shooter Condor Attack (1983) are rightfully forgotten.

Incidentally, Condor Attack was a clone of Demon Attack, which itself was inspired by yet another game -- Centuri's 1980 arcade game Phoenix. Atari officially converted that game in 1982 and tried litigation to force Imagic to take Demon Attack off the shelf. Atari lost yet again.

Screenshot from Parker Brothers' sophisticated Montezuma's Revenge (1984) platform game.

Third-party companies and their cartridges ensured the system's continued success, because no other video game console could boast of the same type of developer support or abundance of games. Competing systems such as Coleco's ColecoVision and Mattel's Intellivision II offered external expansion modules that allowed their system to play VCS cartridges, which became a part of their competitive marketing strategies.

Oddly, when Atari released the 5200, no such backward compatibility option was offered, confusing some consumers and hurting system sales. Atari tried making amends with a smaller 5200 system redesign and an awkward add-on module that enabled the backwards-compatibility gamers demanded. Unfortunately, this add-on was incompatible with the earlier, larger 5200 consoles without modification at a service center.

"We have learned no new secrets about the Atari VCS; we are using the same technical information that we have been using for the past four or five years. I think our success in getting the most out of the machine is attributable mainly to experience and hard work." – (Alan Miller, Senior Designer, Activision, Creative Computing Video & Arcade Games magazine, Fall 1983)

Coleco and Mattel joined the prominent ranks of other third-party developers for the VCS. Coleco mostly released poorly programmed, but high-profile versions of ColecoVision originals and arcade translations, such as Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel's Castle (1982), Donkey Kong (1982) and Zaxxon (1982).

Mattel, under the M Network brand, shined with titles such as the run-and-shoot Tron: Deadly Discs (1982, later available with a special themed joystick), the two-player-only Super Challenge Football (1982), the quirky jump-and-catch arcade game Frogs and Flies (1982), and the Bally Midway arcade racer conversion Bump 'N' Jump (1983).

Atari returned the favor with its Atarisoft brand of game releases for competing videogame and computer systems. The end result of all this sharing and cross-licensing was an unusual type of hardware and software quid pro quo that would be all but unimaginable today -- imagine, for instance, if Microsoft's Xbox 360 received a conversion of the Nintendo Wii's Super Mario Galaxy (2007).

Screenshot from Activision's expansive Pitfall II: Lost Caverns (1984). The cartridge featured author David Crane's custom Display Processor Chip (DPC), which greatly enhanced the VCS's graphics capabilities and could allow it to process music in three channels, with drums.

Parker Brothers was a major supporter of early videogame and computer systems, specializing in multiple platform formats, but its primary home was the VCS. Licensed Star Wars games such as The Empire Strikes Back (1982), in which the player controlled a Snowspeeder in battles with Imperial Walkers, and paddle controller-based Jedi Arena (1983), in which one or two players re-enacted the light saber training scene from the original movie, complemented Parker Brothers' original titles and popular arcade translations such as Sega's Frogger (1982) and Nintendo's Popeye (1983).

In an unusual set of circumstances, Frogger was officially translated again by a different company, who had uncovered a licensing loophole involving differing media formats. This loophole would gain more notoriety with Tetris in the late 1980s.

Nevertheless, The Official Frogger (1983), on cassette from Starpath Corporation (formerly Arcadia Corporation) for use with its powerful add-on system enhancer, the SuperCharger (additional memory and multi-load games), was a superior translation of the arcade original.


Other impressive SuperCharger games included the first-person maze game, Escape from the Mindmaster (1982), and Survival Island (1983), an action game composed of three major scenarios and featuring a unique passcode system -- one of the first of its kind -- allowing a player to go back to a previously uncovered location without replaying the same scenes.

Milton Bradley remained a key player throughout the 1980s, developing products for its own systems as well as other video game and computing platforms. Milton Bradley developed two games for the VCS that were each packaged with unique controllers.

Spitfire Attack (1983), came with the "Flight Commander," a tabletop joystick meant to look like a fighter plane gun, and Survival Run (1983) came with the "Cosmic Commander," a tabletop joystick meant to resemble a spaceship's flight panel.

Jay Miner left Atari to form what would become Amiga Corporation (whose employees had roles in future products such as Commodore's Amiga, Atari's Lynx, and the 3DO Multiplayer). The company produced unusual controllers and games for systems such as the VCS, including Mogul Maniac (1983), a skiing simulator.

Mogul Maniac was packed with the Joyboard, a joystick platform the player stood on and controlled by shifting bodyweight and staying balanced. These and the many other unusual devices produced for the VCS had varying degrees of usefulness and commercial success, but nevertheless enhanced the distinctiveness of Atari's system.

Screenshot from an event in Epyx's California Games (1987), demonstrating what 10 years of experience on the same system can generate.

As stated earlier, for every classic such as Fathom (Imagic, 1983), in which the player alternatively controlled a seagull and a dolphin in order to rescue Trident's daughter, and Pitfall II: Lost Caverns (Activision, 1984), which was both an action-packed adventure platformer and a technical masterpiece from David Crane, there were spectacular failures.

These failures included the likes of Lost Luggage (Apollo, 1982), which was a marginal catch-the-falling-object game, Porky's (20th Century Fox, 1983), which was tenuously based on the raunchy comedy movie of the same name, and Fire Fly (Mythicon, 1983), a shooter starring a poorly animated running man with bad control and even worse graphics.

The VCS was also home to the first adult videogames, which included titles such as Mystique's Custer's Revenge (1982) and Bachelor Party (1982), both of which would be considered crude even without the pornographic themes. However, as awful as some of these releases were, none would become more infamous than the one-two punch of Atari's Pac-Man (1981) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).

"Whatever ivory tower technicians may say, it is impossible to view the VCS as anything but very much alive as long as a dozen or so cartridges reach stores each month." – (Electronic Games magazine, December 1982)

In what should have been the deal of the year, if not the decade, Atari got sole rights to Namco's arcade smash-hit Pac-Man (1980) in 1981. While aggressively promoting and protecting their sole right to produce Pac-Man and any derivative works for home use with vigorous litigation, Atari corporate failed to ensure that programmer Todd Frye's end result was a decent game. With poor graphics, bad sound, control and implementation in a tight 4KB of ROM, rather than the originally requested 8KB, it was a travesty of a game and a devastating blow to Atari's reputation.

Atari wrongly guessed that the name alone would generate enough interest to sell the dismal product; they mistakenly produced millions more cartridges than VCS systems in active use. With such a poor game, cartridge sales -- while still extremely high at an eventual seven million units -- nevertheless left Atari with roughly five million unsold copies and only a small increase in VCS system sales, if any, over what they would have had anyway.

Atari would later redeem itself to a degree in the critical sense with superb translations of Ms. Pac-Man (1982) and Jr. Pac-Man (1984, but not released until 1988), but the detrimental financial and consumer impact of the VCS version of Pac-Man was difficult to recover from.

Atari's Jr. Pac-Man, which was finished in 1984, but not released until 1988.

As for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, lead programmer Howard Scott Warshaw of classic shooter Yars' Revenge (1981) fame, seemed like a logical choice for the project. He had impressed Steven Spielberg with his work on the translation of another popular film by the famous director, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which, in 1982, was successfully released as a sophisticated two-joystick action-adventure.


The story goes that Atari CEO Ray Kassar paid $20 million for the E.T. license, but the negotiations ended up taking so long that in order to make a holiday release, the game had to be programmed in an unprecedented six weeks, several months short of a typical development cycle at that time.

Warshaw liked both the programming challenge and the money he was able to negotiate for the task, so he began the project in earnest.

Although Spielberg would have been happy with a copycat of Pac-Man's maze-chase gameplay, Warshaw insisted on producing something original. Amazingly, all deadlines were ultimately met, and the cartridge rushed to production, with an accompanying advertising blitz.

Unfortunately, the end result confused and frustrated many players; guiding the unresponsive E.T. through a seemingly endless series of nearly inescapable pits did not have wide appeal.

Although ultimately selling well over a million copies, Atari suffered another huge financial loss because of returns and millions more unsold cartridges. Legend has it that Atari ended up burying most of the unsold inventory in a New Mexico landfill.

Screenshot from Imagic's popular Dragonfire (1982).

Despite this dramatic and storied history, the VCS would nevertheless end up home to hundreds of games in almost every genre imaginable. With the system's mainstream reemergence in 1986, a steady stream of re-releases and new titles came out.

Unlike the first time around, however, most games were designed solely for the stock joystick controller. These new titles included Absolute Entertainment's Skate Boardin' (1987) and Tomcat: The F-14 Fighter Simulator (1988), Epyx's individual Games series (Summer, Winter and California (1987)), and Atari's own Sprint Master (1988) racing game and Secret Quest (1989). Secret Quest was a fairly sophisticated action adventure with design input from former Atari founder, Nolan Bushnell.

Screenshot from Atari's child friendly Sorcerer's Apprentice (1983).

From the mid-1990s through today, homebrew authors emerged to produce a wide range of often high-quality hacks, conversions, and original games.

These include Ed Federmeyer's groundbreaking SoundX (1984) sound demo program; Tetris clone, Edtris 2600 (1995), which got the modern homebrew ball rolling; Ebivision's platformer, Alfred Challenge (1998), which was compatible with multiple worldwide television standards; Xype's Thrust+ Platinum (2003) by Thomas Jentzsch, which supports a wide range and combination of control options; and AtariAge's Fall Down (2005), which is a competitive twist on the standard platform game by Aaron Curtis that supports Richard Hutchinson's 2004 AtariVox add-on for in-game speech and high-score saves.

Modern Activity

The re-branded "Heavy Sixer" from Sears called the Video Arcade (Tele-Games).

Because it was so popular during its initial release cycle and then had a second run in the mainstream, the VCS/2600 is among the easiest systems to collect for, with millions of systems, games, and accessories still in active circulation.

In addition, even though the VCS has a relatively complex architecture for a console with its modest abilities, some of the earliest emulation programming efforts were devoted to the system, resulting in today's robust and extremely accurate virtual implementations, such as Stella and z26, on a variety of devices.

In short, whether using the real hardware or emulation of the system and many of its options on another device such as a PC -- which even supports original controllers via USB with the use of a converter such as the Stelladapter from Pixels Past -- the choices are vast.

Atari's keyboard controllers could be joined, as shown, or used individually. These controllers accepted overlays and would be restyled and resized several times after to accommodate software such as Atari's Star Raiders and the Children's Television Workshop series of games.

The most desirable VCS model is the original heavy sixer, which tends to sell for a bit more than other versions of the hardware.

In addition, Atari's own 7800 console -- besides utilizing its own software and accessories -- is nearly 100% compatible with VCS software and most add-ons, making it a great choice for collectors who want to play the games, particularly since it also has a platform-specific multi-cart that can be used for running backward-compatible software.

Besides all the variations Atari itself produced, there have been many clones and add-ons for other systems, most commonly from Sears and Coleco.

As was their corporate sales policy at the time, Sears rebranded Atari hardware from the original heavy sixer right through a sleek custom unit with a unique case and combination joystick and paddle controllers. Sears sold them under the Video Arcade name, also rebranding games: Indy 500 became Race, for instance.

Steeplechase (1980), a paddle controller-based horse racing game, Stellar Track (1980), a shooting game set in space, and Submarine Commander (1982), an undersea target game were the only cartridges released with the Sears branding that didn't also have an Atari counterpart.

Thomas Jentzsch's modern homebrew creation, Thrust+ Platinum (2003), which is one of many impressive titles released today that features slick packaging and robust hardware support.

Coleco released both the stand-alone Gemini console, which also featured a single joystick and paddle combination -- one above the other -- and its popular Expansion Module #1 for the ColecoVision console and Adam computer. Each allowed for high VCS game compatibility. Resulting lawsuits forced Coleco to pay royalties to Atari for every system and expansion module sold.

An unboxed, working system with several loose cartridges can usually be had for well under $50, with expansion modules for other systems usually selling for far less. You can find loose games -- especially the more common ones such as Boxing (Activision, 1980) and the Stern arcade conversion Berzerk (Atari, 1982) -- for about $1.

On the other hand, rarer games can cost into the tens of dollars or even hundreds, with titles such as the first voice-enabled VCS game, Quadrun (Atari, 1983), the double-sided cartridge Tomarc the Barbarian/Motocross Racer (Xonox, 1983), and the jumping and matching game Q*Bert's Qubes (Parker Brothers, 1984), selling for far more than their more plentiful counterparts.

Since many of the same titles received different text and graphical label variations over the years, this can factor into a game's price, as there are collectors who like to get all variations. Besides color variations (especially Atari's with silver and red), most box types were generally the same, save for the earliest Atari and Sears cartridges, which came in gate-fold boxes for a short time and are subsequently worth a bit more.

Like nearly every system, there are prototype games that were either finished and not released or only partially completed. However, because of the popularity of the system and the timing of The Great Videogame Crash, the 2600 has a particularly large collection of unreleased games, with new prototypes occasionally discovered to this day. Once recovered, the homebrew community often makes these lost titles available in some manner, even on cartridge.


With the VCS being the first breakout success in home videogames, there was little precedent for developers and publishers to learn from, which naturally led to lots of experimentation.

This experimentation particularly applied to the add-ons, such as the limited release Compumate from Spectravideo, which consisted of a flat membrane keyboard, additional memory, and the ability to load and save from cassette, turning the VCS into a simple computer system.

Some peripherals, such as GameLine -- which featured an oversized cartridge hooked into a phone line that allowed the user to download games for short-term use from a subscription service -- are more for show than actual use these days. Countless others such as the Starplex Game-Selex -- an external expansion box that allowed instant switchable access to multiple cartridges -- are still useful today.

What also helped in this area was that the joystick ports on the VCS were what many other companies used as standards on their systems -- for instance, Commodore with many of its popular 8- and 16-bit computer lines -- so manufacturers were able to develop to one specification.

In fact, although it usually wasn't practical to use single-button joysticks on later systems such as Sega's Master System (SMS) or Genesis, multi-button gamepads from those consoles often work fine on the VCS as well.

A wide range of interesting controllers were released for the VCS over the years with varying degrees of usefulness, including the Starplex Deluxe Video Game Controller, box back shown.

Besides the standard joysticks, paddles, and other controllers already mentioned, a few others are worth pointing out. Obscure releases such as the Foot Craz from Exus, which was a foot mat with five colored buttons that came packaged with Video Jogger (1983) and Video Reflex (1983), contrasted with the more pedestrian options such as the Booster Grip from CBS Electronics, which added extra fire buttons to a standard joystick (a stock ColecoVision controller is also a suitable alternative).

Atari released wireless controllers that looked similar to their standard joysticks, just with thick antennas and much larger bases. Atari also released different variations on their keypad controllers, which supported overlays and were originally for use with titles such as BASIC Programming (1978) and Codebreaker (1978), but were later restyled and repackaged for use as the Video Touch Pad for Star Raiders (1982) and as the Kid's Controller for educational games such as Big Bird's Egg Catch (1983), further demonstrating the system's amazing software range.

No matter what happens with the Atari name in the future, with new hardware, impressive new software releases, and a dedicated and growing community of developers and enthusiasts, the next 30 years for the VCS/2600 platform look to be just as interesting. There's no doubt that Atari fans will continue to proudly proclaim "Yes!" to the old marketing line, "Have you played Atari today?"


The Atari 2600 Jr.

Typical System Specifications

Release Year: 1977
Resolution:
192 x 160
On-Screen Colors: 16
Sound: 2 Channels, Mono
Media Format(s): Cartridge
Main Memory: 128 Bytes

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