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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 6 of 8 Next

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.

Article Start Previous Page 6 of 8 Next

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