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[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.
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.