Sunday, October 15, 2006

Atari 2600 - History (1977-1991)

Considered the granddaddy of video game systems, the Atari 2600 was the first to effectively penetrate the home market. The system got off to a slow start after its 1977 release, but its popularity soared with the release of arcade translations like Space Invaders and Asteroids. By the start of the 80's, the system was a legitimate phenomenon, making Atari one of the most recognized brand names in the world. The 2600 introduced several practical innovations that boosted its popularity, including removable cartridges, detachable controllers, different types of controllers, and the ability to select different game variations from a single cartridge. Although many other technically superior consoles were released during the 80's, the Atari 2600 remained in production in one form or another long after most of its competitors had folded, all the way up until 1991.
Console design: A-. The Atari 2600 was practical in design, with easy-access cartridge slot and a series of silver switches across the front. The system went through several incarnations during its lifetime, but the original version with six switches and distinctive fake wood facade is the most sought-after by collectors. The second version, which is far more common, raised the controller ports on the back (making them easier to reach) and moved the difficulty switches to the back (making them harder to reach). The third iteration replaced the wood front with a solid black strip labeled with a white "Atari 2600" insignia. The final version had a slim, compact design not much larger than a VHS tape. It was produced in modest quantities from the mid-80s until the end of the system's lifetime.
Console durability: B. Built like tanks, the 2600 consoles are highly durable, and it's not hard to find one in good working condition. Compared to newer consoles like the NES, the 2600 has aged extremely well.
Controllers: B. One strength of the 2600 is its ability to support third-party controllers. The standard Atari joystick was cheap and prone to breakage, but several other companies stepped in to produce quality alternatives. One limitation of the Atari 2600 joysticks is their single button configuration, although certain games came up with imaginative ways to overcome this. In addition to joysticks, analog "paddle" controllers were shipped with the early systems, providing unique precision control and also allowing for four-player simultaneous play. The paddles do however have a tendency to get "shaky" over time, but this problem can be remedied with cleaning and oil.
Media: A. Being a pioneer in removable games, Atari designed their cartridges perfectly. Compact, handsome, and nearly indestructible, the games easily stack and have a handy label on the outer edge. Large enough to display artwork, Atari plastered its games with dramatic, artistic mosaics that tended to belie the actual content of the game. Activision took a different approach with its game labels, displaying an actual screen shot of the game. Third party companies experimented with a number of cartridge designs, and you can often identify the manufacturer of most Atari 2600 games by simply looking at the cartridge color and shape.
Packaging: B. Atari 2600 games were sold in cheap but attractive boxes. Most games, especially those from Atari, feature elaborate artwork across the front. The back usually displays a screenshot and a brief description of the game. Most boxes made by Atari and Activision were printed in an array of colors. Although there wasn't any apparent rhyme or reason behind the colors used, the boxes definitely look nice lining a shelf. Atari eventually moved to a "silver with red trim" color scheme to maintain consistency with their 5200 line.
Games: B. The number of high-quality, inexpensive titles in the 2600 library easily compensate for the substantial number of "duds". Atari's initial games (pre-1980) tended to be very rudimentary, but as the newer, arcade-style games demanded richer visuals, the quality of the 2600's graphics increased. In 1980 a group of ex-Atari employees formed Activision, the first third-party software company. Activision carved out a sizeable chunk out of Atari's market by producing some of the best titles for the system, including Pitfall, River Raid, and Kaboom. Inspired by Activision's success, other companies, both established and new, jumped into the fray with their own lines of games. The resulting glut, combined with a general lowering of quality, ultimately led to a dramatic video game "crash" in 1983, of which few video game companies survived.
Graphics: C+. The early Atari 2600 games were primitive and blocky, but the system's flexible architecture gave programmers the freedom to develop techniques to squeeze more and more out of the system. Thanks to Activision and other third-party developers pushing the envelope, Atari 2600 games gradually became more sophisticated, with high-resolution, flicker-free graphics and impressive special effects.
Audio: C+. Like the graphics, developers gradually learned how to harness the system's sound capabilities, eventually producing games with realistic sound effects and even harmonized music.
Collectability: A. Due to its massive popularity and incredibly long lifespan, the Atari 2600 is an ideal system for collectors. Literally hundreds of titles were produced for the system, including a long list of classics like Adventure, Space Invaders, Missile Command, Battlezone, Asteroids, and Frogger. Fortunately, the best titles are very cheap and easy to find, and all instruction manuals are available online (at The cartridges work like new after a proper cleaning, although the label quality can vary. Most games are easy to play and provide timeless fun.
Innovations: Removable cartridges, detachable controllers, joystick controllers, paddles controllers, four-player games, game variations, difficulty switches, black and white TV switch.

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