The Atari 2600, released in 1977, is the first successful video game console to use plug-in cartridges instead of having one or more games built in. It was originally known as the Atari VCS, for Video Computer System, and the name "Atari 2600" (taken from the unit's Atari part number, CX2600) was first used in 1982, after the release of the more advanced Atari 5200. It was wildly successful, and during the 1980s, "Atari" was a synonym for this model in mainstream media. The 2600 was typically bundled with two joystick controllers, a conjoined pair of paddle controllers, and a cartridge game.
Development and market considerations
Atari had spun off an engineering think-tank in 1975 called Cyan Engineering to research next-generation video game systems, and had been working on a prototype known as "Stella" (named after one of the engineers' bicycles) for some time. Unlike prior generations of machines which used custom logic to play a small number of games, Stella's core was a complete CPU, the famous MOS Technology 6502 in a cost-reduced version, known as the 6507. It was combined with a display and sound chip of their own design known as the TIA, for Television Interface Adaptor. At first the design was not going to be cartridge-based, but after seeing a "fake" cartridge system on another machine they realized they could place the games on cartridges essentially for the price of the connector and packaging.
In August 1976 Fairchild Semiconductor released their own cartridge-based system, the Channel F. Stella was still not ready for production, but it was clear that it needed to be before there were a number of "me too" products filling up the market – which had happened after they invented PONG. Atari simply didn't have the cash flow to complete the system quickly, given that sales of their own PONG systems were cooling. Nolan Bushnell eventually turned to Warner Communications, and sold the company to them in 1976 for $28 million on the promise that Stella would be produced as soon as possible.
Key to the eventual success of the machine was the hiring of Jay Miner, a chip designer who managed to squeeze an entire breadboard of equipment making up the TIA into a single chip. Once that was completed and debugged the system was ready for shipping. By the time it was released in 1977, the development had cost about US$100 million.
Launch and runaway success
The initial price was $199 with a library of 9 titles. In a play to compete directly with the Channel F, Atari named the machine the Video Computer System (or VCS for short), as the Channel F was at that point known as the VES, for Video Entertainment System. When Fairchild learned of Atari's naming they quickly changed the name of their system to become the Channel F. However both systems were now in the midst of a vicious round of price-cutting: PONG clones made obsolete by these newer and more powerful machines sold off their boxes to discounters for ever-lower prices. Soon many of the clone companies were out of business, and both Fairchild and Atari were selling to a public that was completely burnt out on PONG. In 1977 Atari sold only 250,000 VCSs. In 1978 only 550,000 units from a production run of 800,000 were sold, requiring further financial support from Warner to cover losses. This led directly to the disagreements that caused Atari founder Nolan Bushnell to leave the company in 1978.
Once the public realized it was possible to play video games other than PONG, and programmers learned how to push its hardware's capabilities, the 2600 gained popularity. Fairchild had by this point given up, thinking they were a passed fad, thereby handing the entire quickly growing market to Atari. By 1979, the 2600 was the best selling Christmas present (and console), mainly because of its exclusive content, and a million were sold that year.
The 2600 was also rebadged as the Sears Video Arcade and sold through Sears-Roebuck stores.
Atari then licensed the smash arcade hit Space Invaders by Taito, which greatly increased the unit's popularity when it was released in May 1980, doubling sales again to over 2 million units. The 2600 and its cartridges were the main factor behind Atari grossing more than $2 billion in profits in 1980. Sales then doubled again for the next two years, with almost 8 million units selling in 1982.
During this period, Atari expanded the 2600 family with two other compatible consoles. They designed the Atari 2700, a wireless version of the console that was never released due to a design flaw. The company also built a sleeker version of the machine dubbed the Atari 2800 to sell directly to the Japanese market in early 1983, but it suffered from competition with the newly-released Nintendo Famicom.
Growing pains and decline
During this period Atari continued to grow until it had one of the largest R&D divisions in Silicon Valley. They spent much of their R&D budget on projects that seemed rather out of place at a videogame (or even home computer) company, projects many of which never saw the light of day. Meanwhile several attempts to bring out newer consoles failed for one reason or another, although their home computer systems, the Atari 8-bit family sold reasonably if not spectacularly. Warner was more than happy anyway, as it seemed to have no end to the sales of the 2600, and Atari was responsible for over half of the company's income.
The programmers of many of Atari's biggest hits grew disgruntled with the company for not crediting game developers. For example, Rick Mauer, the programmer of Atari 2600 Space Invaders, received no credit and made only $11,000 for his efforts, in spite of the cartridge grossing more than $100 million in sales. Some programmers hid their names in obscure places in the game (a practice known as "Easter eggs", which continues in software development to this day), but many left the company and formed their own independent software companies. The most prominent and longest-lasting of these third-party developers was Activision, founded in 1980, whose titles quickly became more popular than those of Atari itself. Atari attempted to block third-party development for the 2600 in court but failed, and soon other publishers, such as Imagic and Coleco, entered the market. Atari suffered from an image problem when a company named Mystique produced a number of pornographic games for the 2600. The most notorious of these, Custer's Revenge caused a large number of protests from women's and Native American groups. Atari sued Mystique in court over the release of the game.
Atari continued to scoop up licenses during the shelf life of the 2600, the most prominent of which included Pac-Man and E.T. Public disappointment with these two latter titles and the market saturation of bad third-party titles are cited as big reasons for the video game crash of 1983. Suddenly Atari's growth meant it was losing massive amounts of money during the crash, at one point about $10,000 a day. Warner quickly grew tired of supporting the now-headless company, and started looking for buyers in 1984.
The console that refused to die
Although not formally discontinued, the 2600 was de-emphasized for two years after Warner's 1984 sale of Atari to Commodore Business Machines founder Jack Tramiel, who wanted to concentrate on home computers. In 1986 a new version of the 2600 was released in (although it was planned for release two years earlier). The new redesigned version of the 2600, unofficially referred to as the 2600 Jr., featured a smaller cost-reduced form factor with a modernized Atari 7800-like appearance. The redesigned 2600 was advertised as a budget gaming system (under $50) that had the ability to run a large collection of classic games. With its introduction came a resurgence in software development both from Atari and from third parties. The Atari 2600 continued to sell in the USA and Europe until 1990, and continued to sell in PAL version in Asian nations until the early 1990s. Over its lifetime, an estimated 25 million units were shipped, and its video game library reportedly numbers more than 900 titles.
At the turn of the millennium, 25 years+ after the launch of the Atari 2600, new games for the system are still made for it by hobbyists, and the console and its old and new games are very popular with collectors because of its significant impact on video game and consumer electronics history and also due to its nostalgic value for many people. In addition, modern Atari 2600 clones remain on the market. One example is the Atari Classics 10-in-1 TV Game, manufactured by Jakks Pacific, which simulates, more or less accurately, the basic electronics of the 2600 console, and includes emulations of 10 games, into a single Atari-brand-look-a-like joystick with composite video outputs for connecting directly to modern televisions or VCRs. Another is the TV Boy which includes 127 games in an enlarged joypad.
Additionally, Benjamin Heckendorn has created several different versions of a portable 2600, created by cutting apart full-sized vintage units, adding screens and putting them into new enclosures.
The basic layout of the 2600 is fairly similar to most consoles and home computers of the era. The CPU was the MOS Technology 6507, a cut-down version of the 6502, running at 1.19 MHz in the 2600. The 6507 included fewer memory pins — 13 instead of 16 — and no external interrupts to fit into a smaller 28-pin package. Smaller packaging was, and still is, an important factor in overall system cost, and since memory was very expensive at the time, the 6507's small 8 KB memory space wasn't going to be used up anyway. In fact memory was so expensive they couldn't imagine using up even 4K, and when they got a deal on 24-pin connectors for the cartridge socket, they were only too happy to thereby limit the games to 4K.
The console had only 128 bytes of RAM (working storage) that was used by the system to store game state data, i.e. data identifying where the player was in the game, what the score was, etc. RAM was so expensive that there was simply no way to have a "screen buffer", a portion of memory that holds the pattern to be drawn to the screen, at least not with the resolution they wanted. Instead they decided to have enough memory for only one line of the display at a time. When the TV completed drawing that line, the game was expected to quickly stuff the next line into the TIA while the TV was resetting for the next line or just before the beam reached the position of the object that has to be displayed. This is part of the reason that black lines can be seen on the left side of the screen when playing 2600 games.
It was a side-effect of this system, known to 2600 programmers as racing the beam, that made the 2600 one of the most complex machines in the world to program. Nevertheless, it was this same complexity that actually made the system incredibly flexible, and as programmers discovered various "tricks" of the system, games started to do things that were far beyond what the original 2600 designers had ever imagined the system was capable of. Another result of this side-effect made moving objects on the screen no harder to handle for programmers than non-moving backgrounds, which led to many Atari 2600 games having lots of things "going on" on the screen, creating fast-paced action scenes.
The computers in most homes today are much more powerful than the 2600. The CPU of a typical PC for home use today is clocked at more than 2.8 GHz, or roughly 2,352 times the 1.19 MHz clock rate of the 2600. Also, the 2600's CPU processed 8 bits of data per "clock tick", while modern PC CPUs process 32 or more bits per clock tick. Most computers today have 512 megabytes or more of RAM, which is 4,194,304 times the amount of RAM in the 2600. Atari 2600 games were originally limited to a maximum size of 4 kilobytes, while a CD-ROM, still the most common medium on which modern games are sold, can hold about 650 megabytes, or 162,000 times as much. Also, the Atari had no on board secondary storage, whereas such storage in the form of hard disk drives on today's systems will often have a capacity of 250 GB or more.
- CPU: MOS Technology 6507 @ 1.19 MHz
- Audio + Video processor: TIA. 160 x ~192 pixel, 128 colors (16 on screen), 2 channel mono sound.
- RAM (within a MOS Technology RIOT chip): 128 bytes (plus up to 256 bytes built into the game cartridges)
- ROM (game cartridges): 4 KB maximum capacity (32 KB+ with paging)
- Input (controlled by MOS RIOT):
- Two screwless DB9 controller ports, for single-button joysticks, paddles, "trakballs", "driving controllers", 12-key "keyboard controllers" (0–9, #, and *) and third party controllers with additional functions
- Six switches (original version): Power on/off, TV signal (B/W or Color), Difficulty for each player (called A and B), Select, and Reset. Except for the power switch, games could (and did) assign other meanings to the switches. On later models the difficulty switches were miniaturized and moved to the back of the unit.
- Output: B/W or Color TV picture and sound signal (NTSC, PAL or SECAM, depending on region; game cartridges are exchangeable between NTSC and PAL/SECAM machines, but this will result to wrong or missing colors and often a rolling picture.)
- Starpath Supercharger, a cartridge with a cassette player connector, giving 6 1/8 K storage capacity
- List of Atari 2600 games
- Atari 2000
- Atari 2700
- Atari 2800
- Atari 5200
- Atari 7800
- Atari Lynx
- Atari Panther
- Atari Jaguar
- Atari Jaguar II
- Coleco Gemini a clone by Coleco
- Intellivision System Changer, a clone by Mattel
- TV Games
- TV Boy a clone, by Systema.
- ^ The cartridge connector's 24 pins were allocated to one supply voltage line, two ground lines, 8 data lines, and 13 address lines. However, the uppermost address line was used as a so-called chip select for the cartridge's ROM chip, leaving only 12 address lines for the chip's game program. Thus, without special "hardware tricks" built into the cartridge, an Atari 2600 game could occupy a maximum address space of 4K.
- ^ The screwless DB9 controller ports subsequently became the mechanical/electrical de facto standard for game controllers in the 8-bit and early 16-bit era, and was used in most subsequent Atari and Commodore consoles and home computers, among many others.
- Perry, Tekla; Wallich, Paul. "Design case history: the Atari Video Computer System". IEEE Spectrum. March 1983. 
- Online Atari 2600 cart frequency guide
- Atari Times, 2600
- Atari 2600/5200/7800 FAQ
- Atari Age
- MobyGames Atari 2600
- Console Database
- Inside the Homebrew Atari 2600 Scene
- Interview with Joe Decuir (One of the designers of the Atari 2600 and the Atari 400/800 SIO. Currently he is one of the designers of USB)
- Jakks Pacific - makers of a modern Atari 2600 clone
- Atari Ace - refurbisher of the Classic Systems
- Article at The Dot Eaters - An extensive history of the Atari VCS/2600