Atari 2600 101: A Beginner’s Guide

atari-2600-101

Presented by Ack

The RetroGaming 101 series is aimed at gamers who are just starting out in the classic gaming scene or are curious about an older console that they don’t know much about yet.  Those of you that are especially knowledgeable about the featured console, I encourage you to add any information that you think would be beneficial into the comments section. If you are new to the featured console, and still have questions, you can also use the comments section and I will do my best to help you out.

While it wouldn’t actually be the first cartridge-based home game console, the Atari 2600 would prove to be the first big hit, ushering in the first golden age of home gaming while the golden age of the American arcade scene was in full force.  And though its popularity would inevitably decline with the onset of the video game crash of 1983, the console would still have appeal years later.

Background Information

  • The Atari 2600 first entered the market in America, October 1977.  Though sales would fluctuate and inevitably decrease, its true final end of production was in the early 1990s.
  • The Atari 2600 was originally known as the Atari Video Computer System, or Atari VCS.  It was renamed in 1982 to fit its part number in the Atari catalog(CX2600), which was the same way the Atari 5200 got it’s name.
  • “Stella” was the original project name for the Atari 2600.  With Fairchild Semiconductor’s release of the Fairchild Channel F in 1976, Atari allowed itself to be purchased by Warner Communications so it could bring in enough money to commercially release Stella.  The name Stella was taken from one of the engineer’s bicycles, and was part of a long history of projects with female names.
  • Arguments between Warner Communications and Atari, Inc. would lead Atari founder Nolan Bushnell to leave the company in 1978.  But by this time, Busnhell had founded Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza-Time Theater.
  • The Atari 2600 remained a major tool of the company until Warner sold Atari’s Consumer Division to Commodore Business Machines in 1984.  Consoles were then deemphasized for the next few years as Commodore attempted to push Atari’s computers.

Historical Impact

  • Lasting from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, the Atari 2600 had the longest active lifespan of any game console released in the United States.  Over 900 games were produced for the console.
  • The Atari 2600 proved the viability of console gaming in the American market.
  • The Atari 2600 also helped establish the idea of the “killer app” with its port of Space Invaders in 1980.  The game would help to quadruple sales of the Atari 2600.
  • Space Invaders was also the first officially licensed arcade game, helping to start the trend of porting games from arcade to console as well as licensing from other media.  This would also lead to some of the worst games on the Atari 2600, including the likes of it’s Pac-Man port and the game E.T.
  • The poor treatment of Atari engineers also lead to several employees leaving the company and forming others, the most successful of which was Activision.  This helped bring the rise of third-party developers.
  • The Atari 2600 also brought about the first real protests against video games, specifically due to Mystique’s Custer’s Revenge.
  • Unfortunately due to controversies like these, the Atari 2600 would help contribute to the video game crash of 1983, which would subsequently lead to the domination of the market by Japanese corporations.  American corporations would not again offer a major game console until the release of the Xbox by Microsoft nearly two decades later.

atari-2600-1

Strengths

  • After several years of poor performance for both Atari Inc. and Fairchild Semiconductor, Fairchild gave up and effectively handed Atari the entire home video game market.
  • Featured a large selection of games, including many with historical impact for various reasons. The first Easter Egg in a game was found in the Atari 2600 game Adventure, which is also credited as creating the action-adventure genre.
  • The original unit came packed with two controllers and the game Combat, proving mutliplayer was a focus right from the beginning.
  • The console features an active homebrew community that releases several titles a year, so people who think they’ve played everything always have more to look forward to.
  • While it may not necessarily compete with today’s standards, for the time the Atari’s graphical ability was cutting edge and could be manipulated in interesting ways for enhanced performance by manipulating colors of sprites, to the point it could compete with the generations that followed it..  The audio capabilities may not be grand, but considering the quality, there are some quite memorable tracks from the era.
  • There are many third party peripherals for the console, and many of them are interchangeable with some Japanese consoles of the era.  They can also be used on the Sega Master System and Genesis with some issue, while Sega’s controllers can be used on the Atari 2600

Weaknesses

  • Unfortunately those graphics really haven’t aged well, and the audio can vary from quite good to making you want to claw your ears off..
  • Games are generally simplistic, and story exposition and saving weren’t readily available.
  • A large portion of the games on the console are garbage, created by companies with no business making games solely to earn them a few bucks.
  • The console and games are very old, so some games are pretty rare, and fixing the console can be a difficult task.  Atari 2600s built in 1980 are particularly known to be difficult, and may experience problems if kept on carpeting due to static electricity.
  • Controller maintenance can also be a problem, as people have a tendency to unwittingly abuse the joysticks by slamming the sticks about when getting into games.
  • The PAL version has a limited color palette: 104 versus the NTSC’s 128.  Folks on the SECAM system got it even worse, only getting an 8-color palette, due to the Television Interface Adapter.
  • While games will technically work on any region’s machine, though this will sometimes produce visual errors such as missing colors.

Game Library

Hardware Specifications

  • The Atari 2600 CPU is a MOS Technology 6507.
  • Video is handled by the Television Interface Adapter, or TIA for short.  It lacks video RAM, only generated a single line of video at a time, and used different color palettes depending on the signal format of the television used.
  • Audio is also handled by TIA, on two mono channels.
  • RAM: 128 bytes, though more might be included in individual cartridges.
  • ROM: 4 KB maximum capacity, though this could be bumped up to 32 KB or greater using a technique known as bank switching.
  • RCA is the output for the Atari 2600.
  • Most versions contain two motherboards connected via ribbon cable, though the CX2600-A only has one motherboard.

Hardware Variations

  • The CX2600 Sunnyvale “Heavy Sixer” is the original release, featuring six large switches as well as an increased weight to the console due to an extremely thick plastic casing and aluminum radio frequency shielding. The molded casing is curved on the front edges, and the unit was originally constructed in Sunnyvale, California.  The Sears Video Arcade was the variation of this console for sale in Sears, Roebuck and Company stores.
  • The CX2600 “Light Sixer” is similar to the original, though with less plastic molding to reduce weight.  A channel select switch is built into the bottom right of the console.  The casing also drops the curved front edges.  Again, six large switches are featured on the top of this console. These were produced from roughly 1978 to 1980, after production moved to Hong Kong.
  • The CX2600-A looks similar to the Light Sixer, except the difficulty switches have been repositioned to the back of the console, so only four switches stick out on top.  1980 is the year these start production, going through 1982.
  • The Atari 2600 “Darth Vader” is the first to actually use Atari 2600 as the logo.  It loses the wood paneling of previous consoles in favor of an all-black exterior, which is how it earned its nickname.  1982 is when these start production, though they are deemphasized in 1984, and replaced in 1986.
  • The Atari 2600 “Jr.” was a redesign of the original console, released in 1986.  The console looks similar to the Atari 7800, with a smaller, cost-effective frame.
  • The Atari CX2000 was a prototype intended originally for children, though it was never released.  It featured built-in controllers, and a black paint job which was later changed to blue.
  • The Atari 3200, which featured a variety of codenames such as “Super Stella,” was also never released when it was discovered that the prototype was too difficult to program for.  Originally it was planned to be compatible with Atari 2600 games and feature a 10-bit processor.  The Sears Super Arcade II was a different name for this console.  Once it was canceled, Atari moved on to the next project, which would result in the Atari 5200.
  • The Sears Tele-Games series is the official name for the Sears, Roebuck and Company variations of the Atari 2600 line, featuring several rebrands of Atari titles for these consoles as well as three games unique to the Tele-Games brand.
  • To attempt to cut themselves in on the profits, Coleco designed an adapter for the Colecovision, as well as the Coleco Gemini, a console that played Atari 2600 games and featured Donkey Kong as a pack-in game.  Few of this console were produced.
  • There are quite a few other knock-offs and clones, such as the TV Boy series in Europe, or the Dactar Video Game in Brazil, though while these package in quite a few games(127 on the original TV Boy), they suffer numerous problems and have been edited to remove copyright claims.
  • More information on official consoles, variations, and clones can be found at the Atari Age website

Peripherals

starpath-supercharger Starpath Supercharger
The Starpath Supercharger is an add-on module, boosting the console’s RAM from 128 bytes to 6,272 bytes.  Games for it were all stored on audio cassettes, and featured catchy titles like Escape from the Mindmaster and Communist Mutants from Space.
Find Starpath Supercharger on eBay
kidvid Coleco KidVid
The Coleco KidVid was an accessory that hooked to the second player controller port to allow audio cassettes to play alongside Atari 2600 games.  It’s also a portable cassette player.  Only two official games were ever made for it, Smurfs Save The Day and Berenstain Bears.
Find Coleco KidVid on eBay
freedom-stick Freedom Stick
The Freedom Stick was a wireless copy of the NES Advantage that featured attachments to make it compatible with both the Atari 2600 and Atari 7800.
Find Freedom Stick on eBay
joy-sensor Joy Sensor
Suncom released a controller similar to the Intellivisions, called the Joy Sensor.  It used a circular censor that was touch sensitive, and are apparently pretty well built.
Find Joy Sensor on eBay
2600-trackball Trackballs
Several trackballs were released, including the official Atari 2600 trackball.  A really nice perk to the official one is that it featured buttons on both sides, so both right and left handed players could use it.
Find Atari 2600 Trackball on eBay
atari-g1-light-gun Atari G1 Light Gun
The Atari G1 Light Gun was the official Atari Light Gun for the Atari 7800, though it was compatible with the Atari 2600 as well.  It’s still not as cool in design as the Crusader, which looked a bit like a machine gun turret.
Find Atari G1 Light Gun on eBay
freedom-connection Freedom Connection
Competition Pro’s Freedom Connection allowed gamers to hook their controllers into it instead of the actual console, sort of a weird precursor to wireless controllers.
Find Freedom Connection on eBay
fire-control PointMaster Fire Control
The PointMaster Fire Control, released by PointMaster, was a cheat device that hook into the controller port and then had the controller hooked into it.  When the fire button was pressed, the Fire Control would being repeatedly sending that signal, essentially giving the controller rapid fire.
Find Fire Control on eBay

And this barely begins to scrape the surface, considering the massive amount of joysticks, keyboards, keypads, and other peripherals available for the console.

Emulation

  • MESS –  The Multi Emulator Super System handles the Atari 2600 library, along with just about every other Atari console, with attention paid to accuracy.  It’s ideal for the homebrew community.
  • The Stella emulator, originally known as Stella 96, is an open-source multi-platform emulator built in 1996 by Bradford W. Mott.  It can emulate most of the console’s peripherals, and can support NTSC, PAL, or SECAM versions of games.  While it was built using C++, JStella is a modified version to allow it to play in Java applets over the Internet.  It is also well-designed for the homebrew community.
  • PC Atari Emulator was created by John Dullea in 1996.  It can be used with MS-DOS or Windows.  It also emulates various controllers, though it is almost entirely incompatible with cassette-based peripherals.
  • z26 features versions for Windows and x86 Linux, while an older version is compatible with MS-DOS.  This emulator is specifically capable of handling cassette-based Atari 2600 games, especially the Coleco KidVid games, though since it is a command-line program some may find it daunting.  A variation, x26, includes a GUI for Windows.

Affordability

  • Game prices are mostly towards the cheaper end of the spectrum, with some cartridges having values as low as $.75 according to Video Game Price Charts.  A few do get up there into a hundred dollars or more however.
  • Consoles fluctuate in price, but $50.00 will get you a console, controllers, all the necessary cables, and usually a few games included.  Some people will ask for a lot more than that though.

13 Comments

  1. pepharytheworm says:

    Ha, my voice was heard. Thank you IRC. Good job Ack. You should show pictures of the different versions of the 2600. Like the Junior and Vader, possibly the Sears versions.

  2. hobie-wan says:

    Nice article for an old beast.

    There are also 2600A 4 switch wood machines that have the Atari logo and name on the right as well. The vader units had the logo on the left and actually say Atari 2600. Both my wood and vader units have the same revision 14 ©1980 board.

    Apparently they originally planned on putting speakers in the 2600 itself, that’s why the top resembles a plastic speaker grille. Heavy sixers even have a circle(s) molded into the underside of the top face and this is probably the reason they have the heavy aluminum shielding instead of the thinner tin shielding of latter models.

    There are composite and S-Video mods for the 2600 so you can escape RF land. I’m almost done installing mine, but I made it more complicated for myself by socketing everything and thus having to cut a hole in the shielding.

  3. RyaNtheSlayA says:

    The 7800 is the best!

    Have you played Atari today?

  4. BDD says:

    Actually, the consumer division of Atari was sold to the former CEO of Commodore, Jack Tramiel, after he had quit Commodore. He basically bought the company with promissory notes, which were later tore up. Jack and his family then preceded to run the company into the ground. The coin-op division (the real, true Atari) was retained by Warner for a while, renamed to Atari Games, and parts of it were sold to Namco and other companies over the following 20 years.

  5. Matthew says:

    Atari games FAR outnumber any other console game available at my local Goodwill Computer store. I intend to get into it someday, and this article is a great way to do that (Though picking the good games out of the pile may be pretty hard to do).

  6. Hatta says:

    Since you mentioned the Supercharger, I’ll mention that there’s a mod available that allows you to load almost any 2600 game on it. I haven’t tried it, but it looks pretty straightforward: http://members.cox.net/rcolbert/scmod.htm

    The Supercharger is also necessary for the 2600’s only RPG, Dragonstomper.

    If you want to find some good games for the 2600, anything by Activision is going to be worth a look. You can also check out the Activision Anthology for the GBA, those ports are quite good.

  7. Joehero says:

    This was the first gaming console i ever had! My brother and I received it for christmas. I loved these terrible games. Combat, venture, kaboom. I still play them sometimes on my mame machine. Nice article!

  8. Metalcrack says:

    I have the Coleco 2600 add-on, which uses official peripherals…interesting how they had an all-in-one system that , if the price was right, provided a great value for the gamer(Coleco’s own ports, and the 2600 library).

  9. breakwind says:

    My fahter bought my siblings and me an Atari 2600 system(Black version)for Christmas in 1982.It came with the I believe 02 games:Pac-Man & Combat.We had other 2600 games such as Donkey Kong,Pole Position,Popeye and a handful more-which i can’t recall.In addition we had both the Commodore Vic-20 & 64 systems.Those were the days when video games did’nt cost a kings ransom.Though playing time was often hard when competing with multiple siblings and the durability of the stiff joysticks and the frail constructed cartridges did’nt exactly imbodied high quality gaming.

  10. Chuckbanzai says:

    I for one am a Maze Craze and Frogs and Flies junkie. Have to play with a Genesis controller though.
    My only qualm is that I wish more games had some sort of end. You just end up turning it off and there is an awkward moment afterward.

  11. Mrshoujo says:

    Some games for the 2600 work only on the older 6 switch models, Kool-Aid Man for one. So it’s evident that during redesigns of the 2600 motherboard, other significant changes also happened. Most games will work on any 2600 model, but be aware some will not work on all versions.

  12. man, i was a killing machine at BattleZone, and Saboteur.
    my most favorite game for the 2600 was Quadrun. cuttin up creatures on Secret Quest. shootin space rocks on Asteroids. collectin treasure on Aquaventure. terminatin bugs on Centipede and Millipede. and tryin not to get my behind chewed up by dragons on Adventure.

  13. jesteronetime says:

    hi I just got a sears 2600 the seller claims it is a 1977 made in usa he said the year after it was made in hong kong its black my question is this the frist Atari or not cheers Jason australia