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A > ATARI  > VCS 2600

VCS 2600

The following information comes from the Museum of Home Video Gaming.

The Legendary Atari 2600 was designed by Jay Minor, Steve Mayer, Ron Milner and Joe Decuir. The woodgrain case was designed by Douglas Hardy and Fredrick Thompson. The Atari 2600 was Atari's first entry in the newly emerging programmable console market, and led to the direct demise of the Game Brain console.

Adopting features from it's previous single game consoles such as a power switch and reset switch, it also added unique features such as a black&white / color switch, seperate skill level switches for each player, and two controller ports that allowed connection of a multitude of invented and yet to be invented controllers (the unit came prepackaged with two joystick and two paddle controllers). The key idea was to create a console that would have a long shelf life by making it as adaptable as possible.
Unlike the game brain, this was truly a programmable console. The game code was stored in rom chips in the cartridge, which would then be loaded by the 2600 unit and executed by the custom 6507 cpu. Add to this the selection feature on the console, which would select through many preprogrammed versions of the game in a single cartridge, and you had the ability to be entertained for hours at a sitting - no longer having to buy a whole new console to get different game play, or a different game.

Towards the end of the project, it was decided that Atari did not have enough money to finish design and production, so Atari founder Nolan Bushnell sold the company to Time/Warner for $28 million in 1976. Time/Warner then proceeded to pump over a $100 million to finish things up and get the consoles out to the market.

Initially launched with a price of $200, the unit was not as successful as hoped, even with the simultanious release of it's Sears counterpart Telegame units (Atari was still honoring it's partnership with Sears from the pong days). Some blame the fact that it was around this time the many cheap handhelds and tabletop games flooded the market.

In 1978, Bushnell began to clash with Time/Warner management, who by then began replacing Atari's loose, unstructured (and fun) "hacker" culture by introducing dress codes and time cards. Time/Warner also decided to start up a computer division to enter in to the emerging personal computer market (which in turn would be important for Atari's next game console the 5200. It was at that time that the legendary founder of Atari decided to leave, only after being forced to sign a 5 year non-competition agreement, and buying back his Pizza Time Theater resteraunt (later to be called Chuck E. Cheese).

The Atari 2600 did not become the household phenomena it was until 1980, when it became the first cartridge based console to port over a coinop arcade game - Space Invaders. Many people bought the 2600 just to play Space Invaders at home. It was that same year that many of the 2600's original programmers left Atari, upset with not being given credit for their work. They founded the legendary Activision. Although they produced some of the best games available for the 2600, it forshadowed the beginning of the end of Atari's software dominance for it's console, and the forecoming Videogame crash. With no ability to control what software appeared for it's console, in the years to come the market would be flooded with low quality games for the unit.

In 1982, the 2600 again enjoyed a large success, due to it's port of Pacman. Considered a very poor port or low quality, it was still a huge success with gamers. However, later that year Atari paid $21 million for the rights to release a game based on the hit movie E.T. However, the game was a disaster and lead to a huge loss of income. That, combined with the forecoming crash never allowed Atari to fully recover, and Time/Warner wound up selling it's console and computer division to the Trameil's in 1984. Support for the unit was dropped until it was re-released as the 2600jr 2 years later. However, by that time Nintendo and Sega already had dominance with their own 8bit and later 16 bit consoles.

This unit was redesigned several times over it's life span, lasting until 1991 when it was finally cancelled. It has the distinction of being the longest running console in home gaming history. However, it has also been linked to the great video game crash of 1984, because of the flood of cheap, low quality cartridges produced for it by "me too" companies that wanted to cash in on the video game market. This is said to have lead to less purchasing of both games and gaming consoles by the public, which in turn lead to panic by industry executives, companies closing, funds and projects being pulled, etc.

The 2600, has more than earned it's place in history. Selling over 25 million units, producing large numbers of enduring classics, helping establish the console market, and increasing the overall popularity of videogames.

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