Happy 30th Birthday, Atari 2600!


Believe it or not, it's been 30 years since the Atari 2600 (also known as the Atari VCS "Video Computer System") first saw the light of day. The 2600/VCS helped turn video games from a narrow niche market into a mass market: over 30 million units through 1977 through 1992, although its biggest sales numbers were piled up from the late 1970s through about 1983, when more powerful consoles from Atari itself (the 5200 SuperSystem), Coleco (remember the Colecovision? ) and Nintendo Entertainment System began to shunt it aside, and gamers began to discover that computers like the Atari 400/800 and Commodore 64 also made good gaming platforms.

Atari Showed the Industry How (and How Not) to Play

As befits an industry colossus, Atari set the pace for an entire industry:


The Atari 2600 showed the infant gaming industry the power of licensing arcade titles. The hottest arcade titles of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Space Invaders , Pac-Man , Defender , Stargate and others were broght home by Atari. Atari also boasted arcade and home gaming: Centipede and Missile Command were just two of Atari's own titles to play well in both environments.


Atari helped launch the third-party controller business, in part because of the poor responsiveness and durability of its own joysticks. Although Wico and other 2600-era controller companies are long gone (but some vendors still have inventory ), companies like Logitech continue the tradition of providing alternatives for both consoles and PCs.

Atari fueled the rise of third-party game providers by refusing name credit to some of its best early programmers, four of whom formed Activision . Activision often beat Atari at its own game, and (unlike the original Atari), has continued into the present (today's Atari is a subsidiary of InfoGrames).


Atari was the victim of its own success: too many mediocre ( Journey Escape ) to outright unplayable ( ET ) titles for Atari 2600 and cartridge overproduction was one factor in the bursting of the video game bubble in 1982-83. Although Atari would produce other game systems and computers, it was never an industry leader again.

Lessons Learned - and Relearned

The Atari 2600 is more than a classic game system. Its rise and fall have important lessons for today's gamers.

The platform matters...

Although programming geniuses could squeeze amazing graphics out of the Atari 2600's 128 bytes of RAM (yes, bytes), it soon became apparent that more RAM (and ROM) made better games easier to create. Although the Atari 5200 never achieved more than a fraction of the 2600's popularity, its larger RAM and ROM space (similar to those of the Atari 400) made it easier to create arcade-quality versions of Pac-Man and other classics. The rise of even more powerful Colecovision and Nintendo game systems would provide further proof.

...But So Do the Programmers

Although the video game boom of the early 1980s led to many mediocre to terrible Atari 2600 titles, the best of them ( Pitfall , Star Raiders , River Raid , and Demon Attack to name a few) are still worth playing.

Sometimes You Need a Keyboard...

Atari helped launch PC gaming by putting some of its classic licensed and original titles on its 400/800 computers and their successors.

Have You Played Atari Today?

Even if you never had a 2600/VCS console, you can still play many of Atari's greatest hits (and third-party titles) today. Today's Atari has republished many classic titles in various collections for PC , and other vendors offer TV-ready joysticks with Atari games already onboard , ready for a 'blast from the past.' The AtariAge website offers a huge number of resources, including downloadable ROM images of virtually all Atari-brand and many third-party Atari games for the 2600 and its successors, emulators, and rare prototype and abandoned game projects.

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