Console: Atari Video Computer System (later renamed Atari 2600)
Manufactured By: Atari, Inc
Retail Availability: October 14th, 1977
Original Retail Price: $199.99
Units Sold: 30+ Million
In the early to mid 1970’s Atari had experienced success with the home port of the Pong arcade, and had released multiple Pong systems including Pong, Super Pong, and Quadrapong among others. Eventually the consumer had grown tired of the limited availability of built in games as Pong and other “Pong clones” had, and sales started to decline. In 1976 Fairchild had released the Channel F gaming console which was the first home gaming console to feature programmable “ROM” cartridges (to learn more about the Channel F: click here). Prior to the release of the Channel F Atari had purchased an engineering think tank in 1973 called Cyan Engineering in hopes to develop the next generation of home consoles. The initial prototype of this console was named “Stella”, and Atari soon realized that they didn’t have the funding and capital needed to complete the “Stella” project. Once The Channel F was released Nolan Bushnell (Founder of Atari) realized the importance of releasing a console soon to the market, so he decided to sell Atari Inc to Warner Communications for $28 million in 1976.
Warner was anxious to dominate the gaming industry, so they pumped $100 million ($403 million today) into Atari to complete the development of “Stella”. Warner also changed the name from “Stella” to the “Video Computer System” or simply dubbed “VCS”. Warner had high expectations that the VCS would sell well.
The thing that made the VCS stand out from most home gaming consoles at the time was that it had a CPU that enabled players to play different games by plugging in different gaming cartridges. Warner saw this as a huge potential to make a lot of money. Most Pong style consoles that were on the market at this time had only limited built in games available.
Atari already had a very strong sales relationship with Sears Roebuck to distribute their Pong consoles, and so it only seemed fitting that Atari would continue to grow that relationship with Sears to help distribute and promote the new VCS console. Under the agreement between Sears & Roebuck and Atari, Sears sold their own version of the VCS and named it “Sears Video Arcade”, and the VCS games were branded with a “Tele-Games” label. In return Atari was able to get huge exposure because Sears had hundreds of stores nationwide and the means to make the consoles readily available for the consumers
On October 14th, 1977 the Atari VCS and Sears Video Arcade were released to the general public at a retail price of $199.99 ($757.32 today’s dollars), with nine games available. Surprisingly the initial sales of the console were disappointing mainly due to the large number of cheap gaming handhelds available at the time including the popular game Simon.
Bushnell was still with Atari as part of the agreement, but he started to clash with Warner due to their stricter policies. Prior to Warner buying Atari, Atari was ran very liberally, and Bushnell was not pleased with the newer and stricter changes. Bushnell would eventually leave Atari and start Pizza Time Theater…later known as Chuck E. Cheese Pizza.
Up until 1979 the Atari VCS wasn’t selling very well. Fairchild decided to pull out of the market, and by Christmas of 1979, the Atari VCS was the best selling item and had sold over a million consoles.
Also to help boost VCS console sales, in 1980 Atari ported the very popular arcade during the time; Space Invaders. Space Invaders alone prompted people to go out and buy a VCS, and sales began to grow as Warner had imagined. Gaming developers for Atari worked hundreds of hours to push out games with no credit given in the games. This lead to gaming developers like Warren Robinett to put his name secretly in the game including the game Adventure, which is the very first Easter Egg in a video game. Atari/Warner continued to ignore developers, and refused to give them any credit for their games, so eventually several key developers including David Crane, Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller, and Bob Whitehead left Atari and started the very first 3rd party gaming company, Activision. Soon many other 3rd party gaming developers were popping up, and there was no control as to what games were being released for the VCS. There were many poor quality games and many “pornographic games” that were released for the VCS, which was a big contributing factor that lead to the video game crash of 1983. Prior to 1983 however Atari released the Atari 5200 console in 1982, a successor to the Atari VCS. It was at this time that Atari decided to change the name of the Atari VCS to the “Atari 2600”.
Atari would port many more arcade games to the VCS/2600 including Astroids, Missile Command, and the now notorious Pac Man game. Pac Man had so much hype and promotion, that the sales for the game where phenomenal for Atari, however the game was rushed to the market and played hardly anything like the actual arcade. This lead to anger many consumers.
The Atari VCS/2600 would also see clones of the system including Coleco who had released the Coleco Gemini, an Atari 2600 clone console that could play VCS/2600 games. Atari sued Coleco for copyright infringements, however Coleco won because they claimed that both the Gemini and their Module 2 expansion for the Colecovision were made from different parts. Similar to how there are multiple DVD/Blu Ray manufactures today that play the same format of media.
There are many version of the Atari VCS/2600 home console including:
Atari Heavy Sixer: This was the first run of the VCS consoles and featured six switches on the top, and a false-wood finish in the front. It was manufactured in Sunnyvale, CA, had a thick internal RF shielding, and a thick plastic molding around the bottom and sides. Roughly 550,000 “Heavy Sixers” were sold, making it a more expensive version to find today.
Four Switcher: In 1980 Atari made some minor revisions to the VCS and made it a bit smaller in size, and included only four switches. These models were not manufactured in Sunnyvale, CA.
“Darth Vader”: In 1982 Atari released a model that was all black without the false-wood grain finished, and it was officially the first version that had the Atari 2600 name on it. Today many people refer to this model as “Darth Vader” due to it’s all black appearance.
Atari 2600 Jr.: In 1985 Atari released a much smaller version of the previous models, and titled it Atari 2600 Jr. The appearance of it was to match the Atari 7800 which was another Atari console released later, and it was considered a “budget” console because it only retailed for $50. Atari would continue to sell the Atari 2600 up until 1991, making it the longest selling console of all time.
Atari 2800: In October 1983 Atari decided to release the Atari 2600 in Japan, and call it the Atari 2800. Japanese companies including Epoch had released ports of the Atari 2600 before, but this time Atari decided to market it themselves. The Atari 2800 was released just after the Nintendo Famicom and didn’t sell well. The Atari 2800 was completely redesigned and featured a very sleek design with four controller ports. The controllers were also completely redesigned featuring a two in one controller with an eight way joy stick, action buttons, and a 270-degree paddle built into the controller. Sears loved the new design so much that they later released the same model in the States and called it the “Sears Video Arcade II”. Today the Japanese Atari 2800 console is by far the rarest of all models, and is highly sought after by many Atari collectors.
The Atari VCS/2600 controller is basic yet classic. It features an eight way joystick and one red action button. There were also paddle controllers used for various games including Breakout and Night Driver among many others. Atari even released some wireless controllers that ran off of batteries. There are two variations of the controllers; ones with gold trim, and ones without.
In total there are 418 official Atari VCS/2600 games that were released for the console between 1977-1991. This number doesn’t include the countless homebrews that have been made, and still are being made by fans today.
Top 10 Best selling Games:
1) Pac-Man (7 million)
3) Missile Command
4) Demon Attack
8) River Raid
10) Space Invaders
1) Atlantis II ($5,000)
2) Air Raid ($2,850)
3) Star Wars: Ewok Adventure Prototype ($1,680)
4) Springer ($499)
5) Out of Control ($419)
6) Montezuma’s Revenge staring Panama Joe ($199)
7) Video Life($139)
8) Chase the Chuck Wagon ($124)
9) Dishaster ($103)
10) Beat’em & Eat’em ($100)
11) London Blitz ($99)
Most Popular Games:
1) Air Raid ($2,850)
2) Atlantis II ($5,000)
3) Megamania ($4)
4) Springer ($499)
5) Montezuma’s Revenge starting Panama Joe ($199)
6) Beat’em & Eat’em ($100)
7) Chase the Chuck Wagon ($124)
8) Video Life ($139)
9) Out of Control ($419)
10) Custer’s Revenge ($50)
The Atari 2600 was the first successful home console to hit the market and paved the way for many consoles that came out after. The impact that the Atari 2600 left on gaming was huge, and showed people that there was a market for 3rd party developers to create games. The Atari 2600 is one of my personal favorite home consoles, and even though the graphics may seem basic by today’s standards, the simplicity of the games make it even that more fun for me.
- Atari was first called Syzygy, but Nolan Bushnell was a huge fan of the Japanese chess game called “Go”. In the game Go the word “Atari” in Japanese translates to “Check”.
- Atari called the console “2600” based on the units part number CX2600.
- IGN ranks the Atari 2600 the 2nd greatest home gaming console of all time.
- The codename “Stella” was named after the engineers’ bicycles.
- The Atari 2600 is the longest support home gaming console of all time by selling systems and games between 1977-1991.