The Atari 2600 was first released on September 11, 1977, along with nine titles. It wasn’t the first home video game console to connect to a TV and it wasn’t even the first one to use cartridges, but it was the first one to gain widespread success, selling 30 million units over its long lifetime. Let’s take a look at its launch titles.
Atari VCS launch titles in 1977
The Atari VCS had nine titles available on cartridge when the original Heavy Sixer launched.
- Air-Sea Battle, catalog# CX-2602, by Larry Kaplan
- Basic Math, catalog# CX-2661, by Gary Palmer
- Blackjack, catalog# CX-2651, by Bob Whitehead
- Combat, catalog# CX-2601, by Larry Wagner and Joe Decuir
- Indy 500, catalog# CX-2611, by Ed Riddle
- Star Ship, catalog# CX-2603, by Bob Whitehead
- Street Racer, catalog# CX-2612, by Larry Kaplan
- Surround, catalog# CX-2641, by Alan Miller
- Video Olympics, catalog# CX-2621, by Joe Decuir
Most titles boasted of being multiple games on a single cartridge. But these aren’t multicarts in the modern sense of the word. They contained multiple variants on a common theme.
Combat was the pack in title until 1982, so it is nearly as common as the console itself. It was a combination of two early Atari arcade titles, Tank and Jet Fighter.
The games were uncredited, which ultimately led to the most successful and prolific Atari programmers leaving to form Activision, the first third party game publisher.
Atari was surprisingly coy about the pricing of the cartridges in the fall of 1977. Their ads simply said they cost extra. Every account I can find states they sold for between $20 and $30. Cartridges for competing consoles sold in the 20 to 25 dollar price range in Q4 of 1977. Although I found plenty of 1977 ads for the console itself, none gave a price for the cartridges, only stating there were eight additional cartridges available. In 1980, JCPenney advertised Space Invaders for $29.95 and other cartridges for $21.95, offering a 10% discount if you purchased two or more.
Sears versions of the Atari launch titles
Atari built a version of the VCS exclusively for Sears, called the Video Arcade. Sears sold the same launch titles, but frequently retitled them. Eventually Sears discontinued that practice and used the same titles at Atari. Undoubtedly consumers found it confusing, buying exactly the same game under a different title at Sears versus every other retailer. Atari did give Sears an exclusive on three titles: Steeplechase (1980), Stellar Track (1980), and Submarine Commander (1982).
Here are the Sears versions of the Atari 2600 launch titles from September 1977.
- Black Jack (unchanged)
- Chase (Surround)
- Math (Basic Math)
- Outer Space (Star Ship)
- Pong Sports (Video Olympics)
- Race (Indy 500)
- Speedway II (Street Racer)
- Tank Plus (Combat)
- Target Fun (Air Sea Battle)
Sears used Target Fun as the pack in title. The price in Sears’ 1977 Christmas catalog was $19.99 each. Sears gushed about the console in its 1977 catalog. I quote: This new cartridge system has more game options and plays better, more entertaining games than any we have ever seen!
Collecting the Atari VCS launch titles today
Even with the recent inflation in vintage video game prices, collecting the Atari 2600 launch titles is surprisingly affordable. Loose examples of the cartridges frequently sell for a couple of dollars.
Boxed examples of the launch titles would be fun to collect, but keep in mind that the packaging changed over the years. The original boxes, called gatefold boxes, had a fold out flap that opened like a book cover. Atari soon changed to the more familiar conventional cardboard box with a top flap. Tracking down 1977 launch titles in 1977 packaging will likely prove more challenging. Later examples in the common cardboard boxes sell for $20 or less complete with the manual. Prices in gatefolds vary a bit more widely.
Why not better titles?
One frequent question is why Atari launched with these 9 titles rather than trying to make a bigger splash. The simple answer is, they led with what they had, and what they had was good by 1977 standards.
Remember, Atari wasn’t competing with Nintendo. They were competing with the Fairchild Channel F, which JC Penney sold for $150, and the Bally Astrocade, which Montgomery Ward sold for $270 but ended up not actually hitting the market until the next year.
Atari priced its console between the two, closer to Fairchild than to Bally, priced its cartridges similarly, and the selection was comparable to the library Fairchild and Bally had as well. The arcade industry was still in its infancy at this point, so there weren’t a lot of smash hits to license in 1977. The most obvious missing title was Breakout, which Atari released for the console the following year.
And by 1977 standards, there was nothing wrong with Atari’s library at launch. Atari followed up with 17 titles in 1978, including implementations of Breakout, basketball, baseball, and football.
The challenges of the 1977 launch
Atari sold out to Warner Bros. in 1977 for $28 million because they couldn’t afford to launch the Atari 2600 on their own. Both Atari and Fairchild lost money in 1977, and Bally’s Astrocade was supposed to come out in 1977 but got pushed to 1978. Atari sold about half as many units as they expected in 1977 and 1978, so having those 1978 titles available earlier probably wouldn’t have made a huge difference.
Then, sometime in 1979, Atari found its ace. Space Invaders became a huge arcade hit, and Atari obtained a license to produce a home version of the game, which it released in 1980. Sales of the console quadrupled after the release of Space Invaders.
It’s easy to forget that Space Invaders was the first case of a licensed home version of an arcade game made by someone else. Even at Atari, it wasn’t clear prior to 1980 whether it was better to make original games or copies of arcade games. Rick Maurer, the developer of Space Invaders, actually paused the project to work on an original game, Maze Craze, before Atari decided it needed Space Invaders.
Of course now we know getting that title out sooner would have been better. But the soonest that could have happened would have been sometime in 1979. Space Invaders wasn’t going to be a launch title in 1977. The inspiration didn’t exist yet.
This list of launch titles looks wimpy and generic by modern standards. And it doesn’t hold up well against the collection of launch titles for Coleco Vision and Nintendo NES, both of which had a couple of big hits or at least big name licensees at the onset. But that’s not who Atari was competing with in 1977. A better comparable is Mattel, and their 1979 collection of Intellivision launch titles looks more like Atari than Coleco, emphasizing traditional and sports games.
Coleco and Nintendo had options in the 1980s that just didn’t exist yet in the late 1970s.
To Warner’s credit, when Space Invaders became a sensation, they didn’t let that opportunity pass them by. They produced versions of their own arcade hits for the Atari 2600 over the next several years, and licensed about a dozen hits from other manufacturers, including Pac-Man. Atari’s ultimate failure wasn’t due to botching the 2600’s release, but rather, not ever finding a way to repeat its success.