I was going through my spare parts bins when I found a couple of Atari 2600 consoles I’d forgotten about. It turned out they didn’t work, which is probably why they ended up in those bins. But if your Atari 2600 won’t turn on like mine, you can fix it.
Usually when an Atari 2600 won’t power on, it’s one of four things: a bad AC adapter, a dirty power switch, a loose power jack, or a bad voltage regulator. Two of those problems are super easy to fix, while the other two may require soldering. If you can’t solder, or don’t have the equipment, I still have a suggestion for those fixes too.
Back in 1996, one of the first Atari collectors I ever met told me he’d never, ever seen a broken Atari. He may have been exaggerating, because I certainly have. But I will say I’ve never found one I couldn’t fix. And usually the fix is pretty simple. An Atari 2600 makes for a pretty good first repair project.
First, a safety precaution
Some of these fixes require you to open your Atari 2600. There are very few dangerous voltages inside, but there is a very large capacitor on the motherboard that can hold enough of a charge to get your attention. To safely discharge it, you have to turn the power on with the unit unplugged and leave it for about five minutes. Obviously that’s a problem if the power switch isn’t working.
So, if you end up having to open the unit and work on the board, avoid making contact with the leads on the large capacitor on the left side of the board.
Second, is your issue actually a power issue?
I wish I could say I’ve never taken an Atari 2600 completely apart, probed everything with a multimeter, and found it all good and later discovered the problem was my Atari was set for channel 2 and I had my TV on channel 3. But I have.
The 2600jr has a power indicator light that helps, but on the older units, it’s easy to mistake other issues for power issues. I’ll dare say every issue looks like a power issue. So before you get too far, be sure to check the channel, check cable connections, and try a different cartridge so you get the easy issues out of the way.
Atari 2600 power fix #1: the AC adapter
I won’t rehash why Atari 2600 AC adapters fail again, though you’re welcome to read that if you wish. This is the most common problem and the easiest to fix. Just replace it with a new AC adapter and get back to gaming.
If you want to test your AC adapter to make sure that’s your problem and not something else, you’ll need a multimeter. Set it to DC, plug it in, and put the leads on either side of the black stripe on the power connector. A good , working AC adapter will read more than 9 volts. It reads high because it’s not under load. A newer AC adapter may read right at 9 volts, depending on the technology it uses. That’s fine if it does.
I found a bad AC adapter in my stash. I measured that one, and the voltage jumped between 0 and 0.1 volts. These systems can run on a little less than 9 volts, but not 0.1.
If you don’t have a multimeter, you can get one cheaply at Harbor Freight by playing their coupon game.
Atari 2600 power fix #2: The power switch
Atari power switches are prone to get dirty, and eventually, that keeps them from working. If your 2600 VCS powers up but acts flaky, such as flashing its screen, it may be a dirty or oxidized power switch.
I always treat all of the switches. I figure if one is dirty or oxidized, the others probably aren’t far behind. I have heard of people taking the switches apart to clean them more thoroughly, but I haven’t ever had to do that yet. I’ve always been able to clean them without disassembly.
A properly functioning power switch should click into its on and off positions. It shouldn’t be loose or sloppy.
The first thing to try is just working the switch back and forth about 100 times with the power off. If the problem is oxidation, this fixes it for free. And given some of these consoles probably spent 20 years in a garage, oxidation is definitely a possibility.
If the switch is dirty and not just oxidized, you may need some contact cleaner. I like CRC QD contact cleaner or CRC QD electronic cleaner, whichever you can get more easily, because they are plastic-safe and dry very quickly. It’s best to disassemble the console and spray the cleaner into the opening on the side of the switch, but even if you don’t do that, just squirting a bit into the switch from the top can be effective. Work the switch back and forth to help the cleaner do its job. Let it dry 30 minutes before trying the system out, but chances are it will work much more reliably now.
I don’t know exactly why, but whenever I squirt a loose, sloppy switch with contact cleaner, it restores its action and makes it click into position correctly again. I guess sometimes these switches get gummed up and the contact cleaner restores their full range of motion again.
Atari 2600 power fix #3: The power jack
If the solder joints on the power jack go bad, that can cause intermittent power. To fix this, open the console and remove the motherboard. Flip the board over and look at the two solder joints underneath the power jack. If they are broken or dull, touch them up with a 25-watt soldering iron, adding a bit of fresh solder if necessary. The fresh joints should be clean, shiny, and unbroken. And the power jack should be completely immobile. If you can wiggle it with hand pressure, the solder isn’t doing its job.
While you’re doing this, check the other solder joints on the underside of the board too. Touch up any broken or dull solder joints you find.
Atari 2600 power fix #4: The voltage regulator
The Atari 2600 motherboard has a 7805 voltage regulator to step the 9 volts down from the AC adapter to 5 volts. These can eventually go bad.
To test yours, you’ll have to plug the board in, switch on the power, and measure the voltage with a multimeter. The 7805 is in the lower left corner of the board. Switch your multimeter on and set it to DC. To avoid shorting anything out, place the black lead on the screw holding the regulator to the board, rather than the center pin. That screw is also grounded. Then place the red lead on one of the outer pins on the 7805, then the other. On a functioning 7805, you’ll measure 9 volts on one pin and 5 volts on the other. If you don’t get 9 volts on the 7805, the problem is somewhere else. If you get 9 volts but not 5, the 7805 is faulty.
New 7805s are cheap. Remove the screw holding the old 7805 in place, then snip the 3 pins on the 7805. That’s easier than desoldering the 7805 in place. Desolder the nubs of the three pins, then remove the old 7805 and clean up any remaining solder. Drop your new 7805 into the holes in the board and solder the legs into place from the underside. Cut any excess from the legs on the underside of the board, then replace the screw. This repair can be time consuming but it’s cheap.
Here’s a bit more on replacing the voltage regulator if you need a more thorough description.
What to do if you can’t fix your Atari yourself
What if you can’t fix your Atari 2600 after you try the switches and AC adapter? Take it to a game store. They may be able to fix it for you and probably won’t charge more than about $20 to to it. Or they may take your broken console in trade for another one. These are all easy repairs for someone with the right equipment and some experience so I find most game stores aside from the national chains are happy to take broken consoles as trade-ins, at the very least.
If that’s not an option, you can buy a replacement console fairly cheaply, then sell your old console as a parts/repair unit. You should be able to get $10-$15 out of your old one to help finance the purchase. Or with some luck, you may be able to find a 2600 motherboard on Ebay, and just swap your board for a new one.