Happy 35th birthday, Atari 2600

The venerable Atari 2600 turned 35 this past weekend. People of a certain age remember it as the device that ushered in home video games. I know I spent a lot of afternoons after school playing blocky, chirpy video games on them in the early 1980s.

The 2600 wasn’t the first cartridge-based console, but it was the first widely successful one. It even spawned clones, the private-label Sears Video Arcade and the Coleco Gemini.

The Atari 2600 was the brainchild of one Jay Miner, probably the greatest computer designer of his generation. The machine was designed to play Pong-type games, but Miner accidentally made it capable of more than just that. Miner had a tendency to do things like that–which was what made his later Amiga so endearing. As a result, a device expected to have a shelf life of a couple of years turned out to be capable of rendering crude but recognizable implementations of games like Space Invaders and lasted on the market until 1984. The infamous video game crash of 1983, which quickly drove it from the market, was mainly caused by the market being flooded with low-quality games that cost $25. Atari’s own E.T. and hastily produced Pac-Man were the two most famous offenders, but there were many others. Drew Fuehring, an Atari collector I knew in college, estimated there were about 900 cartridges released for the 2600 over its lifetime. Of those, there were probably about 50 worth playing. Finding them wasn’t easy, because the stores that sold them generally didn’t demonstrate any of the games, and the cover art always promised spectacular things the console couldn’t begin to deliver. Everyone who had a 2600 had a handful of fun games, and a good dozen (or two) games you only ever made the mistake of putting into the console once.

A lot of those low quality games ended up in bargain bins at stores like KB Toys. But the oversupply was so great that closeout stores like Big Lots occasionally carried 2600 games even in the mid 1990s.

Nintendo deftly learned from the mistakes of the 2600, so when it released its iconic game console in the United States in late 1985, they made it look more like a VCR than a game console, and they included a lockout chip so that games that didn’t pass Nintendo’s standards of quality couldn’t be released.

Once Nintendo restored the U.S. public’s faith in game consoles, Atari re-introduced the 2600 in 1987 or so, and it enjoyed a swan song as a budget console for people who couldn’t justify spending $200 on a Nintendo unit. But Atari never did quite recapture that magic it had prior to 1983.

The 2600 enjoyed another comeback of sorts in the 1990s. Once PCs were fast enough to emulate the 2600 at full speed, Activision re-released bundles of its best games with an emulator. As long as you had a 486, you could play those old games again. And it wasn’t long before people figured out how to get the Activision emulator to play the rest of the 2600’s games.

In college, I spent more than a few afternoons unwinding, playing Pitfall! and Barnstorming on my Compaq 486 while listening to The Police. It was almost like 1982 again. Well, except when I woke up the next morning, the classes were a lot harder.

So, happy birthday, Atari 2600. Rest in peace and thanks for the memories, Jay Miner. And if any of the ingenious 2600 developers who figured out how to push Jay Miner’s early brainchild for all it was worth and then some happen to be reading, thank you too.

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