The Atari 2600 had the largest game library of its generation, and it wasn’t close. Other systems surpassed it, but in its time, the 2600 was king. But how many Atari 2600 games are there? Like many questions, it depends.
It’s really two questions, since some titles were released under multiple names, even though they were the same title. There were about 450 unique Atari 2600 games, but the number of variations of those games pushes the total number of cartridges much higher, around 900 by some counts.
Why duplicate Atari 2600 games exist
It started small enough. The Atari 2600 launched on September 11, 1977, supported by nine launch titles. But that humble sounding start grew to enviable levels in a few short years.
I’ve been hearing since the mid 90s that there were around 900 Atari 2600 titles released in total. So hearing the real number was in the 400s surprised me. Of course, the number of games that caught on and got some serious living room TV time was much lower than that.
So why did identical Atari 2600 games get released? There are two reasons for this. Cutthroat competition, and the illusion of competition. Let’s cover the illusion of competition, since that’s what happened first.
The illusion of competition
The illusion of competition came from Sears. Atari sold a private label version of the Atari 2600 through Sears called the Sears Video Arcade. And that makes things confusing. Sears sold their own versions of 58 titles. They had an Atari copyright on the cartridge and the box, but had the Sears and Tele-Games names plastered all over the cartridge in place of the Atari artwork. And at least they had the sense to not sell the same game under different titles under their respective corporate banners.
But they did change the labels around from time to time. So if you’re a completist, there are 100 different variants from Sears to chase down.
Atari’s cartridge boxes mentioned the Sears Video Arcade, and said they were compatible. If you conclude Sears and Atari didn’t compete very hard, you’d be right. Eventually the arrangement outlived its usefulness, and Sears just sold the Atari console and games, along with third-party games.
Initially, first-party titles were the only titles game consoles got. The company that made the hardware also sold the software. In some cases, the engineers who designed the hardware even wrote some game cartridges. But the authors of several popular Atari games grew unhappy. They were writing popular titles and outselling their peers, but they all got paid the same, and none of them got credit on their releases. They wanted recognition for their work, and when Atari wouldn’t grant it, they left and formed their own company, Activision.
Other software companies existed, of course, but Activision was the first third-party developer for game consoles. And if it seems like an inordinate number of the good Atari games came from Activision, it’s not a coincidence. An inordinate number of Atari’s best developers left Atari to go to Activision, and getting royalties and their names on their work seemed to motivate them.
That started a flood. Atari sued Activision of course, but once it was clear Atari wouldn’t be able to stop Activision outright, dozens of companies got in on it. Some were established companies like 20th Century Fox and Parker Brothers. Many were upstarts. Over 200 companies produced titles for the Atari 2600, and some of them were good. A lot were junk, and as various companies left the business, their titles changed hands. There were a few instances of the same game getting a new title under a new publisher. More frequently, the title kept its name under a new publisher, especially if the game had some name recognition.
The bulk of Atari 2600 games and variations in existence came out of this flood.
The flood of low quality titles led to the video game crash of 1983. Atari changed ownership, retreated from the game console market, and tried to focus on computers. Then in 1986, Atari decided to try again. And in many cases, those third party publishers weren’t in good enough financial shape to come back, or didn’t want to. Atari licensed some titles from those former third party publishers and released them under their own label, turning them into first party titles. Atari on their own accounted for over 200 titles in the end, though some of them were re-releases.
That’s why asking how many Atari 2600 games are there is a tough question. And as an aside, Atari even ended up publishing software for other systems, at least for a while.
Why else the number of Atari 2600 games there are depends
There’s one more monkey wrench in any kind of count of Atari 2600 games in existence. Not every title saw the light of day. Dozens of prototype games have surfaced over the decades, and if you count them, that bumps the number up a bit. Some people don’t count them, only to discover one of those prototypes somehow did see release in limited quantities somewhere.
Any final count is an estimate, and subject to change because of another prototype showing up somewhere. It seems unlikely there’s much else out there, but stranger things have happened. And then there’s the question of homebrew titles. The Atari 2600 is very challenging to program, so there aren’t as many homebrew 2600 titles as there are for other platforms, but about 100 homebrew titles exist.
I’ve seen counts as low as 418 and as high as 471, as far as the number of unique Atari 2600 games that exist. Whichever end of the spectrum you’re on, it’s more games than you’re likely to be able to play any time soon.
If you have a ROMs collection that has some weird count between 400 and 900, and all the titles look unique, there’s a likely explanation. It probably has some or all of the re-releases in it, and potentially some of the homebrews.