The Atari heavy sixer, also sometimes called the Atari 2600 heavy sixer, is the earliest version of the popular 1970s and 1980s game console. While not super rare or valuable, it is more valuable than most of the later versions of the Atari Video Computer System. You can think of it as the original original Atari 2600.
The earliest Atari 2600 from 1977, nicknamed the heavy sixer, has six switches on the top, distinct from later units that had four. It weighs 1.2 pounds more than later six-switch models.
Why is the earliest original Atari 2600 called the Atari heavy sixer?
The Atari heavy sixer gets its name because it has six switches along the top of the unit, and the thick plastic case that weighs almost 1.2 pounds on its own.
In 1980, Atari changed to four-switch models, first with the woodgrain styling, then in 1982 with the all-black “Darth Vader” model. The models with four switches moved the two difficulty switches to the back.
The light sixer, which came in between the two, initially used the same motherboard but a lighter case.
Aside from the size and weight, the various models of the Atari VCS or Atari 2600 are compatible with each other. They all use the same MOS Technology 6507 CPU and the Atari TIA chip with 128 colors, and have the same meager 128 bytes of RAM. They all play the same game cartridges and use the same power supply. It was an 8-bit system, but not a state of the art one.
The MOS 6507 is an interesting story. Atari couldn’t use the more common MOS 6502 CPU and hit its price point. So MOS Technology agreed to create a cost-reduced version that omitted functionality Atari didn’t need. MOS also supplied the 6532 chip that Atari used for I/O and memory.
History and popularity
All heavy sixers were built in Sunnyvale, California. Atari moved production overseas to Hong Kong after it started making light sixers. Atari made them both under its own name, and also made a version for Sears. The Sears version is functionally identical, but was rebranded the Tele-Games Video Arcade. The design changed in 1978, but not right on January 1. So you can find some heavy sixers with 1978 dates of manufacture.
Atari aficionados prefer the Atari heavy sixer for two main reasons. First, it’s rarer and older. But second, some of them believe the heavy sixer gives a better gaming experience due to a better video signal. Higher quality components tend to be heavier than cheaper components, but the half-kilogram additional weight of the heavy sixer comes from the case. Early light sixers had the same motherboard as heavy sixers. So a light sixer made in California, at the very least, will give an identical gaming experience to a heavy sixer. Later four-switch models may give a slightly less higher quality signal.
In all honesty, there’s probably a third factor involved too. The made-in-the-USA pride is probably also a factor, at least in the States.
If you want the heavy sixer experience at a lower price, a light sixer unit made in Sunnyvale may be a bargain.
Original Atari 2600 heavy sixer vs light sixer
The 1978 model came to be known as the light sixer. This model also has six switches along the top. This makes it easy for someone who’s not familiar with Atari consoles to confuse the two. The light sixer is a slighly later, cost-reduced version. It’s very common for consumer electronics manufacturers to revise their designs over time to reduce costs. This lets them increase their profit margins, offer the unit at a lower price, or both.
Fortunately, you can tell the difference between the two types of units without opening them up, because Atari revised the case design. The front of an Atari heavy sixer is rounded. The trim is also noticeably thicker on a heavy sixer, and uniform all the way around. The light sixer’s trim is thinner on the sides. But the rounded front is the easiest indicator to look for.
All heavy sixers were made in California, but so were some light sixers. So the words “Sunnyvale, California” doesn’t necessarily guarantee a heavy sixer. But the words “Made in Hong Kong” certainly do disqualify a heavy sixer candidate.
If you’re a completist, the original Atari 2600 heavy sixer came with the Atari CX10 joysticks, rather than the newer and more common CX40 joysticks all later models used. A complete heavy sixer setup would include two Atari CX10s.
The easiest way to tell a CX10 from a later model is to look for the word “TOP.” The CX40 had the word printed to indicate what direction to hold the joystick, likely in response to customer feedback. The CX10 has no such indicator. There are other subtle differences too, but looking for the word “TOP” works both in person and when looking at an Ebay listing.
Atari heavy sixer value
The value of a heavy sixer can vary of course, depending on condition and whether it works. Boxed examples will be more expensive. They also turn up much less frequently. But generally you can expect to pay around $100, shipped, for a functioning heavy sixer on Ebay. An untested or broken model will sell for less.
Since the Atari 2600’s major components didn’t change over time, it’s possible to use parts from later models to repair a broken heavy sixer, if you’re comfortable working on vintage electronics. But when faced with a broken Atari unit, always suspect the AC adapter. The Atari 2600 AC adapter is more failure prone than the rest of the system. Fortunately, it’s also easy to replace since it’s not hardwired. Just plug a new one in.
While I don’t recommend video games as an investment, a heavy sixer is going to hold more of its value than later models.