For years, Sears sold an Atari 2600 clone called the Sears Video Arcade. But the Sears Atari 2600 clone wasn’t exactly a clone in the sense we think of it. Atari made Sears’ video game system for Sears and let Sears put its name on it. Here’s why.
Why Atari would agree to a Sears Atari 2600 clone
In the late 1970s, Atari wasn’t a household name. Sears was one of the largest retailers in the country, and its name held a great degree of trust. The idea of connecting a machine to your television to play video games on it scared some people. Televisions were expensive, and people had a fear of breaking them.
Selling the video game system through Sears with their name on it gave Atari a way to overcome some of that fear. Sears sold a lot of televisions and other electronics, so people who were nervous about buying a newfangled device from an upstart might be more willing to buy from Sears. The public was willing to believe Sears wouldn’t sell you something that would break your TV, right? Atari and Sears bet on it.
So even though Sears in the 21st century holds an image of a dying store not keeping pace with the times, that wasn’t always the case. In the 1970s, Sears was a good name to partner with. Atari already had a good relationship with Sears, having given Sears the exclusive on its Pong console in 1975.
A successful partnership
Sears even sold private label versions of Atari games, including the nine launch titles. Sears Tele Games cartridges were just relabeled Atari cartridges, sometimes with different names. Like the Sears Tele Games Video Arcade, Sears video games were even made by Atari for Sears. The Sears variants complicate the question of how many Atari cartridges there were.
It worked out well for both companies. Sears promoted the video game system and its games in its catalogs, and video games quickly became a popular Christmas present. A generation grew up playing classic games like Missile Command and Pac Man on Atari consoles, and 2600 games remain near and dear to people of a certain age even today.
Why the Sears Atari 2600 clone was different
The Sears Atari 2600 clone, the Sears Video Arcade, wasn’t a clone in the sense we think of. The Coleco Gemini was a true clone: a workalike device designed and built by another company and sold more cheaply. The Gemini also wasn’t blessed by Atari. Coleco built it, and then agreed to pay Atari a license fee after Atari sued.
The Sears Video Arcade was a little bit cheaper than the Atari VCS (or 2600), but it looked exactly like the Atari video game console and it comes in the same variants as the early 2600s. You can find heavy sixer, light sixer, and 4-switch variants of the Sears Video Arcade. That’s because Atari made it in the same factories, even in Sunnyvale California for a time. The Sears video game system was an Atari 2600. The label was a different color and it said “Video Arcade” on it instead of Atari Video Computer System, but the joysticks and paddles were the same and it played all the same game cartridges. Atari gave the device legitimacy by listing the Sears Video Arcade as a compatible device on its first-party 2600 cartridges. The Sears video game system was a private-label version of the Atari 2600, rather than a true clone.
And since the Sears Video Arcade really was just a 2600 with different printing on the case, it used the same CPU and other internal components and the same power adapter, and it connects the same way to a TV too.
Atari also considered selling the VCS under its Kee Games subsidiary’s brand name, creating another false clone, to provide the appearance of market competition. Only one Kee Games prototype console is known to exist. Like the Sears Video Arcade, it would have been an Atari VCS motherboard inside a slightly differently styled case.
The second Sears video game system: Sears Video Arcade II
Sears later sold a wedge-shaped console called the Sears Video Arcade II. It was compatible with the Atari 2600 but sleeker and more contemporary looking. Atari made this device too. Atari experimented with a new console called the Atari 2800 that was still backward compatible but had some slight improvements. It sold poorly overseas, but Sears agreed to sell the device in the United States as the Sears Video Arcade II. It has a modernized, streamlined case that resembles the later Atari 7800, but with 2600-generation guts inside.
So the Sears Video Arcade II looks like a clone. But this Sears video game system, too, was made by Atari.
Why the Atari 2600 was hard to clone
The reason IBM PC clones proliferated in the 1980s was because IBM used off-the-shelf components entirely. All one had to do was replicate one piece of software to make a workalike independently. Atari sourced two key chips, the CPU and the combination I/O and memory chip, from Commodore subsidiary MOS Technology. But the heart of the Atari 2600 was a chip called Stella, or the TIA. Stella wasn’t a super-complex chip, but it was an Atari design and Atari had patents on elements of it. Anyone could buy two of the three chips they needed from MOS or one of its second sources, but they still needed a TIA.
It took several years for a clone chip to appear, and when it finally did, it was legally questionable. That’s what made the Sears Atari 2600 clone different from, say, a Compaq. It was more like a Kenmore appliance, or an Allstate electric train: a product made by an industry leader, with private label branding and sold exclusively through Sears.
By the time a true clone did appear, it was just in time for the video game crash of 1983.