Atari 2600

Atari 2600

Atari 2600
Atari 2600 four-switch "wood veneer" version, dating from 1980–82
Manufacturer Atari, Inc.
Type Home video game console
Generation Second Generation era
Retail availability
  • NA September 11, 1977
  • EU 1978
Introductory price 199 USD
Discontinued January 1, 1992[1]
Units sold 30 million (as of 2004)[2]
Media ROM cartridge, Tape
CPU MOS 6507 @ 1.19 MHz
Memory 128 bytes RAM, 4 kB ROM
Controller input Joystick
Driving Controller
Online services GameLine
Best-selling game Pac-Man, 7 million (as of September 1, 2006)[3][4]
Predecessor Atari Pong
Successor Atari 5200

The Atari 2600, or Atari VCS before 1982, is a home video game console released on September 11, 1977 by Atari, Inc. It is credited with popularizing the use of microprocessor-based hardware and ROM cartridges containing game code, a format first used with the Fairchild Channel F game console. This format contrasts with the older model of having non-microprocessor dedicated hardware, which could only play the games which were physically built into the unit.

The console was originally sold as the Atari VCS, which stood for Video Computer System. Following the release of the Atari 5200 in 1982, the VCS was renamed to the "Atari 2600", after the unit's Atari part number, CX2600. The 2600 was typically bundled with two joystick controllers, a conjoined pair of paddle controllers, and a game cartridge, initially Combat,[5] and later Pac-Man.[6]


In 1973, Atari Inc. had purchased an engineering think tank called Cyan Engineering to research next-generation video game systems, and had been working on a prototype known as "Stella" (named after one of the engineers' bicycles) for some time. Unlike prior generations of machines that used custom logic to play a small number of games, its core was a complete CPU, the famous MOS Technology 6502 in a cost-reduced version known as the 6507. It was combined with a RAM-and-I/O chip, the MOS Technology 6532, and a display and sound chip known as the Television Interface Adaptor (TIA). The first two versions of the machine contain a fourth chip, a standard CMOS logic buffer IC, making Stella cost-effective. Some later versions of the console eliminated the buffer chip.

Programs for small computers were generally stored on cassette tapes, floppy disks, or paper tape. By the early 1970s, Hewlett-Packard manufactured desktop computers costing thousands of dollars such as the HP 9830, which packaged Read Only Memory (ROM) into removable cartridges to add special programming features, and these were being considered for use in games. At first, the design was not going to be cartridge-based, but after seeing a "fake" cartridge system on another machine, they realized they could place the games on cartridges essentially for the price of the connector and packaging.

In 1976, Fairchild Semiconductor released their own CPU-based system, the Video Entertainment System. Stella was still not ready for production, but it was clear that it needed to be before there were a number of "me too" products filling up the market, which had happened after they released Pong. Atari Inc. didn't have the cash flow to complete the system quickly, given that sales of their Pong systems were cooling. Nolan Bushnell eventually turned to Warner Communications, and sold the company to them in 1976 for US$28 million on the promise that Stella would be produced as soon as possible.

Key to the eventual success of the machine was the hiring of Jay Miner, a chip designer who managed to squeeze an entire wire wrap of equipment making up the TIA into a single chip.[7] Once that was completed and debugged, the system was ready for shipping.

Launch and success

The second 2600 model is the "Light Sixer" which has lighter plastic molding and shielding than the 1977 launch model.
Later 2600 models only used four front switches.

The unit was originally priced at US$199 ($774 adjusted for inflation), and shipped with two joysticks and a Combat cartridge (eight additional games were available at launch and sold separately).[8] In a move to compete directly with the Channel F, Atari Inc. named the machine the Video Computer System (or VCS for short), as the Channel F was at that point known as the VES, for Video Entertainment System. The VCS was also rebadged as the Sears Video Arcade and sold through Sears, Roebuck and Company stores.

When Fairchild learned of Atari Inc.'s naming, they quickly changed the name of their system to become the Channel F. However, both systems were now in the midst of a vicious round of price-cutting: Pong clones that had been made obsolete by these newer and more powerful machines were sold off to discounters for ever-lower prices. Soon many of the clone companies were out of business, and both Fairchild and Atari Inc. were selling to a public that was completely burnt out on Pong. In 1977, Atari Inc. sold 250,000 Video Computer Systems.

For the first year of production, the Video Computer System was manufactured in Sunnyvale, California. The consoles manufactured there had thick plastic molding around the sides and bottom. These added weight to the console, and because all six switches were on the front, these consoles were nicknamed "Heavy Sixers". After this first year, production moved to Hong Kong, and the consoles manufactured there had thinner plastic molding. In 1978, only 550,000 units from a production run of 800,000 were sold, requiring further financial support from Warner to cover losses. This led directly to the disagreements that caused Atari Inc. founder Nolan Bushnell to leave the company in 1978.[9]

Once the public realized it was possible to play video games other than Pong, and programmers learned how to push its hardware's capabilities, the VCS gained popularity. By this point, Fairchild had given up, thinking video games were a passing fad, thereby handing the entire quickly growing market to Atari Inc. By 1979, the VCS was the best-selling Christmas gift (and console), mainly because of its exclusive content, and 1 million units were sold that year.

Atari Inc. then licensed the smash arcade hit Space Invaders by Taito, which greatly increased the unit's popularity when it was released in January 1980, doubling sales to over 2 million units. The VCS and its cartridges were the main factor behind Atari Inc. grossing more than $2 billion in 1980. Sales then doubled again for the next two years; by 1982, the console had sold 10 million units, while its best-selling game Pac-Man sold 7 million copies.[10] The console also sold 450,000 units in West Germany by 1984.[11] By 1982 the 2600 console cost Atari about $40 to make and was sold for an average of $125. The company spent $4.50 to $6 to manufacture each cartridge and $1 to $2 for advertising, and sold it for $18.95 wholesale.[12]

The all black "Darth Vader" 4-switch model from 1982-

In 1980, the VCS was given a minor revision in which the left and right difficulty switches were moved to the back of the console, leaving four switches on the front. Other than this, these four-switch consoles looked nearly identical to the earlier six-switch models. In 1982, another version of the four-switch console was released without woodgrain. They were nicknamed "Darth Vader" consoles due to their all-black appearance. These were also the first consoles to be officially called "Atari 2600", as the Atari 5200 was released the same year. During this period, Atari Inc. expanded the 2600 family with two other compatible consoles. They designed the Atari 2700, a wireless version of the console that was never released because of a design flaw.[13] The company also built a sleeker version of the machine dubbed the Atari 2800 to sell directly to the Japanese market in early 1983, but it suffered from competition with the newly released Nintendo Famicom.

In a survey mentioned by Jeff Rovin it is reported that more stores reported breakdowns of the Atari 2600 system than any other, and that Atari repair centers seemed to have the most trouble with consoles manufactured in 1980. In one case it is stated that a system was repaired five times before static electricity from a carpet was discovered as having caused the problem. The controllers were also a source of breakage because of the way they could be gripped by a player holding it with their fist, allowing players to get carried away and over control, which was less likely with other systems released at the time, such as the Magnavox Odyssey², which has controllers that are nearly half its size.[14]

Sears Tele-Games 2600s

Sears got a rebranded "Video Arcade" 2600 for its Tele-Games line.

Atari Inc. also continued their OEM relationship with Sears under the latter's Tele-Games brand label, which started in 1975 with the original Pong. Sears released several versions of the 2600 as the Sears Video Arcade series from 1977 to 1983. These include the Rev. A "Heavy Sixer" model in 1977, the Rev. B "4 switch" model in 1980, and the US version of the Atari 2800 branded as the Sears Video Arcade II in 1983.[15]

Sears also released their own versions of Atari Inc.'s games under the Tele-Games brand — often with different titles[16] — which included the Tele-Games branded variations of text and picture labels. Three games were also produced by Atari Inc. for Sears as exclusive releases under the Tele-Games brand: Steeplechase, Stellar Track, and Submarine Commander.[16]

Sears' Tele-Games brand was unrelated to the company Telegames, which also produced cartridges for the Atari 2600 — mostly re-issues of M Network games.[17]

Decline and remodel

During this period, Atari Inc. continued to grow until it had one of the largest R&D divisions in Silicon Valley. However, it spent much of its R&D budget on projects that seemed out of place at a video game (or even home computer) company; many of these projects never saw the light of day. Meanwhile, several attempts to bring out newer consoles failed for one reason or another, although Atari Inc.'s home computer systems, the Atari 8-bit family, sold reasonably well, if not spectacularly. Warner was more than happy anyway, as it seemed to have no end to the sales of the 2600, and Atari Inc. was responsible for over half of the company's income.

The programmers of many of Atari Inc.'s biggest hits grew disgruntled with the company for not crediting game developers and many left the company and formed their own independent software companies. The most prominent and longest-lasting of these third-party developers was [22] Atari Inc. sued Mystique in court over the release of the game.[23]

Atari Inc. continued to acquire licenses for the 2600, the most prominent of which included Pac-Man and E.T. Public disappointment with these two titles and the market saturation of poor third-party titles are cited as major contributors to the video game crash of 1983. Suddenly, Atari Inc.'s growth meant it was losing massive amounts of money during the crash, at one point about $10,000 a day. Warner quickly grew tired of supporting Atari Inc., and started looking for buyers in 1984.

By mid-1984 most software development for the 2600 had stopped except by Atari and Activision, with third-party developers emphasizing ColecoVision games.[24] Although not formally discontinued, the 2600 was de-emphasized for two years after Warner's 1984 sale of Atari Inc.'s Consumer Division to Commodore Business Machines founder Jack Tramiel, who wanted to concentrate on home computers. He ended all development of console games, including a 2600 Garfield game and an Atari 5200 port of Super Pac-Man. Due to a large library and a low price point, the 2600 and its smaller cousin, the 2600jr, continued to sell well in the late 1980s and was not discontinued until 1992, outdoing all other hardware that Atari released trying to replicate its success.

Atari 2800

The design of the Japanese Atari 2800 was later used in America by Sears for the second Video Arcade model.

The Atari 2800 is the Japanese version of the Atari 2600, released in October 1983. It was the first release of a 2600 designed specifically for the Japanese market, despite companies like Epoch distributing the 2600 in Japan previously.

The 2800 never captured a large market in Japan. It was released a short time after Nintendo's Family Computer, which became the dominant console in the Japanese video game market of the time.

Codenamed "Cindy", and designed by Atari engineer Joe Tilly, the Atari 2800 had four controller ports instead of the standard two on the Atari 2600's. The controllers are an all-in one design using a combination of an 8-direction digital joystick and a 270-degree paddle, designed by John Amber.[25]

The 2800's case design departed from the standard 2600 format, using a wedge shape with non-protruding switches.

Around 30 specially branded games were released for the 2800. Their boxes are in Japanese and have a silver/red color scheme similar to the packaging of Atari's 2600 branded games of the time. The ROM cartridges themselves had identical labels as their 2600 branded counterparts.

Sears liked the design of the Atari 2800 so much, they opted to sell a version under their Tele-Games label. It was released in the US in 1983 as the Sears Video Arcade II, and was packaged with 2 controllers and Space Invaders.[25]

The Atari 2800's case style was used as the basis for the Atari 7800's case style by Barney Huang.[25]

Atari 2600 Jr.

The Atari 2600 in its 1986 cost-reduced version, also known as the "2600 Jr."

In 1986, a new version of the 2600 was released. The new redesigned version of the 2600, unofficially referred to as the 2600 Jr., featured a smaller cost-reduced form factor with a modernized Atari 7800-like appearance. The redesigned 2600 was advertised as a budget gaming system (under US$50) that had the ability to run a large collection of classic games.

The Atari 2600 continued to sell in North America and Europe until 1991, and in Asia until the early 1990s. Its final Atari-licensed release was KLAX in 1990. In 2007 the Atari 2600 was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame, selling 40 million units in its lifetime, and the youngest toy to be inducted.[26] In Brazil, the console became extremely popular in the mid-1980s. The Atari 2600 was officially retired by Atari Corp. on January 1, 1992, making it, at the time, the longest-lived home video game console (14 years, 4 months) in video game history. It was later surpassed by the Sega Master System, a console which never formally ended production in Brazil.

The system was promoted on a United Kingdom TV ad in 1989 in the run-up to Christmas, in which it claimed "The fun is back!". The advertising campaign used its price of under £50 as a selling point. The advert was a re-dubbed version of the early original campaign in the United States. Also, the 2600 Jr. was originally to be packaged with a Pro-Line joystick (the same one used on the Atari 7800), but when released, it instead included the original CX-40 Joystick. Later European versions of the 2600 Jr. included a joypad, which was also featured with the European 7800.



Standard joystick

The CPU was the MOS Technology 6507, a stripped-down version of the 6502,[27] running at 1.19 MHz in the 2600. The 6507 included fewer memory-address pins—13 instead of 16—and no external interrupts to fit into a smaller 28-pin package. Smaller packaging was, and still is, an important factor in overall system cost, and since memory was very expensive at the time, the 6507's small 8 kB of maximum external memory space was not going to be used up anyway. In fact, memory was so expensive they could not imagine using up even 4 kB, and when Atari got a deal on 24-pin connectors for the cartridge socket, they took it, despite this limiting the games to 4 kB.[28] Later games get around this limitation with bank switching. The maximum supported cartridge size is 32 kilobytes.[29]

The console has only 128 bytes of RAM for run-time data that includes the call stack and the state of the game world. There is no frame buffer, as the necessary RAM would have been too expensive. Instead the video device has two bitmapped sprites, two 1-pixel "missile" sprites, a 1-pixel "ball," and a 40-pixel "playfield" that is drawn by writing a bit pattern for each line into a register just before the television scans that line. As each line is scanned, a game must identify the non-sprite objects that overlaps the next line, assemble the appropriate bit patterns to draw for those objects, and write the pattern into the register. In a telling reveal of its Pong heritage, by default, the right side of the screen is a mirrored duplicate of the left; to control it separately, the software may modify the patterns as the scan line is drawn. After the controller scans the last active line, a more leisurely vertical blanking interval begins, during which the game can process inputs and update the positions & states of objects in the game world. Any mistake in timing produces visual artifacts, a problem that programmers call "racing the beam"[30] and which users tend to call "flickering".[31]

The video hardware gives the 2600 a reputation as one of the most complex game consoles in the world to program, but those programmers who sufficiently understand it realize that such direct control over the video picture is also a source of flexibility. One advantage the 2600 has over more powerful contemporary competitors such as the ColecoVision is that the 2600 has no protection against altering settings in mid-line. For example, although each sprite nominally has only one color, it is possible to color the rows differently by changing the sprite's color as it is drawn. If the two hardware sprites are not enough for a game, a developer may share one sprite among several objects (as with the ghosts in Pac-Man) or draw software sprites, which is only a little more difficult than drawing a fixed playfield. The Pitfall! screenshot below (section: "Games") demonstrates some of these tricks: the player is a multicolor sprite, one sprite is multiplexed for the logs and the scorpion, and the swinging vine is drawn by shifting the position of the "ball" on each scan line. Despite the hardware limitations, many Atari 2600 games have a lot of action on the screen, creating an engaging experience.

Additionally, the 2600 supports several types of input devices (joysticks, paddles, keyboards, etc.) as well as third-party peripherals. Many of these peripherals are interchangeable with the MSX and other Japanese systems; and, in some cases, it is possible to use the Atari joysticks with the Commodore 64, Commodore 128, Amiga, Sega Master System, and Mega Drive/Genesis, though functionality may be somewhat limited. Also, although Master System and Mega Drive/Genesis controllers work on the Atari 2600, only the "B" button can be used in most games. Another adapter is the Starpath Supercharger, an add-on created by Starpath to expand the game capabilities of the Atari 2600. The Supercharger's interface adds an extra 6 kB to the Atari 2600's 128 bytes of RAM, allowing for larger games with higher-resolution graphics. A cord coming out of the side of the cartridge plugs into the earphone jack of any standard cassette player. Games for the Supercharger are stored on standard audio cassettes.

Color and graphics

The Atari 2600 uses different color palettes depending on the television signal format used.[32] With the NTSC format, a 128-color palette is available,[33] while in PAL, only 104 colors are available. Additionally, the SECAM palette consists of only 8 colors.


Pitfall!, one of the most popular third party games for the Atari 2600.

In 1977, nine games were released on cartridge to accompany the launch of the machine, including Outlaw, Space War and Breakout.[34] During the console's lifetime, Atari Inc and Atari Corp. published many titles: these games included Adventure (often credited as starting the action-adventure game genre[35]—its creator, Warren Robinett, also introduced the first widely known Easter egg to the gaming world[36]Breakout,[37] and Yars' Revenge.[38] The console's popularity attracted many third-party developers, which led to popular titles such as Activision's Pitfall![39] and Imagic's Atlantis. However, two Atari published titles, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial[39] and Pac-Man,[40] are frequently blamed for contributing to the video game crash of 1983.


The Atari 2600 was wildly successful, and during much of the 1980s, "Atari" was a synonym for this model in mainstream media and, by extension, for video games in general.[41]

The Atari 2600 was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame at The Strong in Rochester, New York in 2007. In 2009, the Atari 2600 was named the second greatest video game console of all time by IGN, who cited its remarkable role as the console behind both the first video game boom and the video game crash of 1983, and called it "the console that our entire industry is built upon."[42]

Atari 2000

The Atari 2000 (model number CX-2000) is a prototype version of the Atari 2600 intended to be released as a cheaper alternative for children in 1982. Although identical in specification to the original 2600, the 2000 includes built-in controllers and a different case design. The 2000 was originally intended to be black, but it was later recolored blue to appeal more to children. While Atari never officially stated the reason for not releasing the 2000, experts have cited the poor quality and durability of its built-in joysticks and the greater in-house popularity of the competing 2600 Jr. design as the most likely reasons.[43]

Atari 3200

Atari started work on a replacement to the 2600, called the Atari 3200, with codenames including Super Stella, Sylvia, and PAM (a note attached reads "Super Stella: Multipurpose"). The system was to have compatibility with Atari 2600 cartridges, and was rumored to be based on a 10-bit processor, although design documents shows it was to actually be based around the 6502 8-bit CPU. It was still unfinished when preliminary game programmers discovered that it was difficult to program. The project was cancelled, and Atari went with the second "System X", also titled PAM, that would later become the Atari 5200. Atari also cloned the Atari 3200 into the Sears Super Arcade II, but this was never released.[44]

Clones and reissues

The console and its old and new games are very popular with collectors because of its significant impact on video game and consumer electronics history and also due to its nostalgic value for many people, along with a number of games that are still considered highly playable. In addition, modern Atari 2600 clones remain on the market. One example is the Atari Classics 10-in-1 TV Game, manufactured by Jakks Pacific, which emulates the 2600 console, and includes converted versions of 10 games into a single Atari-brand-lookalike joystick with composite-video outputs for connecting directly to modern televisions or VCRs. Another is the TV Boy, which includes 127 games in an enlarged joypad.

The Atari Flashback 2 console, released in 2005, contains 40 games (with four additional programs unlockable by a cheat code). The console implements the original 2600 architecture and can be modified to play original 2600 cartridges by adding a cartridge port, and is also compatible with original 2600 controllers.

In music

Many games for the Atari 2600 have detailed and easily identifiable music, and its distinctive sound makes it ideal for use in modern lo-fi and industrial music. In 2002, Dallas musician and visual artist Paul Slocum developed a cartridge called Synthcart for the Atari 2600, which allows the user to turn an Atari 2600 into a two-voice synthesizer and drum machine. Adapters have also been developed by amateurs enabling the Atari 2600's use with MIDI devices. A number of bands, such as 8 Bit Weapon, Black Moth Super Rainbow and The Squigs, as well as Slocum's own band Tree Wave, use Synthcart to make modern music on the Atari 2600. Some effects units like the MXR Blue Box are often cited for their ability to produce an Atari-like sound. Phonte from the hip-hop group Little Brother, along with fellow lyricist Eccentric, formed a mock group named Unheralded Symmetrics, and recorded a tribute to the system, entitled "Atari 2600".


Atari 2600 emulation is available for most major operating systems and is now very accurate. Despite the relative simplicity of the 2600 system, it is not an easy system to emulate. While it does not require a lot of computational power to emulate the 2600, it is hard to accurately do so. For example, because of the lack of a frame buffer, 2600 emulators must not only emulate the console, but the television as well. Due to the longevity of the system, many 2600 games use undocumented features, and even exploit bugs in the hardware to squeeze the most functionality and performance out of the system, doing things even the original designers would deem impossible. A notable example is the starfield of the game Cosmic Ark. It took some time for the emulator programmers to mature their software to properly emulate the undocumented features, bugs and quirks of the system.

The MESS emulator supports recording and playback of Atari 2600 emulation sessions. The Home Action Replay Page[45] (a.k.a. HARP) allows Atari 2600 users to archive their favorite play sessions of the Atari 2600 system and its games. The Javatari emulator has a multiplayer mode that allows two users to play as Player 1 and Player 2 respectively as if they were playing on the same console.

Well-known Atari 2600 emulators today include the following:


Thomas Jentzsch's Thrust, a homebrew game for the Atari 2600

After 30 years since the launch of the Atari 2600, new homebrew games for the system are still made and sold by hobbyists with several new titles available each year. Most of the development on the platform is still done in 6502 assembly language, but a BASIC-like language compiler named "batari Basic" (bB) and a visual environment called "Visual batari Basic" are also available.

Games created for the Atari can be executed using either an emulator or copied directly to a blank cartridge making use of either a PROM or EPROM chip. This allows the construction of homebrew cartridges that can run on an original Atari 2600.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Image of box with Pac-Man sticker
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Steve Fulton, "Atari: The Golden Years -- A History, 1978-1981", Gamasutra, 21 August 2008, pg. 6
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ "The Complete Guide to Conquering Video Games" by Jeff Rovin, Collier Books, 1982 pages 7, 9, 11
  15. ^
  16. ^ a b
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ a b c The Atari 2800 System
  26. ^ Salon-Friday,Nov.9,2007-Toy Hall Of Fame
  27. ^
  28. ^ The cartridge connector's 24 pins are allocated to one supply-voltage line, two ground lines, 8 data lines, and 13 address lines. However, the uppermost address line is used as a so-called chip select for the cartridge's ROM chip, leaving only 12 address lines for the chip's game program. Thus, without special "hardware tricks" built into the cartridge, an Atari 2600 game can occupy a maximum address space of 4 kB.
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^ Atari 2600 "TIA color chart".
  33. ^
  34. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^ MobyGames. "Breakout for Atari 2600," (retrieved on March 2nd, 2009).
  38. ^
  39. ^ a b
  40. ^
  41. ^
  42. ^
  43. ^
  44. ^
  45. ^ Home Action Replay Page


  • Perry, Tekla; Wallich, Paul. "Design case history: the Atari Video Computer System". IEEE Spectrum. March 1983.

External links

  • Atari 2600 at DMOZ
  • Gamasutra's A History of Gaming Platforms: Atari 2600 Video Computer System/VCS
  • Review of Atari 2600 games
  • batari Basic page
  • Inside the Atari 2600
  • A history of the Atari VCS/2600