Know Your Consoles: the Atari 2600


First off, I have to mention that I have the best girlfriend in the world. She bought me an Atari 2600 for Valentines Day, of all holidays… which is the reason why I can even write this article. Anyway, I brought the Atari 2600 into the office today, and we had a bit of fun playing it. So I thought I would take this opportunity to show you what it’s all about.

History made short, the Atari 2600 was the first-ever widely successful home video game system. Not the first system, mind you, but the first real successful system to hit the market. The 2600 really brought video gaming home. In 1977, the system launched and sold thousands, and by the turn of the decade was selling millions.

The system was an amazing home system for the time, but compared to now it is rather lame. Here is some data I compiled.


atari3.jpgThe console I got is the “Darth Vader” console, or the all-black model. Unlike the consoles of today, it is forced to sit horizontal, but I can force it on it’s side like the other consoles if propped against some other object. The games are controlled by different sets of controllers, sort of like the Wii has going on now with the Nunchuk, Classic Controller, and Wiimote. However, most games used the joystick controller. The joystick has only one button. It also only has a 4-foot cable, which means you need to bring the console to you if you want to play without bending over. The joystick is hard to use compared to today’s controllers, as you really have to push it in the right direction in order to make it work.

atari2.jpgI also got a set of the Paddles, another kind of controller that uses a different control mechanism. This controller is a lot more comfortable, because all you need to do is grab one of the controllers with one hand, and spin the knob left or right with the other. The hand holding the controller also has access to a small trigger button on the side. Think of it like an over-sized Wii Nunchuck.

Anyway, back to the machine… basically the controller does all the controlling, but the console does everything else. You know how you usually push the ‘Start’ to access the options for each game? Well, on the Atari 2600, any options or game starting begins with you pushing buttons on the system.


The on/off button is a large toggle switch. The toggle switch next to it allows you to choose whether your TV is Black and White or Color (yes, it is that old). If you have a color TV, you can watch as all the colors turn to shades of gray, and then back again. Next to the Color/BW toggle is the cartridge slot to where you put the game in. Interesting thing about it is that you put in the cartridge at something near a 45-60 degree angle, instead of horizontally or vertically.

atari5.jpgOn the right side of the console is the “Game Select” toggle. When you boot the system, most games will be frozen on the first level (if there are more than one level) or will play some sort of demo of the gameplay. The Game Select switch will allow you to choose what level to start on, or what difficulty you want to play on. In most games, it will not change much… just how fast enemies are or what is attacking you. Next to that switch is the Game Reset toggle. This toggle is pretty awesome. When you turn on the system, the game is paused. In order to start playing most games, you need to press the Game Reset button to start. On some of the newer games, pressing the joystick button will start the game, but in most cases, you’ll be reaching over to the console to hit the Game reset button.

Along the top of the console are 2 joystick ports for plugging in 2 players. There is also two slider switches that allow you to choose between “Expert Mode” and “Novice Mode”, in addition to your “Game Select” toggle. The power and video also go out the top. One thing I must note though, is that the power cord is about 15-20 feet long, as is the 10-12 foot video cable. This means I can move the console right in front of me on the couch while I play.


Now for the games. An interesting thing to note is how the games are physically put together. They come in large, sturdy black cartridges with a label on the front and bottom. The pin sets are actually hidden in the top of the cartridge, and small spring-loaded piece of plastic pushes down when the game is inserted into the system.

atari8.jpg The gameplay itself is very, very small compared to today’s titles. While you may be expecting levels to feature different enemies and terrain, this is most likely not the case for a lot of Atari games. Many of these games rely on speed increasing, enemy number increasing and other small variables to decide difficulty. As for gameplay genres and titles, many of the Atari 2600 games feature very familiar IPs. The only different is that they are a bit different from the titles we know and love today. Let’s take Pac-Man for example:


I put Pac-Man into the machine, and turn it on. Unlike traditional Pac-Man of today, the dots are dotted lines, and the ghosts actually flicker a very translucent shade of their original colors. Those big green dots are equivelant to picking up a power pill today.


Another cool feature about the Atari 2600 games are that the artwork on the cartridges are awesome… so awesome in fact that I would probably purchase half these games again if I saw them in stores. For example, take the game “Combat” for example:


Bam! Look at those sweet, sweet tanks! I would love to be shooting airplanes with tanks, tanks with airplanes and so on. I took the game and put it into the machine.


AWESOME COMBAT! This game is actually a 2-player run-around-shooting-people game. Joystick button to fire, joystick to move :).

Now here is a favorite of everyone. Donkey Kong appeared on the Atari 2600, and this cartridge was made back in 1981. I love how Nintendo has yet to change their logo since they made this game. Also note how the label says “Sears Video Arcade”, which was a proprietary Atari system that the Sears company sold as their own model.


And here is the gameplay. Unlike the Donkey Kong we know and love, there is only two level types. The barrel level is the first level, and then the structure with the flameballs is the second. When you beat the flameballs level, you move on back to the first barrel level again.


The barrels look like pepperoni pizzas to me, lol. Anyway, I absolutely love how Donkey Kong and princess look in this title… it’s adorable.


Anyway, this is everything I know about the Atari 2600. It is a great system for a few minutes of gaming before work or bed, but I can only imagine when kids used to play these things for hours. The gaming system is a lot of fun, but I can imagine how most people today would absolutely hate to play it now that we have these 40 button controllers and 3d environments. It’s amazing that we now have personal computers that can produce Flash games, when just 30 years ago we were living off of 8 KB cartridges and 1.19 MHz processors. Now we have the capability to make awesome real-life physics and simulators that are accessible to everyone across the web. Of course, none of this would have been possible if we didn’t have a predecessor like the 2600!

Well that’s it, enjoy your newfound knowledge of the Atari 2600. Whew that was a long article.