I always wanted an Atari 2600. A few of my friends had one. So did my cousin. I recall inviting myself to their homes with the sole intention of utilizing their glorious console, rather than for any form of companionship. They didn’t mind. The games were often better with two players. With Christmas approaching one year, I pleaded with Santa Claus to bring me my own. He didn’t, as apparently he was sold an Intellivision instead by a particularly persuasive salesman. While researching for RetroSmack, I was delighted to discover that the Atari 2600 first saw the light of day in September 1977. That meant I was finally going to be able to explore everything the much loved system had to offer, perhaps filling the void that was created all those years ago. I’ll be playing lots of Atari 2600 games for RetroSmack, but before I do that, I felt the release of the console itself was worthy enough to get its own post. Read on to find out how the 2600 came about, how Atari’s monopoly of the home gaming market wasn’t always assured, and how I plan to experience the games today in the most authentic way I can without dusting off an original console.
I really, really wanted one of these as a kid. It’s time to find out exactly what I missed out on!
Image Credit: An original Atari VCS via Online Exhibits
I should start by saying that the system wasn’t always called the Atari 2600. Its name was changed to that in 1982 to put it in line with the release of the Atari 5200. Prior to that release it was known as the Atari VCS, which stood for Atari Video Computer System. These days the Atari 2600 is often thought of as the first microprocessor based home gaming system, but that wasn’t actually the case. Fairchild Semiconductor beat Atari to the punch, releasing the Fairchild Video Entertainment System (VES) more than a year earlier. The VES also used cartridges to host its games and its relative success, selling 250,000 units, spurred Atari on to improve their future system’s capabilities and to finish it in time to claim a piece of the market. The eventual product contained four chips, being the MOS Technology 6507 CPU, the MOS Technology 6532 RAM and I/O chip, a display and sound chip called the Television Interface Adaptor (TIA), and a standard CMOS Logic buffer integrated circuit. In modern terms, it had a 1.19 Mhz processor and 128 bytes of RAM. To give you an idea of what this thing was (or wasn’t) capable of, the five year old laptop I’m using right now has a CPU with dual cores running at 2800 Mhz and no less than 4,000,000,000 bytes of RAM. I won’t be cranking up Skyrim in a 2600 environment anytime soon (my laptop might struggle too, but that’s another matter).
Luckily the cartridges the games came on held a whopping 4 KB of memory.
Image Credit: Digital trends (original source unknown)
I don’t want to get too carried away with technical details here, but there’s one unique feature in the way the Atari 2600 was designed that made it both very difficult to program for and capable of producing gaming experiences beyond what the low hardware specs might suggest. The lack of RAM in the system meant there wasn’t enough to have any sort of functional frame buffer. Since frame buffers are used to keep a record what is to be displayed on each and every pixel on the screen at any time, the lack of one meant that programmers had to generate graphics in real time, drawing on the screen as the TV’s electron gun was passing over the tube. This process was labelled Racing the Beam by programmers, and while it must certainly have caused them serious headaches, it also gave them an opportunity to overcome other technical limitations. The Atari 2600 was only capable of displaying five interactive objects at a time, being two “player sprites, two “missile sprites”, and one “ball”. This was originally fine, since many games of the day required only a handful of sprites on screen at the same time (think Pong), but eventually games would require many more to keep players interested (think Space Invaders). This is where the lack of a frame buffer became useful, as programmers could shift sprites horizontally, redrawing them as they went. The originals wouldn’t disappear off the screen until the electron gun came back around, making it look like there were more sprites on the screen than the system knew about. Repeating this process allowed for rows and rows of sprites (think Space Invaders again).
Space Invaders: If you want to find out more about the technical oddities of the Atari 2600, check out the book called Racing the Beam by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost.
On September 11, 1977, the Atari VCS was released with a price tag of US$199. The package contained two joysticks, a conjoined pair of paddle controllers, and one cartridge game (Combat). There were a total of nine games available to purchase at the time of the launch, and I’ll be playing all of them for this blog in the coming months. Fairchild, noticing the similarity of the VCS name to their own VES, immediately renamed their system to the Channel F. For a while it seemed both systems would share the market, but Fairchild decided video games were nothing more than a passing fad and pulled the plug. History tells us this was a terrible decision, and Atari was selling VCS’ by the truckload within months. The Magnavox Odyssey² and the Mattel Intellivision would rise up as challengers during the next two years, but neither would come close to the sales numbers Atari were reaching.
Combat: Too bad if you had no siblings or willing parents to play against.
I want to make sure that I experience games in as authentic a way as possible, without having to purchase the actual systems they were made for. It’s also very difficult, if not impossible, to create screenshots or videos when using the original consoles, so that solution is not conducive to blogging. Thankfully we live in an age where emulation is available for pretty much everything, and there are some nifty retro controllers and adaptors to make it feel right. I’ve got my hands on an original Atari conjoined pair of paddle controllers, two original Atari driving controllers, and two original Atari joysticks from Ebay. To make these originals work I’ll be running them through a 2600-daptor II, which seems to be the only adaptor that’s compatible with anything beyond the original joystick. I’ll be playing the games in the Stella emulator, and recording some videos for readers to check out using Bandicam. For anyone hoping to record game sessions using Bandicam, I found that my recordings had messed up sound until I converted them to YouTube standard quality in Handbrake. For some reason this synced the sound back up with the video as though there was never a problem to begin with. All of the tools and devices I’ve listed above are either really cheap or absolutely free, so I hope I inspire at least one person out there to relive their youth or, like me, to get a taste of someone else’s.
2600-daptor: The original adaptor covered all my 1977 needs, but the 2600-daptor II will allow me to add other controllers later such as the Keyboard Controller and the Video Touch Pad.
Featured Image Credit: Bit Rebels (original source unknown)