For the month of May, I will be paying my respects to the granddaddy of the home video game consoles as we know it, the Atari VCS aka the Atari 2600. While there were other home video game consoles before it (e.g. Magnavox Odyssey, Pong consoles, Fairchild Channel F), Atari’s VCS (Video Computer System) was THE reason for the home gaming craze of the early 80’s thanks to its ability to allow arcade fans to play the same games (Space Invaders, Pac Man, etc.) that had taken the world by storm in their own homes. Originally released in 1977, the console didn’t sell huge numbers out of the gate as consumers didn’t know what to think about a video game console that wasn’t solely dedicated to playing Pong and it’s variations. The fact it cost $199 (almost $800 in 2017 dollars) didn’t help the cause either. By 1979, after a round of price cuts to compete with the Channel F and more consumer awareness of what home video games were all about, the Atari VCS found it’s footing and began its 4 year reign of dominance. Today, the Atari VCS is more commonly known as the Atari 2600 but that moniker didn’t come about until Atari released their follow-up console in 1982, the Atari 5200. They apparently wanted to rebrand their original console as half as awesome as their new one (5200 / 2 = 2600).
I never owned an Atari VCS/2600 as a kid but I was certainly familiar with the console and it’s games as I had several childhood friends that had one in their homes. I remember kids bringing cartridges to school but I really had no idea why unless they planned on trading them with friends. I knew that those little black plastic boxes with stickers on them were somehow “games” but how one would play them was foreign to me. In my 2nd and 3rd grade mind, games came in long rectangular boxes with boards, dice and playing pieces. Even games like D&D made more sense to me at that time than a cartridge that you played on your television. Of course, I was missing the fact that these games had to be plugged into a device connected to your TV in order to work. When I finally played an Atari during a sleepover, I was intrigued but ultimately unimpressed. For starters, I was awful at the games and just didn’t possess the hand eye coordination to make them any fun for me. Secondly, I had no connection to the arcade titles that Atari was attempting to recreate on it’s console so the sense of wonderment at this achievement was lost on me. By the time I was hitting the arcades a couple years later (around 1985-1986), I finally understood what all the fuss was about. I was content to spend my quarters there, where the graphics and sounds never failed to impress, instead of saving up and buying a dated video game system such as an Atari. I always assumed (correctly) that the price alone of an Atari would be out of the question as a Christmas gift back in the early 80’s when money was a little tighter in my household.
Flash forward to 2000 and I’m now at the start of my retro console collecting hobby and the Atari 2600 is one of the first consoles I decide to buy due to it’s prominence and ubiquity when I was a kid. I win an Ebay bid that provides me with a console (the Sears Tele-Games “Heavy Sixer” 6 switch version) and a bunch of games and joysticks. Additionally, loose games could be found at pawn shops and fledgling video game stores that were just starting to expand into “retro” territory. Ebay continued to be a valuable source of boxed games for my collection as new/old stock periodically popped up out of nowhere, especially for games produced at the tail end of the system’s life span in the late 80’s. Not long after buying my Sears Heavy-Sixer, I decided to add a couple of official Atari consoles to my library; the more common 4 switch woodgrain model and the late released Atari 2600 Jr. with it’s rainbow striped logo. There are still other models out there that I don’t own, the original Atari version of the Heavy-Sixer and the all black “Darth Vader” 4-switch come to mind and there are others, but I haven’t actively sought out and purchased any Atari hardware in 16 years. For the month of May, I will plug all 3 of my consoles in at some point (to make sure they actually work) and slap a few cartridges into their slots, adjust my switches to color and expert, medium or B difficulty depending on the system and have a blast. Next time I’m asked if I’ve played Atari today I can honestly say “yes, now leave me alone so I can get one more game of Galaxian in.”
Currently in my collection:
- Sears Tele-Games “Heavy-Sixer” 6 switch console with power supply and RF cable
- Atari VCS 4-switch woodgrain model console with power supply, RF cable & owner’s manual
- Atari 2600 Jr model console
- 2 joysticks, 2 paddles, 1 quick-shot joystick
- Various pamphlets including 2 Atari Stars 1983 Game Catalog, 1 Atari Catalog, 1 Atari Force comic