Blast from the Past: Atari 2600 video game system

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Atari 2600 video game christmas Atari 2600 video game christmas
Atari 2600 with joystick. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I realize much of the focus of the Nerdarchy website is tabletop role playing games, but it is not all the site is about, and with Christmas fast approaching my thoughts always turn to the Atari 2600, originally known as the Atari VCS.

Atari 2600 video game christmas Atari 2600 video game christmas
Space Invaders was one of the earliest popular arcade games to make it to the Atari 2600, where it continued to win over fans.

In case you are not familiar with the Atari 2600, let me fill you in a little. From approximately 1977 to 1983, the Atari 2600 was the most popular home video game console in the world, and the first multi-game console to become a huge hit with consumers. Even today it is possibly the most collectible of vintage gaming systems, perhaps only rivaled in popularity by 1985’s Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

Christmas always reminds me of the Atari 2600, bringing out in me a longing for a simpler time, a time of blocky graphics, beeps and boops, and game controllers than only have one joystick and a single button.

See, I received my first Atari 2600 as a Christmas gift. I don’t remember the exact year, but it was probably 1982. I would have been 12. That year I also got four game cartridges: Pac-Man, Frogger, Donkey Kong, and Yar’s Revenge. All of those were great games for the 2600, and the 2600 itself was a fantastic, though simple gaming system.

In years to come I would also discover the joys of owning an Odyssey 2 video game console and an Intellivision II, and eventually a Super Nintendo and later a Playstation 2, but none of those take me back to Christmas and my youth like the Atari 2600 (in fairness, the Intellivision comes close, but not quite).

The success of the Atari 2600 really shouldn’t be any surprise. It had a lot going for it at the time, the most important of which might have been its simplicity of use. One joystick, one button. That’s all it took to play the games. There was an On-and-Off switch, a reset switch, and a few other switches on the console itself, but all in all this was a simple device. A number of competing consoles at the time tried to get fancy with more buttons and keypads and the like, but this was still the dawn of video games, especially home gaming, and the public probably wasn’t quite ready for more complex game play.

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This cartridge is for Yar’s Revenge, perhaps the most popular of the original titles for the Atari 2600.

The 2600 also came with some extra controllers, a pair of paddles which weren’t used for a huge number of games, but were quite helpful when playing the likes of Super Breakout or Activision’s Kaboom! As with the joysticks, these controllers were easy to use and only included a single button to push.

Cartridges were needed to play a game on the 2600, but one came with the boxed 2600 when you bought it, and there was little trouble finding other game cartridges for sale.

Also helping the Atari 2600 was the fact it was the first at-home system to offer Space Invaders and Pac-Man, video games that had been huge hits in the arcades of the times. Space Invaders turned out well, but the port of Pac-Man was nearly a disaster, though Atari pulled through for another few years with other popular versions of arcade games as well as some original games that were quite excellent.

Such popular Atari games as Adventure, Asteroids, and Battlezone were enough to keep customers lining up for the 2600 systems for years, but other companies quickly got into the act, making their own second-party games for the 2600. This was how we got such popular games as Atlantis, Demon Attack, and Dragonfire from companies like Imagic, as well as Activision games such as Freeway, River Raid, and the unforgettable Pitfall!

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Pitfall!, by Activision, proved to be a huge game for the Atari 2600.

Unfortunately the heyday of the Atari 2600 would eventually come to an end, usually recognized as beginning with what is known as the great video game crash of 1983. Christmas shoppers turned away from Atari that holiday season, and soon after the Atari company found itself in dire straits. The Atari 2600 continued to sell in various versions, and would continue to do so until 1992, but the company that had created this grand device found itself sold off and eventually discarded.

But that doesn’t quite mean the end of fun.

The Atari 2600 and its many, many games live on today on gaming discs for modern systems, such as the Atari Anthology disc for the Playstation 2, and for computers. There is also a series of simple consoles called Atari Flashback which offer not quite the same experience as the original Atari 2600, but it’s close, and the Flashbacks come with plenty of games just waiting for action on your television or computer screen.

So, the Atari 2600 still lives, which is great for us older nerds who grew up in the ’70s and early ’80s.

But whatever your favorite gaming console, remember to Stay Nerdy!

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The Atari Flashback 4, one of several modern consoles that recreates the glory days of the Atari 2600.  You can get the Atari flashback of your choice here.
Blast from the Past: Atari 2600 video game system
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A former newspaper editor for two decades in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky, Ty now earns his lunch money as a fiction writer, mostly in the fantasy and horror genres. He is vice president of Rogue Blades Foundation, a non-profit focused upon publishing heroic literature. In his free time he enjoys tabletop and video gaming, long swording, target shooting, reading, and bourbon. Find City of Rogues and other books and e-books by Ty Johnston at Amazon.

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