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Atari 2600

The Atari 2600 is not called that, really. It was originally named the Atari Video Computer System, and it wasn't until a few years after its 1977 launch that Atari started calling it the Atari 2600.

front view of the Atari 2600 four switch Woody

In a package 345mm wide, 235 deep and 80 high are contained multitudinous 8 bit universes. Look at this thing. Look at that woodgrain. It takes you into some kind of racial memory - when you run your fingers along that wood, when you blow the dust from those ridges, your hand grips the helm of a mighty schooner and your entire being is saturated by the musty scent of silted wood as you stare upon the undiscovered horizons of this our world.

top/side view of the Atari, with the game Galaxian inserted

Games are inserted into the top. By design, when the games are inserted, you cannot see their front label but you can read their top label the right side up. No one has ever asked why we can't have both - I have always thought that the esthetics are better this way. There's just all black and the simple top label facing you.

the game Combat for Atari 2600

The games are known to all. Pacman, Galaxian, Space Invaders, Combat (best when you're drunk with friends), Pit-fall, Bomberman... games that represent the invention of entire genres. And they're still good! I waste more of my time on Galaxian than a grown man should.

32 Atari 2600 games arranged in a rectangle, showing the labels

Here's my modest collection. Note the Mario Brothers game, from a time when Nintendo was licensing out the rights to that game to anyone with a console, and the Synthcard, a modern homebrew upon which I make groovy chiptunes.

top view of the Atari 2600

My model, the Woody as it's affectionately called, is not one off the original '70s run. Those are called the 'heavy sixers' as they have six big switches in stead of four; the channel and multiplayer switches were later turned into smaller, plastic switches on the back of the device.

close up of the 'game select' and 'game reset' switches of the Atari

They also optimised the system, rendering the innards more compact and cheaper - the originals had six switches and were heavier, hence 'heavy sixer'.

The system was the target of more accessories than the iPhone. Most of those accessories were third-party controllers - they come in endless forms and whenever I think I've seen them all, I find a new oddity.

photo of five different controllers for the Atari 2600

Above you see a few, including some Atari originals (the second one from the left is the stock controller, and the one to the right of that is the keyboard controller). Personally, I play with these bad boys:

two wireless controllers for the Atari 2600

They look a bit like the stock controllers, though those are thinner than these cubical monsters. The antennas communicate with a box with a big extending antenna I keep on the side of my TV cabinet, and that box is plugged into both controller slots on my Atari.

If you run into these things, buy them! There is no luxury quite as decadent as playing Galaxian from one's bed, unconcerned about cables getting caught on stuff.

1983

The Atari 2600 was succesful, incredibly so. Their success seemed endless and forever growing. In the early eighties, Atari and its competitors could barely keep up with the demand, churning games out as fast as they could to sate the game-crazed crouds.

'Churning'.

In 1983 Atari, and every home video game company with it, went down. The games they produced (most infamously E.T.) had become so hurriedly made, dull and by-the-numbers that the aforementioned game-crazed crowds quite simply stopped buying games. They knew what to expect, so they said 'fuck it' and went back to playing Yars' Revenge.

Side/top angle shot of the Atari 2600

1983 was the year of the great video game crash. Atari was stuck with tens of thousands of unsold games, which were bulldozered and thrown into a landfill. The company barely scraped by, selling cheaper versions of its aging consoles.

In 1985, the market changed once again. Nintendo came out with a new gaming system that was more powerful and prioritised game quality over quantity. The games industry was reborn, but Atari would never be the same.

Atari kept selling its 2600s, minimised versions getting ever cheaper, systems on a controller that plugged right into the television... but in the end, the company was destined to die. It had played its part, and its assets were sold and resold, its name used by whomever paid for the rights, its games entering a kind of video game public domain.

Atari did its 8 bit thing, and for a brief time, it was glorious. When I play Atari, I relive the glory and forget the downfall. Atari lives as long as its games are played.

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