Happy Birthday! Atari 2600 turns 30

  • Chicago (IL) – The Atari 2600, considered by many the origin of the modern game console market, is celebrating its 30th birthday this month.

    As we are heading into what is likely to become one of the most interesting seasons of the video gaming industry, with several major titles scheduled within weeks and Halo 3 breaking sales records in the entertainment industry, the video game did not start with Nintendo, Microsoft or Sony.

    It was Atari that laid the foundation for an industry that is already taking in more cash than Hollywood’s movie studios and is expected to become a $70 billion market by the end of the decade. The 2600, first released 30 years ago in October of 1977 was the first console that revealed a mass-market potential for video gaming: Over a production period of 170 months (the device was retired on January 1, 1992), Atari is estimated to have sold more than 30 million units worldwide.

    The console’s history actually dates back to March 22, 1971, when Ralph H. Baer filed for a patent of a “Television Gaming and Training Apparatus”. The rights to this apparatus found their way to Atari via the acquisition of Cyan, a company that had developed a concept for a game console called “Stella” at the time. The development of Stella ate up Atari’s cash resources and forced Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, to sell his company to Warner Communications for $28 million in 1976. Warner pumped more money into the development of the device and enabled its launch. The development cost of the 2600 was reported to have been close to $100 million.   


    The 2600 was introduced by Atari as the Video Computer System (VCS), but became available also through Sears, Roebuck and Company as a rebranded “Tele Games” system shortly after launch. It sold for $199 initially, which, for the time, makes the $599 Sony charges for the PS3 look like a bargain. As it is so often the case, it took Atari some time to turn the device into a success: 1977, 1978 and 1979 brought heavy losses and Atari depended on Warner to keep the company afloat; in 1980, the 2600 delivered a huge profit of $2 billion for Atari. Of course, content played a major factor in the console’s success: Beginning with the original Space Invaders, the gamers could choose between titles such as Breakout, Pac-Man, Pitfall or Pole Position, some of which are still being re-published in modernized versions today.   

    Over time, the 2600 saw several redesigns, beginning from the original wood-panel design also called “heavy sixer” (referring to its six control switches), a four-switch modification that was released in 1980, an updated four-switch console without wood-panel in 1982 and a slimmed down version of the device in 1986. While Atari officially canceled the 2600 in 1992, several iterations followed over the past decade: The most recent model was the Flashback 2 that was released in 2005 and came with 40 preloaded games.


    Looking at the hardware of the 2600 is both an amazing experience that shows how far we have come since the the 1970s. Opening the 2600’s cover, will reveal, well, not much. There are two circuit boards, one of them housing the cartridge interface. There are two cables, that's it. At the heart of the system is a 1.19 MHz MOS Technology 6507 processor, derived from the 2 MHz 6502 model and a relative to the Motorola 6800, released in 1975. (Intel’s 2 MHz microprocessor “8080” was also released in 1975). The 2600 painted 160x192 pixels on the TV screen via its Television Interface Adapter (TIA) and was able to display those pixels in 128 colors.  It also had 128 bytes of RAM; game cartridges, which sold from $25 initially, had 4 kB ROM.