The Atari 2600, released in 1977, was the first successful video game console to use plug-in cartridges instead of having one or more games built in. It was originally known as the Atari VCS, for Video Computer System, and the name "Atari 2600" was first used in 1982, after the release of the more advanced Atari 5200. The 2600 was typically bundled with two joystick controllers and a cartridge game.
Development and market considerations
Atari had spun off an engineering think-tank in 1975 called Cyan Engineering to research next-generation video game systems, and had been working on a prototype known as "Stella" (named after one of the engineer's bicycles) for some time. Unlike prior generations of machines which used custom logic to play a small number of games, Stella was essentially a combination of a complete CPU, the famous 6502 in a cut-down version, combined with a display and sound chip of their own design known as the TIA, for Television Interface Adaptor. At first the design was not going to be cartridge based, but after seeing a "fake" cartridge system on another machine they realized they could place the games on cartridges essentially for the price of the connector and packaging.
In August 1976 Fairchild Semiconductor released their own cartridge based system basically "out of the blue", the Channel F. Stella was still not ready for production, but it was clear that it needed to be before there were a number of "me too" products filling up the market – which had happened after they invented PONG. Atari simply didn't have the cash flow to complete the system quickly, given that sales of their own PONG systems were cooling. Nolan Bushnell eventually turned to Warner Communications, and sold the company to them in 1976 for $28 million on the promise that Stella would be productized as soon as possible.
Key to the eventual success of the machine was the hiring of Jay Miner, a chip designer who managed to squeeze an entire breadboard of equipment making up the TIA into a single chip. Once that was completed and debugged the system was ready for shipping. By the time it was released in 1977, the development had cost about US$100 million.
Launch and runaway success
The initial price was $199 with a library of 6 titles. In a play to compete directly with the Channel F, Atari named the machine VCS, as the Channel F was at that point known as the VES, for Video Entertainment System. When Fairchild learned of Atari's naming they quicky changed their unit to become the Channel F. However both units were now in the midst of the video game crash of 1977; PONG clones faced with the extinction of their market due to these newer and more powerful machines simply dumped their boxes for ever-lower prices. Soon many of the companies were out of business, and both Fairchild and Atari were selling to a public that were completely burnt out on PONG. In 1977 Atari sold only 250,000 VCS's, 550,000 in 1978 but from a production run of 800,000 which led to massive debt, requiring further support from Warner. This led directly to the disagreements that caused Atari founder Nolan Bushnell to leave the company in 1978.
Once the public realized it was possible to play video games other than PONG, and programmers learned how to push its hardware's capabilities, the 2600 gained popularity. Fairchild had by this point given up, thinking they were a passed fad, thereby handing the entire quickly growing market to Atari. By 1979, the 2600 was the best selling Christmas present (and console), mainly because of its exclusive content, and a million were sold that year.
Atari then licensed the smash arcade hit Space Invaders by Taito, which greatly increased the unit's popularity when it was released in May 1980, doubling sales again to over 2 million units. The 2600 and its cartridges were the main factor behind Atari grossing more than $2 billion in profits in 1980. Sales then doubled again for the next two years, with almost 8 million units selling in 1982.
Growth pains and decline
During this period Atari continued to grow until it had one of the largest R&D divisions in Silicon Valley. They spent much of their R&D budget on projects that seemed rather out of place at a videogame, or even home computer, company, projects many of which never saw the light of day. Meanwhile several attempts to bring out newer consoles failed for one reason or another, although their home computer systems, the Atari 8-bit family sold reasonably if not spectacularily. Warner was more than happy anyway, as it seemed to have no end to the sales of the 2600, and Atari was responsible for over half of the company's income.
The programmers of many of Atari's biggest hits grew disgruntled with the company for not crediting game developers. For example, Rick Mauer, the programmer of Atari 2600 Space Invaders, received no credit and made only $11,000 for his efforts, in spite of the cartridge grossing more than $100 million in sales. Some programmers hid their names in obscure places in the game (a practice known as "Easter eggs", which continues in software development to this day), but many left the company and formed their own independent software companies. The most prominent and longest-lasting of these third-party developers was Activision, founded in 1980, whose titles quickly became more popular than those of Atari itself. Atari attempted to block third-party development for the 2600 in court but failed, and soon other publishers, such as Imagic and Coleco entered the market. Atari suffered from image problems when the Mystique company produced a number of pornographic games for the 2600. The most notorious of these, Custer's Revenge caused a large number of protests from women's groups and Native American groups. Atari then sued Mystique in court over the release of the game.
Atari continued to scoop up licenses during the shelf life of the 2600, the most prominent of which included Pac-Man and E.T.. Public disappointment with these latter two titles (and the market overload of bad third-party titles) is sometimes cited as a big reason for the video game crash of 1983. Suddenly Atari's growth meant it was losing massive amounts of money during the crash, at one point about $10,000 a day. Warner quickly grew tired of supporting the now-headless company, and started looking for buyers in 1984.
The console that refused to die
Although not formally discontinued, the 2600 was de-emphasized for two years after Warner's 1984 sale of Atari to Commodore International founder Jack Tramiel, who wanted to concentrate on home computers. A new version of the 2600 was released in 1986 in a smaller, cost-reduced form factor with a modernized Atari 7800-like appearance, along with a resurgence in software development both from Atari and from third parties. The Atari 2600 continued to sell in the USA and Europe until 1989, and continued to sell in PAL version in Asian nations until the early 1990s. Over its lifetime, an estimated 25 million units were shipped, and its video game library reportedly numbers more than 900 titles.
At the turn of the millennium, 25 years+ after the launch of the Atari 2600, new video games are still made for it by hobbyists, and the console and its old and new games are very popular with collectors because of its significant impact on video game and consumer electronics history and also due to its nostalgic value for many people. In addition, modern Atari 2600 clones remain on the market. One example is the Atari Classics 10-in-1 TV Game, manufactured by Jakks Pacific, which simulates, more or less accurately, the basic electronics of the 2600 console, and includes ROMs from 10 cartridges, into a single Atari-brand-look-a-like joystick with composite video outputs for connecting directly to modern televisions or VCRs.
The basic layout of the 2600 is fairly similar to most consoles and home computers of the era. The CPU was the MOS Technology 6507, a cut-down version of the 6502, running at 1.19 MHz in the 2600. The 6507 included less memory pins — 13 instead of 16 — to fit into a smaller 28-pin package. Smaller packaging was, and still is, an important factor in overall system cost, and since memory was very expensive at the time, the 6507's small 8 KB memory space wasn't going to be used up anyway. In fact memory was so expensive they couldn't imagine using up even 4K, and when they got a deal on 24-pin connectors for the cartridge socket, they were only too happy to thereby limit the games to 4K. ¹
The console had 128 bytes of RAM (working storage) that was used by the system to store game state data, i.e. data identifying where the player was in the game, what the score was, etc. RAM was so expensive that there was simply no way to have a "screen buffer", a portion of memory that holds the pattern to be drawn to the screen, at least not with the resolution they wanted. Instead they decided to have enough memory for only one line of the display at a time, when the TV completed drawing that line, the game was expected to quickly stuff the next line into the TIA while the TV was resetting for the next line or just before the beam reached the position of the object that has to be displayed. This is part of the reason that black lines can be seen on the left side of the screen when playing 2600 games.
The computers in most homes today are much more powerful than the 2600. The CPU of a typical PC for home use today is clocked at more than 1 GHz, or roughly 1000 times the 1.19 MHz clock rate of the 2600. Also, the 2600's CPU processed 8 bits of data per "clock tick", while modern PC CPUs handle 32 or more bits per (much faster) tick. Most computers today have 256 megabytes or more of RAM, which is 2,097,152 times the amount of RAM in the 2600. Atari 2600 games were originally limited to a maximum size of 4 kilobytes, while a CD-ROM, still the most common medium on which modern games are sold, can hold about 650 megabytes, or 162,000 times as much. Also, the Atari had no on board secondary storage, whereas such storage in the form of hard disk drives on today's systems will often have a capacity of 100 GB or so.
(¹ The cartridge connector's 24 pins were allocated to one supply voltage line, two ground lines, 8 data lines, and 13 address lines. However, the uppermost address line was used as a so-called chip select for the cartridge's ROM chip, leaving only 12 address lines for the chip's game program. Thus, without special "hardware tricks" built into the cartridge, an Atari 2600 game could occupy a maximum address space of 4K.)