The Atari 2600, originally released as the Atari Video Computer System in 1977, codenamed “Stella” and mostly known simply as “Atari,” is one of the most iconic consoles in video game history. Until the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (“NES”), it was the best-selling video game console of its time, with an 80% market share and over 400 games that were released for it. Let’s take an in-depth look at its hardware.
Atari was founded in 1972 and, before becoming synonymous with a home video game console, was responsible for creating the first video arcades, such as Pong. (The first video arcade in history was Computer Space, which was created by Atari’s founders in 1971.) Atari also started its own line of personal computers in the late 1970s with the Atari 400 and the Atari 800. The company went broke for the first time in 1984 for several reasons: the video game crash of 1983, mismanagement, and the bad job of creating the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial game and the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man. We will explore this subject later.
During its lifetime, the Atari 2600 went through four major external revisions.
The first model released in 1977 had six lever-like buttons (“power,” “tv type,” “left difficulty,” “right difficulty,” “game select,” and “game reset”), faux wood paneling, and was labeled “video computer system.” It was also known as the “heavy sixer,” since it had six buttons and a heavy internal shield to prevent electromagnetic interference. This model was manufactured in Sunnyvale, CA, and usually the serial number had a letter at the end.
In the following year, the first revision for the Atari 2600 was released with thinner side plastic panels, making it lighter. That is why this revision was also known as the “light sixer.” These consoles were manufactured in Hong Kong, making it the easiest way to tell which model you had. This is the model we are going to explore throughout this article. The “light sixer” was internally identical to the “heavy sixer.”
In 1980, Atari released the four-button model. On this model, the game difficulty buttons were moved from the main panel of the console to the back, near the game controller connectors, which were also moved up. All letters on the console were changed from lower case to upper case.
Finally, in 1982, Atari released the last revision of the Atari 2600. The case was completely black, hence the nickname “Darth Vader” for this revision. This was the only model that used the name “Atari 2600,” as the other three revisions were called “Video Computer System” or simply “VCS.” The name was changed because Atari released in the same year the Atari 5200, which was supposed to be a more powerful version of the 2600, but it was a failure because it was (at least initially) incompatible with it. This model also came with the game “Pac-Man” in addition to “Combat,” which was the game cartridge included with the previous revisions.
There were also several different clones and versions released under different brands, which we are not going to cover today. Differently from other companies at the time, Atari allowed other companies to design and release their own versions of the Atari 2600. This was one of the reasons why the Atari 2600 was the leading video game console in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The other reason was that Atari allowed other companies to write games for the 2600.
The Atari 2600 came with a pair of joystick controllers and a pair of paddles. The joystick was a digital model, meaning that it was comprised of one switch for each direction you wanted to move. For example, you could move to the right, but not a designated number of degrees to the right. The paddles, on the other hand, were analog controllers, where you spun a potentiometer to determine how much to the left or how much to the right you wanted to move.
There were other kinds of optional controllers available, such as the “keyboard controller,” which was a numeric keypad similar to a telephone keypad.