Monday, August 12, 2013

"From Beep to Bloop: A Looking back at the Atari 2600" by The Retro Video Game Addict

I wanted to do something special in remembrance of the Atari 2600 (or VCS, whatever) so I sat down today to write out a short but detailed history about the first successful video game console the world has ever seen. I'm going to call it, “From Beep to Bloop: A Looking back at the Atari 2600”. Not a bad little title, eh?
     Most people may already know what I'm about to discuss and that's fine, many may not known the detailed history of Atari and it's first major breakthrough in home video game consoles, so I'll take my time and explain it all so newcomers can understand. Heck, maybe you've been a 2600 fan and collector and still don't know the interesting details of the consoles life, if that's the case and you happen to be reading this than allow me to thank you for taking the time to do so and please get comfortable and enjoy the history lesson.
     In the early 70's a guy named Nolan Bushnell created a game known as Pong that would help to launch the arcade movement and bring electronic video games into the public eye. After founding Atari in 1972, Bushnell decided that Pong was going to be the company's first major foray into what would be known as “video games” and launched Pong into a few remote locations in hopes that people would pay to play the unit. The game began to bring in a steady income for Atari and eventually Bushnell and the rest of his Atari crew released the machine into more locations and eventually manufactured a home unit in 1975 that would go on and become popular with consumers. Once Bushnell saw that there was a market for playing video games inside of the home he went to discuss with it team that there may be a market for a machine that could play more than one game, that maybe they could create a console that would play individual games that people could purchase to play on the unit. It didn't take long before things were rolling and the “Atari VCS” (Video Computer System”).
     Now, the VCS wouldn't be the first home video game machine to play cartridge based games, that would go to the “Fairchild Channel F”, a console that went on sale about a year previous to the VCS but lacked games and a user base. The Fairchild saw a very limited release and had an even more limited library of games and the folks behind the unit quickly faded after the machine went to market. Atari knew they had already won over consumers with Pong and that they could change the way that people spent time with each other in their living rooms and Nolan wanted to release a machine that would launch a revolution. After a year or so of messing around with demo units and production kits Atari finally finished the project and released the VCS in the Fall of 1977.
     The system launched with 9 games but it took a while to catch on with consumers and Atari struggled with the VCS during the Christmas seasons of 1977 and 1978, it brought Nolan Bushnell to believe that maybe Atari should discontinue the VCS and move onto something else. The fact that copycat consoles that played VCS games were coming out almost weekly just added more feul to the fire and Nolan was adamant about Atari dumping the 2600 in favor of new technology. Atari would have done just that too if not for Time Warner purchasing Atari in 1976. The reason for the sale is that Time Warner saw some profit in Atari prior to the launch of the VCS and bought the company from Nolan for about $32M. When things began to run quirky for Atari after the 2600 saw life on retail shelves Warner brought in a man named Ray Kassar to oversee the daily operations over at Atari in hopes that he would discover what wasn't running properly and fix it. Kassar was a true professional in every aspect and Warner knew that he could step in and right the ship toward success, something Atari heavily needed and quickly. Instead of agreeing to new technology Kassar did some research and found some ways to improve the VCS and to build a user base who would purchase games for the unit.
     One of the first things the company decided to do was to license a highly popular arcade game known as “Space Invaders” for it's VCS system, which was something that has never been done before and a move that Atari hoped would become the first must have game on their home console. It worked. Atari began moving 2600's out of their warehouse in tremendous speed and Space Invaders became the highest selling home video game of all-time at that point in time, the mothership was happy and Kassar looked like a genius. The problem was that behind the scenes things weren't looking so hot for Bushnell as he created a lot of issues behind closed doors and his actions brought Time Warner and Ray Kassar to let him go. Luckily for Bushnell is that because of contractual obligations he was still going to receive a paycheck based upon the success of the VCS and he stood to make a killing for doing absolutely nothing. Nolan, forever the hungry business man, would eventually make a comeback and go on to create a highly popular chain of pizza and arcade restaurants known as Chuck E. Cheese.
     Meanwhile at Atari things were off and running. On top of the success of the 2600 Atari decided to release the 5200 sometime in late 1982, yet the 2600 remained the king of the mountain of video game consoles. The 5200 was not a commercially successful unit at all and was discontinued a mere 2 years after it's release. As the success of the 2600 continued to rise the company licensed more highly successful arcade games like Asteroids, Missile Command, and Defender for release on the VCS and the system was finding it's way into homes from from coast to coast, Kassar and Atari couldn't have been more pleased as their financials skyrocketed and the 2600 was gearing up for another remarkable year. At one point during this stretch of success it's been noted that Atari was bringing in a third of Time Warner's income and profit, that's a lot of revenue to be bringing in for a massive media mecca such as Time Warner and the folks at Atari were on top of the world and extremely happy. Well, the powers that be were happy I guess I should say, not the developers.
    Eventually more massive hits would find a home on the VCS with companies like Activision and Imagic coming into the fold. The short of the story here is that many of the game developers and programmers at Atari became very upset over Kassar's rule of not wanting game developers being credited for their work and eventually branched off to create their own companies. Some of the 2600's best games would come out between 1981-1982 with huge titles like Pitfall, Cosmic Arc, and a slew of sports games that would bring a whole new dimension to Atari's console despite Atari's disdain for these companies to be producing games for the VCS. Atari would even fight the case in court, but came up short multiple times.
After enjoying a few years of much needed and much deserved success in the home video game market, Atari began to make some poor decisions and blew away hundreds of millions of dollars in an attempt to scoop up as much licensing as possible. The Colecovision and the Intellevision were both on store shelves and were considered threats to Atari's throne for a short while and many consumers were left unimpressed by many of the games that saw release on the VCS in 1983/1984. Two of the biggest games in question were the arcade port of Pac-Man and the movie adaption of E.T, two games that Atari had poured millions and millions of dollars into in hopes that the games would help to move more 2600's into living rooms. They manufactured more cartridges than people owned VCS units and paid out the nose for Pac-Man and E.T to find a home on their console which helped to buy Atari a massive loss in 1983 and cause the higher up's to re-think the brand as a whole.
     Pac-Man was released to huge numbers despite the game not resembling the arcade version whatsoever. Millions of people purchased the game with most being disgusted at how the game looked and controlled in comparison to the arcade, this caused a lot of returns and a stream of negative press that hurt Atari's reputation in a medium in which they had the biggest hand in creating. Personally, I loved Pac-Man on the VCS as a kid and played the game to no end and still even enjoy it to this day, but I can see where people would be upset with it seeing as how it's nothing like it's arcade father. But hey, I was a kid and had no idea that Pac-Man was a “bad game”, but as an adult I can see it's flaws and can see that the game was very rushed and very unpolished.
     E.T was the final nail in the coffin. The game was over manufactured much like Pac-Man was but the issue was is that the sales figures couldn't keep a title like this afloat and when orders for the game ended up being poor to mediocre at best Atari was left with warehouses worth of product that they couldn't move. I was surprised as an adult to read about E.T selling poorly, especially since most ever kid I've ever known owned a copy of the game back in the mid 80's when I was actively playing. Heck, I didn't even know there was a video game crash going on, I just played the games happily in my room and ignored the real world. In fact, I played E.T quite often as a child and really liked it. Well, because Atari was left with millions of unsold carts they decided to do something that still hangs in video game lore to this day. As the tale goes, Atari crushed, dumped, and buried what was rumored to be between 10-20 dump trunks worth of inventory in a desert landfill in New Mexico. When they realized that the dump site was being looted by locals they sent in more trucks to pour cement over the lot so that it would become inaccessible.
     The story of the dumping has become such a huge part of video game history and lore that people from Atari have both confirmed and denied the rumor, but it all depends on who you talk to. More to the rumor is that it wasn't just E.T cartridges that were buried in the landfill and that many rare prototypes, games, and systems were a part of the dumpings too. Whether it's true or not still remains a mystery to this day and it wasn't long until Time Warner sold Atari off and the VCS and the 5200 found themselves heavily discounted in retail outlets until they were phased out all together.
     Well, that's it for now! That's my account of the history of the Atari VCS/2600 and I personally hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Until we meet again dear friends, keep on retro gaming!

Twitter - @OfficialRVGA
© 2013 Bill Mulligan


  1. The thing I remember about the video game crash in retrospect was how cheap cartridges became. I remember the department stores in my area in the pre-Nintendo days had huge bins full of games for 1-2 dollars, so you could pick up a lot of good games (and let's be honest, a lot of shovelware) for a steal.

  2. I was too young to remember games being that cheap, heck I was too young to even realize there was a crash going on. I just played my games happily and didn't think anything of the life outside of my bedroom. Oh how I miss innocence.....

  3. I recall when an unique release amusement implied getting a gold Legend of Zelda Nintendo cartridge. These days gamers' rooms are loaded with plastic firearms, lockboxes, protective caps, skulls, and other arbitrary outrageousness. Best Free Games Download

  4. Reading all this just makes me want to leave work to go home and play frog pond