Released in 1977, the Atari 2600 was the first really popular and mainstram video game console. Eventhough it became quickly obsolete by the first home computers, especially its direct competitor the Commodore 64 (with whom they shared practically the same processor, the MOS Technology 6502 – packed inside the 2600 in its budget form, the 6507) , it continued selling throughout the 80’s until it became discontinued in 1992.
If you never played with an Atari 2600 back at the time, it’s hard to understand its appeal and the lasting impact it had (and to some extent, still has) on popular culture. The graphics were ugly in most of the cases, even by the standards of the mid 80’s hardware – think the NES, the first Nintendo console, the aforementionned C64, the Amstrad and Spectrum home computers. The music and sound effects were extremely primitive . The vast majority of games were strictly single player, two players couldn’t play at the same time. Yet, people played it fanatically and as a matter of fact still do!
Why? Well, given the restrictions of the hardware (the 6507 CPU could only address 8KB of RAM, and most games fitted into 4KB cartridges!), the games relied on the gameplay which at best was extremely addictive. We are talking about an era when pausing a game was not even a necessity (a Pause button was introduced with the next model, the Atari 5200)!
There is also another explanation that I came up with. Because the graphics were minimal, the imagination of the player worked more in order to recreate what was missing between the image displayed on the TV and the fictional setting that the game created. In other words less is more!
A part of the Atari software library were adaptations of the popular coin-operated arcade games of that time like Space Invaders, Pac Man, Centipede, Joust, etc. Some others were designed specifically for the platform selling millions like Pitfall!
Yet, the Atari’s suppremacy came to an end in the mid 80’s. Hardware and software sales collapsed during the video game crash of 1983. It was due to the saturation of the market by low cost, rushed game titles. The outlets – mainly toy stores- selling the Atari 2600 and its games, accumulated a stock of unsellable titles and stopped ordering new ones. Many video game companies filed bankrupcy.
The two most famous games linked to the crash are E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Pac-Man. Both were rushed and extremely disappointing. The adaptation of the arcade version of Pac-Man for the 2600 was nowhere near the original: extremely ugly, stripped down, with horrible sound effects. In anticipation of a high demand, both games were manufactured by Atari in huge (in the millions…) quantities and eventhough they sold well, the overall financial loss was tremendous ultimately bringing Atari to its knees and leading to the company’s sale to Jack Tramiel, the infamous boss of Commodore Business Machines.
To be continued…