A History of the Atari 2600: The Beginning of the End

Atari says goodbye to 'Pong' and calls out to 'Stella'

When Atari released its arcade game Pong as a pre-programmed dedicated home gaming unit, it was a monumental hit and soon mimicked by every electronics manufacturer imaginable. In just a few years shelves were flooded with clones and variations, some even going as far as to use the same microchip. To maintain their position as the industry leader, Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell sought to create a new generation of video game systems. To do this Atari purchased Cyan Engineering, who had already been working on a new console technology under the code name Stella.

How Early Video Games Worked

At the time, all home video game consoles used the mathematics-based Logic Technology, where variables were used to determine relations and deduction. This enabled the same or similar graphics to be reused in a limited number of basic games. The technique was innovated by Ralph Bayer's Brown Box military project that eventually became the Magnavox Odyssey. This is also why all the home video games of the first generation of consoles all looked the same.

Finding and Developing the Right Tech

Instead of logic technology, Cyan's Stella project utilized a central processing unit (CPU) called MOS Technology 6502, an 8-bit microprocessor that was introduced in 1975 as the least expensive processor on the market. This allowed program information to be processed from a microchip quickly without breaking the bank. The next question was how to deliver multiple game programs from an external source.

In 1972, Hewlett-Packard started using ROM cartridges, a shell housing a Read-Only Memory chip containing a program file that connected to the computer via a cartridge slot. The ROM cartridges offered the perfect solution for Stella. Game files were stored on the ROM cartridge via the addition of a random access memory (RAM) chip, and the MOS Technology 6502 processor read the program information via an input/output (I/O) chip. Logistics aside, what made this the ideal solution was the low cost of the ROM Cartridges, and with Cyan's self-developed Television Interface Adaptor (TIA) sound chip, both graphics and sound solutions were complete.

Atari Partners With Warner Communications

With all of the simultaneous technology happening at once, it was no surprise that another company would be developing the same concept at the same time, and the Fairchild Semiconductor Company beat Atari to the market in 1976 with the Fairchild Video Entertainment System (later called the Fairchild Channel F) which used the Fairchild F8 CPU, developed by Intel creator Robert Noyce.

Atari was financially deep in the development of Stella and needed more revenue and power to make a release happen. Going public was not an option as the stock market was on a steep decline. With the threat of losing the entire market share at the hands of Channel F, Nolan Bushnell turned to a partnership with Warner Communications, (today known as Time Warner) which eventually became a buyout. Bushnell remained on staff to run the business.

1977: The Atari 2600 Debuts

When the Stella was finally completed and released in 1977 its name was changed to the Atari Video Computer System, but later changed again to the now infamous Atari 2600, after its manufacturing part number CX2600. At first, the 2600 released with a lackluster reception, but word got around fast and by 1979 it was a hit, selling over a million units in just that year alone. Unfortunately, the tumultuous times leading up to its success took a toll on Bushnell's relationship with Warner Communications. Bushnell left the company in 1978, just a year shy of witnessing the console's great success.

Over the next several years Atari continued to make history, outselling all of the competition with its ever-growing install base and library of games. Its biggest competition, the Channel F, didn't have the graphics or sound capabilities of the 2600, nor a corporate giant such as Warner Communications behind it. Although Channel F was the first of its kind, only 26 titles were ever released for it, and Fairchild soon succumbed to Atari sales dominance.

The Dramatic Rise and Fall of the Atari 2600

Atari's enormous success inevitably led to its very own downfall. As the company was now corporately run, the programmers became dissatisfied with their treatment. Atari had gone from a casual and fun workplace under Bushnell's management, to a stuffy, corporate gig with little acknowledgment or reward of a job well done, a structure the video game publishing industry still suffers from today. Soon the programmers that helped build the Atari empire started to leave and form their own companies to publish games for the 2600.

As the idea of a console with interchangeable games was still a new concept, and the previous generation of video game systems all cloning off one another, the copyright, patent, and trademark laws weren’t set up to protect first-party console manufacturers as they are today. Soon the market was flooded with games, all designed for the 2600 and many made by former Atari programmers who jumped ship. These third-party publishers were able to work around the rights issues by never using the Atari logo, adding a disclaimer that they were not related to Atari Inc., and only acknowledging that the cartridge was designed for the "Atari Video Game System".

The Video Game Crash of 1983

Soon Atari began suffering from the same woes that brought on the demise of Pong. Not with look-alike games, but with an overwhelming number of companies rushing to get a piece of that 2600 gold, with a tidal wave of unofficial games. Many of these games were low in content and quality. Even Atari's self-published titles began to suffer due to rushed production cycles and most of their top programmers having already resigned.

Although many cite the release of the ill-fated E.T. game for the 2600 as the beginning of Atari's downfall and the oncoming of the Video Game Industry Crash of 1983, it was more of an accumulation - too many games, too low of quality, and very little technology growth in homes and arcades. Warner sold-off Atari in 1984 to Commodore Business Machines who immediately closed the game publishing wing.

The Legacy of the Atari 2600

In 1986, Commodore released a redesigned version of the 2600 as a budget title with the marketing tagline "The Fun Is Back!" The system sold moderately well but eventually came to an end in 1990. To this day the Atari 2600 remains the longest selling home video game console ever and many of its more popular titles are seeing re-releases for next-gen gaming consoles and handhelds, and pre-programmed plug-n-play units as retro collections.

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