The Atari 2600 celebrates 30 years of low-rez fun
By James Grahame
It's funny how anniversaries sneak up on us.
The monstrosity above is an early prototype of the Atari CX2600 Video Computer System that went into production in October 1977. The $199 system came bundled with Combat, two rubberized joysticks, a pair of paddle controllers and a handy dandy RF modulator to mangle your parents' TV reception.
The prototype was built by Steve Mayer and Ron Milner in 1975, and it's now part of the Computer History Museum's permanent collection. They relied upon a DEC PDP-11 minicomputer to cross-compile the system's software because there simply weren't any suitable off-the-shelf microcomputers; the Apple II, Commodore PET and Radio Shack TRS-80 were still years away.
The 2600 very nearly didn't happen. The early prototypes relied on a circuit board full of video circuitry which was miniaturized into a single IC, the TIA (Television Interface Adapter). Development costs skyrocketed, and Atari founder Nolan Bushnell realized in 1976 that the company simply didn't have the financial strength to complete the project as Pong sales plateaued. He sold the company to Warner Communications for $28 million, and it is rumored that the final development cost of the system was more than $100 million. It proved to be an insanely risky but shrewd gamble for Warner.
The custom TIA chip was the key to making the system commercially viable. Microcomputer hardware was phenomenally expensive in the mid 1970s, and the first production version was built around only three main chips: the MOS 6507 CPU (a low-cost version of the famed MOS 6502 processor that would eventually power millions of home computers), MOS 6537 RIOT (128 bytes of RAM, two bidirectional I/O ports and a programmable timer), and Jay Miner's crude TIA video chip. The only other significant component was the cartridge ROM.
Early games such as Combat were crammed into 2K of ROM - a mere 2048 bytes - because memory was incredibly expensive. At the time, no one could imagine using the full 8K that the 6507 was capable of addressing. Incredibly, a handful of later titles included a whopping 32K of bank-switched ROM.
The Atari 2600's impact upon the gaming world was immense. No less than eight variations were produced over its stunning 14 year lifespan, along with three Sears-branded models and over a dozen clones. The system sold in excess of 40 million units, and AtariAge lists well over 1300 different game titles. This is all the more incredible because the system was envisioned to have only a two or three year lifespan before being replaced by something more sophisticated. That day never came. Even though Atari made repeated attempts to surpass their initial design, the 2600 remained the pinnacle of the company's console gaming success.
The Atari 2600 prototype is part of the Computer History Museum's permanent collection in Mountain View, California. Special thanks to Atari Age for allowing us to reproduce their images as part of Atari Week. Happy Birthday, VCS.
As for you... Have you played Atari today?