HISTORY / COLLECTING : Atari 2600

When covering each console I will be sure to cover a few things: history of the console, my personal history and memories with the console and an idea of how things go these days when it comes to collecting for that console. Being that the Atari 2600 is my first entry and so vital to the history of all console gaming, I will also be including a general history of console gaming in this blog post.

BIRTH OF CONSOLE GAMING

The first true gaming console was developed by Ralph H Baer and produced by Magnavox in 1972, named the Odyssey. Initially the Odyssey was planned to include a lightgun (bet you thought Nintendo was the first to develop a “lightgun”), have sound effects and be in full color. Baer’s conundrum however was that he wanted the console to be around $25-50 at the time (about $140-284 today) so that it would be accessible for consumers. But it quickly became evident that the system was too expensive to produce and the price tag to the consumer would be too high for it to move units off shelves. So he began stripping anything unnecessary in an effort to get the console to be efficient for production. The lightgun, sound, color, timers, and other components were removed and he finalized the prototype to Magnavox (he did however add color overlays packaged in that would fit some TVs and give you the illusion of gaming in color). But Magnavox screwed the pooch according to Baer:

“Magnavox did a really lousy engineering job – [they] over-engineered the machine….Then they upped the price phenomenally so that the damn thing sold for $100.”

Even though the Odyssey technically had “cartridge” games, there were actually no games on the cartridges. The cartridges simply functioned as switches when inserted in the system and they allowed the player to play that specific game which was already found built-in on the console. Gaming for the next few years could be summed up in one word: “PONG“. Atari developed an Arcade game that was essentially a remake of the Odyssey’s Tennis game and called it PONG. It was a gigantic success in arcades. So much so that in the holiday shopping season of 1975 Atari put out a home version through a partnership with Sears that sold like hotcakes. Other companies rode the PONG wave and created more and more clones which continued to sell well. The seeds of home gaming had now been planted. The Odyssey had shown us the technical potential of a home “console” and PONG had showed us that there was certainly market potential for home gaming.

HISTORY OF THE ATARI 2600

I argue that even though the Odyssey came out first, the Atari 2600 is the one responsible for console gaming being commonplace in homes across the globe these days. The Atari 2600 launched September of 1977 and came out of the gate strong, outselling the Odyssey by 150,000 units in their respective first years. It ended up selling 30 million units over its life cycle. The 2600’s addition of sound, its insane increase in the number of available games over the lifespan (565 vs the Odyssey’s 27) and the interesting new “paddle” controllers I think put it ahead in the eyes of consumers in the late ’70s/early ’80s. The 2600 was initially known as the Atari VCS (Video Computer System) and wasn’t renamed the 2600 until later when its successor, the 5200, dropped in 1982. The 2600 had a longer lifespan than pretty much every other gaming console, staying in production until 1992. To put things in perspective for us current gamers, that’s 3 years longer than the production span of the seemingly immortal Playstation 2!! Launching at a huge price tag of $199 (that’s $780.91 today according to http://www.usinflationcalculator.com), the console came with 2 joystick controllers, 2 paddle controllers and Combat (a later produced bundle would include Pac-Man instead). It mostly featured what we gamers today would refer to as “ports” of popular arcade games like Q*Bert, Asteroids and Space Invaders. The key thing about the 2600 is that it really showed the potential of “cartridge” games. Thatari 2600e 2600 games won’t look like what was later popularized by Nintendo and Sega, but at its core uses the same technology: ROMs (Read Only Memory) which had been used to a smaller extent by the Fairchild Channel F console before it. The 2600 was in my mind when the concept of “owning video games” truly caught on. This was the first time the wide-spread public were able to appreciate just how awesome games were and also how cool it is at its base to physically hold a video game in your hand. It probably was really due to the fact this was the first time people saw games constantly in stores, which makes Atari’s big partnership with Sears (one of, if not the biggest stores in the US at the time) seem like a genius move. The custom art and logos on the 2600’s cartridges and box art are the key thing that caused game collecting to catch on in my opinion. The custom art really makes you want to collect them, to have them in your own home to admire and play. At least this was my personal experience at only three years old when I saw my first NES cartridges. You know now that I think about it, possibly the earliest memory of my life is holding and admiring the art of my dad’s Nintendo games. I remember staring at the, what I thought at the time, awesome art on the covers of Excitebike, Super Mario Bros. and Paperboy. Another early memory is sitting Indian style in the living room playing 8-4 of Super Mario Bros. at what I’ve been told by my parents was age three. I remember that somehow simultaneously eery and charming theme music of Bowser’s castle being drowned out by my dad yelling at his buddies from work something along the lines of “I told you he could beat the game!” With that said it is no surprise that gaming has become such a huge part of my life.

PERSONAL HISTORY WITH ATARI 2600/A BRIEF HISTORY OF MY YOUNGER DAYS

During each console’s history blog I will give you a brief idea of my life around the time I first discovered and played said console. Since the Atari is our first blog entry I’ll just set the background up for you of my early life in general. I grew up with my newly divorced mom and my little brother Levi on a tobacco farm in central Kentucky. We had enough to get by, we were never without food or clothing, but we were definitely in the lower class. To help some of you frame it in your mind lets put it this way: we got free lunch at school and wore Wal-Mart or Dollar Store brand clothing and shoes. When Christmas or Birthday time came around Levi and I would beg our dad for video games (who worked at an oil changing chain in Indianapolis and also didn’t make much money). He would scrounge up what he could and he usually managed to spoil us with a game or two, or a system or handheld. Usually the games or systems had been out for a few years before we got them, which is how he was able to afford to get them for us every now and then. I was born in 1988, so the 2600 was before my time by just a hair. I mentioned earlier that my first console, like many people’s who were born in the late ’80s and early ’90s, was not an Atari, but an NES. I had never even heard of an Atari until I was around 8 or 9 years old. My brother and I went with our step-dad to visit his brother. He and his wife somehow were even more poor than we were in those days. When we got there he showed me and Levi an Atari 2600 he had just bought at a yard sale. The thing was so cool to me, mainly because like I said, I had never even heard of an Atari before. It had a wood finish on it and the graphics looked super old and outdated even compared to my NES games. It just felt old-fashioned all around. I loved the idea that I was playing something that was basically the grandfather of video game consoles. If I wanted to trace back the exact moments that made me fall in love with video games in the first place, this moment would make the list.  Levi and I played several games on it and had a blast. Games I distinctly remember were Frogger, Q*Bert, Ms. Pac-Man, Missile Command and a tank game that I to this day don’t actually know the name of. Q*Bert and Ms. Pac-Man were definitely my favorites. Both of which I would also play at arcades or Pizza-Hut on the rare occasions that we got to go. I also loved the paddle and joystick controllers. They were just so unique, nothing like any other controller I had ever used (which at that time I think had been NES, SNES and Genesis) .From then on Levi and I never missed a chance to visit Uncle Tommy’s house and it ended up being the only place I would ever see an Atari 2600 my entire childhood.

COLLECTING FOR THE 2600

There are lots of video game collectors out there and everyone has their preferences on what they care about when it comes to the number of games, quality of the games, and the number of accessories they feel they need to own for the console. Some collectors focus on one system and they collect every single game and accessory for that console in every color controller and system imaginable. I’ve seen some guys who do this for the Nintendo 64 because of the crazy number of colors Nintendo made of that console and its’ controllers. I even know a guy on the game collecting subreddit who is collecting every game for the Playstation 2 (sounds like a death wish to me). Some collectors want every label in flawless condition. Even if its an Atari game, they don’t want a single scratch or slight degradation in color. They want every game to come with the original packaging and inserts. If its a Playstation 2 game, they want the original “black label” version. As you can imagine, this is an extremely expensive way to go about things. I know some guys who just grab any game they can find no matter whether there’s a label even left on the game anymore. You can decide for yourself what kind of collector you want to be. I personally suggest starting with the thing you care the most about and go from there. If you’re mostly a Nintendo fan, then start with your favorite Nintendo franchise and collect all the games for that. I find myself kind of in the middle of the spectrum. I collect for every gaming console and handheld except some of the earliest ones (like the aforementioned Odyssey and PONG systems). I only buy the games that I feel are either one of the best on the system or are a part of my memories and childhood. For example, some may not find Toy Story for Sega Genesis to be all that great of a game, but Levi and I played the hell out of that thing as kids, so it is a must-own for me. For each console I only collect two controllers and I only buy accessories that are actually important to the function of the games I own. I don’t need to own an XBox 360 camera since I’ll never use it, but I do need to own an expansion pak and rumble pak for the Nintendo 64 since several important games use them. I only buy consoles that are in great mechanical and visual shape. As far as games my only stipulation is that the label be in great shape. I do not collect complete-in-box for every game . I collect loose cartridges for older games and normal case packaging for newer disc games. My complete-in-box collection is limited to my all-time favorite game for each console. The reason I collect the way I do is because I actually want to play these games. They aren’t going to just sit on a shelf and look pretty. When I have kids who want the new Playstation 64 ONE they are going to know their gaming roots first. I cannot wait to go back through all the systems and show them what I played as a kid. I want to show them first-hand how far gaming has come over 30 years. The 2600 was the first and only console I have “finished” collecting (in my case this means I own the console and every game I want for it, all in good condition). I didn’t own a 2600 until recently, when I was around 25 years old. Its the only one of my consoles I’ve ever bought at a yard sale and not from a trusted store or seller. Come to think about it, that’s the best thing about collecting for Atari actually, that you have a decent chance at finding it and games for it at yard sales. But that’s only if you don’t care about the quality of the game labels. These games are over 20 years old, chances are they’ve had some wear and tear. If you look hard enough at local game shops or online you should be able to eventually find all the games you desire with labels that are in good shape. The games for the most part are pretty damn cheap too. I would guess that I’ve paid between $2-$20 for each game, with most of the important ones being around the $10 mark. I own Ms. Pac-Man (my all-time favorite 2600 game) complete-in-box, never played, still in factory wrapping. For everything else I just have the loose cart with a label in great condition. If you’re looking to collect for it I would suggest hitting up yard sales and finding a cheap deal on the console with the controllers and games. Avoid paying a lot of money online for the Atari or most of its games. You can find it in the wild and there is nothing like the rush of holding off on spending tons of money online for a game or console and then finding it  at a garage sale for a buck.

*****Coming up next will be my review on the Atari 2600 and the three games for it. Under the favorite category we will have Q*Bert. Under the never-played category we will have Joust. You guys voted for the third game to be Dig-Dug.*****

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