Atari VCS (2600)
In 1977, Atari released the VCS (Video Computer System), later renamed the VCS2600 or just "2600". It was one of the first consoles that had a CPU (as opposed to a custom chip) and it ran cartridge-based games. Sales of the VCS were significantly boosted with a deal between Atari and Sears & Roebuck to distribute its units. Under the agreement, Sears sold its own VCS rebadged the "Sears Video Arcade", with Atari VCS cartridges branded with the "Tele-Games" label.
The unit was sold bundled with two joysticks and the Combat game cartridge. On launch day in 1977, just 9 games were available, and despite the Sears agreement, sales were disappointing. These games were Air-Sea Battle, Basic Math, Blackjack, Combat, Indy 500, Star Ship, Street Racer, Surround, and Video Olympics. The disappointing sales throughout 1977 were later attributed to the many Pong clone manufacturers that were caught in a vicious price war, and being sold off for ever-lower prices to the public. During this first year, the VCS was produced in Sunnyvale, CA. The unit came with lots of internal RF shielding, and can be identified by the thick plastic moulding around the sides. The console therefore was quite heavy, and because it had six switches on the front it was nicknamed the "Heavy Sixer".
In early 1978 Atari refreshed the console's appearance. Using less RF shielding, the Revision B unit can be identified by thinner plastic moulding on the side. A little later that year, production was moved from Sunnyvale, CA to Hong Kong. Sales picked up slightly but were still very low compared to Atari's projections. Only 550,000 units were sold out of 800,000 produced, leaving Atari's owner, Warner, to cover their losses.
By 1979, Fairchild, Atari's only competitor with their Channel F console had given up the home computer market, thinking it was just a passing fad. This left Atari as the only supplier of a home console until Mattel launched their Intellivision later that same year. The general public had woken up to the fact there was more to life than Pong, and sales of the VCS picked up with 1 million units being sold that year.
In 1980, however, Atari really turned their fortune around by porting the extremely popular Taito arcade game, Space Invaders, to the VCS. It was a huge hit and led many consumers to buy the VCS simply to play Space Invaders at home! Also in this year a second refresh was made to the VCS to cut manufacturing costs. This also warranted an internal model name change from CX2600 to CX2600A, the new model moved the two difficulty switches to the rear of the unit, leaving just the Power, TV type, Game Select and Game Reset switches on the front. Still using a woodgrain effect, these have earned the nickname '4-switch Woodys".
1982 saw Atari introduce their next video-game console, the Atari 5200. They rebranded the VCS to 2600 in order to keep the model range simple for customers. At the same time, they refreshed the look of the older console, with a black plastic casing (the woodgrain effect was considered out of fashion by this stage). Due to its all-black appearance it earned the nickname of "Vader", or "Darth Vader". Sales of the VCS had doubled each year from 1980, helped with the porting of the popular arcade game, PacMan in 1982. Because of this rising popularity, Atari worked on developing two compatible consoles. The 2700 (also called Atari Remote Control VCS) would be a 2600 with wireless controllers that incorporated an 8-position joystick and paddle in one. The 2700 however, suffered from a number of design flaws, including an excessive radio control range (up to 1000 ft in any direction) that meant 2700s could interefere with other 2700s, garage door openers, and TVs. As a result it never entered production, and Atari used the basic case design of the 2700 for the later 5200. The second new console, the 2800J (codenamed "Cindy") was a sleeker model to be sold only to the Japanese market. The relationship with Sears continued, and it was planned that this would also be sold in the U.S. as the "Sears Video Arcade II". The 2800J design had 4 controller ports, and used the same redesigned controller as the 2700. The case for the 2800J was later redesigned into what became the Atari 7800 Pro System case. It debuted in Japan in Autumn 1983, just after Nintendo launched the Famicom (a far superior console). The 2800J was still a 2600 inside, so it was a generation behind the Famicom, and it showed. As a result, the 2800J was a commercial failure - Atari had enough problems back in the U.S. such as the destruction of surplus E.T. cartridges that were failing to sell, and the start of the video game implosion, to fight for the 2800J half a world away.
In 1986, Atari revitalised sales of the 2600 by bringing out the 2600jr (see top picture). This was the same 2600 as before, but in a revised modernised casing.
Later / Aftermarket Clones
From the mid-2000s, several aftermarket 'consoles' started appearing. The most popular of these was the Flashback, released by Atari Inc. themselves in 2004. It resembled an Atari 7800, and came with 20 Warner Communications/Atari Inc. and Atari Corp. games (a mix of 2800 and 7800 games). Any games originally made to work with analog paddle controllers were remade to work with the included joysticks. The games, however, were effectively "ports", differing slightly from their originals, since the Flashback circuitry was based on "NES-on-a-chip" hardware, not resembling either of the Atari systems which the Flashback was supposed to represent.
The Flashback 2 followed in 2005, effectively doubling the number of included games to a total of 40. Some of the games were originally published by Activision (River Raid and Pitfall!). Designed to look like the original wooden 1977 Atari 2600, with joysticks to match, the Flashback 2 also supported Colour/B&W switch, and the unit supports actual original 2600 joysticks (or you can use the ones included on an original 2600!). Developed under the codename "Michele" (after the creator, Curt Vendel's wife), the Flashback 2 circuitry is based on the original 2600 circuitry, so unlike the earlier Flashback, the games that run on the '2' run just the same as the original (although there are some changes made to the code. The 40 games are categorised into 4 categories: Adventure Territory, Arcade Favourites, Skill and Action Zone, and Space Station. A Flashback 2+ model was a mildly modified version, launched in 2010 with Pitfall, River Raid, Wizard, Caverns of Mars, and Atari Climber removed, and in their place a Sports section added containing Realsports Boxing, Realsports Soccer, Super Baseball, Super Football, and Double Dunk. The hidden menu now added 'Circus Atari' in addition to Warlords and Super Breakout, only accessible when paddles were plugged in, and a secret code entered (see 'Trivia' under 'More Info...' above)
In 2010, Atari launched Flashback 3for £39.99. It again included 2 original Atari-style controllers, and 60 built-in 2600 games. From 2011, AtGames took over the distribution of the Flashback products. Unlike the Flashback 2/2+, the 3 used emulation running on an ARM-based processor instead of '2600-on-a-chip' circuitry, although you can still use original 2600 joysticks/paddles on the 3.
List of Games Included
This page was last updated on 18th April 2014.
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