Atari at 40

Wednesday was Atari’s 40th birthday. This will mean more to some of you — let’s call you “old” — than others, but the significance of what became known as the Atari 2600 cannot be minimized. It was the first massive hit home gaming console, from the company that gave you Asteroids and Missile Command in arcades. It was not the first console — it wasn’t even the first name for itself, because it was originally the Atari VCS — but it was massive. Everybody had one or wanted one or hung out with kids who had one. I did not have one. I still wish I did.

One signature 2600 game was Pitfall (“Designed by David Crane!” I think that was the first time I had any inkling that there WERE video game designers and that they had names):

They were so big, they were even able to recruit Pete Rose, Pele, and Don Knotts to promote the thing. DON KNOTTS!!! (And note how they had to have the girl mention Pele by name, lest you not know who he was):

Imagine, 20 cartridges now available! Who would ever have time to play all of those games?

Later, when the console’s popularity was waning, they stressed extras, including a free copy of Pac-Man, which, well, sucked on that system:

But it was this game that some blame for ending Atari’s dominance of the console world:

The E.T. licensed game… you can see what the problem was. Imagine trying to play that for more than a couple of minutes. Truth was, the 2600 games looked clunky at the time, too, all of them, because we were already used to arcade graphics. Pac-Man in the arcade wasn’t as blocky and squat as on the 2600. Other than, say, Breakout (and even that didn’t look quite right), it was obvious that you were getting a cheesier “home version” of every game. Yet… it WAS a home version. It WAS kinda cool to be able to play that stuff on your own TV set. And it WAS cooler than other earlier consoles like Intellivision or Telstar or Odyssey. (No slapping a green plastic sheet onto the TV screen like with the Odyssey) You just plugged and played. And it begat ColecoVision and the NES and Sega and all the way to today, when there aren’t too many people without home gaming consoles of some sort, even if (your honor, I plead no contest) you don’t have any time to actually PLAY them. For a lot of people, the Atari 2600 was the beginning of their gaming lives.

Atari still exists, although the lineage has it far afield from the original company. In the interim, there was the ST, the Lynx, the Jaguar, games… but the 2600 is the cornerstone, the reason we know the name. And we do.

Happy 40th birthday to Atari, 8-bit style: