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  • Writer's pictureDeana Galbraith

Early Digital Artifact Review: Atari VCS

The Atari VCS (also referred to as Atari 2600) was released in 1977. The Atari VCS was one of the first popular home video game consoles. The first VCS units came with two joysticks, a pair of paddles, and a cartridge copy of the game “Combat”. It had one cartridge slot and two controller ports. According to the Museum of Obsolete Media, “cartridges were normally limited to 4 KB, but later games used bank-switching to increase this. Cartridges were produced in a number of different shapes and designs by third-parties.” The Atari console was so popular in its time that the generic term for a video game system in the early 1980’s was “an Atari.”

Atari intended for the Atari VCS to be used in homes and as a platform, with the unit being able to play multiple games on the console. Nick Montfort, author of “Racing the Beam: The Atari Computer System (Platform Studies),” states that it was affordable at the time, and it offered the flexibility of interchangeable cartridges. He goes on to say, “the popularity of the Atari VCS- which was the dominant system for years and remained widely used for more than a decade- supported the creation of nearly one thousand games, many of which established techniques, mechanics, or entire genres that continue to thrive today on much more technologically advanced platforms.”

During this time, there were hardware cost concerns which led to innovated hardware design that influenced the way Atari programmed the software. The way they programmed the Atari VCS influenced the video games created during and after the system’s time. The Atari VCS used a typical 6502 processor, which drove many computers and consoles at the time. Steven Hugg, writer of “Making Games for The Atari 2600,” shares that the 6502 CPU was not that much different from other microprocessors such as the 6800, it was just cheap and widely available. The 6502 also powered the Apple I and the Nintendo Entertainment System.

What was unique about the console was its use of the Television Interface Adaptor, or TIA for short, which is a television that is made up of horizontal lines illuminated by an electron beam that traces each line by moving across and down a picture tube.📷 Programmers must worry about having each frame of the picture ready to be displayed at the correct time, whereas VCS programmers had to make sure that each individual line of each frame was ready (Monfort). The Atari VCS also had a Rockwell 6532 RIOT (RAM, I/O, timer), and a generic 4050 CMOS hex buffer.

The Atari VCS played a huge role in the history of game consoles, companies, and games. In a Business Insider article by Matt Weinberger, the director of the Videogame History Museum, Sean Kelly, was interviewed. He stated that, “Atari started it all. Atari is what brought video games into the mainstream.” The console is credited with popularizing the use of microprocessor-based hardware with separate cartridges containing games, instead of having a console which held all games within it. We’ve kept this system to this day but with more advanced technology. Today we have CDs, which we place game code on and use to put inside consoles.

“The VCS soon gained massive popularity as people realized it could play much more varied games than just variants of Pong, the game ‘Adventure’ changed gaming forever, as it unlocked a game with a virtual world larger than a single screen” ( Large companies, such as Activision, grew out of the VCS. Activision raised the bar on the console’s game quality. Their major titles included “Space Shuttle – A journey into Space,” “Private Eye” and “Pitfall,” one of the very first running and jumping multi-screen games.

The VCS left such an impression on the game industry and gamers that just recently a crowdfunding campaign was held in June 2018 to help build a re-imagined modern day Atari VCS. The console is intended to allow gamers to play games and stream while also being an open platform for creativity and customization. Will the console make history again? We’ll find out soon enough.

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