THE ATARI VIDEO COMPUTER SYSTEM (VCS)

In late 1975 Atari began a lucrative business converting its arcade hits into standalone versions for the home. After a succession of consoles which included PONG, Video Pinball, and Stunt Cycle, the Atari executives eagerly anticipated which arcade game should get the home treatment next. The problem was that it took $100,000 and over a year to develop a new home game. In that time a hit arcade game could lose popularity rapidly and Atari did not want to invest a great sum of money on a game console that would have limited appeal.

Atari decided that the solution lay in a programmable system; one that could play many different games. Atari assembled a team of engineers consisting of Joe Decuir, Steve Mayer, Ron Milner, and Jay Minor to create a simple and inexpensive programmable system. The project was code-named ‘‘Stella’’ after Decuir’s bicycle.

The console that the team devised was simplicity itself because the software would do most of the work. The heart of the system, which contained 128 bytes of internal RAM, was a 6507 processor which ran at a breathtaking (for the time) 1 MHz.

The graphics chip, commonly referred to as ‘‘Stella’’ but properly named the television interface adapter (TIA), generated all of the sounds and video displays such as high-resolution objects, colors, and low-resolution backgrounds. Stella could line objects up in a row but not in a column. And because of the primitive way that Stella sent data to the screen (one scan line at a time, in sync with the TV’s electron gun) the main part of each game program had to constantly write to Stella in order to refresh the graphics correctly.

To make it even harder on the programmer, the programs (or kernels) themselves could not be any larger than 4 kilobytes. Since the unit had been designed to only play PONG and Tank type games, the design team never anticipated that any game would go beyond a 2 kilobyte boundary.

Before the original prototype was completed, Fairchild Electronics released their own programmable system, the Channel F. In light of the new unexpected competition, Atari engineers and executives realized they were on the right track with the new program- mable system. Unfortunately, Atari did not have enough capital to put the product into production. In order to raise the money to complete the project, Atari was sold to Warner Communications in 1976 for $28 million.

With a great influx of cash behind it, Atari released the VCS in October of 1977. The $199 console was sold with ‘‘paddle’’ and ‘‘joystick’’ controllers. Also included was a cartridge, Combat, that featured several variations of Atari’s hit arcade game, Tank as well as biplane and jet plane games. Eight additional cartridges were available optionally including home versions of popular arcade games like Surround and PONG.

Although the VCS outsold the Channel F forcing Fairchild to subsequently abandon it, Atari’s console did not sell in the numbers that was needed to sustain it. Even new releases in 1978 like Breakout and a pair of games, Hunt & Score and Codebreaker. which incorpo- rated a new keyboard controller, did not stir much interest in the VCS.

Shortly after the release of the VCS, Taito’s Space Invaders invaded arcades around the

world. Atari executives realized that having Space Invaders available on the VCS would

be a major marketing coup. Without precedent, Atari quickly licensed the home rights

for Space Invaders and released it for the VCS in January 1980. This resulted in skyrock-

eting VCS sales as millions were bought just so Space Invaders could be played at home.

Because of its limitations, it was very difficult to write programs for the VCS. Steve Mayer remarked in a 1983 interview with IEEE Spectrum:

Writing the kernels that make up the game programs is like solving acrostic puzzles with lots and lots of possibilities. There’s a certain class of programmer that can deal in the microcode like that. If it were easier to program, we wouldn’t have these programmers, because they’d be bored.

One such programmer was Tod Frye, who was given the task to design a VCS adaptation of Atari’s monster arcade hit, Asteroids. Frye discovered early that he could not create a faithful rendition of the game within the confines of the allotted 4K of memory. Frye decided to use a technique called ‘‘bank-switching’’ which had been developed, but never used commercially, by an Atari programmer named Larry Wagner. The technique involved dividing memory into disjointed sections or banks. Although all banks were available to the program, only one could be accessed at a time. In the case of the VCS, an instruction within the first 4K bank branched to an address in a second 4K bank from which processing continued. The branch to the second bank of 4K was transparent to the CPU. In effect this allowed the VCS to process games that were larger than 4K. Before long 8K and even 16K games (usually using four banks of 4K chips) became the norm for the VCS.

Ultimately, the Atari programmers grew restless. They resented that their creations earned hundreds of millions of dollars for Atari while they were merely treated as employ- ees and were not even entitled to royalties. In addition, Atari kept them anonymous fearing that competitors might lure them away. Atari programmer Warren Robinett decided to do something about it. While writing Adventure (1979), he decided to program a hidden room into the game which would cause his name to flash on the screen if it was discovered. When it was announced that a 12-year-old Utah boy found the hidden room,

Atari grossed $415 million that year; more than twice the gross from the previous year. They followed up by licensing other arcade hits such as Defender (1980) and Berzerk (1980), as well as releasing its own hits Asteroids and Missile Command for the VCS.

it was too late for Atari to correct the code. One executive called the hidden message an ‘‘Easter egg,’’ a term which has remained to this day. Today’s games purposely have Easter eggs designed into them.

Four other Atari programmers were not satisfied with hiding their names in games. They teamed up with ex-record company executive, Jim Levy, and formed Activision in 1980, the first company to develop third-party software for video game consoles.

Activision games featured graphics that nearly rivaled those of the competing Intellivision system and showed that the VCS was indeed capable of supplying both good-looking screens and entertaining game play. However, Activision was a direct threat against Atari. Previously, Atari could always depend that its releases, no matter how mediocre, would be best-sellers as consumers hungered for new games. Now Atari’s profits were in trouble because the company did not earn a dime when consumers bought Activision cartridges. Atari sued Activision but all it won was a disclaimer on every Activision box stating that the game was compatible with the VCS.

With the success of Activision, many other companies began forming with the express purpose of developing software for the video game systems. Some, like Imagic, were made up of old Atari and Mattel programmers. By 1983 there were more than three dozen com- panies offering software for the VCS (renamed the 2600 in 1982 after its model number, CX-2600).

Competition did not only attack the software side. The 2600 also battled for survival against Mattel’s Intellivision and Coleco’s Colecovision, both of which offered adapters which allowed them to play the entire library of 2600 compatible games. Atari fought back with the 5200, a super console of its own. Although the newer consoles were techno- logically superior to the 2600, their higher price tags kept Atari’s humble little machine popular.

The 2600’s immense popularity inevitably made it a magnet for a slew of add-on peripherals. Although some were released, others never made it past the prototype stage. Among them was CVC Gameline (1983), a modem that plugged into the cartridge slot and marked the first time that video games could be download through the telephone lines. Starpath’s Supercharger (1982) and Amiga’s Power Module (1983) also plugged into the cartridge slot but had games loaded into them from inexpensive cassette tapes. Amiga also developed the Joyboard (1982), a stand-on controller that was sold with a skiing game. Other controllers which never made it to market were a voice controller from Milton Bradley, and Atari’s Mindlink (1984) a controller which sensed a player’s head muscles. Finally, several companies, including Atari, raced to release a peripheral that would turn the 2600 into a personal computer.

Unfortunately, the popularity of the 2600 indirectly led to the infamous video game industry crash of 1983. More and more companies jumped onto the 2600 bandwagon. Before long there were hundreds of games available for the 2600, most of them badly designed with little play value. Even Atari managed to release inferior games. Their 2600 rendition of Pac-Man bore little resemblance to the arcade mega-hit from which it was derived. All of these companies competed to occupy a limited amount of shelf space. The first companies to go bankrupt sold their inventory to salvage firms who then sold them to retailers at very low prices. Consumers could then buy cheap games from clear- ance bins or expensive games from the companies still in business. Most chose the bargain games and this created a vicious circle which bankrupted more companies and forced more salvaged games onto an already crowded clearance table. The remaining companies,

like Atari, discounted their games to compete against the low-cost games but wound up losing money in the process. By 1984 only a handful of companies still survived and they no longer had any justification to spend the money needed to develop new games. By all accounts the 2600, as well as the video game industry, was dead.

After Nintendo gambled on video games in 1985 and won, the Atari Corporation, no longer owned by Warner Communications, decided to share in the riches. In 1986 the company released a smaller inexpensive version of the 2600 which it called the 2600jr. The new $50 unit became a hit in households that could not afford a $125 Nintendo. New software also was offered but it was too little to late. Atari’s magic was gone. Even with the release of the technologically advanced 7800 which played all of the 2600 games, Atari could not duplicate the enthusiasm that it had created at the beginning of the decade. Before long stores stopped offering the Atari titles, relegating Atari to mail order before finally ending the 2600’s life cycle in 1991.

Surprisingly, the console still enjoys a healthy life within the classic gaming community to this day. In 1995, independent programmer Ed Federmeyer wrote SoundX, a brand new release for the 2600. He followed this with Edtris 2600, a Tetris clone. Since then dozens of brand new games for the 2600 have been written and released. In addition, many older games that had been written in the early 1980s but never released such as Elevator Action and Stunt Cycle have been rediscovered and sold in limited editions at gaming events such as the Classic Gaming Expo and PhillyClassic.

But the enjoyment of the old 2600 games is not left only to the classic gamers. Even modern gamers are now enjoying the old games too as collections of 2600 games have been made available for the modern consoles and PC. Jakks Pacific marketed both an Atari joystick and a paddle controller that plugged directly into a TV and played classic 2600 games. Even Atari got into the act and released the Flashback 2, a standalone system that looked exactly like a small 2600, complete with a pair of joystick controllers, which plugged directly into the TV and played 40 games, several of which never had been released before.

The 2600 may be gone but it certainly has not been forgotten. By being in production for 14 years, the 2600 enjoyed an availability record that still reigns among all consoles and is only second to the Game Boy in home video game systems overall.

Add Comment