Saturday, May 29, 2021

Child of the 1980's - Atari 2600


                In 2021 it is hard to imagine a time when video games were primitive.  Xbox, Nintendo Wii, and Playstation have all lay claim to some incredible games and consoles.  The graphics and stories are mind-blowing with new advances in technology coming at such a rapid pace.  Handheld consoles, virtual reality, motion-capture, and more have become the norm.  However there was a time not very long ago where a dot bouncing across a screen between two sliding bars was the biggest thing on earth.  Before the more recent games where the graphics mimic reality there was a time when 8-bit graphics were the greatest thing going.  It was during this time, as a child of the 1980’s, where I was introduced to the world of video games.  It was not through Nintendo, or Sega, or Xbox, or Playstation.  It was through the granddaddy of video game consoles, the Atari 2600.

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Atari 2600
                In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s if a kid wanted to play video games it was usually off to the video arcade.  It was less common for a kid to have a home console although a few did exist, specifically ColecoVision and Atari VCS.  Atari had a firm grip on the market though as they had established themselves by creating the game Pong in 1972, one of the earliest video arcade games. The Atari Video Console System was an 8-bit system released in September 1977.  It would sell for between $199-229 ($803-925 in 2017) and popularize cartridge-based consoles with games being loaded into the top of the machine.  The games would be controlled with a simple joystick coupled with one red button.  Initially Atari released nine games with its VCS: Air-Sea Battle, Basic Math, Blackjack, Combat, Indy 500, Star Ship, Street Racer, two versions of Surround, Video Olympics.

                Atari would change its console from the VCS to 2600 in 1982 when they released its successor the 5200.  It was around this time that I was introduced to home video games.  I can clearly remember playing games like Pitfall, Missile Command, and Pac-Man at home on weekends or after school.  Pac-Man would go on to become the top-selling game ever on Atari along with a pop culture icon.  Some of the other legendary games that came along through the Atari include Asteroids, Space Invaders, Frogger, Dig Dug, Pole Position, Mario Bros., and Donkey Kong.
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Pac-Man Screenshot
                I did not get a chance to play all of those games on my home console, as the early 1980’s were still a time where video games were new and rare and still seen as a niche, or a luxury, while playing outside was the go to activity for kids.  However I loved playing my Atari, and so did a lot of other people.  When all was said and done the Atari 2600 sold over 30 million consoles and hundreds of millions of games during its time in existence.
     Atari’s grasp on the throne would come to an end quickly.  Oversaturation of the market led to a huge drop in sales beginning in late 1983.  They continued to slip in 1984 and 1985 with many thinking home video game consoles were fading away.  Then in late 1985 Japan brought its Nintendo Entertainment System to the United States.  It would revitalize the video game industry eventually rendering Atari obsolete and selling more than 60 million units worldwide.
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     Ironically more than thirty years after Atari was the biggest thing in video games one can play some of the classics online.  There are original consoles still able to be found on eBay along with the popular Atari Flashback new consoles.  The company also made headlines again in 2014 when 1,300 unsold cartridges, many of them of the huge failure E.T., were uncovered in the desert in New Mexico.  Atari officials said that the burial was of over 700,000 cartridges in 1983 but was frequently dismissed as only an urban legend.

                Despite it being mainly a footnote in the history of video gaming there is no denying the importance of Atari.  I have lots of fond memories swinging on vines as Pitfall, shooting aliens in Space Invaders, and chomping ghosts in Pac-Man.  What were the first video games you remember playing?  Stay tuned for more awesome 80’s memories!


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