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Useful Notes / Atari 2600

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The real O.G.note 

Did you play with a friend on a rainy day?
Did you play with your dad? Did you show him the way?
Did you play with your sis?
Did your mom always miss?
Did... you... play a game from Atari?
Have you played Atari today?

The Atari Video Computer System, later known as the Atari 2600, but best known as just the "Atari" during its heyday, was the first really successful home video game console system, and only the second to feature interchangeable ROM cartridges that allowed new games to be published and installed without modifying the basic system itself. It also featured plug-in controllers that could be swapped out, allowing new kinds of controllers to be later introduced. Originally, just ten games were planned for it. The idea was to make a better system down the line to replace it eventually, but the success of the system changed everything. It was originally launched in September of 1977 in North America for US$199.

The Atari was wildly successful, and was one of the forces that drove The Golden Age of Video Games in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Inversely, the sudden failure of the market for Atari cartridges in the wake of a speculator bubble and the disastrous E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Pac-Man games for the system was the trigger for The Great Video Game Crash of 1983. With only a few exceptions, most of the classic games of the era had home versions available for the Atari, some (Space Invaders, and Atari's own Missile Command and Asteroids) more successful than others (Pac-Man, whose failure to match the immensely popular arcade version disappointed many consumers). It also began the dubious tradition of licensed games, with titles such as Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and (worst of all) E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

This flood of bad games was perhaps unavoidable as the Atari 2600 did not have any control mechanism in place to prevent unauthorized games from being produced. The most infamous such title is Custer's Revenge due to the highly publicized legal battle between its publisher American Multiple Industries and Atari. The system was also trivial to clone thanks to being built from off the shelf components, the most famous of which is the Coleco Gemini. As a result of these problems all subsequent consoles have had lockout mechanisms in place to prevent unauthorized software releases and complicate or prevent cloning.

The simple joystick controller for the Atari 2600, with a stick capable of rendering input in any of eight directions (from four buttons) plus a single fire button, has become an iconic symbol of video gaming in general, and of retrogaming in particular. The system's popularity led to '80s and '90s home computers and video game consoles using the same connector, and they could thus accept inputs from 2600 controllers, even if it wasn't always practical.

While Atari lost its leader position as a result of the North American Crash and never truly recovered, they were able to somewhat ride the coattails of Nintendo after the launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986. Seeing the market revived, Atari Corporation would redesign and relaunch the 2600 as the Atari 2600 Jr., selling it for US$49.99 as a budget alternative to the newer Atari 7800 (released around the same time), and its redone form factor even heavily resembled its little brother. Atari would also reissue older 2600 ports of some of Nintendo's own games, as they had retained licensing rights from the fallout of a failed deal between the two companies. These ports sold moderately well, likely thanks to abusing Nintendo's brand recognition. The 2600 would end up being actively supported for 14 years, from October 14, 1977, to January 1, 1992. Atari Corporation would also continue publishing new games for the console until 1990, as the library still held some value thanks to the 7800's backwards compatibility.

Since 1995, a homebrew scene dedicated to making new games for the system appeared.

In 2005, Atari released the Atari Flashback 2 (the original, based on the Atari 7800, was released in 2004), which is a pretty faithful re-creation of the actual thing and contains numerous games built into it, including the Activision games Pitfall and River Raid. The Atari Flashback 2+, released in 2010, contains all of the games on the Atari Flashback 2 with the exception of five (including both Activision games, which are replaced with a couple of sports games). An Atari Flashback Portable, which contains a bunch of pretty awesome features, has been in Development Hell since 2006. The Flashback 4 was released in November 2012, with either 75 or 76 games (some have one more than others do). It was followed by the Flashback 5, with 92 games, in October 2014. As of April 2016, the current version is the Flashback 6, released in November 2015 with an even 100 games.

AtariAge is the biggest Atari fan website online and features an almost complete archive of legally downloadable 2600 ROMs (as well as ones for Atari's other systems). Only a few games are unavailable, such as Activision's 2600 library (for legal reasons, but they're available elsewhere online) and a handful of woefully obscure titles.


  • CPU: MOS 6507, a chopped-down 6502, 1.19 MHz. The most significant difference between this processor and the 6502 that would appear in later 8-bit computers and video game systems including the NES is that the memory address bus was trimmed to 13 bits from the usual 16. This means the chip can only address 8K of memory without resorting to bank switching (though note the 2600 ROM slot further limited this to 4K).
  • GPU: Atari TIA (also used for sound)


  • 128 bytes, used for game variables.
  • No video memory. The 2600 built the screen scanline by scanline, by manipulating the TIA's registers, colloquially known as "racing the beam".
  • Cartridges up to 4K of ROM, or more with bank switching.


  • 160×192 resolution.
  • NTSC and PAL: 128 colors. SECAM: Eight colors.
  • Five spritesnote .


  • Two tone generators.



  • The Atari controller port (a DE9 connectornote ) was commonly used by other systems, and frequently those controller ports were backward-compatible, capable of using 2600 joysticks. The 2600 could only recognize one button, and other systems were not consistent on how they mapped the other buttons, so it is often not possible to use controllers from one company's devices with another. Systems with backward-compatible controller ports include:
  • Other controllers could be plugged into the controller ports. Most systems that supported Atari joysticks did not support the other controller types, although the VIC-20, Commodore 64 and Atari 8-bit computers did support paddle controllers.
    • The original 2600 came with two paddle controllers that plugged into one port; 4-player games could be played with a second pair of paddles. The paddles included an analog potentiometer and one fire button each, and were used for games such as Breakout and Warlords. Because of the potentiometer, the paddles had a defined arc of about 330 degrees that they could move in, with hard stops at each end.
    • A keyboard controller consisting of two 12-button control pads was sold separately; a few games required them, including BASIC Programming, which came with an overlay to indicate what each key did. The controller was initially sold in response to a lawsuit that claimed false advertising: the Video Computer System could not be a computer without a keyboard.
      • Star Raiders came with an unlabeled 12-button control pad (a reskinned version of the keyboard controller) and an overlay. The game only used five of the twelve buttons.
      • Another reskinned version of the keyboard controller was released as the "Kid's Controller", used for a set of Sesame Street-branded games like Cookie Monster Munch.
    • Indy 500 came with a pair of 'driving' controllers, which were freely-spinning versions of the paddle controllers that only connected one controller to a port. Unlike the potentiometer in the paddles, they used a quadrature-style encoding similar to a non-optical trackball or computer mouse.

Games available for the system included:

Exclusive titles and Multi-Platform games that started here: