Atari 2600

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Atari 2600
Manufacturer Atari
Generation Second generation
Release date September 11, 1977 (NA)

1978 (EU)

Media type ROM cartridge, tape
Input controller joystick, paddles, driving controller, track-ball, keypad
Predecessor Atari Pong consoles
Successor Atari 5200

The Atari 2600 is a video game console released in September 1977 by Atari Inc. It is credited with popularizing the use of microprocessor-based hardware and ROM cartridges containing game code, instead of having non-microprocessor dedicated hardware with all games built in. The first game console to use this format was the Fairchild Channel F; however, the Atari 2600 receives credit for making the plug-in concept popular among the game-playing public.

It did make by far the biggest impact of any console released during the golden age. In fact, to much of the general public, it made the word “Atari” synonymous with the word “video game” (at least until Nintendo assumed the throne in the mid to late 1980s).

Imbued with a mere 128 bytes of RAM, the Atari 2600 was originally designed to play Pong variations, simplistic action games, crude racing simulations, rudimentary educational titles, and the like. However, with the release of Space Invaders in 1980, the system skyrocketed in sales and became a mainstay of arcade conversions.

In 1980, after a limited marketing test in 1979, Mattel released its Intellivision system nationwide, setting the stage for the first true console war. Bolstered by a scries of commercials starring spokesman George Plimpton, the lntellivision had superior graphics and sounds and more power under the hood. Nevertheless, the Atari 2600 maintained a dominant following, thanks to its plethora of popular arcade titles and its propensity for fast-action games that were easy to pick up and play. By 1983, however, due in part to competition from other systems (like the ColecoVision and the Atari 5200) and a multitude of inferior titles cranked out by certain third-party companies, the shine began to wear off the aging console. By 1984, the Atari 2600 was all but dead, a victim of the fabled great video game crash.

Technical specifications[edit]

The unit came with two stiff but solid joysticks and a pair of finely tuned paddle controllers. Both types of controllers had but a single fire button, forcing programmers to make creative use of the joystick (and at times the console itself ) for more elaborate games. The console contained the following switches: color/b/w, reset, select, difficulty level (novice and expert for each player), and, of course, on/off.

During its high-point, the 2600 saw more than its share of peripherals and add-ons, including countless third-party joysticks, a touch pad (for Star Raiders), a trackball, a joypad players could stand on (for Mogul Maniac), a Kid’s Controller (for Sesame Street titles), a driving controller (for Indy 500), a keyboard controller, and more.


  • CPU: MOS Technology 6507 - 8bit, 1.19MHz
  • TIA 1A - Television Interface Adaptor Model 1A (video, audio, input ports)
  • PIA 6532 - (128 bytes RAM, I/O Ports, Timer)

CPU and memory[edit]

  • CPU: MOS 6507, 8bit, 1.19MHz (cutdown 6502 with only 8K address space)
  • RAM: 128 bytes (additional 128 or 256 bytes in some cartridges)
  • VRAM: none (picture controlled by I/O ports only)
  • ROM: external game cartridge (usually 2KB or 4KB, or banked 2x4KB)


  • Output: line-by-line (registers must be updated each scanline)
  • Resolution: 160x192 pixels (NTSC 60Hz), 160x228 pixels (PAL 50Hz)
  • Playfield: 40 dots horizontal resolution (rows of 4 pixels per dot)
  • Colors: 4 colors at once (one color per object)
  • Palette: 128 colors (NTSC), 104 colors (PAL), 8 colors (SECAM)
  • Sprites: 2 sprites of 8pix width, 3 sprites of 1pix width

Input/output ports, audio, timer[edit]

  • I/O: two 8bit I/O ports, six 1bit input ports
  • Timer: one 8bit timer (with prescaler; 1,8,64,1024 machine cycles)
  • Audio: two sound channels (with frequency, volume, noise control)

Console switches[edit]

  • Switches: color/mono switch (PAL/NTSC only), and two difficulty switches
  • Buttons: select button, reset button (or switches in older consoles)
  • Hardware: power switch, TV channel select switch (not software controlled)


  • Slot: one 24 pin cartridge slot (with 4K address bus)
  • Controls: two 9 pin joystick ports (also used for paddles, keyboards)
  • TV: one Cinch socket (video/audio TV signal)
  • Power: 9V DC, 500mA (internally converted to 5V DC)

Atari 2800[edit]

The Atari 2800 is the Japanese version of the Atari 2600, released in October 1983. It never captured a large market in Japan because it was released a short time after the Nintendo Famicom, which became the dominant console in the Japanese video game market of the time.

Codenamed "Cindy", the Atari 2800 had four controller ports instead of the standard two on the Atari 2600's. The controllers are an all-in one design using a combination of an 8-direction digital joystick and a 270-degree paddle.

The 2800's case design departed from the standard 2600 format, using a wedge shape with non-protruding switches. The Atari 2800's case style was used as the basis for the Atari 7800's case style

Around 30 specially branded games were released for the 2800. Their boxes are in Japanese and have a silver/red color scheme similar to the packaging of Atari's 2600 branded games of the time. The ROM cartridges themselves had identical labels as their 2600 branded counterparts.

Sears liked the design of the Atari 2800 so much, they opted to sell a version under their Tele-Games label. It was released in the US in 1983 as the Sears Video Arcade II, and was packaged with 2 controllers and Space Invaders.

Atari 2600 Jr.[edit]

Atari 2600 Jr.

In 1985, a new version of the 2600 was released (although it had been planned for release two years earlier). The new redesigned version of the 2600, unofficially referred to as the 2600 Jr., featured a smaller cost-reduced form factor with a modernized Atari 7800-like appearance. The redesigned 2600 was advertised as a budget gaming system (under $50) that had the ability to run a large collection of classic games. With its introduction came a resurgence in software development both from Atari Corp. and from a few third parties (including Activision, Absolute Entertainment, Froggo, Epyx, and Exus). The Atari 2600 continued to sell in the USA and Europe until 1991, and in Asia until the early 1990s.


Main article: Atari 2600 Hardware.


Power supply[edit]


Former Atari employees founded the earliest example of the third-party game publisher. Alan Miller, designer of early launch titles like Surround and Basketball, left with fellow designers Bob Whitehead, Larry Kaplan, and David Crane to form Activision in 1979 with the help of music lawyer Jim Levy. Atari unsuccessfully pursued legal action for a while to keep Activision from publishing games on ther platform. Another publisher, Imagic, was founded by Atari and Mattel Electronics alumni the following year.

The Atari 2600, which never featured any kind of copy protection, was mobbed as publishers as diverse as Parker Brothers to CBS began making and publishing video games. The flood of games and lack of quality control from other companies left many customers dissatisfied, which eventually became another factor in the 1983 video game crash.