The true legacy of the Atari 2600

Atari's best-remembered home console marks its 40th anniversary this year, but its influence runs much deeper than you might think.

There's a guy who wears a Nintendo power glove to every chiptune event in town. He looks cool, in a dorky way, because even Nintendo's junk has totemic power. The same can't be said of Atari, which is a shame because Atari joysticks are indestructible.

Simple, one-button devices, Atari’s controllers had a solid grippiness that felt good in the hand, suggestive of military design and recycled tank treads. My own Atari 2600 is 29 years old and every single part has been replaced, except the joystick, because I suspect they are immortal. The adapter melted during a five-hour Pac-Man binge, which is how long it took to clock it – we didn't 'beat' or 'finish' games back then, we made the score go so high it cycled back to 0000 like a clock hitting midnight. The console itself survived until lightning hit our house during a thunderstorm, sending a jolt of electricity through it, the joystick, and my arms. I was unhurt, and so was that joystick. What I'm saying is that when civilization collapses, the only things that survive will be cockroaches, Keith Richards, and Atari joysticks.

You probably know the story about Atari. The story goes that the videogame pioneer sold out and started producing trashy, low-quality movie tie-ins like the infamous E.T. game, which flopped so hard Atari buried unsold copies of it in a Mexican landfill like a cat hiding an unusually stinky turd. It was such a failure, the story continues, that the entire videogame market crashed and it took the appearance of Nintendo to resurrect it, Mario riding a white horse over the horizon like Gandalf at the Battle of Helms Deep.

Atari: Game Over director Zak Penn holds up one of the recovered Atari cartridges. (Photo: Juan Carlos Llorca, AP) Atari: Game Over director Zak Penn holds up one of the recovered Atari cartridges. (Photo: Juan Carlos Llorca, AP, 2014.)

It's not entirely a true story. The documentary Atari: Game Over did some solid mythbusting on the topic: while there is a real landfill full of Atari 2600 cartridges, which an excavation crew dug up in 2014, it wasn't just E.T. buried there – Atari had had warehouses full of various unsold games to get rid of. By the mid-1980s, the market was already spiralling out of control. The real problem Atari faced was competition from home computers and shelves full of questionable third-party games.

The whole reason third-party developers exist is because of the 2600. When the first home consoles appeared, the only games available were those produced by Atari itself. That changed in 1979 when four of Atari's best designers, frustrated with Atari’s policy which left programmers uncredited on their own work (resulting in the first easter eggs), quit to form a new studio: Activision.

Activision’s founders included David Crane. I asked him about the final meeting he had with Atari's management before leaving to co-found his own company. “We were told that we were no more important to Atari than the guy on the assembly line who assembled the cartridges,” Crane says. “A senior VP in that meeting knew that was the wrong way to motivate creative people, and as he walked us out he said with a wry smile, 'Well, it’s been nice knowing you guys.'”

When Activision started releasing their own games for the 2600, the idea was so shocking that Atari took them to court. Obviously, Atari didn't win the case. An eventual settlement in 1982 opened the legal door for others to follow, and they followed fast. Within six months of the decision, 30 third-party studios had popped up. Some good games came out of that flood, like the alien conservationist simulator Cosmic Ark, but so did infamous junk like Custer's Revenge (if you don't know it, trust me that you are better off not knowing).

The Atari 2600 and games (photo: Jody Macgregor). The Atari 2600 and games (photo: Jody Macgregor).

Activision's name was a mark of quality, however. Their games challenged Atari's own for positions on the bestseller lists, and one of their most profitable was Crane's own creation, Pitfall! It was released in 1982, the same year as E.T., but also the same year as hits like Yars’ Revenge (in which a mutant fly blows up alien bases) and Battlezone (based on an arcade game about tanks). But Pitfall! wasn't about space or war, it was about running and jumping – one of the first platformers. “I had always felt that the Atari 2600 was capable of making a game character that was more organic than just tanks and airplanes,” Crane says. He spent hours figuring out how to make the animations work. “I walked around the design lab, pausing to sketch my leg positions at each stage in the sequence.”

Pitfall! wasn't Activision's only hit. Games like River Raid (which gave players a jet that could only fly over water and had to blow up bridges to progress) and Kaboom! (about catching bombs before they explode) also sold well. But game sales in the US peaked in 1983 and then fell hard, dropping by almost 97 percent over the next two years. In much of the rest of the world, however, they carried on selling.

The crash was a localized event. It hit hard in the US and Japan, where they called it “Atari shock,” but Atari was a global brand, and kept selling games in Europe, South America, and even as far away as Australia, where I grew up. Thanks to high import tariffs, Nintendo took longer to catch on in many other countries and had to compete in markets where Sega, home computers like the Commodore 64 and Amiga, and Atari had stronger holds.

In 1986, Atari re-released the 2600 as the Atari Jr. It played the same games, but was smaller and redesigned. It was intended as a younger sibling's console, with the new Atari 7800 to draw in the real fans. But the 7800 was backwards-compatible, and third-party developers saw no reason to make new games that would run on it but not its predecessor, giving the 2600 an unlikely second life almost 10 years after its birth. It became the budget-conscious player's choice, an international working-class alternative to the mid-range Sega and high-end Nintendo, with a huge back catalogue of cheap games.

Pitfall! (1982), running on an Atari 2600 emulator. Pitfall! (1982), running on an Atari 2600 emulator.

 It was the even-cheaper Game Boy that eventually ended the Atari 2600's global persistence, helped by coming packaged with the massively popular Tetris. Atari believed they owned the rights to Tetris at the time, even briefly publishing their own version called TETЯIS: The Soviet Mind Game complete with backwards 'Я' to emphasise its Russian origin. A court case over the rights followed, which Atari lost, leading the company to publish its own derivative for the 2600 in 1989, called Klax. It was the last commercial game officially released for the platform, though the 2600 hardware itself remained in production until 1992.

That's a commercial lifespan of 14 years, during which the Atari 2600 clung to life despite several competitors, armed only with a single-button joystick and graphics that could only handle small numbers of moving objects without flickering epileptically. The console did see upgrades over the years, namely in the form of  greater storage capacity on cartridges, so that by the late 1980s and early 1990s a game like Solaris (which combined spaceship dogfighting and the deep oddness of interstellar travel) took up a leisurely 16 kb.

Skate Boardin' (1989), as viewed on an emulator. Skate Boardin' (1987), running on an Atari 2600 emulator.

“You got half of a new game system every time you bought a new game cartridge,” says Crane, explaining the console’s longevity. “Other companies put all of the functionality into the hardware, and they had to sell a new game console every two years.” From spaceships to platforming to a proto-Tony Hawk skateboarding game, Crane’s own Skate Boardin’, the 2600 survived three generations of games.

In a way, it lives on still. Homebrew developers, working in the same spirit as the first third-party developers like Activision, continue to release 2600 games for emulators or sometimes printed on ROM cartridges. The 2600 homebrew scene picked up virtually where Atari itself left off, beginning in 1995 with Ed Federmeyer’s SoundX, which allowed users to tinker with the system's range of chippy bleeps and drones, and his own Tetris clone, Edtris 2600. Oddball indie games followed, like Joe Grand's SCSIcide, in which you play a hard drive read head trying to read data in the right order, and Will Nicholes' Duck Attack!, in which you fight giant ducks who breathe fire. Ed Fries, former vice president of game publishing at Microsoft, joined in by coding his own version of an Xbox bestseller to make Halo 2600.

There's a lot to remember the Atari 2600 for beyond the cautionary tale about movie tie-ins and a New Mexico landfill full of literal shovelware. The console gave us third-party developers and 2D platformers, upgradeable cartridges, and a global market for games. For those of us who grew up with one, though, that wasn't what mattered. It was games like Off the Wall, in which we thwacked a ball past a crow to defeat a giant caterpillar, or Combat, which let us duel our friends with invisible tanks. They were cheap, strange, and full of possibilities, even if they never achieved the evocative sentimentality of Nintendo or Sega.

So happy 40th birthday, Atari 2600. May your indestructible joysticks live on as part of the spiked shoulderpads Keith Richards will wear when he mounts his mutant cockroach steed to ride across the post-apocalyptic wastelands.