ATARI VCS/2600 FAQ
Last updated 9-25-2014
This FAQ is an evolving document. If you have any additions, suggestions, or corrections, please e-mail us.
A: There are several groups, although there is very little activity on them these days:
Most ISPs no longer support access to them, but Google Groups is one web-based option.
A: Atariage, AtariGuide, Atarimania, and Digital Press all have searchable lists online. Of them, Atarimania's is the most up-to-date. Charles E. Dysert maintains a comprehensive list with photos as well.
Scott Stilphen made complete scans of most these and more, which can be found here in the library section.
2600 Connection also host copies of Chris Cavanaugh's Classic Gamer magazine.
Scott Stilphen made scans of some of these, which can be found here in the library section.
A: The most comprehensive list is maintained at the 2600 Connection website. Some of the best ones are:
Scott Stilphen made scans of some of these, which can be found here in the library section.
A: Once Upon Atari is a four part series exploring the early days of Atari. Produced by Howard Scott Warshaw, the series is a first hand look at Atari from the people who worked there.
Stella at 20: An Atari 2600 Retrospective is a series of documentaries from Glenn Saunders. Both "Volume 1, Tales of Stella" and Atari" and "Volume 2, The Game Designers or One Person, One Game" are around 90 minutes in length and originally sold for $25 each or $40 for both (+ shipping). Hozer Video Games eventually bought out the CyberPuNKs remaining inventory of these. The videos were never released on DVD.
Two videos, one documenting the 1998 World of Atari show and one documenting the 1999 Classic Gaming Expo are available from Mark Santora (firstname.lastname@example.org) for $25 + $4 shipping each or $50 (shipping included) for both tapes. Contact him directly to order or to inquire about international orders or PAL format tapes.
A 4-DVD box set, CGE 2K7, documenting the 2007 Classic Gaming Expo show, is available from Scott Stilphen for $25 each.
A: IRC is Internet Relay Chat, a global real-time chat network. #RGVC is the rec.games.video.classic newsgroup channel. You can download an IRC client from www.mirc.com, and you will also find some general information and instructions there.
A: The Atari symbol was designed by George Opperman in 1972. Pong was very popular then, and the symbol was a stylized version of a capital 'A', with the two opposing video game players representing the sides, and the center of the Pong court in the middle.
A: The word atari comes from the game of Go, perhaps the world oldest board game. Nolan Bushnell described it as a polite way of saying you're about to be engulfed. Several early 80's magazine references define atari as, "You are about to be engulfed". Some sets of rules (such as the Japanese and World Amateur Go Championship) define it as, "A group of stones is in atari if it has only one liberty left." For more information about the game, check out the American Go Association.
A: The most common Atari VCS/2600 font type is Bimini. True Type Fonts (TTF) for it can easily be found online for free.
A: There were 2 different boxes for the original VCS model in 1977. 6 artwork photos were changed between them:
The reason for why the artwork was changed is related to a story about someone in Florida who sued Atari for having a picture of a chess piece on the box when Atari didn't offer a chess cartridge. The story has its roots in an article that appeared in the March 1983 issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine that featured a quote from then-VP of the VCS Development group Larry Kaplan:
The lead designer of Atari Video Chess, Larry Wagner, once mentioned the cartridge was developed as a result of this lawsuit, but later recounted his statement and said its development started as an interesting R&D project, and referred to the same IEEE Spectrum article:
Bob Whitehead, the person responsible for developing the display, states he never heard of the lawsuit in question and said:
The fact that artwork for games that Atari didn't have at the time (chess, tic-tac-toe, casino games) were quickly removed from the box, which gives credence to the lawsuit story. Atari probably felt the less people that knew about the lawsuit the better, and simply didn't tell the programmers the complete story as to why they needed a chess cartridge. By the time the IEEE Spectrum article came out in 1983, it hardly mattered.
A: The black lines are the result of using a programming trick developed by Larry Kaplan that uses what's called an HMOVE command. If an HMOVE is initiated immediately after HBlank starts (which is the case when HMOVE is used as documented), the [HMOVE] signal is latched and used to delay the end of the HBlank by exactly 8 CLK, or two counts of the HSync Counter. This is achieved in the TIA by resetting the HB (HBlank) latch on the [LRHB] (Late Reset H-Blank) counter decode rather than the normal [RHB] (Reset H-Blank) decode. The extra HBlank time shifts everything except the Playfield right by 8 pixels, because the position counters will now resume counting 8 CLK later than they would have without the HMOVE. This is also the source of the HMOVE 'comb' effect; the extended HBlank hides the normal playfield output for the first 8 pixels of the line:
Here's an excerpt from an article that appeared in the March 1983 issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine, explaining what led to its development:
Activision got around this by using the trick on every scanline, which effectively blacked out the screen area where the lines appear. Eric Del Sesto of M Network also used the same method that he called "hidden V-clocks". From Sesto:
A: After checking manuals for most of the early VCS titles, 4 were found to have a 2:16 minute time limit:
These games end using different time limits or rely on scoring limits:
Scott Stilphen asked 3 of Atari's early VCS/2600 game designers on how 2:16 came to be used. Here's their replies.
A: The color-cycling is an early example of what's now called a screensaver. Systems prior to the VCS/2600 had a nasty habit of burning-in people's TVs with game graphics such as scores and boundary lines. The VCS/2600 offered protection from burn-in damage by slowly cycling through all the 128 possible colors. Contrary to popular belief (due to how Atari marketed this feature), the color-cycling is not built into the hardware; it's a code routine that was written by Joe Decuir. All the system manuals up to 1984 (except the 1982 manuals for some reason) include the following statement:
"Your Atari 2600 Video Computer System game is engineered not to show a
phosphor memory of the playfield or score digits."
"Your Sears Cartridge Tele-Games System Video Arcade is engineered to help eliminate phosphor memory of the playfield and score digits."
A: 2600 Connection has a section that show pictures of the patches as well as the scores needed to earn them.
A: The SwordQuest Challenge was conceived by Howard Scott Warshaw and Steve Wright, and originally was called the Adventure Series. It encompasses 4 separate games: EarthWorld, FireWorld, WaterWorld, and AirWorld, which each game having its own contest. The prizes were valued at $25,000 (although the first 2 were worth a bit less at the time they were awarded).
The series was to culminate in 1984 with the winner from each of the 4 contests facing off for the grand prize: the $50,000 SwordQuest Sword. From Howard Scott Warshaw:
Each game represented one of the 4 Symbols of Astrology:
will - energy radiating out from the center; action)
The games and contest were promoted heavily by Atari's own Atari Age magazine. The first 2 games, EarthWorld and FireWorld, were released, and the contest were held and the prizes awarded. The 3rd game, WaterWorld, ultimately fell victim to the infamous industry "crash"; it only saw a limited release, as it was initially only available through the Atari Age magazine (copies eventually reached store shelves at the height of the crash, and priced at only a few dollars). The programming for the 4th game, AirWorld, was started but never completed.
As for the remaining 3 prizes, it has long been rumored that the SwordQuest Sword (and possibly the prizes for WaterWorld and AirWorld) ended up in the hands of Jack Tramiel. The person who first posted this story personally saw the sword hanging over the mantle of Tramiel's fireplace, and noted it had an Atari “fuji” symbol on it, although the only artwork to depict that was the EarthWorld pamphlet. All the other artwork is identical to the only known photograph of the sword (from the FireWorld contest). It's possible the Atari symbol is only on one side of the handle. There are also those who (recently) claim to have spoken with either Jack Tramiel or his son, Leonard, with both claiming Jack did not have it. While Jack may not have had it by that point, neither Jack or Leonard confirmed or denied that he ever had it, and any claims that Warner kept the prizes during the transfer of ownership of Atari to Tramiel are completely unsubstantiated rumors. The current belief is the sword still remains with the Tramiel family. Hopefully one day the truth will come out, and with it, full disclosure of what happened to the remaining 3 prizes.
Scott Stilphen wrote an in-depth article about the contest, called SwordQuest Revisited.
A: Yes. The following sites maintain active contests and high score challenges:
A:There are several. One is Atari made more copies of E.T. than there were systems in circulation. Another is that the game was so bad (often cited as the "worst Atari VCS game of all time") and sold so poorly that its failure led to the infamous market crash of 1983-84 and to Atari's demise. Yet another is that so many people returned the game to where they bought it that Atari was stuck with millions of carts and ultimately dumped them in a landfill. Actually none of these are true.
In the fall of 1983, Atari decided to clear their excess stock of unsold games from their warehouse in El Paso, TX. Knowing they couldn't dump the product onto the market like smaller 3rd-party companies were doing (such as Data Age selling their games to Kandy Man Sales, who resold them to distributors for a fraction of their original worth), they instead labeled them as being faulty and chose to dump them in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, in a hasty effort to write-off the inventory. Games were trucked there in late September 1983 from Atari's El Paso, TX facility 90 miles away. Different accounts of the story have anywhere from 8 to 24 truckloads of items being dumped:
The local media picked up on the story when people started sneaking into the landfill at night and scavenging games. Atari sent a security guard there and paid to have the games covered in concrete to prevent any further theft, which only brought more attention, because why would Atari bother to do that if the games were as faulty as they claimed? Well, the games weren't, and it wasn't long before the national media picked up on what was happening there, and with Atari in general. Over the years, the story of what happened was twisted to the point where the only game that was dumped there was E.T., and there were millions of copies of the game. This was coupled with the misconception that the failure of E.T. was such that it was the main reason for the market crashing and Atari's eventual demise. The fact is, there are FAR worse games for the VCS than E.T., and even with all the negative attention it received, it still ended up being the 8th best-selling VCS game Atari made (plus Atari actually re-released it in 1986).
On April 26th, 2014, a 5-man team of archaeologists who call themselves the "Punk Archaeologists" were partially funded by MicroSoft and Fuel Entertainment to excavate the site at the Alamogordo, NM landfill to prove or disprove games were actually dumped there. A documentary team headed by director Zak Penn filmed the excavation and everything that was found, with the purpose of releasing a documentary film exclusive for XBOX 360 and XBOX ONE owners. More information can be found on their website, Dumping the Alien. As expected, boxed copies of at least 33 different games were found, along with some common controllers:
The Punk Archaeologists released an article on The Atlantic website on August 7th, 2014 with details about the excavation, although their claim of there not being a concrete cap over the buried items is incorrect. Credit the documentary team for tracking down James Heller, the former Atari manager who arranged for the games to be dumped there, who confirmed there were a total of 12 truckloads (totaling approximately 750,000 cartridges) and that 6 concrete trucks were used. A recent Yahoo article includes comments Mr. Heller, who gave a more accurate number for how many games were dumped there:
The article also recounts stories from one of the people who scavenged games from the landfill back in 1983:
A:The reason behind the market crash is often falsely attributed to Atari’s VCS E.T. game, so it’s impossible to talk about one without talking about the other. As previously explained, E.T. was hardly the sole factor for the crash; the reality is the seeds for it, as well as Atari’s own demise, had been sown years before.
Soon after Nolan Bushnell left the company, new CEO Ray Kassar soon proved he was the wrong person to lead Atari, and his lack of compassion and understanding for what the company’s engineers actually did there began to trickle down through the company’s ever-increasing layers of management. Even though the VCS was less than a year old at this time, it was clear this was a product that had the potential to be very successful in the near-future - especially to those programming games for it, who soon realized their efforts were largely responsible for its initial success. Some time in 1979, four of the original VCS programmers - David Crane, Bob Whitehead, Alan Miller, and Larry Kaplan (dubbed the “Fantastic Four”) – were keenly aware of their efforts, and approached Kassar with a contract proposal that would provide programmers with designer credit on the packaging and royalties for their games. Being Atari was owned by Warner Communications, an entertainment company, they felt they should be treated accordingly, as any other creative artist (musicians, actors, comic artists, etc). Kassar dismissed them, replying, “I've dealt with your kind before. You’re nothing than a bunch of towel designers. You're a dime a dozen. You're not unique. Anybody can do a cartridge.” From David Crane:
An interview Kassar did with the San Jose Mercury News in 1979 that quoted him referring to Atari's programmers as, "A bunch of high-strong prima donnas" (article) only resulted in generating more animosity towards him, and some programmers responded by referring to him as the "towel czar" and wearing T-shirts proclaiming "JUST ANOTHER HIGH-STRUNG PRIMA DONNA from ATARI". Years later in a 2011 interview, Kassar would half-heartedly admit that his comment was "probably a mistake" but claim that it was a comment made off-the-record and that "I really did all I could to encourage the programmers.".
By September of that same year, the "Fantastic Four" left Atari and set out to prove Kassar was wrong. With the memo in hand, they sought out venture capital to start Activision, and it didn’t take long for word to get around on just how much money Atari was making. Activision became the world’s 1st 3rd-party in 1979, and the following year started releasing VCS games. Atari’s response was to sue Activision for trademark violations and theft of trade secrets (InfoWorld 8-4-80). An article in the June 1982 issue of Electronic Games magazine (pg. 9) states both parties agreed to an out-of-court settlement involving a long-term licensing arrangement (reportedly to be a fixed royalty payment).
The lawsuit lasted nearly 2 years, during which 2 more 3rd-party companies entered the market – Games By Apollo and Imagic. During this time, Fairchild engineer Jerry Lawson had reversed-engineered Atari's VCS, wrote a programming manual for it, and started selling copies to anyone interested (he was involved with the lawsuit at one point, to show how it was possible for Activision to write software for the VCS w/o resorting to stealing trade secrets). Apparently confident it would win its lawsuit with Activision, Kassar continued to treat employees with indifference (InfoWorld November 28th, 1983). When Rob Fulop finished his excellent coin-op port of Missile Command for the VCS in late December 1980, Kassar rewarded him with a certificate for a free turkey and a letter thanking him for the contribution he made to the Atari team.
From Rob Fulop:
VCS Missile Command was released the following June and was an immediate hit with sales of 2-3 million carts. The next month, Fulop, along with 4 other people - 2 senior VCS programmers (Dennis Koble and Bob Smith), Mark Bradley (national accounts manager), and Bill Grubb (VP of Marketing and Sales) - left to found Imagic. And yet, Kassar still refused to budge on his policies. After Bushnell was ousted and Kassar personally sought to have Space Invaders licensed, Atari's net worth skyrocketed, which no doubt reinforced his belief that his leadership was driving the company's success, when in reality he was simply in the right place at the right time. And although he invested heavily in the company's R&D, who turned out innovative products like the Cosmos handheld, he had no interest in releasing any of it; all he could see at that point was the runaway success of the VCS, and he was determined not to change course.
By the start of 1982, the Atari VCS was the ‘king of the hill’, having captured some 80% of the home video game market. The first magazine devoted to covering video games in the U.S., Electronic Games, started in late 1981 (there would be a half-dozen new magazines a year later). Consumer demand was so high that people would buy just about anything, regardless of quality. The 1981 holiday season was such a huge success that many distributors ran short of product, having failed to order enough; Atari's response was to force them to preorder everything for the entire year of 1982. Distributors not wanting to be caught short were forced to play Atari's game. In February 1982, Tod Frye went to his manager, George Kiss, and informed him that both he and Howard Scott Warshaw were approached by 20th Century Fox to start up a new game company. Kassar finally realized that with them gone, Atari would have no senior VCS programmers left, and capitulated in giving the engineers both royalties and credit for their games. Convinced that porting arcade games to the VCS was the most-profitable course of action, after the huge sales for Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Missile Command, Atari aggressively went after obtaining the license for Namco's Pac-Man. Tod Frye, given the choice of porting either Defender or Pac-Man to the VCS, chose the latter. By the time it was released, Pac-Man was the most-popular game in the world, and Atari's Marketing department went into overdrive promoting the fact they had the exclusive home cartridge license for it. Atari wildly over-produced the game, making 12 million carts (at a time when the installed user base was 10 million). They were hoping for another "Space Invaders" effect of a game driving system sales to pick up the surplus, and to some extent it worked; nearly 8 million cartridges were sold at an astounding $37-$45 each, making it the best-selling VCS cartridge ever (and Atari ended up selling 4 million consoles that year). Certainly being the most-anticipated cart release of 1982 helped programmer Tod Frye earn a reported $1 million in sales royalties, since we can pretty much rule out "word-of-mouth" helping sales of what was soon considered to be not only a bad knock-off, but one of the worst arcade ports ever done. Only years later did the world learn Tod was given a mere 4K to program it (instead of the 8K he requested), resulting in many liberties being taken - Pac-Man only looked left or right, monsters became flickering ghosts, fruit condensed into a single "multi-vitamin", dots ballooned into large "wafers", energizers became power pills, etc. The garish sounds and colors only added to the nightmare. By the time 8K was offered to him, the game was nearly done, which would have meant starting over. However, Atari never fully recovered from their decision to release it (and in the quantities it did) and the scathing criticism that followed. Next to technologically-superior consoles like the Intellivision and Colecovision, the VCS looked very much like the 5-year-old, 1970s dated technology it was. From Tod Frye (Next Generation, April 1998, pg. 41):
But the success of Pac-Man only fueled the public's desire for more arcade titles. Atari subcontracted General Computer Corp (GCC) to contribute porting arcade games, and new chips were designed to allow for improved versions (the following year would see GCC's amazing port of Ms. Pac-Man). In late 1982, Kassar made a weak attempt to fend off the VCS's competitors with the 5200, but the console was nothing more than a repackaged Atari 400 computer (that was originally released in 1979) with quite possibly the worst controllers ever devised, plus it wasn't compatible with either the VCS or the 400.
For most people, VCS Pac-Man convinced them the system's limitations had been reached. Still, with an installed base of some 15 million consoles, companies continued to spring up, fully intent on supplying those owners with new software. With the Atari vs Activision lawsuit settled, the path was clear for anyone to sell software for the VCS, and by the end of 1982, some 2 dozen companies did just that, though most of it was inferior. Atari didn't help matters with inferior ports like Defender and Pac-Man, or ill-conceived concepts such as the 4-game SwordQuest contest. The battle to win licenses for the most-popular arcade titles raised the stakes for larger companies who could afford to play that game, like Mattel, Coleco, and Parker Brothers. Arcade companies recognized this, and would often insist on deals for 2 or more games. For example, Parker Brothers was only able to secure the rights to Nintendo's popular Popeye game if they agreed to buy the unsuccessful Sky Skipper as well. After 20th Century Fox licensed its hottest property, Star Wars to Parker Brothers, and their failed attempt to lure away Atari's remaining senior VCS programmers, they formed their own division, Fox Video Games, and subcontracted at least 4 companies (including Sirius Software) to write games for them - some based on their movies and TV shows (Atari had been first with this approach with VCS Superman, but never fully capitalized on it). Parker Brothers struck gold with their first 2 releases: Frogger and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back game. Determined not to miss out on another property like Star Wars, Atari quickly locked up licensing deals with LucasFilm and Steven Spielberg. They also tried a tie-in with Warner-owned DC Comics, only to realize pack-in comic books don't result in more sales. The bidding frenzy, as well as Atari's own hubris, reached their absolute zenith with Atari's E.T. game.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was Atari's 2nd movie tie-in game, after Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the first bad one (in what would become a long line of). Atari paid an obscene amount of money to Spielberg for E.T., which was the most-successful movie ever at the time, and planned to have the game on store shelves by Thanksgiving, in time for "Black Friday" and the 1982 holiday shopping season. Kassar maintains he tried to convince the head of Warner, Steve Ross (who orchestrated the deal) it was impossible to delivery a game in so short a time frame, but that Ross insisted Atari had to do it. Although another executive stated when he told Kassar the same thing, he replied "E.T. is such a hot property, whatever we put out will sell." (InfoWorld December 5th, 1983, page 146). Unfortunately, due to the deal not being finalized until late July and pressure to get the game on the shelves in time for Christmas, programmer Howard Scott Warshaw was left with an unbelievably short timeframe of 5-1/2 weeks (which meant little or no game testing was done), at a time when game development took several months. Warshaw calculated he produced game code (finished, debugged, and documented) at 13 times the industry average! An article from the Chicago Tribune, dated 11-7-1982, stated Atari planned to spend $5 million advertising the game, with Atari's VP of Coporate Advertising, Jan Soderstrom, proclaiming E.T. "Will be as big a hit if not better than Pac-Man." Not learning from their mistake with Pac-Man, Atari over-produced the game, making between 4-5 million (mainly because they needed to sell that many in order to turn a profit), and only selling about 3.5 million. Some of the unsold copies (along with Pac-Man and other products) ended up being dumped in at least 2 landfills.
On December 7th, 1982, Atari dropped their own "Pearl Harbor" attack on Wall Street and announced their 4th Quarter sales estimates were only a 10-15% increase, instead of the 50% they originally predicted. It's important to note that they weren't losing money at that point, they just weren't going to make as much! Warner's stock took a big hit after that (overall the stock market dropped 29 points in the 2 days after Atari's announcement), as did all video game-related stocks. Mattel announced they actually lost money that quarter, which didn't help matters. Imagic had planned on going public the following week, but the news forced them to withdraw their plans. According to the editorial in the March 1983 issue of Video Games magazine (pg. 6), analysts had been predicting a "shakeout" in the video game business for about a year before Atari's announcement, and all the negative reports that followed in the months after only fueled the fears of a market crash. Still, the news shocked most analysts and started Atari's precipitous fall, as well as the industry's.
Atari, seeing their 4Q troubles ahead and their market share dropping to 60%, tried to restructure their distribution network a month before. They had some 130-140 distributors for their products - far too many than was needed - and some started getting into price wars with each other. On November 1st, Atari told all their distributors their contracts were cancelled and that only a small number of them would be awarded exclusive contracts. Since Atari never bothered to have exclusive distributor contracts prior to then, their competition simply used the same distributors. Those who were forced to preorder for 1982 and later dropped by Atari simply started shipping unsold product back to them. Since Atari didn't audit the distributors they had dropped, they were forced to buy back whatever they were sent.
Sales for 1983 plummeted. Nearly all of the 1982 VCS start-up companies closed down in 1983, and yet by the end of 1983, nearly 3 dozen more companies had sprung up. Seeing Activision's success, they were convinced the market would soon level off and become stable. At this point, there was literally a glut of product - more than there was shelf space available for them - and most of it was awful. Atari's market share fell to 40%. As these companies quickly collapsed, they gave it to distributors for practically next-to-nothing, instead of throwing out their product (Atari had the right idea, but for the wrong reasons). People aren't going to spend $25-$40 for the latest games when they're next to games selling for $2, especially after being burned by the marketing hype for Pac-Man and E.T. Meanwhile, Kassar continued to invest heavily in R&D with no long-term plan on what to do with anything they created. By the end of 1983, Warner was looking at half a BILLION in losses, and the industry had passed the point of no return.
From Howard Scott Warshaw:
In conclusion, there were many factors which lead to the market crash of 1983-84:
A: The Atari that everyone knew and loved (1972-1984) is long gone. In its absence, there have been a string of "imposters". The infamous market "crash" of 1983/84 decimated the video game marketplace. It impacted every company, including Atari, and by early 1984 only a few companies remained in business. In the Summer of 1984 (July 2nd), Warner Communications sold off the home (console) and consumer electronics (computer) divisions to Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore. These divisions became Atari Corp. The coin-op division remained with Warner and became Atari Games. In December 1984, Warner sold off the AtariTel division to Luma Telecom, a division of Mitsubishi Electric (Michael Current has a website detailing the history of The AtariTel division).
THE ARCADE DIVISION:
When Warner merged with Time in 1989, a Time-Warner Interactive label appeared on their arcade games. In 1996, Time-Warner sold Atari Games to WMS Industries (the merger of Williams and Bally/Midway, when Williams purchased them in 1988), who turned around and spun off part of its Midway Manufacturing division as Midway Games. Atari Games became a subsidiary of Midway Games as a result. In January 2000, Midway changed the name of Atari Games to Midway Games West, to avoid confusion with Hasbro Interactive's Atari company. The Atari logo for home conversions of Atari's arcade games during this time appeared under the Midway Home Entertainment label. In spite of all this corporate shuffling, a few of the Atari veterans, such as Ed Logg and John Skruch, remained. Ed Logg, whose credits include the arcade versions of Asteroids and Centipede, as well as VCS/2600 Othello, was still there by the summer of 1999.
THE HOME DIVISIONS:
After taking over Atari, Tramiel immediately ceased all video game development, cancelled several projects (including the 7800 and 600XL), and fired 700 employees; his focus was on developing and releasing a new line of home computers (BusinessWeek article, July 23rd, 1984, pg. 90-91; Electronic Games article, October 1984, pg. 14), starting with the Atari STs. 1 year after the takeover, the media confirmed there were no plans to release the 7800 (Computer Entertainment news blurb, August 1985, pg. 71). 2 years after the takeover, Tramiel, seeing Nintendo's success with their NES console, decided to get back into the video game market by resurrecting and re-releasing systems (VCS/2600, 7800, 400/800/XL) that were originally developed by Atari Inc., with either a new case, a new name, or both. The VCS/2600 became the 2600 JR, and the XL computers became the XEGS console and the XE computers. Both new and unreleased games were released for all of them, but the main reason for their release was to sell off the mountains of games Atari still had in their warehouses. Once that was done, Atari decided to make a serious attempt to recapture some of the now-hot market again, buoyed by the huge success of both Nintendo and Sega. In 1989, Atari purchased the Handy handheld gaming system being developed by Epyx and released it as the Lynx, to moderate success (5 million were sold). On January 1st, 1992, the VCS/2600 was officially discontinued. In November 1993, Atari released the Jaguar game system, which proved to be the company's undoing. Hampered by poor business ethics and lack of major advertising, as well as a lack of any major 3rd-party support (a little over 100 games were made for it, over 5 years), the Lynx was eventually discontinued in 1994. The Jaguar would follow suit 2 years later. Again, a combination of poor treatment of 3rd-party developers and suppliers, as well as a lack of any serious advertising, resulted in only 125,000 Jaguar systems being sold by December 1995, with another 100,00 left in warehouses; the Jaguar was discontinued by early 1996. On July 30th, 1996, Atari Corp. merged with disk drive maker JTS with more of a whimper than a bang. Former Atari alumni Don Thomas wrote a short, insightful bit about the merger and the history leading up to it that asks more questions than it answers.
On February 23rd, 1998, JTS sold substantially all of the assets of the company's Atari Division, consisting primarily of Atari home computer games and the intellectual property rights and license agreements associated with such games (the "Atari Assets"), to HIACXI, Corp. ("HIAC"), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hasbro Interactive, Inc., for $5,000,000 in cash. Read the entire 8-K form that was submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding this transaction. The update of Centipede came (in small part) from the ashes of Atari Corp. Interestingly, Hasbro resurrected the Atari name and logo; many of their classic releases during that time (Atari Arcade Hits 2, for example) appeared under the Atari name.
On December 6th, 2000, Hasbro entered into a "long-term licensing agreement" with Infogrames, wherein the French company acquired 100% of Hasbro Interactive (which included the Atari bits they owned). You can read all about it in the Press Release. In October 2008, Infogrames completed its $11 million stock purchase of Atari, making it a wholly-owned subsidiary of the French publisher. In May 2009 Infogrames announced it would be changing their name to Atari, SA. In April 2010, Atari board member and former CEO David Gardner resigned, and Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell joined the board!
In January 2013, Atari US filed for bankruptcy and planned to sell all of its assets - including the famous "Fuji" logo - in an effort to distance itself from its parent company, Atari SA (Forbes article). After approaching some 180 potential buyers (Wall Street Journal article), Atari was unable to find one willing to purchase everything, and auctioned off everything instead (Gamasutra article).
A: At last count, there are 478 unique, original games that were officially released, not counting prototypes (137), homebrews (205), or titles that were renamed or slightly altered. If you include all the pirate clones and unauthorized versions (7,243), the grand total swells to over 8,000! And then there's the 1,000+ hacks that have been created over the years...
A: Besides Ebay, there are still several sources for new game cartridges, such as:
Other sources for both new games, used games and consoles include:
A: Several sites offer manuals online, in text, html, and PDF formats:
A: This can be a subjective matter, of course, but here are some of the most popular:
Here are some of the least popular:
A: The simple law of supply and demand is the biggest determining factor; the more popular a game was or the more copies that were produced back in the day, the less valuable (monetarily) a game is worth. Some of the best and most popular games are only worth a few dollars at most. It's the games from small companies with production runs limited to a few hundred or even a few dozen that are worth more to collectors, since they're the hardest to find. Other factors are the condition of the cart and the packaging, what label variation it is, and whether the cart is loose or includes the box and manual (CIB or Complete In Box), and if so, whether or not the box is sealed. Several sites offer online price and/or rarity guides, as do several books. Generally, you'll find higher prices on Ebay than you would through online message boards.
As for which game is the rarest, that game is Air Raid by Men-A-Vision. This was the one and only release from this company, which has a unique, blue, T-bar handle-shaped cartridge casing. Less than a dozen copies have been found since the mid-'90s. A boxed copy went up for sale on eBay in 2010, and sold for a staggering $31k - nearly 10x the value of a loose cart. And like most rare carts, it's a horrible game (to play). What's worse, the game is actually a hacked/pirated version of U.S. Games' Space Jockey (a game that's currently worth about $3 boxed)!
A: 2600 Connection has a list for most with photos and related info here.
A: GameLine was a service offered by Control Video Corporation that allowed you to download games to the VCS/2600 over regular phone lines via the use of their GameLine Master Module. The Module included a variable 800-2000 baud modem (more tech info can be found on the Stella Archive). It originally sold for $49.95 and there was a one-time membership fee of $15. Charges were about $.10 a game or $1 for up to an hour of play. Contest games were $1 and there was a $.50 charge to enter a score. On your birthday, not only were you given free play for a day, but you also received a Happy Birthday screen, complete with cake, candles and music. One of the game catalogs that was archived lists 76 games (a copy of which is on Atarimania), which included Save The Whales - a game long thought to be vaporware, until it was found! While the service did not last very long, the charred ashes of the service begat what is now AOL.
2 other similar services were close to going into service at the time. One was a joint venture between Atari and Activision in 1983 called Electronic Publishing Systems (EPS). They developed the "Electronic Pipeline", a game service for the Atari VCS/2600 that was to sell wireless game cartridges with which users could select and play up to 40 different games each month for a low monthly subscription fee. A TV commercial was created for it, and the service was in alpha testing and a mere 4 days from installing the transmission equipment in the first test market when it was indefinitely postponed due to Warner's sale of Atari in 1984.
The other was "Project Zelda", a top-secret plan to distribute games online (via cable). From to Steve Kranish (who designed the head end hardware):
Steve Kranish states there might have been another possible reason:
Atari released the G1 light gun for use with the VCS/2600 and 7800. It's the same as the XG-1 model that came with the XEGS, except that it's orange instead of grey. Best Electronics sells their own version, called Best Atari Light Gun, which supposedly works better than Atari's own. Also, see the entry for rewiring a Sega light gun down in the "projects" section of this FAQ.
A: All 3 controllers work the same way, and are compatible with the following games, although the overlays will only fit one type (listed after title):
A: There are known incompatibilities with some NTSC versions of the 7800 (PAL 7800s seem to be unaffected). Games that may not work include:
Overall, 7800s manufactured between 1984 and 1986 are more compatible than systems made after 1986. Below is a compatibility chart by James Randall that shows the testing results from 17 different systems made between 1984 and 1988. Of those, only 3 (highlighted in yellow) proved to be fully compatible:
From James Randall:
In addition, we've found a 7800 system (Atari Corp. serial A1 72R4BR 5154270, Rev A 3187 pcb) that doesn't run BurgerTime or He-Man using a Harmony cartridge. All the chips on the pcb were soldered. There was no Expansion slot nor any markings on the case for it. Another one we found (Atari Corp. serial A1 72RBR 5774010, Rev A 0287) ran both BurgerTime and He-Man using a Harmony cartridge. 3 of the large chips were socketed and there was an Expansion slot. Some homebrews such as Boulder Dash also have incompatibility issues with some 7800 systems.
The conventional wisdom saying that a deck with the expansion port will work with anything is false. Presence or absence of the port is not a reliable indicator of compatibility with all VCS/2600 carts.
The manufacturing standards of systems made in 1984 are better than those made later. All the major chips inside are all socketed instead of being soldered directly to the board. Some of the other decks also have had some minor factory patchwork performed. They occasionally have resistors bridging points where they were clearly not originally intended to be, i.e. soldered directly to a chip pin or placed on the underside of the board.
A: The Starpath Supercharger Game Collection on CD, or Stella Gets a New Brain was a non-profit, long-awaited labor of love from the CyberPuNKs (Russ Perry Jr., Glenn Saunders, Jim Nitchals and Dan Skelton). This CD not only contains NTSC and PAL versions of most of the Supercharger games (PAL Survival Island is missing), but also development tools, a collection of Supercharger and Vectrex material, and several surprises (including SoundX and the UR Polo from Carol Shaw). There were 2 different versions of the Starpath CD made. Some things on the first version were not included (e.g. the Vectrex stuff, Polo) while other things were added.
Hozer Video Games eventually bought out the CyberPuNKs remaining inventory of these, and the CDs have long since been sold out. Copies occasionally surface on Ebay.
A: Over the past couple of years, many new games have been developed for the Atari VCS/2600. Many of these can either be purchased or downloaded at 2600 Connection, Atariage, Atarimania, or Digital Press. Here is a partial list of new games released in the last 5 years:
A: 2600 Connection now hosts Walton C. Gibson and Keita Iida's SwordQuest Archive of Adventure, which offers the solutions.
A: Atari's relationship with Sears Roebuck and Co. started with their home Pong system. Under their arrangement, Sears helped Atari in contacting a venture capitalist to obtain the additional funds needed to help with producing the Pong system. In return, Sears would be the exclusive distributor of Pong through the 1975 holiday season on the condition they were rebadged as Sears products. These were given the Tele-Games Electronic Games moniker. This rebadging continued with several other dedicated systems, up to and including the VCS/2600.
It's unknown why exactly this was done. Although collectors like them (Tele-Games carts - especially those complete with box and manual - are harder to find), they often end up being a source of confusion and frustration for owners, especially when they find out what they initially thought was a new game ends up being something else (and sometimes one they already own).
A total of 26 different titles were renamed under the Sears Tele-Games label. Here's the complete list:
A total of 58 different titles were released under the Sear Tele-Games label. Here's the complete list:
Star Raiders was the last Atari game to be published in both Atari and Sears-style packaging.
* These were Sears exclusives and were never released under the Atari label.
** The Sears version was initially released first as an "exclusive" in 1981, which means Atari probably didn't have much faith in it being popular. The Atari version was released in January the following year.
A: Here's the most complete list we have for Atari's own games. Specific release dates listed with some are those listed with the U.S. Copyright Office (http://www.copyright.gov/). The site's online database only goes as far back to 1978 (so the dates listed for any 1977 titles are not correct):
Air-Sea Battle (1-2-1978)
Backgammon (Special Edition cart)
Asteroids (originally planned for July release, but wasn't released until
September. Also was the 1st 8K released)
Berzerk (Aug) w/ Vol 2 of Atari Force – mentioned in July/August 1982 issue of
Alpha Beam With Ernie (Sept) – mentioned in September/October 1983 issue of
Crystal Castles (Apr) – mentioned in March/April 1984 issue of
32 in 1
Copyright dates - either onscreen or on the packaging - are not always accurate and cannot be relied on.
A: Here's a rough timeline based on the available info
Atari's own "Consumer
Electronics Division (Jan/Feb) 1983" press kit has a letter about the 2600 (My
First) Computer, mentioning "an installed base of more than
10 million VCS owners..."
The March 1983 issue of
IEEE Spectrum magazine states "...over
12 million sold at about $140 apiece".
The May/June 1983 issue of Atari Inside notes "...an installed base of more than 12 million VCS owners."
A May 1983 press release from Unitronics regarding its Interface Module I refers to "an installed base of more than 12 million VCS owners".
The "Atari 2nd Half 1983" press kit has a flyer about the Graduate
states there are over 12 million VCS owners.
The book, "Encyclopedia of Game Machines", lists 30 million VCS systems sold (total - worldwide).
The accuracy of these last 2 figures is questionable, unless the figures Atari
stated in 1983 were based on domestic (U.S.) sales only. But if true, what
reason would they have to do that?
ATARI VIDEO COMPUTER SYSTEM (VCS) - model CX2600
Originally released in October of 1977. There are 6 switches on top of this model (Power, Color/ B&W, Left and Right Difficulty (A and B), Game Select, and Game Reset). All the text on the switch panel is in lower-case. The power and controller jacks are on the back. The pack-in game was Combat, which seems an odd choice to make considering that of the 9 games originally released, that's the only one without any 1-player variations. The system also included 2 joysticks and paddles. The in-house nickname for the system, "Stella", was not derived from a female employee like most Atari hardware projects were, but rather designer Joe Decuir's bicycle. The wood grain case was designed by Douglas Hardy and Fredrick Thompson. The original 1977 models were made in Sunnyvale and are called "heavy sixers" (1st photo) by the gaming community because the plastic casing is thicker and heavier, and the base is slightly more rounded than the standard 6-switch (2nd photo), which were produced between 1978-79 and made in Hong Kong; by early 1983 the bulk of all production of home video games and computers was shifted to Hong Kong and Taiwan (article). The photos below show the major differences between the "heavy" and "light" 6-switch models:
The original "heavy sixers" released did not have a channel selector switch (it was preset for channel 3); there's no switch on the board, and typically no hole in the case for it (if there is, it might be marked CHANNEL SELECT A/B):
The last "heavy sixers" released included the channel selector switch and modified case. Also, all 6-switch models have the motherboard board within a heavy-duty aluminum casing. You can see this around the cartridge port.
ATARI VIDEO COMPUTER SYSTEM (VCS) - model CX2600A
The VCS was redesigned in 1980. This model, 2600A, has 4 switches on top (Power, Color/ B&W, Game Select, and Game Reset). All the text on the switch panel is in upper-case. The 2 internal circuit boards were integrated into one, and the heavy aluminum shielding was replaced with a thin, metal casing. The difficulty switches are on the upper-backside of the console, along with the power connector, controller jacks, and channel switch; the top edge of the case has raised lettering for each. These 2 photos show the differences with the back of the case between the 2600 model and the 2600A model:
The channel selector switch was also relocated to the back of the case, next to the right controller jack, and is now marked CHANNEL 2-3.
The box shows a few different game-related pictures, but the system shown on the box is a "heavy-four" (which was never produced)! Some cases (esp. those made by Dimerco Electronics in Taiwan) don't have a hole in the bottom for color pot adjustments.
Some of the early 2600A models have "light" 6-switch bottom cases, probably done to use up the remaining inventory. These have a thick, black piece of tape covering the opening for what would have been used for the power and controller jacks:
ATARI VIDEO COMPUTER SYSTEM (2600) - model CX2600
In 1982 the system became known as the "2600", and besides having a black front panel (instead of wood grain) and unpainted trim around the switch panel, the system box was silver. Collectors sometimes refer to this version as the 2600 "Vader" because of the all-black style. The trim around the joysticks was also unpainted. The difficulty switches are marked the same as the later 2600A variant. The manual lists the model number as "2600" (no 'A'). A few systems have the model number "CX-2600 CR". Starting in 1983, both Pac-Man and Combat were included, but paddles were not. A company flyer from that year notes it was priced to sell at under $100. PAL systems have the model number "2600 AP". Some cases (esp. those made by Dimerco Electronics in Taiwan) don't have a hole in the bottom for color pot adjustments.
A slight variation was made with this raised lettering - the original 2600A version labels the difficulty switches as:
A later variation labels them as:
ATARI 2600 (JR) - model CX2100This is a VCS/2600 in a very compact and sleek case (commonly referred to as a 2600 "Junior"), which was originally designed for other uses (the 2200 and Voice Controller). Mark Biassotti designed the case, based on a concept by Regan Cheng. The system was originally designed to incorporate a new 3-in-1 chip called "JAN" which combined the MPU, TIA, and RIOT chipset. A prototype came with 1 joystick and Combat, in a 'lunchbox'-style box; the released version had a similar box but no pack-in game. Development was completed in 1983 and it started shipping the following year. Labeled as the "Atari Video Computer System, Model #2600", it included the Pro-Line CX24 joysticks (same that were released with the 7800). Production stopped in 1984 and when it started up again in 1986, it was renamed the "2600 JR" (some have "JR" on the bottom sticker). At least 3 different versions of this model were produced. The 1st has a short "rainbow" graphic on the top metal panel:
The 2nd has a long rainbow graphic that spans the width of the system:
The 3rd doesn't have a metal panel (and may only have been sold in Ireland):
The motherboards are all copyrighted 1983 and most revisions have the name "ACTION" them (same with 7800 pcbs). This may have been another codename. Several different boxes exist as well and different joysticks were included (CX40, CX24, or CX78). A white JR surfaced recently, which may or may not have been a fake.
A unique 1-chip NTSC variant exists which may use the original JAN chip. The pcb is marked "Rev 4" and there's no date or "ACTION" name on it. This variant is sometimes called a "unicorn". There's other differences, such as no color adjustment pot, input buffer (4050) chip, or stereo output (mono only, as with all PAL 2600 JR systems). There's also a spot for a 24-pin chip, which suggests the pcb was designed to incorporate a built-in game (much like how the original VCS was). The case is exactly the same as the long rainbow version, but with a serial number that starts with "A1" instead of "AT". There's only shielding around the RF module and the pcb ground foil is solid metal instead of the typical crosshatch metal - both of which can be seen through the bottom case vents:
A white prototype version also exists:
SEARS TELE-GAMES VIDEO ARCADE - model 637.99743
Sears Tele-Games models (called the Video Arcade) of both the 4 and 6-switch Atari VCS versions were also produced. The difficulty switches are relabeled as skill switches, and instead of A and B, they're marked Expert and Novice. The pack-in game was Target Fun (AKA Air-Sea Battle). The full name as listed on the original system box (which shows a "heavy" 6-switch system) was "Sears Cartridge Tele-Games System Video Arcade" on the top, and "Sears Tele-Games Electronic Games Video Arcade" on the side. A later version of the box (which shows a standard 6-switch system) simply had "Sears Tele-Games Video Arcade", which is the name shown on the system itself. The boxes for the games and accessories were black (except for Superman, which was blue) and had the name "Sears Tele-Games Video Arcade". Green cartridge connectors were originally used but were soon phased out or replaced due to high failure rates:
SEARS TELE-GAMES VIDEO ARCADE II - model 637.75000
This system, model 637.75000, uses a special combination joystick/paddle controller (similar to the CX2700s). There are 4 controller jacks below the front edge, along with a power switch. On top are 8 buttons, each with its own LED. On the bottom are the channel (A/B) and TV Type switches. The pack-in game was Space Invaders. It also uses a power supply with a different connector, so standard VCS/2600 power supplies aren't compatible. The same case style, designed by Barney Huang, was later used for the 7800.
ATARI 2800 - model CX2800J
The Japanese counterpart to the Atari 2600. Same as the Sears Tele-Games Arcade II. The pack-in game was Space Invaders.
ATARI 7800 ProSystem - model CX7800
Initially released in 1984 and then mothballed for 2 years before being re-released in 1986, this system uses the same-size cartridges as the VCS/2600 and has built-in software support for all but a handful of cartridges (See "Which VCS/2600 carts do not work on the 7800?" in the Software section of this FAQ for the latest compatibility listing). The motherboard actually contains all the VCS/2600 circuitry and automatically switches between VCS/2600 and 7800 carts.
ATARI VIDEO COMPUTER SYSTEM (VCS) "Promotional model" - model CX2600
This was special promotional version that was produced (in Sunnyvale) in limited numbers, in both 6-switch and 4-switch versions - the only differences are the switches are chrome (instead of brushed aluminum), the orange outline around the switches is yellow, and the box has "PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY NOT FOR RESALE" marked on it.
Some systems (only 4-switch model?) have "NOT FOR RESALE FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY" burned into the bottom of the case:
KEE GAMES PROGRAMMABLE GAME SYSTEM (PGS) - model CX2600
The photo below shows the only Kee Games VCS system known to exist (at least one fake was produced years later). Kee Games was a way for Atari to circumvent arcade game distributors who demanded exclusivity deals with their competitors. The games Kee Games released were mostly original, but a few were clones of Atari games. The ruse started in 1973, but by the following year most people were aware of Atari's strategy. Starting in 1975, Atari openly admitted the connection in their literature, and by 1978 the 2 companies "merged". The same problem with distributors didn't exist with the home market, and Atari already had a clone with the Sears Tele-Games model, so the reason for why Atari would have produced a Kee Games VCS model is still unknown.
A: The first year (1977), all production was done at Sunnyvale, CA. The following 2 years (1978-79) saw production shifted to Atari's Hong Kong facility, Atari-Wong Ltd. When the 2600A model was introduced (in 1980), the bulk of production was being done in Taiwan through at least 5 different companies:
By early 1983, the bulk of all production of home video games and computers was shifted to Hong Kong and Taiwan (article).
A: The following are those currently known:
Atari 5200 VCS Cartridge Adaptor - CX55
This device allows you to play your VCS/2600 games on the 5200 using any standard compatible 9-pin D-sub connector. The elimination of the TV Type switch makes it incompatible with several VCS games that use it as part of the game, which is ironic since Coleco and Mattel included it with theirs. An interesting side-note: The VCS Adaptor is actually an entire Atari VCS/2600 system, much like adaptors for other systems. The cartridge port of the Atari 5200 has the necessary outputs and inputs to power the adaptor, and pass the audio/video signals on to the TV. The original 4-port 5200 consoles have to be modified in order for this to work on it.
Cardco VIC-20 Cardapter
The September 1983 issue of Electronic Games (pg. 41) shows an advertisement for Cardapter, a VCS/2600 cart adapter for the VIC-20. The October 1983 issue of Electronic Fun (pg. 26) lists a price ($89.95) and the distributor's address - 313 Mathewson, Wichita, KS 67214. The distributor was Cardco, Inc. in the US, LSI Distributors Ltd in West Canada, Hobby Craft Canada in East Canada, and Audiogenic in Europe. Emulation quality and reliability are unknown.
Coleco ColecoVision Expansion Module #1
Made by Coleco, copyright 1982. This was the first VCS adaptor made for any system (and months before Atari's 5200 adaptor), and instantly gave the Colecovision the largest software library available for any system. It includes all the console switches an Atari system has. Black, 5" x 10", 1 3/4" high in front, sloping to 2 3/4" in back. Coleco later offered a cartridge adapter to owners having issues with some 3rd-party cartridges not fitting properly. Chips inside are: "COLECO 73192 E4002" (TIA clone?), SY6507, SY6532. Curiously, there is an empty space for a 14 pin chip and assorted resistors and capacitors on the right side of the circuit board. The space for a "Y1" indicates that this was probably intended to be a clock generator - could this board also have been intended for standalone use, such as in a VCS/2600 clone? There is also an adjustment hole on the bottom that turns a potentiometer [probably color control]. The Reset button on the main ColecoVision console acts as a hard reset for the expansion module. Sample wording:
A day after Atari's infamous "Pearl Harbor day" announcement on Wall Street, they sued Coleco over the Expansion module. Here's an article from the April 1983 issue of Electronic Games (pg. 10), and a follow-up article from the September 1983 issue (pg. 16). From Michael Current's excellent website:
Mattel Intellivision System Changer
Made by Mattel, copyright 1983, and developed under the code name "Portofino". Mattel decided to one-up Coleco and release its own VCS adaptor for their Intellivision, thereby instantly giving it the largest software library available. It includes all the console switches an Atari system has.White, roughly about 5-6" square and 2" high, with a piece sticking out of the left side that fits into the Intellivision cartridge slot. Front face had two standard joystick ports. Known to work with virtually all VCS/2600 carts except those that don't work with other adapters. Sample wording:
The Changer does not work with the "original" (2609) Intellivision Master Component without factory modification
(see this website for more info).
Contrary to statements on the Intellivision Lives website, the Atari VCS is not comprised solely of "off the shelf" hardware. While they boast that Atari never sued Mattel over the System Changer, Mattel knew full well how more difficult it would have been for Atari to prove Mattel was copying the TIA by using COB technology.
Protecto VIC-20 Game Loader
Rumored to exist. Was advertised by Protecto in mail order ads in during the 1983 time frame. Plugged into VIC expansion connector and provided VCS/2600 software emulation. The October 1983 issue of Electronic Fun (pg. 26) mentions the price and address. Emulation quality and reliability are unknown.
Retrode PC USB adapter
This adapter allows for the insertion of Atari 2600 cartridges in the Retrode’s SNES slot. See Retrode's website for more information.
A: The short answer is quite a bit . Here are some examples:
The Graduate was designed by Peripheral Visions Inc. The company was founded in late 1982 and was comprised of 5 former Commodore VIC-20/C-64 engineers: Charles Winterble, Al Charpentier, Bob Yannes, David Ziembicki, and Bruce Crockett. Their idea was for a low-cost computer, called "My First Computer". Designed with a $29.95 price, it was to feature a membrane computer and have BASIC built-in. Winterble presented the idea of a VCS computer to Ray Kassar, who agreed to purchase it for 1 million dollars. This was to be Atari's entry into the emerging 2600 keyboard market, and Atari was to develop the software for it. The unit plugged into the VCS cart port and was self-contained, much like how the 5200 VCS Cartridge Adaptor works (using the base system for power and display only). The designers invented a 3-cycle "Bus Stuff" mode, to achieve a faster TIA register update rate. This works by loading Y with $FF at the beginning of the kernel, and then having the 6507 execute 3-cycle STY $REG instructions. At the critical moment when the $FF is being written, The Graduate hardware steps in and overdrives the the desired value on the bus. The product was given the model number CX-3000, and was known by several names during its development ("My First Computer", "2600 Computer", "The Graduate"), undergoing several changes (case designs, features, price points, etc) before ultimately being cancelled by James Morgan when he took over as the new CEO of Atari in 1983. An ongoing lawsuit against PVI by Commodore was likely the main motivating reason for its cancellation. Soon after PVI was formed, Jack Tramiel heard PVI approached Atari and filed an "exploratory" (and ultimately frivolous) lawsuit against them, claiming they stole trade secrets. PVI were forced to disclose details of their VCS project, which proved it wasn't something worked on at Commodore (some of their own management made depositions stating that). Yet, Tramiel insisted that was his product, and pursued the case, even claiming infringement at one point because The Graduate used a 6502! PVI eventually won, but it cost them several years and approximately $300,000 (From "On The Edge: The Spectacular Rise And Fall Of Commodore", pg. 274-279 - LINK).
A: The system originally used a manual RF switch box with 2 screws for the antenna (or cable) and a short, flat cable with 2 "fork" terminal leads coming off it for the TV:
The short, flat cable typically went to the (300 ohm) VHF screw terminals on the back of a TV. Since manufacturers stopped including the screw terminals with the rise of cable service providers and replaced them with a (75 ohm) coax connector, you'll need a small adapter (as shown in above photo). Likewise, the antenna screw terminals on the switch box will need an adapter called an impedance matching transformer (as shown in above photo) for attaching your current TV cable. Some switchbox variations have connections for both antenna and cable:
A picture that's snowy or lacking color usually indicates a connection problem. The system's RF cable may need to be replaced, or the problem could be with the switch box. Old switch boxes may have worn or dirty contacts insides. You can still buy new switch boxes from any store specializing in electronic parts, such as Radio Shack. Make sure you get a manual type; most (all?) systems starting with the NES use automatic RF switches. This type will not work for the VCS/2600 (or 7800), as the signal is not strong enough to trigger the switch completely. A manual RF switch, available at any Radio Shack or equivalent is needed.
A better alternative (picture quality-wise) to using a switch box is to eliminate it and connect the system directly by using a male coax- to- female RCA phono connector:
This will allow you to connect the system to any cable-ready TV.
Remember that having your TV set to the proper channel is necessary, no matter what method you use to connect the system. All but the original VCS/2600 "heavy sixer" models have a TV channel switch either on the back or bottom of the system. The switch sets the output signal to match either channel 2 or 3 on your TV.
A: To properly adjust your system to the original specifications, you'll need an Atari Diagnostic cartridge. One of the tests on it brings up a color bar screen:
Note the gray reference bar. The purpose of this is to help in adjusting the color potentiometer that's on the motherboard. Most VCS/2600 cases (excluding all 6-switch models) have a small hole on the bottom, which lines up with the pot:
(4-switch model on left; "JR" model in the center; Sears Video Arcade II on the right)
By inserting a small, flathead screwdriver here, you can adjust the colors on the screen until the color bar directly above and below this reference bar are the same. Some of the heavy 6-switch models have an adjustment hole, but the "light" 6-switch models don't, so you have to open the case up. The aluminum casing has a hole on both the top and bottom of it that can be used to adjust the color. 4-switch models made by Dimerco Electronics in Taiwan don't have an adjustment hole either, and neither do 7800 systems.
A: In general, it is usually more cost effective to buy another console. Ask online or at your local video game store; they may not offer to repair them, but they may put you in contact with someone who does. For those in Canada, a company called OSG Service may be able to help you.
If you're knowledgeable with repairing electronics, you'll want to see this 10-part how-to repair video for VCS/2600 systems. AtariGuide also hosts a copy of Atari's VCS/2600 Domestic Field Service manual. The May 1982 issue of Electronic Games magazine also has this article by Henry Cohen on fixing systems that exhibit loss of color or snowy video. Best Electronics sells replacement parts for all the different Atari models.
A: There were well over 100 different types of controllers, ranging from joysticks, paddles, keypads, and trackballs. There's also several 'specialized' controllers, such as light guns, foot controllers, and all-button controllers. 2600 Connection has a comprehensive list of nearly every one.
A: Best Electronics sells replacement parts for Atari-made controllers. Some parts, such as replacement controller cables, may work with 3rd-party controllers.
Replacement springs for the standard Atari joystick fire button can be made by using a spring from a ballpoint pen and cutting it approximately in half.
Dirty paddles are a cause of great frustration. To clean them, buy a can of Electronics Cleaner/Degreaser (available at Radio Shack, catalog #: 64-4345) or any type of TV tuner or metal contact cleaner, open up the paddles and spray directly into the pot area. Close them up, give them a few twists and they should be good as new. Do NOT use any type of oil or silicon spray (such as WD40) as this will gum up the contacts. If you find using cleaner only provides a temporary solution, the pot may be too dirty and the canister will have to be opened and the contacts wiped down.
A: No to all of them. With the Bally Astrocade and MSX, even though they use the standard 9-pin connector, the pinouts are different. However, using the pinouts found in these Bally Astrocade and MSX FAQs, they can be rewired to work on the VCS/2600. Texas Instruments joysticks can be rewired as well, but it would require either replacing the controller wire (TI joysticks are wired in pairs, like Atari's paddles), or making an adapter. A schematic for making an adapter to use Atari controllers with TI computers can be found here. This could be altered to make an adapter for TI controllers. According to a news blurb in the November 1983 issue of Electronic Fun magazine (pg. 17), Suncom made such an adapter, called TIA, which retailed for $12.95.
A: Here are links to some adapters for the PC:
See the Features section of this site for an article on how to make your own USB controllers.
A: Here's some that were released:
Made by Splice. A Brazilian Supercharger knock-off.
Made by Sosecal. Brazilian version of Spectravideo's CompuMate keyboard.
Made by Spectravideo. This is a 42-key touch pad-style computer add-on that adds 16K ROM, 2K RAM, a 2-channel + 2 octave music composer, BASIC, and Magic Easel. The unit looks like a small keyboard connected to a cartridge, which has 2 cables that connect to the controller ports. It has 3 function/display modes: Text (which runs BASIC), Graphic (which runs Magic Easel) and Music. Magic Easel allows you to create photos (with up to 10 different colors) and animations (up to 9 frames) using the joystick). Originally sold for $79.99. This was once quite rare to find until a large quantity surfaced in Venezuela in 2010. There's also a German version made by Universum.
Made by Digitel. A Brazilian Supercharger knock-off.
Made by VGS. A Brazilian Supercharger knock-off.
GameLine Master Module
Made by CVC. See the GameLine entry in the Software section for more info.
Kid Vid Voice Module
Made by Coleco. This was a cassette recorder and cartridge interface. Additional wire connects recorder to joystick port. Voices and songs tell player what to do on screen. Tape shuts off automatically to wait for player input. 3 tapes per game, only games were Berenstain Bears and Smurfs Save the Day.
Personal Game Programmer
Made by Answer. Similar to the Game Genie. Available directly through Answer Software for a short time (for $200), this peripheral allows you to change the code on existing games to your own liking. It doesn't actually store the changes on the cartridge - all effects are temporary. Brown and gold with white keys, the unit sits on top of the Atari 2600. Two cables: one to the cartridge port and one to the power receptacle, connect it. We only know of a few in existence (Al Backiel got his direct from Answer, who later sold it to John Hardie. The other known owner is Marco Kerstens, who got his from William Sommerwerck).
Made by Starpath. This is an add-on device that improves the Atari VCS memory, graphics, and sound capability. The unit itself contains 6K RAM and 2K ROM. ROM is in top 2K and RAM is banked in lower 2K. Games were distributed on cassette tape. By plugging the Supercharger into the VCS and connecting its cable (with a standard 1/8" jack on the end) to a standard cassette tape player, games could be "loaded in" to memory. The Supercharger unit contains 2K of ROM, but more importantly it adds an additional 6K of screen RAM to the VCS (a huge improvement over the hardware's 128 bytes). Phaser Patrol was also included. The unit initially retailed for $70, but in January 1983 the price was reduced to $45.
Made by Embracom Electronica. Basically a Brazilian knock-off of the Supercharger.
Made by Starplex Electronics, Inc. A 9-cartridge multicart switcher. By turning a dial you can switch between them. The VCS power supply plugs into the back of it, and a wire from the Game Selex plugs into the power jack on a VCS. A note came with it stating if you see excess static with the device attached, Starplex would provide anti-static filters at no cost.
Made by Marjac. A 10-cartridge multicart switcher. At the press of a button, you can switch between them. This was even advertised in the Atari Age magazine, V2N4 (pg. 22), priced at $49.95!
Video Game Brain
Made by RGA International. A 6-cartridge multicart switcher. Made in Hong Kong. Warning - this device can damage your games, your system, or both, due to how it's internally wired. Voltage is constantly running through the address and data lines while the power line is floating, when a cartridge is NOT selected! It's possible to modify the device to operate properly and safely, otherwise don't use one until it's been fixed.
Made by Compro Electronics, Inc. An 8-cartridge multicart switcher, with a smoke brown plexiglass hood and 8 sensor touch buttons on the front panel. The manual claimed to "Reduce the wear on your expensive system and cartridges".
A: NTSC (National Television Standards Committee), PAL (Phase Alternating Lines) and SECAM (SEquentiel Couleur Avec Memoire) are different worldwide, generally incompatible television standards. Some short, not completely accurate information follows.
what where freq/frames/scan lines
----- ------- ----------------------
NTSC US/Japan 60hz/30/525
PAL Europe 50hz/25/625
SECAM France & many others 50hz/25/625
For detailed and accurate (but muddled) information, see the Worldwide TV standards page. Why is this information important? Different carts will exhibit different characteristics based on what kind of TV and console are used. For example, a PAL cart on an NTSC console and TV will roll the screen and exhibit a strange color scheme. An adjustable vertical hold is a must in these situations. 2600 Connection maintains a list in their FAQ section. Another issue is NTSC versions will be ~10% faster and PAL ~7% slower. This is especially important with contests that involve players from different contries. Most companies developed games in NTSC and later converted them to PAL. Since programmers were mainly concerned with having a stable image and acceptable colors, no time was spent on adjusting gameplay so that it ran identical to the NTSC version. As a general rule, PAL players have an advantage over NTSC players, making any fair competitions between the two impossible.
A: The TV Boy is a handheld-sized Atari VCS/2600 (made by SystemA) with 127 built-in games that connects to your TV (it does not have its own screen). While it features a built-in GameBoy-like joypad and external 9-pin ports so one can connect one's favorite controller, it does not, alas, have a cartridge slot. Inside the TV Boy is a jumper marked "NTSC/PAL," so it appears that it will work on either type of TV.
A: The VCS was originally designed to produce sound effects internally via 2 internal speakers (much like Atari's earlier dedicated systems), instead of through a TV (via the RF box). The system’s casing has slits on the top-half and brackets on the bottom-half - these were for the speakers. Arcade games from the mid-70s often used 2 speakers, with each being driven by a separate tone generator - one for each player. Atari's Tank coin-ops used this design. This "dual mono" tradition carried over to the VCS, as the system has 2 independent sound generators. Jim Heller, who was a former Atari engineer, stated a last-minute production change was made to drop the internal speakers, since it was felt the audio would be better through the TV set. Due to this change, the 2 sound output pins (pin 12 is the left channel audio and pin 13 is the right channel audio) on the TIA were simply tied together, resulting in mono sound. This also explains why Combat, Air-Sea Battle, Indy 500, and Street Racer (being 4 of the 9 launch titles) are the only 4 games Atari made that were programmed for stereo sound.
A: The original version of the VCS was designed to have a game built-in (Combat for the Atari version and Air-Sea Battle for the Tele-Games version). All 6-switch motherboards have this. There's a space on the motherboard for the ROM chip:
A 2K or 4K ROM chip could be installed here, however, there’s no circuit to switch between the ROM socket and a cart if a 4K ROM is used.
The "unicorn" 2600 "JR" variant also was designed to have a game built-in as well, and can handle a 2K or 4K ROM automatically if installed:
What game was to be included is unknown.
A: The system has 3 main chips at its heart - the MPU, the TIA, and the RIOT. The MPU is a 6507 (by MOS), which is a low-cost variant of the popular 6502. The TIA is the Television Interface Adapter and is an Atari proprietary chip. It was made by over a half-dozen manufacturers, resulting in dozens of variations (see Scott Stilphen's TIA chip article). The RIOT is a 6532 RAM, I/O, Timer chip (by Rockwell). Early models contain a 4th chip - a 4050 CMOS hex buffer - that was later removed due to being unnecessary.
Notes: ROM specs are based on non-bank select scheme, and the graphics clock is the master clock used to drive the TIA video chip.
For more information about Atari's TIA chip and how it works, check out Andrew Towers' TIA Hardware Notes article.
A: The range is 2K, 4K,
8K, 16K, 32K (Fatal Run), and 64K (32-in-1 and Mega Boy).
A few companies (Activision, Atari, CBS Electronics, CommaVid, Mattel, and U.S. Games) developed special RAM chips or "SuperChips" for certain games.
Activision called theirs the Display Processor Chip, or DPC. It was named after the person who developed it - David Patrick Crane (patent 4,644,495). According to Crane,
Atari called theirs SARA and used them in the following games:
CBS Electronics called theirs RAM Plus, and it added 12K of ROM and 256 bytes of RAM. It was used in Omega Race and Tunnel Runner (Wings was to be the 3rd).
CommaVid developed "Extended RAM" cartridges for Magicard and Video Life that offered 2K of ROM and 1K of RAM. According to a company ad, it "provides eight times the RAM available to a normal 2600 Video Computer System game." It was developed by Dr. John Bronstein, who received
Mattel/M Network called theirs "Super Cartridges" and added up to 16K of ROM and 2K of RAM ("Big Game" was printed on the prototype carts), but BurgerTime was the only game they released that used it (In Search of the Golden Skull was to be another).
U.S. Games had a special "RAM/ROM" chip for their Pink Panther game (
A: Controller port pinout:
VCS/2600 cartridge port pinout:
Top D3 D4 D5 D6 D7 A12 A10 A11 A9 A8 +5V SGND --1- --2- --3- --4- --5- --6- --7- --8- --9- -10- -11- -12- GND D2 D1 D0 A0 A1 A2 A3 A4 A5 A6 A7 Bottom
* to inverter and back to 18 for chip select
A standard VCS/2600 cartridge contains the equivalent of a 2716 or 2732/2532 with one notable exception: the chip select line is active high, not low. The high order address line of the 6507 (A12) is used as the chip enable. There was at least one company that used EPROMs with a 74LS04 inverter to compensate for this. Note that numbers indicate left to right numbering.
On cartridges, GND was also connected to SGND. Best to make sure that they are wired together.
2800/Sears Video Arcade II
A: Here’s one from the March 1983 issue of IEEE Spectrum, titled: Design Case History: the Atari Video Computer System. It is quite an interesting read although it contains no code. Digital Press hosts several articles in their Technical Documents section.
A: Several, although only javatari and Stella are still maintained and updated:
Several different cartridge copier devices were made: The Atari Game Recorder is a device that copies carts to cassette tape and also admits the playing of games from tape. Instructions and schematics are in the
following issues of Radio Electronics (it's a three-part article): Dec 84 Vol 55 no 12 p. 69-72. The article was written
by Guy Vachon and David A. Chan. The construction of the AGR is not for the
faint of heart, and the device does not handle
bank-switched carts - you're limited to 2K and 4K games only.
A: Several different cartridge copier devices were made:
The Atari Game Recorder is a device that copies carts to cassette tape and also admits the playing of games from tape. Instructions and schematics are in the following issues of Radio Electronics (it's a three-part article):
Dec 84 Vol 55 no 12 p. 69-72.
The article was written by Guy Vachon and David A. Chan. The construction of the AGR is not for the faint of heart, and the device does not handle bank-switched carts - you're limited to 2K and 4K games only.
Made by VGS. A device released in Brazil that allows you to copy cartridges. It looks similar to a Xonox cart shell, with switches and LEDs on one end, and a cartridge port on the other. You plug in the cartridge you want to copy and read it into the device's memory. You then plug in a 'blank' EPROM cartridge and write the device's memory to it.
Made by Unimex. Upon its release in 1984, the Unimex Duplicator cost 200 DM, about as much as the 2600 itself. Like the Yoko, it feeds off of the 2600's power supply. There are 4K, 8K and 12/16K EPROMS available for the Duplicator. Similar in appearance to half of a 6-switch VCS, it has a MASTER and a COPY slot. Copying a game takes about 8 minutes. Small changes in voltage, however, will cause the copying to fail, and not all new EPROMs work. So far, the system has only been found in Germany. There are 2 versions - one that's all black, and the other that has a gold plate on top.
Made by Pete McKevitz. Allows you to copy 2K and 4K carts to either an EPROM, a blank cartridge, or both (at the same time!). You can also put two 2K games on a 4K EPROM and flip between them via a toggle switch (using the included blank cartridge). How many were made/sold is unknown, but John Hardie found close to a dozen units, with most of them being complete; he sold one (complete with cart and manual) to Jose "wonder007" Artiles in 2006, and brought another to CGE2K7. A 3rd one is on display at the Digital Press store. Mr. McKevitz contacted us in October 2012 and provided the following information:
The Game Brain
Made by Super Vision. A backup device that allows you to copy cartridges to cassette tapes, using a standard cassette player. It resembles a Supercharger in appearance. It was only available through mail order and cost $98.95, which included a free T-shirt. Collector Rick Weis is the only person known to have one. An ad appeared in the October 1983 issue of The Logical Gamer newsletter (pg. 2).
Made by Yoko. Sold and distributed by a company called C.S.K., the Yoko came boxed in Styrofoam with paper wrapping. The EPROM cart was sold separately. Each cart can hold two games (4K max). The games are selectable via a small dipswitch on the front of the cart. The copier gets its power from the 2600's power supply. To copy, insert the blank cart in one slot and the original in the other, and hit the red start button. The manual contains a list of games that can be duplicated. Oddly enough, the list has many games that have never been released, such as Fall Guy, Alligator People, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Targ, Kickman, Stomp It and Butch Cassidy. Believed to have been sold only in The Netherlands.
Madein Taiwan. No other information is available about this.
Made by JS & A. A small unit with 2 cartridge ports that allows you to copy 4k or 8k games in 3 minutes with the push of a button. The copier sold for $119 and blank carts were $15. According to their ad, it was developed by a company in Houston, TX and touted as a perfectly legal device (referring to the copyright act amendment passed in 1980), while at the same time promoting it as a good way to make extra money. JS & A (J.S. & A. Group, Inc., for Joseph Sugarman and Associates) also planned to offer 9 exclusive games with the intention that Prom Blaster owners could sell copies to their friends. It wasn't long before Atari took them to court to stop the sale of them (especially since an Atari cart appeared in their ad). They shut down soon after, and the games never materialized. A copy of the court hearing records detailing Atari's cast against them can be found HERE.
Repro Game Kit/Repro Vision System
Made by Home Vision. This cart duplicating device is much smaller than the other two European copiers by Yoko and Unimex, and is very similar to the Vidco Video Game Recorder. The kit was packaged in a small cardboard box and contains a copier, a blank copy cart (called a Repro Cart, although the picture on the box shows a Repro Card label), and a game cartridge. The copier is a small, black device with a slot on each end with a red button and LED in the middle. It needs a 9V battery for power, (the Vidco Copier needs 3 AA's.) According to the box, copying takes about four seconds (while the Yoko and Duplikator take at least 5 minutes). It has only been found in Germany and Belgium. The game Parachute was pre-copied on the Repro Cart. Also included as a seperate cartridge is the game Robot Fight, which is a hack of Missile Command.
Video Game Recorder
Made by ZiMAG/Vidco. This device uses an internal battery to copy the code from a cartridge onto a special blank cartridge called a Copy Cart. It's very similar to the Repro Game Kit by Home Vision. Due to memory limitations, not every cartridge can be copied, but the unit is fairly reliable. Dishaster was packaged with the unit, along with 1 Copy Cart. The listed entry applies to the complete set (which is usually referred to as Copy Cart, as that's the only name on the box). Originally listed in 1983 at $59.95, and later advertised for $49.95. A sealed copy sold on eBay in 2010 for $3,500.
Made by Chad Schell / Shell's Electronics. He made these for both the Atari VCS/2600 and 7800. The Cuttle Carts are no longer made. Used ones occasionally appear on Ebay, but be prepared to spend more than they were originally sold for.Harmony cart
Modified 7800 system - see Eckhard Stolberg's Atari 7800 Developer's PageModified Atari Flashback2 system - see Fred X. Quimby's modified Flashback 2 and "Alex 79" variant Krokodile cart
A: You'll need some equipment - both soldering and desoldering irons, an EPROM programmer, and an EPROM eraser. Parts needed are EPROMS, pcbs (in most instances, a standard 4K cart pcb will work), and an additional chip, such as a 74LS04 hex inverter, or a GAL or PAL chip. What size EPROM and what type of pcb you'll need depends on the size of the game. 2 and 4K games use either a 2532 or 2732 (plus a 74LS04). 8K games use a 2764 and a GAL/PAL chip (either chip can be used, only the programming is different). Larger games, or ones that require special chips such as the SARA require a special pcb.
Apollo designed at least 3 different 4K boards. These were used in Apollo's Lochjaw and Chase The Chuck Wagon carts. Other companies used them for their games such as Gammation (Gamma Attack), Telesys, and Wizard Video (Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). They were also sold through Jameco to the public:
Chris Wilkson was the first person to use a PAL chip and design a board for 8K and 18K games. Unfortunately, others in the homebrew community have since taken credit for Wilkson's work, and even went so far as to encrypt their PAL or GAL chips to try and prevent others from copying them. Wilkson was also the first person to design a 32K board.
Robert Demming has a website describing how to build your own 512-in-1 multicart.
A: The October 1983 issue of Videogaming Illustrated magazine featured an article by Bob Guerra on how to install your own pause button on your Atari VCS/2600. Actually, it wasn't a true pause button, but rather how to add an extra button to your joystick that's wired up to the TV Type switch on the system.
Victor Trucco has created a true pause circuit that can be added to any VCS/2600 system, similar to how the pause switch works on the Brazilian Atari VCS/2600-compatible system, the Onyx Jr., by Microdigital.
A: Greg Bendokus wrote an article about how to hack a serial-style PC gamepad controller for use with an arcade-style controller. Scott Stilphen wrote a similar article using Gravis USB gamepad inside of an Atari joystick. Victor Trucco has an article on how to make your own USB interface board for use with an Atari joystick. RetroZone also sells a kit called the Atari RetroKit to convert your joystick to USB
A: Eduardo has done this, you can see some pictures and general instructions here.
A: See the following YouTube video. Here's an article on converting one for 7800 use.
A: The Aug 1988 (Vol 7, Num 4) Antic Magazine contained an article called First look: Inside the XE Game System: Hardware surprises revealed. It described the conversion:
To modify the Sega gun for the Atari, you'll have to cut off the incompatible connector. The wires must be stripped back and soldered into an Atari joystick connector as follows:
Because of the close fitting connections for the XEGS ports, don't wire in a DB9 female connector that has "ears". Most joysticks don't have wires for unused signals, so cutting up an old joystick cable may not work. Specifically, an Atari joystick does not need the +5 volts, so there isn't likely to be a wire connected to Pin 7. However, you can find joystick extension cables at Radio Shack, which have all nine pins wired from male to female. Antic disclaims responsibility for any damages that might occur during improper implementation of this, or any, hardware modification project we publish.
Once it's all hooked up, you'll notice that gun fires when you release the trigger, which is annoying. The Sega trigger wiring is the opposite of what the Atari light gun uses. To rewire the trigger switch, remove the five screws (one is under the Sega logo on the side). Find the trigger micro-switch with three connections. Wire to the normally closed contacts.
A schematic can also be found on John Soper's website.
A: Eduardo has done this, you can see some pictures and general instructions here.
A: Modifying an Atari VCS/2600 for stereo sound is a simple project that involves adding a couple RCA phono jacks to the system case, and wiring them to the output pins of the TIA chip. Victor Trucco wrote an article on his method.
Some of the more professional video mods (below) also include support for stereo sound.
Nathan Strum has a nice comparison site of some of the various A/V mods.
In our experience, the 6-switch models offer a superior picture output, compared to the 4-switch and JR models. Coupled with a coax-to-phono connector, they offer a picture quality that's comparable to any mod, and you can obtain composite A/V output if used in conjunction with a VCR.
A: The Spring 1984 issue of Special Projects magazine featured an article by Jim Stephens called "Build Fire-Fli" on how to build a rapid-fire module for your Atari VCS/2600.
John Soper posted this autofire circuit by Marco Antonio and Checa Funcke.
A: Back in the 1970s, a major financial investment in specialized equipment (such as a Genrad) was needed. You also needed a fundamental understanding of assembly language programming, as well as basic knowledge of the Atari VCS's 6507 processor chip (which is a variant of the more-popular 6502). Today, programming a VCS game can be done with a standard PC and a few software tools. Even the most novice programmer can use a program like Batari Basic to program games for it. Today, the main online source of information for VCS programmers is the Atariage website. Prior to that, the Stella mailing list (also know as the Atari 2600 Programming list) was, but since April 2006 it's no longer supported. Here are the Stella list archives as well as the Stella archive excavation, which culls many of the interesting bits.
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