BY EDWARD B. DRISCOLL, JR.
THE ATARI 2600
>>>The Glory Days of the Cartridge Family
Remember the 1970s? Vietnam,
Watergate, stagflation, polyester,
bellbottoms, John Denver, gas
rationing, Saturday Night Fever, and
other events that made that decade,
at least in retrospect, seem like 10
disheartening, frustrating years. But
a few lasting bright spots emerged,
as well. The personal computer was
one of them.
■ ATARI VCX CX2
Its less sophisticated but more fun-loving younger brother, the
video game, was another. Of course, there’s one name and four digits
that are synonymous with videogames in the 1970s: the Atari 2600. In
1971, Nolan Bushnell left his $12,000 a year job at Ampex to create video
games. After a false start attempting to convert Spacewar, a mainframe-based game, to a coin-op version that failed due to its complexity,
Bushnell swung in the opposite direction, and created Pong.
Unlike its complex predecessor, Pong was the I Love Lucy or
Honeymooners of video games. Black and white, one set, tiny cast, no
special effects, minimal action, and totally addicting. The game’s sole
instruction was: AVOID MISSING BALL FOR HIGH SCORE. No wonder
it launched such an empire.
Ultimately named Atari, from the classic Japanese board game Go,
Bushnell and his company created home versions of Pong, but it was awhile
before the concept took off. Eventually, the engineers at Atari hit upon the
concept of a game system with interchangeable cartridges. Bushnell
says, “The economics looked really good. I mean, the razor/razorblade
marketing always tended to work, and in addition to that, we felt that
people wanted that variety, and that was the way to give it to them.”
Thus, the Atari 2600 Video Computer System was released in late
1977. In the previous year, Warner Communications
had purchased Atari for $28 million, based on its
early console sales, and the success of Atari’s coin-operated game division. For a while, Atari was a
drain on Warner’s resources, as initial sales of the
2600 were respectable, but not spectacular.
Then, in 1980, Warner bought the home rights
to Space Invaders, a smash hit of a coin-op game,
from Midway. Suddenly, Atari, and the whole
home video game industry, had its killer app. At
the time, with the cable television industry just starting to take off, so many people were playing Atari, that it
was known as “the fourth television network.”
12 NUTS & VOLTS November 2005
The 2600 soldiered on, even after Bushnell left Warner in 1978 and
in the face of increasingly complex opposition, such as Mattel’s Intellivi-son and Coleco’s eponymously-named ColecoVision cartridge systems.
After leaving Atari, Bushnell created the Chuck-E-Cheese restaurant franchises in the early 1980s, and today is involved in a variety of entrepreneurial ventures, many of which revolve around his first love, video games.
1982: THE YEAR OF
By 1982, back at Atari, video games were hot, even making the
cover of Time magazine. But the 2600’s aging technology and its rapacious exploitation by Warner caught up which each other. Pac-Man
was the beginning of the end for the 2600’s glory days. Warner
Communications gave Todd Frye, the programmer assigned to translate Pac-Man into an Atari cartridge, three months or less to get the
job done, and offered him a million dollar check, plus royalties, to do it.
Frye wanted Atari to use an 8K memory chip, not the 4K chip that Atari
used for most of their cartridges (early 2600 cartridges used only 2K of
memory!). Although the 8K chip would have allowed a better program to be
written, Warner decided that the well-known title would guarantee success without the extra effort and cost. Unfortunately, the end result was
a gross simplification of a game that millions had played and knew
intimately. It wasn’t even close to the original coin-op game.
1984 AND BEYOND: THE
CRASH AND ITS AFTERMATH
The Pac-Man debacle foreshadowed bigger
problems ahead. By 1983, Atari’s monopoly-like
status as the video game
■ EARLY GAMES