Atari 2600 ROMs

Console History: Atari 2600

As the game console with the longest lifespan ever, the Atari 2600 is a legendary machine. Released in September of 1977, it wasn’t discontinued until January 1992, making it just over 14 years old. Few other game consoles have had that kind of longevity.

And it certainly deserved it. This was the console that basically started it all. It popularized the concept of having a console that could play multiple games. Its predecessor was the Atari Pong, which (you guessed it) only played Pong. It originally shipped with a game called Combat, and eight other titles were available at launch, though its library eventually grew to over 500 titles.

Although we know it today as the Atari 2600, it actually launched under the name Video Computer System (VCS). This was because it was competing directly with the Fairchild Video Entertainment System (VES), though Fairchild soon renamed their system to the Fairchild Channel F. Once Atari launched the Atari 5200, they went back and renamed the VCS to the Atari 2600. Unfortunately for the Atari, the Atari 5200 was a commercial failure, and it was discontinued after less than two years — but the Atari 2600 just kept on going.

The original 1977 version of the Atari 2600 was heavy and had six switches on the front, leading to its nickname, the heavy-sixer. But in 1980, a redesigned version had only four switches on the front. Then in 1982, another redesigned version (which was the first to officially be called the Atari 2600) had four switches on the front, was physically lighter, and lost the woodgrain design for a pure black design, earning it the nickname Darth Vader. Sears also released several of their own versions of these models under their Tele-Games brand thanks to an agreement with Atari. Their consoles were marketed under the Sears Video Arcade branding.

In 1983, Atari released a redesigned, sleeker model of the Atari 2600 exclusively in Japan called the Atari 2800. Back in the States, Atari launched yet another redesigned Atari 2600 in 1984 that was unofficially referred to as the 2600 Jr. The 2600 Jr. was much smaller and cheaper than the original 2600. The original console retailed for $200 in 1977, but when the 2600 Jr. was released in 1984, it sold for only $50.

However, these weren’t good times for Atari or anyone in the video game industry. The North American video game crash of 1983 had profound effects across the board. It actually lasted from 1983 to 1985, with much of the damage not being felt until the later part of those two years. The Atari 2600 stuck it out, but not without the company itself losing a lot of money and getting sold by Warner (who bought Atari in 1976 in order to rush the Atari 2600, codenamed Stella, to market) to Commodore in 1984.

The video game crash of 1983 was in fact largely thought to be Atari’s fault. Though many different factors influenced the crash that ran tons of video game-related companies out of business, the failure of two of the Atari 2600’s most hyped games — Pac-Man and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial — is often cited as a major factor to people turning away from video game consoles at the time. These games were the epitome of rushed to market, poorly made games. In your emulation journey, try to avoid them.

Despite those two games, during its 14-year lifespan, the Atari 2600 sure had some incredible games. It stuck around not because of its amazing hardware — which grew more limited with every passing year, especially compared to the increasingly powerful home computers that were gaining popularity at the time — but because it had fantastic games. Space Invaders, Joust, Asteroids, Frogger, Adventure, and Pitfall! all made the Atari 2600 an enticing buy for consumers. Be sure to check out those games when you’re emulating this historic console.

Emulation of the Atari 2600 is simple now, given how much more complex our computers have grown since it was launched. Originally, it was one of the harder systems to emulate given its complex nature, but nowadays you can emulate it on nearly any platform possible: computer, smartphone, tablet, etc. So get out there and start emulating! This console is certainly worth your time.