May 30th, 2014, 00:22 Posted By: wraggster
With its wood panel effect frontage, and black, plastic- rimmed hood leading up to a retro-futuristic panel of orange-rimmed knobs and levers, the Atari 2600 is one of the most iconic machines of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Not only that, but the system provided a crucial step in the evolution of home gaming, taking the focus away from machines dedicated to a single game to a console that could play whatever compatible game was clicked into its cartridge slot.The machine was conceived by members of an engineering think-tank, Cyan Engineering, which Atari purchased in 1973 to specifically research and develop video game systems. Under the codename ‘Stella’, the team worked to create a complete CPU capable of reading whatever code was fed into it, a drastic move away from the custom logic-based hardware that was on the market at the time. However, work was slow and, in August 1976, Fairchild Semiconductor released its own CPU-based system, the Video Entertainment System. Atari was still some way off having a machine ready for mass production.Not only that, but the company did not have sufficient cash-flow to be able to complete the system quickly. Realizing they had to act fast, founder Nolan Bushnell turned to Warner Communications for investment, selling the company to them for $28 million on the understanding that work to finish Stella would be expedited. The next year Stella, initially named the Atari Video Computer System, later changed again to the Atari 2600 after its manufacturing part number CX2600, was released in America for $249. It had cost around $100 million to develop. Initially the reaction to the machine was lacklustre, the pressure of what looked like a grand failure resulting in the departure of Nolan Bushnell from the company in 1978.This feature is an extract from Simon Parkin’s book, An Illustrated History of 151 Videogames.
The following year, however, through a combination of word of mouth and the release of a home version of Space Invaders, the machine gained widespread popularity, selling a million units in that year alone. With its 8-bit, 1.19 MHz speed processor and palette of 16 colours, the Atari 2600 was far from the most powerful console on the market at the time, technically surpassed by both the Bally Astrocade and Mattel’s Intellivision. However, Atari’s talent was in software development, and through a steady trickle of compelling, influential titles, the company began converting those who had previously eyed home gaming with scepticism into gamers. Originally intended by Atari to be a short-term product, marketed for one or two holiday seasons, game sales soon made it clear that home video gaming’s future lay in a software-led business model. Formative hits such as Pitfall!, Defender, Asteroids and Missile Command created a snowball effect in sales, with each success selling more hardware which in turn sold more software, an upward spiral of success that every video game hardware manufacturer since has sought to replicate.Ports of arcade titles sat alongside games based on licensed names such as Star Wars, G.I. Joe and James Bond, with each success story attracting the attention of yet another Hollywood studio or television company wanting to expand their empire into this brave, new frontier. However, by 1982 the system’s software library had reached saturation point, with developers having squeezed the potential from the machine by falling back on uninspired ports, such as Pac-Man, or substandard games, such as E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. With no Nintendo quality control system in place the ratio of good games to broken ones eroded consumer confidence in the machine and its library of games. In a few years, success had shifted Atari from a diminutive, agile, fun-obsessed outfit, to a dry corporation apathetic toward developing a follow-up to their once innovative hardware. In 1984 Warner sold Atari to Commodore Business Machines who immediately closed the game publishing wing. With it, the Atari 2600 died.
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