Atari 2600

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The Atari 2600 was developed and produced by Atari.


The Atari 2600 was released in 1977 by Atari, Inc. It is a part of the [second generation] of home videogame consoles. It's original name was the Atari VCS, which stood for 'Video Computer System'. However, once the Atari 5200 was released in 1982, it was re-branded as the 'Atari 2600'. Most people who weren't super nerds just called in the Atari.

The Atari was so successful, that it is largely given credit as the cause of both the first video game boom, and the video game crash of 1983. IGN called it "the console that our entire industry is built upon".

The Atari was typically bundled with two joystick controllers, 2 paddle controllers, that shared the same plug, and one game, either Combat or Pac-Man.


Technical specifications

  • CPU: 1.19 MHz MOS Technology 6507
  • Audio + Video processor: TIA
   Playfield resolution: 40 x 192 pixels (NTSC). Uses a 20-pixel register that is mirrored or copied, left side to right side, to achieve the width of 40 pixels.
   Player sprites: 8 x 192 pixels (NTSC). Player, ball, and missile sprites use pixels that are 1/4 the width of playfield pixels (unless stretched).
   Ball and missile sprites: 1 x 192 pixels (NTSC).
   Maximum resolution: 160 x 192 pixels (NTSC). Max resolution is only somewhat achievable with programming tricks that combine sprite pixels with playfield pixels.
   128 colors (NTSC). 128 possible on screen. Max of 4 per line: background, playfield, player0 sprite, and player1 sprite. Palette switching between lines is common. Palette switching mid line is possible but not common due to resource limitations.
   2 channels of 1-bit monaural sound with 4-bit volume control.
  • RAM (within a MOS Technology RIOT chip): 128 bytes (additional RAM may be included in the game cartridges)
  • ROM (game cartridges): 4 kb maximum capacity (32 kb+ with bank switching)
  • Input (controlled by MOS RIOT):
   Two screwless DE-9[1] controller ports, for single-button joysticks, paddles, "trakballs", "driving controllers", 12-key "keyboard controllers" (0–9, #, and *) and third party controllers with additional functions
   Six switches (original version): Power on/off, TV signal (B/W or Color), Difficulty for each player (called A and B), Select, and Reset. Except for the power switch, games could (and did) assign other meanings to the switches. On later models the difficulty switches were miniaturized and moved to the back of the unit.
  • Output: B/W or Color TV picture and sound signal through RCA connector (NTSC, PAL or SECAM, depending on region; game cartridges are exchangeable between NTSC and PAL/SECAM machines, but this will result in wrong or missing colors and often a rolling picture.)


Like many old systems, the peripheral devices ranged anywhere from kid's stuff, to hardcore radical.

The good

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Atari Joystick by Atari:

Atari's famous black joystick that was originally included with the system. While it may not be the fanciest controller, it gets the job done.

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XE Lightgun by Atari:

Actually sold under the XE line, but compatible with the two Atari 2600 games that utilize a light gun, Sentinel and Atari's Shooting Gallery (prototype)

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Booster Grip by CBS Electronics:

The Booster Grip is a controller add-in that plugs directly into the joystick port and provides a pass-through for the joystick. In doing so, it provides the two independant buttons necessary for Omega Race. If you want to play Omega Race and you don't have a Booster Grip, you can substitute a Colecovision controller.

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Track & Field Controller by Atari:

Design similar to the arcade version. Sold with Track & Field, but also available separately for use on other systems. Will work with any game, but only offer left/right/fire functions.

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Atari Paddles by Atari:

Standard paddle controllers for use with games such as Breakout and Warlords. One pair of controller per connector (allows for 4-player Warlords).

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Atari Keypad by Atari:

Sold in pairs, functionally identical to the Kid's Controller and the Video Touch Pad. Included overlays with commands, meant to be used with Basic Programming.

The bad

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Foot Craz by Exus:

The Foot Craz was sold with Video Jogger and Video Reflex, and is sort of a precursor to Nintendo's Power Pad. Intended to get lazy video game players off their rear's and engaging in physical activity, I'll bet most owner's reverted to the good old joystick after trying this device.

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Video Touch Pad by Atari:

Also known as the Star Raiders controller, functionally identical to the Kid's Controller and Keyboard Controller. Game included an overlay with commands, for use with Star Raiders.

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Kid's Controller by Atari:

Intended for the Children's Television Workshop series of games. Functionally the same as a Touch Pad or Keyboard Controller, but a larger size that is easier for children to use. Overlays for the controller were sold with the games.

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Joyboard by Amiga:

Sold with the skiing game Mogul Maniac, the joyboard is a platform that you control by standing on it and leaning in different directions. Interesting, but not terribly effective.

The radical

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Flight Commander by Milton Bradley:

Packaged with Spitfire Attack, an elaborate joystick meant to look like a fighter plane gun mount. Similar button/handle configuration to the Cosmic Commander, still functions like a regular controller. Not sold separately from the game.

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Cosmic Command by Milton Bradley:

An elaborate joystick sold with the game Survival Run, meant to appear like a futuristic space age controller. Functions like a regular controller, not sold separately from the game.

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Atari Space Age Joystick by Atari:

Marketed as an advanced controller, features a pistol grip and trigger button, with the controller and an additional button above the grip.

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Remote Control Joysticks by Atari:

Mother. Fucking. Wireless.

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Driving Controller by Atari:

Looks like a paddle, but allows 360' movement. Only one unit per connector, unlike paddles which were sold in pairs. For use with Indy 500/Race.

The future



It only ever got to the prototype stage of development, but this bad boy right here was going to revolutionize gaming by letting you play with your mind! Sort of. It actually just measured your eyebrow movement. It got scrapped because who wants to leave the exact timing platform action of Pitfall to their eyebrows?


Programming / Hacking details.




The Longhorn Engineer's AV/S-Video mod for Atari 2600 4-switch[1]




See also

Useful Links