Top 25 "It" products of all time: #5 --The Atari 2600

Atari 2600It is written: In the mid-'70s, there was Pong. The single-screen, back-and-forth tennis match seems laughably crude to us now, but put yourself in the mind of, say, a caveman looking at the miracle of fire for the first time. The notion of a video-based game was so novel, and its promise so exciting, that Americans latched onto the concept, fascinated to see how it would evolve.

It would evolve, we discovered soon enough, into in-home gaming systems. Atari was the first to get there on a wide scale, and our fingers have been wrapped around controllers ever since.

In the beginning, there were no "gamers." There were drinkers who were game for anything. They watched the technology slowly develop through coin-operated versions at bars and restaurants until October 1977, when Atari finally came out with its $200 VCS (Video Computer System) for home use. The very word--"computer"--was ritzy. By 1980, when the 16-color, living-room version of the arcade smash Space Invaders was released, the game console, now renamed the Atari 2600, exploded.

Atari delivered its full 4kbs worth of fun. That fake woodgrain trim! Those cheap black plastic paddles with the inadvertently attachable wheels! Those "joystick blisters" worn into the base of every 13-year-old thumb in the country after a long session of "Missile Command"! The characters that flickered if more than one appeared onscreen at once!

Home gaming was an instant hit. For the first time, people waited anxiously at the toy store (that's where you bought them then) for the newest cartridge releases. At first, the games were basic and monochromatic, seen from a single flat vantage point. Creeping tanks shooting evaporating bullets, in Combat. Fingerlike cannons ejecting blobs into a blue-stripe sky in Air-Sea Battle. They really were terrible games, but because they were so novel, no one cared. For the first time, play was totally in my control. I knew what to expect from all the cards in my Monopoly set, but there was always a new twist of timing to discover in Breakout.

I virtually prayed at the altar of Atari. Homework? What homework? To this day, I can repeat the movements required to navigate the Adventure maze in my sleep (that cartridge alone sold 1 million copies). Although my console is long gone, I can still feel the spring of the "reset" lever, which you could push in frustration whenever a game went awry. (Older brothers were particularly guilty of the social faux pas of resetting games in mixed company.)

Pretty soon, the tie-ins began, setting another consumer electronic tradition. At first, the hottest games were boiled-down, blocky versions of finer arcade blockbusters: Space Invaders, Asteroids, Donkey Kong. They weren't great, but they'd do, and when they first came out, they were good for bragging rights among friends. Third-party companies like Activision started releasing more detailed, more inventive cartridges, and raked in $70 million in 1980 alone. The trend reached a fever pitch in 1982, when one of the hottest characters in the world, Pac-Man, was released to the home-game crowd after an interminable delay.

And it was bad. We knew it was terrible. Nobody liked the home version of Pac-Man. The colors, the sounds, and the chunky shape of our hero himself were all wrong. And where were those awesome little animated olios that rewarded the player in between boards at the arcade? I can still feel the letdown--for the first time, I became aware of the pitfalls of hype. (Ooh! Pitfall! I liked that one.) Pac-Man may have been a pinnacle for the Atari 2600, but in the end, it also marked its downfall. The 2600, we realized in 1983, was doomed to disappoint.

And the letdowns kept coming. The game version of "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," also over-hyped and delayed, was an incomprehensible ordeal. I'll never get back the hours I wasted trying to make Haunted House interesting.

The damage was done. Aside from a few bright spots, like the orgasmicly-colored Yars' Revenge, the 2600 came to represent unfulfilled potential. By 1983, the party was over. Atari started pushing the 5200, a graphically and sonically superior system (you could pause games with it!), and nothing on the 2600 would ever be good enough again.

Technology moved on. The market splintered. As with so many toy trends, the Atari 2600 is now just a memory consigned to the basement but cherished by hobbyists, who cultivate online fan clubs, sell cheap plug-and-play versions, and put out emulators you can use on your home computer.

But every so often, I still hear the hollow, rising tones of my 2600 Pac-Man as he withers from a ghost's touch, but that's because to this day, it's used as a no-royalty sound effect whenever a character is playing a video game on TV. Even now, thirty years on, Atari is a stand-in for all video games. As it should be. It was was the Adam of the genre.

But not the Genesis. That's another game entirely, in a newer testament.
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