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Retrogaming in style with the Atari 2600

By: 10 November 2010 3 Comments

The Atari 2600 -- a thing of beauty.

Yes the time has come to start up a series on those obsolete gaming consoles of which a number of us are still fond.

Why is now the time to start a series about those old machines that many of us grew up with and still enjoy? Well, let me tell you a little story. Last week, we got a copy of the fantastic Fable IIIfor the Xbox 360(and, yes, that fine RPG does live up to the hype). When you get a new game, what do you want to do? Pop it in and play it, right?

Well, it didn’t exactly work out that way. The game advised me that a long update was available and had to download that. That took about a minute, but the console reset itself and spent the next 15 minutes downloading a new dashboard so I could use Microsoft’s Kinectmotion controller (something I’ll never use — I bought a Nintendo Wiia couple of years ago, after all).

Yes, things were much simpler when you didn’t have to worry about your game console connecting to the Internet and downloading updates to correct errors that probably should have been dealt with before games were sent to retailers.

So I dug one of the several Atari 2600game consoles I’ve got around here, pulled out the 200 or so games I’ve got for the system and set it up in the master bedroom. After answering several “what’s that?” questions from my daughter, it occurred to me that folks who didn’t grow up in the 1980s might not know about the Atari or, indeed, a lot of the older systems that kept us busy a couple of decades ago.

For that reason, then, I’m going to write about some of the consoles I’ve spent years collecting for and have owned. Why? I’ve spent a few years with those systems and have found a ton of resources on the Internet that can get interested collectors up and running in a hurry. Hey, those old systems are loads of fun, so why not explain why?

So, I’ll start this “retrogaming series” with a discussion of my favorite console of all time, the Atari 2600. I got my first Atari back in 1981 when I was 12-years-old and have collected over 200 games for it. The Atari is a great system for collectors for a number of reasons. First of all, they’re not that expensive — just click hereto find one for less than $60 on Amazon.com or hunt around on eBay to see what kind of deals you can find.

Second — and this is important — the system is one of the most common among older consoles. The console was released as the Atari VCS in 1977, was renamed the 2600 in 1982 and was sold until 1991. Around 40 million of the units were sold over the years and a lot of third-party developers manufacturers released a number of games and peripherals for the system. Because the system was so common, finding a new controller when an Atari joystick or set of paddles breaks is easy and replacements don’t cost much.

Also, the system was so popular that some of the best titles out there cost next to nothing. Massively fun games like Adventure, Asteroids, Centipede, Demon Attack, Missile Command, Ms. Pac-Man, Pitfall, Space Invaders, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, StarMaster, etc. are amazingly cheap on sites like eBay (and, of course, you can find a lot of that stuff for mere pennies at garage sales).

Speaking of games, over 500 were made for the 2600 in just about any genre you can imagine. Atari manufactured a slew of those things, but some quality third-party providers such as Activision (yes, the same company that’s still making games for modern consoles), Coleco, Imagic, Mattel’s M-Network and Park Brothers produced some great titles for the system. And let’s not forget — those games tend to last forever (the Combat pack-in that came with my system 28 years go still fires up without a hitch).

The popularity of the system means there’s a lot of support for it. Want some game reviews? The Video Game Critic has a ton of them. Want to mix and mingle with other Atari fans? Head on over to the forums at AtariAge and join the many discussions going on at that very active board. Speaking of AtariAge, that site regularly releases new games that are developed by people who still program for the Atari. A good number of those games are at least as good as the ones that were released during the 2600’s heyday — I’ve bought a few of those and will certainly be back for more.

Are there drawbacks to the Atari? Well, of course. We’re talking about an eight-bit system that was originally released 33 years ago. The original designers figured no one would ever both releasing a game that took up more than four kilobytes of RAM on a cartridge, so the graphics are typically simple and pretty ugly by today’s standards. Also, the sound generated by games is none to complex and generally falls into the “bleep,” “bloop” or “terrible music” categories. Also, the video is ported through the system’s laughably obsolete radio frequency (RF) generator that doesn’t work well with modern television sets (don’t worry — this convertercosts about $4 and allows the Atari to hook up easily to the cable jack on a television set.

By the way, the Atari is a bit unique in that it actually looks pretty darn good on an HDTV set while consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo look terrible. Yes, the Atari is so obsolete that it doesn’t run into the same “fuzzy graphics” problems a lot of systems that came after it had. Go figure.

Another drawback is that the Atari joysticks simply break under heavy use. Fortunately, replacements don’t cost much and there are enough great third party controllers out there (the Gemstickis a personal favorite) to make finding an alternative easy. Also, the sports title are generally pretty bad, although there are some exceptions (Activision’s Ice Hockey and Tennis are particularly good, as are Baseball and Football from M-Network and that laughably-fun Pele’s Soccer from Atari). Oh, and don’t expect a lot of depth from 2600 games — the system just isn’t up to it, but arcade ports and action games are as fun as they ever were. Meanwhile, Adventure is a great role playing game and there are some other titles that are surprisingly complex. The Atari gave the gamer a joystick with one button, so what else would you expect but simplicity?

To sum it up, it’s easy to collect for the Atari and those simple little games are as fun now as they ever were. The system still has a lot of fans and a lot of support on the Internet and that speaks volumes about how well they Atari 2600 has held up over the years.

Stay tuned — more reviews to come in the “retrogaming” category here at First Arkansas News.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.

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