I didn’t even realize that today, October 14, marks the 35th anniversary of the launch of the Atari 2600.
Having read a few articles (I am sysnthesizing and adding my own memories here), I’m not shocked it didn’t get a ton of fanfare … the reports are that it initially was not a huge seller, and that it took some word of mouth to get around for sales to take off in the second year. As a matter of fact, Atari was sure thing would take off, but did not have the capabilities to produce more, so licensed Sears to make their own version (Video Arcade System instead of Video Computer System) to get them out to the public faster in order to have them available (Atari could still make money on the games). While my family did have the actual Atari 2600 (no clue where it is or what happened to it), our neighbors had the Sears clone.
Favorite game? I seem to recall playing Asteroids and Adventure quite a bit. Asteroids (along with Space Invaders) was one of the few arcade-to-home gaming games that transferred very well. Adventure notably had the very first easter egg in video game history (Atari wouldn’t give credit to the programmers, so a programmer left a note claiming credit in the game … I never found it).
While Asteroids and Space Invaders were successful crossovers, Pac-Man was a notable bomb. While the record holder for sales of a single 2600 game, Pac-Man was rushed because the licensing was acquired close to the time needed to get the game on the shelves for Christmas (they still ended up missing that window, but the game was still terrible when it hit the market a few months into 1982), and the result was an abomination.
Of course movies ended up spelling the end for Atari (sort of … if you spell “end”, “ET”). Atari had in fact released the first movie cross-over video game based on Raiders of the Lost Ark (it was not a great game, but it did start a trend that continues today … hardly any big movie gets released without a video game tie in). When E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial became a big hit, it was a natural to produce a video game, which they did, and really shouldn’t have . The wanton destruction of the entire video game industry that this game caused even has a name which makes it sound like the Black Thursday, with hundreds of programmers leaping from the windows of their offices. In this case, the urabn legend of many of those unsold 2600 cartridges ending up in a desert landfill outside of Alamogordo, New Mexico, appears to be true.
I never realized how long the 2600 was around, and its eventual game library. Apparently, the system ended up with a library of over 400 games (for those of you who were Intellivision fans, that game system never got much beyond 150 games). The last game for the 2600 to be released in the U.S. was Secret Quest, which was released in 1989 (much later than I thought). The rarest video game among collectors is Air Raid, which was the one and only release for the 2600 by the software company Men-a-vision, and there were less than 20 copies released. A few years ago, the only known complete (cartridge and box) version of the game was sold on e-bay for over $31,000.
Something I never realized was the fate of software maker Activision, which produced notable titles Fishing Derby, Kaboom!, and their top seller Pitfall. Activision is now combined with noted video game manufacturer Blizzard, and among the titles coming out of the Activision unit were Guitar Hero (about to go on hiatus) and the best seller Call of Duty (in addition to the James Bond related video games of the last ten years).
Atari itself, now a French company, continues to publish games …apparently a new version of Centipede and a new Dungeons and Dragons game are among the more recent games. Looks like Activision made out better than Atari.