Thursday, December 22, 2005

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK 22: Atari 2600 "Video Computer System"

X-Box 360 is the big "game" system to own this 21st century holiday season, but I'll tell you what, I don't think any game system could provide me more hours of unfettered enjoyment than the one I grew up with in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the dependable, classic, Atari 2600. It was simple, elegant, easy-to-use, and fun, fun, fun.

If memory serves, my parents purchased the "Atari Video Computer System" for me and my sister in its first year of release, 1978. The idea of a video game console was so new to me, that I didn't even understand what the Atari was at first blush (I had just turned nine, go give me a break...)

But when the console was first hooked up to the TV, man, oh man! I enthusiastically became part of our nation's first generation of video-gamers. A role that took me from the Atari 2600 to the Atari 5400, to the Atari 800 computer, to Sega , to Nintendo and on and on until today. It's been an amazing journey, and the Atari 2600 was like a bicycle with training wheels...the system that started everything.

In that long ago year of 1978, I played Combat (the cartridge which came with the system...) and the most popular (and my favorite game of all time...) Space Invaders.

For those too young to remember, our nation was OBSESSED with Space Invaders for a time, this being the year after Star Wars and all. This obsession happened (and then burned out...) before the Pac Man craze that would arrive in the early 1980s, but what a time. At school, everybody was comparing high scores at Space Invaders. I remember, I was quite good at that game, and whenever I played doubles (two-player) with my father, he'd exclaim "Fly like a butterfly; sting like a bee!" I'll never forget that comment. It was the first time I'd heard it, and didn't associate it yet with Muhammad Ali.

I believe my parents also purchased Missile Command that first year we had an Atari. I still find that game absolutely addictive. Of course, it's a pretty devastating game: you must save six cities from nuclear apocalypse and bombardment (smart bombs and ICBMs).

In the Missile Command version we owned as kids, when you lost the battle, there would be a big flash of light, a sonic boom-type sound and series of nuclear explosions before the words "THE END" appeared on screen. Nice, huh? Remember, I'm of the generation that grew up with Mad Max, and Ronald - "We start bombing in five minutes" - Reagan, so nuclear apocalypse was a terrible fear for me at that age...

Over succeeding Christmas's in the Muir house, our collection of 2600 "game cartridges" multiplied to include such new hits as Asteroids, Centipede and the like.

From Activision I played games like Kaboom, Pitfall and something that I think (if I remember correctly...) was called "Night Driver." My favorite amongst the latter Atari game cartridges was probably Warlords, for which the paddles, rather than the joysticks, were utilized. Four people could play this game, and so it was a great free-for-all for me and my buddies.

All I know is, over the years, I suffered from many cases of the affliction known as "Atari Thumb." My Dad and I spent many joyous afternoon hours together after my school days (and his work days) destroying each other's tanks to the primitive graphics of "Battlezone." It was a wonderful bonding experience.

Some of my wealthier friends got into Intellivision and then Colecovision and Vectrex (the competing game systems back in those misty, cherished days of youth), but for me, Atari remained the final word. It was a reliable system (though the controllers would give out occasionally...) and an endlessly entertaining friend. Our particular game system lasted years, and I don't know what ultimately became of it, or the cartridges. Sometime in the mid 1980s, I think it got sold.

But then this past summer, my parents (who regularly frequent estate sales, yard sales and flea markets), found me a vintage Atari 2600 (still in its box) with six game cartridges (including Space Invaders, Pac Man, Combat, Super Break Out, Air-Sea Battle and Frogger), a power pack and a tv/game converter -- all for a measly eight dollars. So this year - more than 25 years after the first time I played Atari - I was back in the saddle. ,I also own a GameCube and absolutely love it (Resident Evil 4 is da bomb...). But there's something different, nostalgic and absolutely wonderful about returning to these simple games of yesteryear. Time flies when you play these games. They're still addictive...

Of course, my wife Kathryn isn't quite so sure about that. I've forced her into hours of gameplay on Space Invaders and the like since acquiring this game system from my childhood. Currently, she refuses to play Combat with me (a variation on Pong), because she says I drive her crazy, and she can't stand the beeping, whirring sounds. So if any of y'all come down to North Carolina soon and look me up, wanna play?

The Atari Video Computer System was advertised with the line on the box "more games - more fun." Indeed. The box also noted that "ATARI brings a powerful computer to your home television. The system allows you to build a game library with additional Game Programs and controllers."

We can laugh about the description of the 2600 as a "powerful computer" today, but once upon a time, it was actually state of the art. I should try to explain that to my nephews, who would no doubt laugh at this "primitive" video game system.

This year for the holidays, my parents also bought me an Atari Flashback 2 Game Console, which features forty classic Atari games (including River Raid, Pong, Pitfall, Centipede -- but no Space Invaders!) This is an ultra cool re-design of the system, featuring - as the box legend states - many of "the Games that defined a generation."

So now I have two Ataris. The original, and the much smaller, much more advanced re-imagination of the classic. So Kathryn is in for a holiday season of lots of annoying beeps and flashing lights.

I couldn't be happier. All I know is that we better have kids soon. As soon as they can press buttons, I'm getting them to play Atari with me.


  1. Man, that is retro-cool. What a great story. I kinda miss those days. Did you have a Pong?

  2. Hey Jason! Thanks for the nice comments on the Atari post. You know, I never did have one of those Pong machines, which was the predecessor to Atari...

  3. Brian Himes6:04 PM

    Man, I love my Atari 2600. I have two working Atari's and about 30 games. Loads of fun. I'm the best at Asteroids and it is by far my favorite game to paly on Atari.

    Raiders of the Lost Ark is fun too, but rather difficult to solve.

    Right around the time that Pong came out, my mother bought us kids a Tellstar Arcade by Colleco. It was a triangular game consol with Tennis (Pong), race car driving and a shooting gallery. We wore that sucker out.

  4. Sorry, I don't miss the Atari machines, and I don't want them either. New machines can do the job just fine of playing these old games-just get the new XBOX 360 or the new PS3, and you can download classic games instead, in addition to playing new ones.


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