After Hours

Cracking Open the Atari 2600 video game console

Oh boy, Space Invaders!

Introduced all the way back in October 1977, The Atari 2600 Video Computer System is one of the more fondly remembered video game consoles. For its time, the Atari 2600 was a breakthrough in entertainment technology and foreshadowed what would eventually become a multi-billion dollar industry. In this TechRepublic Cracking Open, we take a look at what made the Atari 2600 tick.

About

Mark Kaelin is a CBS Interactive Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He is the host for the Microsoft Windows and Office blog, the Google in the Enterprise blog, the Five Apps blog and the Big Data Analytics blog.

84 comments
justl
justl

Still have it and occasionally use it along with the 50 game cartridges hiding in the Christmas ornament storage bin where it usually resides. Its a hit with the nieces and nephews.

christianmanzare
christianmanzare

I had the sears version of the 2600? I remember they made it, anyone know how that was? did Atari license out the System?

mike
mike

Anyone know what would have gone here?

lslewis.901
lslewis.901

I used to repair these things, still have spare parts laying around. How funny:)

chris
chris

That's a Rockwell International I/O chip. The logo is popular. Watch the movie Close Encounters of the 3rd kind....all the UFO dudes are wearing Rockwell jackets. Rockwell also built the space shuttle. Way cool teardown pics....and Pitfall Harry rules!

mrwilsons_acct
mrwilsons_acct

I've been a digital designer for telecom products longer than I care to admit. Seems funny to see thru-hole parts, I love this stuff you don't need a microscope, tweezers, suction device, and ICE to debug! Thanks for the memories!

rareiza
rareiza

I was an user of ATARI 2600, and sometimes i had to Crack open the joystick and use it with my fingers pushing the contacts directly on the board of the joystick.. opps!!!

mathelm
mathelm

Has all the old games, even the stupid ones. Which as I remember at the time, according to my mother included all of them.

dukethepcdr
dukethepcdr

Yes I still play my Atari 2600. I got the second version (the one you mentioned that you could switch from being on channel 3 to channel 4. It has four chrome switches on top. I opened mine last year because I found out how to fix it. I used to play it almost every day from the time I got it for Christmas back in 1979 until I was in high school in 1990. About that time, it started over heating. I would get weird colours on the screen, the images would warp and run in strange directions and there would be lines across the screen. You could turn the 2600 off and wait for a few minutes and play for a few more minutes before it would do it again. I finally gave up and put it in a box in the attic. I almost tossed it once but I'm glad I didn't. When I moved most of my stuff from my parents' house to my apartment after college in 1996, I took it with me. It sat in my storage building for years and went with me on two more moves until it and I ended up in Las Vegas. I found out last year on a how-to website that I could open up the 2600 without damaging it and clean all the dust out of it to make it work again. I tried it and it worked! My model does have speakers inside, but I don't use them since the sound comes out of the TV. I too was amazed at how little was in the big case. I wonder if that is part of the secret to the 2600's toughness. It's been through a lot of abuse and keeps on ticking. Maybe they pack the electronics in the new gadgets too tightly and there isn't much room to absorb shock from drops, hits, wire tugs etc. Now I have a great PC that I built myself, an Xbox 360 Halo 3 ed. and a Nintendo DS, but I still play my 2600 sometimes. My favourite games are Defender, Empire Strikes Back, Circus Atari and Asteroids. My wife can actually beat ET but personally, I don't understand it. Nice article.

sangraal
sangraal

Can breadboard one of them in 5 mins now-- hee heee...

sirmorluk
sirmorluk

In 1979 my mother was an engineer for Atari. I had a 2600 and also recieved my first computer for X-Mas 1979. It was an atari 800 w/48k of RAM and dual disk 5.25 drives. Needless to say I was the most popular kid on the block. I remember getting the games months before they hit the shelves. Been in the technology field ever since.

bboswell
bboswell

The "slider" style switch that's "missing" on post 1980 Atari 2600's is actually stil there...it was cost reduced to a smaller switch and re-located to the back of the unit (by the joystick ports). It is the difficulty switch, which everyone I knew when I was a kid left it at the "B" setting. My cousins had a Sears branded version of the 2600, which, I believe, was marketed as the "Sears Tele-Video" (!).

phoobar
phoobar

You can still buy an Atari Flashback 2 game unit from Wal-Mart for $30. With a power brick/two joystick...you get 40 built-in games. Unlike the 2600...this unit does not allow you to use any type of cartridges. Plus...you can download tons of ROM's/emulators from Atari 2600 fan sites. That's how I found Custer's Revenge after all these years.

dpresley_50201
dpresley_50201

I'm guessing the numbers on the CPU is the manufacturer's stock number. The adjustable coil that affected your audio probably tunes the center frequency of your audio band for channel three. Since audio is an FM signal in NTSC multiplexed TV signals, adjusting the the center for the audio would increase and decrease its apparent volume as a characteristic of FM RF signals. The screwdriver pot looks to be a Phase Lock Loop control for the clock circuit as its next to the clock crystal. It would adjust the center of the whole frequency band of the unit I'm guessing. DO NOT change that pot! You'll have a devil of a time changing it back without any RF monitoring test equipment. Putting the pot back to its former physical position rarely returns the PLL circuit back to normal as anomalous changes over the years cause component values to change slightly and finding the center a most difficult process.

Angelic358
Angelic358

Wish I could find one!!!! We loved playing games on the Atari 2600!!

pepoluan
pepoluan

Yes, I remember Pitfall. Yes, I remember Tank. And Breakout & Super-Breakout (with paddles). And Space Invader. Popeye. And a whole bunch of games I can no longer recall the names of :)   Ah... the memories... in my country the older wood-grain-finish Atari 2600 was soon replaced by the smaller black all-plastic consoles. My family was an early adopter of the Atari 2600, so we have a 'different' console than others... always liked to tell my friends that my console is the 'deluxe' edition, heh ;)

Forum Surfer
Forum Surfer

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnavox_Odyssey%C2%B2 It did have the full keyboard and some sweet early role playing games (pre-king's quest stuff I beleive). I remember the football game my friends and I liked playing. A bunch of white dots through the dark grey dot to each other while the light grey dots tried to stop you. May not have been pretty or graphically intense but I knew my formations in little league! Unfortunately since this was ghetto by the time I received it none of my friends had one. But back then people didn't care if you had the latest wii or other console...you only stayed in and played video games if mom and pop wouldn't let you go play. We always went out and enjoyed the real world. Enough of the old man's ranting for now...

upuaut
upuaut

Did you know that Bender (from Futurama) runs on the sister chip to 6507, the 6502!

addemallup
addemallup

my mistake, it is the 2600. Apologies =P

gatorbeetle
gatorbeetle

I cracked mine open and inspected it when I was 9 in 1978...wish I still had it. Wish I still had my 2600, Vic 20, and original NES!!! I actually threw out the NES and about 80 games 10 years ago!!! ack.

Dennis_Berry
Dennis_Berry

The 2600 was one of the best simple 2 player game consoles. I also have a "Super charger" for the 2600 that gave it more memory and allowed more sophisticated games to be played on it. It plug into the game console and you uploaded the programs through cassette tapes. Allowed some 4 player games and 3D games. Still amazed how well it works even now.

trevor_melton
trevor_melton

I miss the sound of the controllers after some abuse. All those bits of plastic grinding around inside.

kaushlendra.n
kaushlendra.n

It was the first gaming console in my family and neighbourhood and boy we were the envy... I have moved on to a Wii, but the best part is it still works even today...

ljansch
ljansch

This is an older model. The later ones did not have the cast pot metal housing. They had sheet metal shields that were held together by twisting tabs on one part into slots on another. BTW, I repaired hundreds of these back in the early '80s. The most common problems were the cracked solder on the power connection and damage to the 7805 voltage regulator from third-party reversable-polarity 'wall warts'.

michaelov
michaelov

Lol, I have a modem for mine. You used to download games and paid by credit card per game downloaded. I bought that back in 1979 or 1980. The modem was "fast" 300 baud.

ddmcp2000
ddmcp2000

That's an adjustable inductor. The thing that you would have noticed inside is a ferrite core that moves in or out, adjusting the inductance of the coil, which is the enameled wire wrapped around the outside of it. Very likely it has nothing to do at all with "sound output".

JC66
JC66

Wow I havent seen one of these for years how things have progressed!!

DNSB
DNSB

A common habit was marking the year and week of manufacture on the chip. A chip with a 7748 would indicate one from 1977, week 48 for example.

mferrusca
mferrusca

Last nite I was marveling about the video capabilities on my XPS M1530 and looking for a better video card for my PC (currently an Nvidia 7300, suggestions are welcome!) and now that I looked at some screen caps of these games of yore I just stopped to think about it for a moment. The way we had to stretch our imagination was just FANTASTIC. I am not dizzing what videogames have become, but our time was just different, and I am glad we are here go compare and enjoy technology this way. Thanx!

ray.menzel
ray.menzel

Intellivison was my console, really good interaction and the graphics were the best at that time. Sea Battle was my favorite game, kinda like the board game Risk, but with navel equipment. Wished mind still works though.

girlfromthefuture
girlfromthefuture

Possibly nothing. Design engineers may have used this space for debugging during development (gives a place to anchor oscilloscope leads and the like). After the unit went into full scale production, technicians may have tested these points later during inspections. My guess is that this unit was inspected at station number 3...Any other ideas?

randyr
randyr

The blue potentiometer next to the large crystal I believe controlled the color drive level. The original had a very heavy plastic case and then went to a much thinner plastic until it seriously downsized. If you have NO sound, it's the 2 silver caps in the middle. Most faults are caused by bad solder joints on the power connector, switches, RF modulator and chip sockets. I repaired several thousands back in my days a Canadian Factory service. I still have one and last checked it was working. One of the original in the heavy case. A machine ahead of it's time. Long live the 2600!

bboswell
bboswell

Yeah, Atari's joystick was garbage, it required very high forces to move and the contacts tended to wear out. Thankfully, many aftermarket vendors made better ones...(and Commodore helped the situation by making the VIC 20 and Commodore 64 use the same joysticks :) ).

thisisfutile
thisisfutile

...and I went over there all the time to make mazes on it's version of Pac-Man. Can't remember what it's called (and too lazy to Google) but creating my own mazes was such an exciting concept! I went over there every day when I discovered it, despite the fact their dog kept humping my leg!

User94327
User94327

I still have mine boxed up. I even have "The Voice" module that plugs into the top of the unit for "The Voice" enabled games. I have the O2 that had detachable joysticks and need a couple replacements. Atari joysticks won't work even though they have the same DB9 connector.

That_IT_Guy
That_IT_Guy

YES! I was king of River Raid in my house. Ran it to the score limit more than once only to be disappointed that it just went back to zero. But boy, it sure got fast at the end. My whole body was moving left and right as if trying to help make the Raider move faster. I was pretty good at Chopper Command, too. My brother always kicked my butt at Tank. That always made me so mad! LOL!

scott.burns
scott.burns

Whenever I lost I yanked the cartridge out of the system and threw it at the wall!

hevans
hevans

NTSC sound is provided by an FM subcarrier that is offset from the (surpressed) AM video carrier by 4.5 MHz. The adjustable inductor most likely adjusted the FM subcarrier to exactly that offset for best sound quality.

jtr
jtr

Atari numbered all their chips C010... C010745 was the 6507. Unless you knew the C0 to real part number, you had to buy your replacement part from Atari.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin moderator

That's an interesting fact I did not know. Thanks.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin moderator

Depends on how much you want to spend of course, but if you have a PCI Express connection the GeForce 8500GT 512MB is a good card for under $100.

IndianaTux
IndianaTux

Spent many hours on that game. Spent more hours on Space Battle. Another favorite was Sub Hunt. Actually, I had both consoles, and I have to say I preferred the Atari. Like someone said in a lower thread, the controllers were the Intelly's weak point. And Atari just had better support from game companies, especially porting current arcade games at the time to the system. Some non-arcade favorities of mine include Demon Attack, Cosmic Ark, Chopper Command, Pitfall (of course), Jungle Hunt (good, but liked Pitfall better), Stargate, Star Voyager, and of course the all-time classic Pac-Man.

thoffman@spader
thoffman@spader

If you had bought the Atari 2600, it WOULD still be working! Mine is... :)

informatica
informatica

you are right with the humiduty in Mexico those first joysticks with a printed circuit inside rust and became useless in a less than a year. But the first pc joysticks (the ones you used with tie fighter) were terrible. Until the digital joysticks you had to recalibrate the darn thing in the middle of the game (using those potenciometers) or it would lean on either side. for a long time I truly missed those dependable atari joysticks

ppaplaus
ppaplaus

The original brown/black 2600 was the first video game console I can remember my parents owning. We later upgraded to the black slim model in 1987. When the power supply died it sat in the cupboard for two years until we picked up the second Black slim model (with in-built games) at a garage sale in 1996. Over the years our family accumulated 30+ games. At one point, having upgraded the joysticks to the Commodore 64 compatible models, my brother cracked open one of the slim black model joysticks. He reconnected the cable in a different configuration so he could play pin-ball using the bare PCB. Admittedly it was a much more natural feeling interface which looked way cool in early to mid nineties. Sadly we gave away our 2600's (all at once) to someone when we got the original PS. When I purchased a Lexmark all-in-one printer from Tandy sometime in 2004, I couldn't help noticing a revamped version of the Atari. Overjoyed at the fact it had some of my all-time favourites (Desert Falcon, Solaris and Millipede) I quickly snapped it up for AU$27. Some things are just too classic to go out of fashion...

tronman
tronman

Wow, a console I never heard of! Who made it and when? We had an original six switch 2600 back then too, we were the second in our area to get one, but the kid who got one first was kind of a jerk and no one wanted to go to his house to play it ;-) Soon all my friends had one and we were always swapping carts. many happy hours spent on Chopper Command, River Raid, Pitfall, Fast Food, MegaMania, and many others. We also had a 'Power Stick' made by the fledgling Amiga, Incorporated. It was a tiny little joystick but boy was it precise! I have a 2600 (not my original one), a VIC=20, my first 'real' computer, a C=128 and various Amigas, plus two Pegasos I's (one with April2 fix!) and a Peg II G4. Plus a bunch of old Macs. For some reason, my wife glares at me when a new computer follows me home?! Back then, Atari was the pioneer in video game tie-ins-I just got a Muppet Show 'Pigs in Space' video game cart for the 2600, and back in the day I had a game called 'escape' that had an animated beetle intro with a computer version of Journey's song 'Don't Stop Believin' from their Escape LP. The one with the futuristic looking beetle on the cover. (OK, futuristic in 1982 or thereabouts, as opposed to now ;-) There were radio commercials for the games, TV ads, toy companies promptly got in on the action of making carts as well. The 2600-not the most graphically powerful, but one of, I'd say, this century's most important pieces of electronics from a cultural standpoint. It laid the groundwork for video game culture as we know it. The Atari's TIA (television Interface Adapter) chip is half of the TIA-Pokey combination that makes up the 400-800 computers, and truly the forbearer of Jay Miner's later masterpiece, the Amiga 1000.

Forum Surfer
Forum Surfer

I actually threw one out that was stuffed in a box full of stuff my mom found in her attic a few months back. I was hoping to find the whole console or some of my 1st generation transformers, but all I found were a joystick for the 02, an early model pc joy stick that weighed like 10 pounds, some cool matchbox cars that used to come with little rubber wheels and some GI joe stuff. I trashed the o2 joystick...sorry dude!

informatica
informatica

Yeah that was an adictive game and an espectacular one considering the memory limits and other constrains the programmers had to face in those times. In my early college days I even tried to clone it with poor success. Later I found out that a gal was the one that code it and in a very elegant way. That completly changed my view on females in the IT Sciences (my female classmates were more interested in managing positions instead of programming ones and very far from assembler)

randyr
randyr

That is exactly what the tunable inductor is for, the 4.5 MHz audio offset.

alberto.baudino
alberto.baudino

How nice to hear people still discussing on that after nearly 30 years... I had (and still have somewhere in my parents' house) a 2600, if I remember well my father bought for me during a businees trip in the US, ahead of its official distribution in Italy. I was very happy with it, didn't like the Intellivision but at the time thought Colecovision looked better, at least for what I could guess from advertisements on Topolino (the Italian Mickey Mouse's weekly comic book)!! Sooner or later I'll check if my 2600 still works, though I may have problems with the controllers that I later used (and abused) with my Commodore 64! The teen age...

dcolbert
dcolbert

Intellivision versus Atari... might be the ORIGINAL Linux versus Windows debate. Anyhow, I've got a working one. I picked it up at the Bakersfield Goodwill for $5.99. I got a Cuttle Cart 3 from Chad Schell Electronics for $150.00 for it. :) You can google for more information.

thisisfutile
thisisfutile

I too felt that same envy when I purchased Donkey Kong for the Atari and my friend got it for Coleco Vision (perhaps it came with CV...I'm not sure). His version looked and felt very much like the arcade and I believe it had all the levels. My version of course looked...well, it looked Atari with only two levels.

informatica
informatica

The sound and the graphics loocked better on the Intellevision, dont know why and some games were better like one of a naval battle that had a huge map and you commanded subs and other battle ships. I had 2600 and I loved it (river raid, moon patrol, dig dug, combat, pac man, chopper command, frogger, etc.) but that naval war game I saw at a friend's house in the Intellevision really caused me envy

thisisfutile
thisisfutile

I had a major temper tantrum as a child while playing video games (and only then...go figure) and I distinctly remember impressing several friends with how well the Atari joystick withheld the extreme pressures of my rage... Picture this...remove the rubber cover from the joystick and you're left with a slender plastic tube sticking up from the base of the stick (I did this for palying Activision's Decathlon series of games). Now, sitting at a homemade desk built from particle board (that pretty tough chipped-stuff), you get enraged from being cheated by the game...you pressed the button to jump, but your decathlete overstepped the line....RRRAAARRRR! With right hand gripping under the stick and in a dumbbell curl fashion, proceed to slam the stick into the underside of the desk. I kid you not, I have the desk still in my father's basement and it has a myriad of half-moon and oval-shaped divots in the underside of that desk. I think in the 8 or 9 years that I played with Atari 2600 and my Commodore 64 (the Joystick could be used on both), I probably only went through about 5 or 6 sticks (the last 2 or 3 were definitely flimsier than my first several)...unbelievably tough sticks though. I really should take a picture of the underside of that desk. Of course, if I posted it somewhere, I'd feel even more sheepish than I already do for both acting that way and reporting it here now. :-P Viva la Memories! (I'm sure that's not French, please don't correct it.)

dcolbert
dcolbert

LOL! You guys are killing me. The best part is there is a thriving community of propeller heads that still argues these points vehmently, and there are still strongly held opinions on all of these issues... Is the Atari 2600 a better GAMING console? Or is it that the INTV had games that were truly more engaging and intellectual, a better harbringer of today's complex plot oriented games? (I personally think both are generally true, but not necessarily absolute). And controllers... NOTHING gets a flame war going stronger. People are so particular about this part. The 2600 controllers were great. Cheap, reliable, easy to fix, and with very few moving parts, but only 8 directions and one fire button. The INTV consoles were uncomfortable, but on certain games that 360 disk really shines. They also had the membrane keypad. Everyone hates the 5200 controller, the first analog console controller ever. I, and a small other fringe of lunatics, love it. I can't stand d-pads, and ANYONE that grew up during or post Nintendo NES loves them and can't fathom a REAL joystick. Get those different opinions in one forum, and you've got an eventual flame ware for sure. :)

cmcrgl
cmcrgl

In my experience with the 2600, the joystick controllers were the weakest point. A friend and I together bought a 2600 shortly after it was released. The first model we had was defective: it must have had a bad video chip! Its replacement worked well, though we had eventually had the springs in the joysticks give out from use! In later years Atari changed the internals of the joysticks, but I can still recall them wearing out from overuse.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

I remember a cartridge company that used to make the Intellivision cartridges in playable form for Atari2600. You could get the HIGH RES Intellivision Baseball for Atari, it looked like an Intellivision cartridge with a fat base to fit the 2600 console. I might be a 2600 fanboy but only a loser would have Intellivision; bloated games, requries more memory and a whole new console, keypads don't work as long as 2600 joysticks,and you have to buy all new cartidges as the old Atari cartidges are no good. Until they come out with Intellivision SP1, I'll stick to the 2600SP3. Intellivision is for n00bz! :D