RETRO INVADERS: WHY THE ATARI 2600 TAUGHT US ALL WE KNOW ABOUT VIDEO GAMES.

By Ian Gonzalez Lopez.

Every single one of the cultural phenomena that now reigns in the actual panorama looked very different forty years ago; such is the case of the videogame industry. This sector that now moves millions of dollars and uses the never ending desire of entertainment to feed technological innovations has not always looked the same.

When we think about pop culture one of the decades that is evoked with mayor nostalgia is the eighties. From the music to the films, and of course the videogames, that period of time seems defining, but why? Well, just before there happened many events that changed the way we see the world now, specially in 1977: the first Stars Wars film was released, the punk took over in the U.K. and the U.S.A. and the Atari 2600 came out. The history of gaming doesn’t start there, of course, but the history of console as we know it now does, and it goes hand in hand with the Atari company.

By that time, this company was already famous for the arcade games it made, but they needed to be played on the spot with big machines. One of the most important breakouts the Atari produced was a social one. The opportunity to have a gaming console in your own home was a twist to entertainment in an era where TV did not have much to offer to young people. The portability of a console was something brought by the Atari and since then it has stayed as an standard of the gaming industry. But, how did this came to be? What was the road that led to the Atari first cartridge console?

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Atari 2600 late 70s “woody” version. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Nowadays videogames are made by writing code in a computer and most of them developed with an engine that takes care of physics rules simulations, among a lot of other things. However, during the seventies this was made in a whole different way. All the coin operated arcades made by Atari were programmed with integrated circuits, without getting too technical we can say that this was a way of programming that relies entirely on hardware. At that time, everything was designed from tiny modules that followed simple rules: either it allows current to pass to the next component or it doesn’t. With this combination of inputs and outputs the full interaction of the game is made.

 The way games were manufactured shaped the production model back then. Instead of basing a design on narrative or the game rules, it was determined by a pure materialistic side. A clear example of this was provided by a young Steve Jobs (before the Apple empire started he used to work in Atari), who tells how it was asked for him to design a game. He had the task to design a game with a certain amount of integrated circuits as a limit and for each integrated circuit he did not use he received a $100 bonus. This task was actually accomplished by Steve Wozniak -Apple’s co-founder- and was the Breakout videogame, which by the way was included in the first iPods.

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1976 Version of the “Breakout” video game. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Just as the arcade games were limited by the technology they were built with, it was an electronic innovation what made possible the design of the Atari VSC (Video Computer System). Instead of using integrated circuits only, it used the MOS 6502, a cheap 8-bit microprocessor which was adequate to build a machine that could be bought by the general public. The appearance of this microprocessor was not only used in the gaming consoles, but also in the development of the next Atari computers.

The technological improvement wasn’t the only factor to led to the construction of the Atari, a race condition also had an impact in its development. Just before the Atari 2600 was produced, Atari saw as a threat the new coming consoles that were developed by other companies, specially since at that time the business of gaming had been in the coin operated machines.

The pressure of this competition inclined Atari’s owner back then – Nolan Bushnell, who had bought the shares of its other founding member, Ted Dabney- to sell the company to Warner. One this happened, they had enough money to start producing the Atari VCS. And so, the cartridge console came to exist and was introduced inside millions of homes.

Even though the cartridge console was not made entirely of integrated circuits and used an 8/bit microprocessor, the level of difficulty to program it was not easy at all. The engineers working in the development of games had to understand exactly how the VCS worked in order to get the best out of it. For the games to work the designers needed to program the interactions between each new rendering of the screen, what forced them to know the cycling routines of the microprocessor from top to bottom.

This hard process of game designing recently saw a rendition in the blockbuster film Ready Player One, the invention of the easter egg. Since game development was not an easy task Adventure creator Warren Robinett decided that his salary was not enough, especially when there were no concept of royalties. He decided to credit himself in a secret room of the game that could only be accessed following a certain movement pattern, so, even though he did not receive extra money from the millions of copies sold, he is seen as the creator of the easter-egg.

The ownership of Atari by Warner was one of the motives the console could be made and it also shaped its destiny. In 1977 the sales the console had not yet launched in the sales, so, even though the engineers at the company developed a new chip that could expand the possibilities of new cartridge consoles, they decided to use it in the production of computers.

Instead of focusing on making new consoles, they tried to sell the product they already had, and it worked, but also failed. They spent a lot of money in marketing and thus, the Atari 2600 became well known, now it was not only an extension of the arcade games, but an institution on its own. Meanwhile, other competitors started producing their own consoles and companies such as Sega and Nintendo were among them.

The big explosion of the game that Warner had searched for finally arrived. The sales started to go insanely high and the 70% of Warner’s revenue came from Atari, which was unbelievable at the time considering they also had film and music branches. The console became widely known with the help of Space Invaders, a title which quadrupled its sales. As the Atari 2600 set a new trend videogames had become a thing and everyone wanted their share of the stake. The over-production of titles quickly led to a massive crash in 1983.

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Atari timeline infographic. Image credit: Atari.com

After this crash the market was difficult. Other companies had developed many consoles (like the NES of Nintendo), the Atari 2600 still didn’t have a successor and they were still producing games for the only product they had. Even the games they started to produce were seen as a failure; such is the case of the E.T. videogame, released in 1982. This combination of factors led to a peculiar story: the overproduction of videogames in 1983 and the massive returns of this game cartridge led to supposedly storage crisis that resulted in the burial of games i the Alamogordo desert.

The Atari 2600 is now seen as a cultural icon of the pop culture and it has even found its way into contemporary art. The mexican electronic artist Arcáncel Constantini has a work of art named Atari Noise, which is an Atari 2600 console manually altered to produce video and sound in a wall of screens when the observer “plays” it. This technique of modifying electronic objects is commonly known as circuit bending.

From the legend of Space Invaders to the hideous E.T. videogame, and from the arcade coin operated machines to the crash of a market due to overproduction, the Atari console was at the middle of the video game history. After all, this console led to a lot of the principles the industry still holds. From their bad corporate choices a lot of do’s and dont’s can be deduced. Nowadays not a single year passes without enterprises unveiling new consoles at each Electronic Games Show, and no matter how much advanced the last one seemed, it appears as nothing compared to the new one. Instead of shadowing the author of the games, every gamer knows that when a game is finished there will be displayed a credit screen.

References:

Atari. 2012. “Cartridge Consoles” in Atari History. Available at: https://www.atari.com/about-us/

Brinks, M. ND. The Very First Easter Egg In Video Game History. Available at:

https://www.ranker.com/list/first-video-game-easter-egg-atari-2600-adventure/melissa-brinks

Fulton, S. 2007. “1997 The Home Division” in The Story of Atari 1971-1977. Available at:

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/130414/the_history_of_atari_19711977.php?page=1

Gach, E. 2018. “The Real-Life Atari Secret That Inspired Ready Player One” in Kotaku. Available at: https://kotaku.com/the-real-life-atari-secret-that-inspired-ready-player-o-1824221173

Macdonald, K. 2014. “IGN Presents: the History of Atari” in IGN. Available at: http://www.ign.com/articles/2014/03/20/ign-presents-the-history-of-atari

Wikipedia. 2018. Atari 2600. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atari_2600

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Author: Jesus Padilla

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