It is the granddaddy of all home gaming consoles. It popularised the use of changeable cartridges and brought home some of the most classic arcade games (at least in dumbed down versions) for the first time. I was too young to appreciate the Atari 2600 back in the day. I was born in 1984 and the Atari 2600 was already seven years old at that time and while it hadn’t been killed off just yet it was already taking a backseat to the newer consoles coming out at the time.
Here in the UK of course, the Atari 2600 never had the popularity that it enjoyed in the US. We preferred our ZX Spectrum microcomputers for our gaming needs since the games came on much cheaper cassettes rather than the more expensive cartridges. The Sega Master System and Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) would finally drag us away from our microcomputers on to dedicated gaming consoles while the Atari 2600 was more of a niche item in UK households. Despite this it achieved a loyal fanbase here in ol’ blighty and I am pleased to declare that I am now one of that fraternity.
My first experience with the 2600 was a brief trial of one about two and a half years ago and I was immediately hooked by its simple graphics, crude sounds and strangely addictive games. Since then I played a lot of titles using the RetroArch emulator app on my tablet which although better than most android emulators is no substitute for the real thing so once again I started putting the pennies away with the goal of getting my first Atari.
In the meantime I hit Ebay to price up what a decent console would cost and discovered that compared to the NES and even the Master System, Atari 2600s were relatively cheap over here in the UK with the average price for a decent working console with cables and controller being in the £40-50 range. The older models with the wood grain finish tend to go for a bit more being collector’s items these days but the later Atari 2600 Jr were well within reach. However, I had somewhat more ambitious plans. I actually wanted the Atari 7800 which while being a newer console was backward compatible with the 2600 meaning I could play games from both libraries. I found a decent 7800 for around £65 on Ebay and set my sights on it only to have it snatched away at the last moment. Oh well! With no other 7800s around I decided to ditch that plan and go for a straight up 2600.
A quick search and I found a 2600 Jr for the bargain price of just £41 including delivery. A quick click on the big blue button labelled BUY IT NOW and I could officially call myself an Atari owner. It took six agonizingly long days for it to arrive and it came in a big brown cardboard box. The seller had thankfully taken great care packaging it and it came out of the box looking immaculate save for a light scratch on the front that is barely noticeable unless you go looking for it.
My first thought of the 2600 Jr was just how light it was. It can easily be handled with just one hand having an almost hollow feel to it. The cartridge plops in the top and looks very exposed compared to the similarly top loading Master System although it sits quite firmly in there. There are four buttons on the front – power, black & white mode (how retro is that!), select and finally reset. Power and the B/W switch are both sliders and still work very well although the power switch has a tendency to stick when switching the power off. The select and reset buttons are both push-down types and quite stiff although you can feel where they connect with the circuit. On the whole, very simple and user friendly.
The classic joystick is a bit of a let down in that it hasn’t faired as well as the console itself. While left, down and right work perfectly, up doesn’t work as well and the stick has to be really forced upwards. However, the 2600 is famous for having the same 9-pin connections as the Sega Master System and Mega Drive and so you can use a lot of Sega peripherals with it. As such I have used the standard Mega Drive controller as well as the Mega Drive Arcade Stick (as in the top picture) and the Master System’s much loathed Control Stick. With the Mega Drive Arcade Stick especially there is a real feel of what these games must have been like in the arcade back in the 80s but all work perfectly and are far more responsive than the Atari controller. Unfortunately the connections are on the back of the console which sees the cable fold awkwardly over the top.
As for running it through the TV I had very little trouble. It uses a standard RF cable and when I first switched it on, my TV was set to the channel I use for the NES/SNES. The picture was already almost perfect and needed only minute tuning to get it right. I have since tuned channel 1 to the Atari and channel 2 to the NES/SNES – I simply plug the same RF cable in whichever console I want to use which is far easier than replacing the cable in the back of the TV. It is also why all three consoles sit on the same shelf.
So with it all set up, what about games? Well the console was delivered with one of the many pack-in cartridges it came with namely Air-Sea Battle which is a very simple shooter intended for two players. Upon hearing I had an Atari 2600 a good friend of mine, Stuart Marshall, sent me down two cartridges he had spare copies for namely Centipede and Joust. Centipede needs very little introduction but Joust has gone from being one of the most frustrating games I have ever played to one of the most addictive. Like the console itself the cartridges are quite cheap with the bulk being £4-£6. I have slowly built up a small collection and I will go in to more detail about them in a future post.
I have to say I am very happy with my Atari 2600 overall. It has a real charm to it being easy to pick up and play with the minimalistic graphics and controls being surprisingly involving. You find yourself being drawn in to what you are doing which is always an important aspect of gaming. Not bad for a console whose technology is pushing nearly 40 now!