RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.

Posted on Jul 25th 2010 at 02:36:56 PM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Atari 2600, Atari VCS, System Launch, Launch Games, Classic Gaming

Easily the most popular early cartridge based system, the Atari Video Computer System (a.k.a.  Atari 2600) would forever change entertainment in the home.  This entry takes a quick look at what gamers encountered when picking up the system almost 33 years ago.

The VCS launch itself was a delayed event, held up due to some legal issues between Atari and Magnavox.  Magnavox (makers of the Odyssey 1 and 2) owned the rights to publish Atari games through June of 1977, and so even though a working version of the VCS was ready in 1976, Atari waited until that contract was over so they could publish their games for their own system.  In June of 1977 the contract expired and Atari brought the VCS to the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago (which, incidentally, was the same show that introduced VHS to North America). 

A few months later, on October 14, 1977, the console was released for $199 (or $249, depending on which source you read) in the United States.  This initial VCS unit (later nicknamed the Heavy Sixer for its weight and number of switches) launched with nine titles.  Surprisingly, the system had trouble maintaining sales, failing to sell all units shipped in 1977 or 1978 (it wasnt until a home port of Space Invaders hit in 1980 that the system really started moving off shelves). 

The nine games released for the VCS at launch were Air-Sea Battle, Basic Math, Black Jack, Combat (as a pack-in game), Indy 500 (with driver controllers packed in to a big box), Star Ship, Street Racer, Surround, and Video Olympics.  Customers browsing store shelves on launch day that October had these titles to choose from:

Launch games were sold in gatefold boxes (they open up like a book, similar to Odyseey2 boxes), a packaging style which was discontinued after the first year of (relatively poor) sales for the system. 

I had some difficulty tracking down prices for new games, but based on what I found $20-$30 seems like a reasonable guess.  Adjusted for inflation, that is $70-$105 a pop today!  Purchasers could console themselves with the fact that they got multiple games, or modes, per purchase.  With the exception of Blackjack, each game offered between 8 and 50 different games in each package, with the number displayed prominently on the box.

I plan to look more closely at some of these games in future installments of the blog, but there are really only a few titles that seemed to have much staying power through the life of the console or today.  Combat is the obvious gem, but Indy 500 and Video Olympics both made this informal poll of AtariAge readers Top 100 2600 games of all time .  Past those three however, the rest of the launch games are a mixed bag.  Air-Sea Battle and Star Ship both offer some fun shooting, and the latter actually shows off some interesting graphics for a launch game.   Surround is more or less a Tron cycle style game, and Blackjack is, well, blackjack (a very tough version played with a paddle controller).  Woe to the poor kid whose parents brought home Basic Math or Street Racer, both of which were low points in fun for the launch lineup. 

If you wanted to pick up four titles with your new system, you would be looking to spend about $300-$350 in 1977, or about $1000-$1200 today.  By comparison, a 60GB PS3 at launch with four games and an extra controller would have cost about $900. 

A few things stand out about the system launch. 

For one, the titles of most of the games were very basic and descriptive, a strategy also used by Nintendo when they launched their NES in the U.S. some seven years later (with titles like Tennis, Kung Fu, Baseball, Golf, Pinball, Duck Hunt, etc.).  This simple naming practice, paired with what continues to be some of the most imaginative box art ever produced , allowed for shoppers to easily identify what kind of game they were buying. 

Also notable is the lack of any well known arcade games, games based on movies, or any other connections to popular culture of the mid-late 1970s (the first arcade port would be the aforementioned Space Invaders a few years later).  Atari basically had to launch a system featuring games with no known properties, something that has not been done since.

The inclusion of a pack-in game, a practice that has fallen out of favor with many of the more recent system launches, is significant.  Not only did it give purchasers the illusion of extra value at the register, but unlike pack in games for some other systems (Super Mario Bros., Altered Beast, etc.) Combat doesn't have a single player mode.  This sent the message to consumers that the VCS was meant to be played with others and that multiplayer gaming was the foundation for the console.  This message was reinforced by the inclusion of two joysticks, another practice that has unfortunately dropped out of most system launches.

Indy 500, which was released with the driver controllers in a bog box, is also an important title for its inclusion of accessories.  While pricing information is scarce and unreliable, Indy 500 most certainly would have cost more than a standard game because of its inclusion of these controllers.   Like modern console manufacturers, it seems Atari recognized that money could be made selling additional hardware, controllers, cables, and other add-ons for their system (the 2600 would see many accessories over the years).  Starting customers out on launch day with some extra hardware made good fiscal sense.

As a whole, it seems that the launch of one of the most successful game consoles in history did some things right (pack-ins) and some things wrong (no known IPs).  Fortunately for Atari, they did enough right to sustain the VCS for a few years until it really became popular with the addition of licensed titles. Tracking down the original launch games and the Heavy Sixer itself in the original boxes would be quite a daunting task today (the Heavy Sixer alone fetches a hefty premium over the other models on eBay), but I'd love to hear from anyone who has done so or who remembers the launch itself.

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