Synopsis of Toy

For a time, the word was synonymous with “video games.” Nobody said, “So you guys wanna go over to Brent’s and play video games?” No, it was always, “You wanna go play Atari?” It wasn’t the first home video game system (the Odyssey predated it by five full years), but the Atari Video Computer System (VCS) was the cultural turning point. With this one little box and a library of hundreds of game cartridges, Atari turned home gaming into the biggest fad of the early 80’s and helped make it the multi-billion dollar entertainment industry it is today. And in the minds of many youngsters at the time, it was the coolest invention ever in the entire history of the world.

Atari had scored a hit in 1975 with a home version of Pong, but cartridge-based gaming was clearly the wave of the future. A prototype was developed in 1975, and with funding from parent company Warner Bros., Atari unveiled its VCS in time for the 1977 holiday season.

The first VCS had nearly all the standard features that would make the system a mammoth hit: a woodgrain-finished console with a cartridge slot and option switches (difficulty, game select, black-and-white/color), a pair of one-button joysticks, and a set of rotating paddle controls. Packed into this black beauty was the VCS’ original pride and joy: Combat, a head-to-head battle game that featured tanks, biplanes, jets, and options ranging from invisible tanks to bouncing walls.

The one-on-one contests of Combat were enough to keep siblings and best friends awake until the late hours, but Atari also included eight other games in its original lineup. A dozen more titles arrived over the next two years, but the VCS hadn’t quite yet come into its own. Consoles and games like the conversion of arcade Breakout sold very well, but Atari overproduced, leaving expensive inventory sitting in warehouses. Competing systems (the Odyssey² and the Intellivision) were also creating headaches, but Atari was about to pull out the biggest ace in the deck.

The name was Space Invaders, and by 1980, that name was well-known to anyone who’d even heard about the video game phenomenon. Taito’s game of alien invasion had created a 100-Yen coin shortage in Japan, and its popularity in the U.S. nearly matched that success. In a home game first, Atari purchased the license to Space Invaders and had designer Rick Mauer convert it to the VCS.

With that one move, the Atari VCS went from “gee, that’s neat” to “I’ll love you forever and clean my room every day and get straight A’s if you buy me that!” Atari’s Space Invaders cartridge earned the company over $100 million, and home video games had their new official king. Within two years, more than 25 million consoles were sold, earning more than $5 billion (more than half of Warner Bros.’ income at the time). New accessories were added, from the keyboard control of Brain Games, Codebreaker and others to Indy 500’s driving control to assorted Trak-Balls, new joysticks, and cheating helps like the rapid-fire Blaster.

, Defender, Centipede, Missile Command, Frogger, Warlords, Dig Dug, Donkey Kong and others, but there were several original hits as well. Among them:

Adventure – A quest to find and recover a golden chalice, fighting dragons and avoiding a thieving bat along the way.

Haunted House – A pair of eyes searched a spooky lair for the pieces of a treasure. Ghosts, spiders, and other nasties attacked, and your tiny candle could blow out at any minute.

Kaboom! – A masked robber dropped bombs toward you. Catching them got harder and harder as the bombs dropped faster and faster.

Pitfall! – Pitfall Harry scampered through the jungle, hunting treasure and jumping over crocodiles, rolling logs, pits, scorpions and other threats (a sequel, Pitfall II: The Lost Caverns, expanded the adventure into one of the most elaborate games created for the 2600).

Raiders of the Lost Ark – A quest based on the movie of the same name, as Indy tried to locate and recover the Ark of the Covenant.

Superman – The Man of Steel flew around Metropolis, trying to round up Lex Luthor’s gang and put back together the bridge they sabotaged.

Video Olympics – 50 variations on the Pong formula, from Quadrapong to Foozpong to Soccer, Volleyball, Handball and Basketball.

Yar’s Revenge – Your heroic insect chewed away a shield, then fired a missile at the exposed enemy.

The console’s biggest cartridge success was no big surprise. Namco’s Pac-Man had become a worldwide sensation in 1980, and Atari naturally wanted a home version. The 2600 game arrived with great fanfare in 1982, and based on name recognition alone, it quickly became the best-selling title in the VCS/2600’s history. But even those who bought the game and played it faithfully until the wee hours of the morning recognized that it didn’t really quite exactly look like the arcade…y’know? A later release of Ms. Pac-Man offered a more faithful version, but even so, the neighbor kid’s ColecoVision was starting to look better and better…

Regardless, 2600 Pac-Man was an unqualified smash—the fact that you could play Pac-Man at home was all we needed to hear. The 2600 continued to score big through 1982 and 1983, but ironically, it was about to become a victim of its own success. Third-party cartridges flooded the market, hoping to cash in on the video game craze. Many were both rushed and rough, and interest in the machine waned. Atari was already hurting from disappointing sales of its E.T. game after spending an astronomical amount for the license, and when gamers suddenly switched over from home game systems to home computers (used, of course, to play games), the entire video game market crashed.

Atari’s video game division was sold in 1984, including the 2600, its short-lived graphical improvement the 5200, and the unreleased 7800. With the success of the Nintendo Entertainment System in the mid-80’s, the 7800 was finally released, and a handful of new 2600 games continued to be produced. The 2600 finally ended its production run in 1991, after an amazing 14-year career (the longest of any home video game system to date).

By the time it left the stage, the 2600 was a relic in the minds of many, but not to those who were there. To them, it may not be the coolest invention ever in the entire history of the world any more, but it’s still probably Top 5, easy.

Release History of Toy

1977 - Atari VCS (a.k.a. Atari 2600)
1982 - Atari 5200
1986 - Atari 7800

Sub Categories of Toys

electronic games

Toy and Game Manufacturer

Atari, Warner Bros.

Other Toy Links