The Atari 2600, also known as the Atari VCS (Video Computer System), was a video game console first released in 1977. The Atari 2600 was the first widely distributed game console with the success of Pong the first mass marketed video game. It was a history making, being the first successful video game console that used plug-in cartridges. It's success is attributed to the variety of titles that could be played, including classics such as Space Invaders.
The decline of the system came with the creation of third-party developers like Activision, and the Video Game Crash of 1983.
Atari Inc. had purchased an engineering think tank in 1973 called Cyan Engineering to research next-generation video game systems, and had been working on a prototype known as "Stella" (named after one of the engineers' bicycles) for some time. Unlike prior generations of machines that used custom logic to play a small number of games, Stella's core was a complete CPU, the famous MOS Technology 6502 in a cost-reduced version, known as the 6507. It was combined with a RAM-and-I/O chip, the MOS Technology 6532, and a display and sound chip of their own design known as the TIA, for Television Interface Adaptor. Beyond those three, the first two versions of the machine contain just one more chip, a standard CMOS logic buffer IC, bringing the total chip count to the very low and cost-effective number of four. Some later versions of the console eliminated the buffer chip.
Programs for small computers were generally stored on cassette tape, disk or paper tape. By the early 1970s, Hewlett Packard manufactured desktop computers costing thousands of dollars such as the HP 9830, which packaged ROM memory into removable cartridges to add special programming features, and these were being considered for use in games. At first, the design was not going to be cartridge-based, but after seeing a "fake" cartridge system on another machine, they realized they could place the games on cartridges essentially for the price of the connector and packaging.
In August 1976, Fairchild Semiconductor released their own CPU-based system, the Video Entertainment System. Stella was still not ready for production, but it was clear that it needed to be before there were a number of "me too" products filling up the market – which had happened after they released Pong. Atari Inc. simply didn't have the cash flow to complete the system quickly, given that sales of their own Pong systems were cooling. Nolan Bushnell eventually turned to Warner Communications, and sold the company to them in 1976 for US$28 million on the promise that Stella would be produced as soon as possible.
Key to the eventual success of the machine was the hiring of Jay Miner, a chip designer who managed to squeeze an entire breadboard of equipment making up the TIA into a single chip. Once that was completed and debugged, the system was ready for shipping. By the time it was released in 1977, the development had cost about US $100 million.
The Atari 2600 game library consists of hundreds of games in various genres. Originally most of the games were created in-house by Atari. By 1980, several former Atari programmers formed their own company Activision and released some of their Atari 2600 games outside Atari's control. Atari filed a lawsuit against Activision for this and took them to court but lost the case, which enabled other companies to produce software for the Atari 2600, including its competitors such as Mattel and Coleco. By 1983, the Video Game Crash caused production of games to eventually cease, until Activision, Absolute Entertainment, Epyx, and Froggo Games were the only companies left in the late 1980s. Nowadays, game production for the 2600 is solely homebrew through the efforts of various hobbyists who continue to enjoy the games for that system.
The Atari 2600 was well-known for being the first system to "bring the arcades home" with its renditions of Space Invaders, Missile Command, Asteroids, and Pac-Man.