Atari VCSBy Dan Gutman
It used to be that computer owners could dismiss the Atari 2600 VCS (Video Computer System) as a mere plaything that temporarily infatuated millions of Americans. Video game systems were just toys compared to the more powerful and versatile "real" computers.
But now, the four best-selling video game systems (Atari VCS, Atari 5200, ColecoVision and Intellivision II) all have plug-in expansion modules to add a keyboard and [: more memory to the basic game system. Just as personal , computers began playing games a few years ago, this year t the game systems have become computers. No longer are there video game systems and computers. The differences have diminished to the point that they are now one product. ~ Because of this, the Atari Video game systems will receive coverage in these pages. And what could be better to start with than one that's in ten million homes, the Atari VCS?
A Little HistoryCredit for the VCS usually goes to Nolan Bushnell, who r started Atari with $500 and gave us Pong in 1972. Actually, it was principally invented by Atari's Steven T. Mayer, who had also helped design the ATARI 400 and 800 computers. The VCS came out in 1977, but didn't catch on for quite a while. It wasn't until Bushnell left Atari in January of 1979 that Space Invaders arrived and the VCS took off. Now, despite the fact that Intellivision, ColecoVision and the Atari 5200 easily outstrip it in computing power, more than half of the video game systems in American homes are the Atari VCS. Originally sold for $180, it was last sighted at $95 and dropping.
Let's Get PhysicalThe VCS is a good-looking little machine made of black and brown simulated-wood plastic. The cartridge slot is right in the middle, flanked by four switches: Power, Game Reset, Game Select and Color/B&W. Game Select is for games like Space Invaders, that has 112 different variations. Recently, the Color/B&W switch has been used for other purposes. In Spectravision's Nexar, for instance, that switch will freeze the action indefinitely so you can answer the phone (or even go on vacation) and resume the game when you return. In the back of the VCS is a switch that manipulates the difficulty level of the game.
Packed with the VCS are two joysticks, two paddle controllers (for horizontal-movement games like Breakout), a TV/game switch box and a Combat cartridge.
Inside, the VCS sports a 6507 microprocessor. The 5200 game machine and the 400/800 computer carry the 6502, which can address more memory. This affects the number of independently positioned objects the screen can handle on one line. The VCS allows a programmer to manipulate five independently moving objects while the 6502 grants him eight. However, the VCS has something the computers don't--repeat register. This feature gives a designer the freedom to copy objects on the screen and repeat them without using more memory. In effect, it gives the illusion of a more complex game.
Hundreds of GamesAt last count, there were over 200 game cartridges for the VCS, triple the number for any other system. With so many VCS's out there, software companies have stuck to designing VCS games instead of switching to flashier games for the ColecoVision, etc. Activision, formed by four exAtarians, was the first company other than Atari to manufacture games for the VCS. Soon after, in 1981, other companies joined the fray almost every week—Imagic, Parker Brothers, U.S. Games, Spectravision, Telesys, CBS, Sega, CommaVid, Twentieth Century Fox, Tigervision, Coleco and even arch-rival Mattel.
Atari now has nearly 20 such competitors, which certainly contributed to the Warner Communication "bombshell" that Atari games were not selling as well as previously. But this has been a blessing to the consumer, who has the choice of virtually any game imaginable if he or she owns the VCS.
Originally, the VCS was designed to do two things— play Pong-type games and play tank-battle games. In fact, in the beginning nobody at Atar dreamed the 4K program capacity of the machine would ever be fully utilized. But video game designers, in their zest to program more colorful and complex games, have pushed the old warhorse to its limits and beyond. Some of the games approach the quality of computer games that have twice the memory.
First there are the classics—Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Missile Command. These games brought the middle class into the arcades, and also brought them back home. The Atari VCS versions are not identical to the coin-ops (neither are the 400/800 versions), but they capture the feel and personality of the games. Although Pac-Man was a huge disappointment for the millions who ran out to buy it, Atari has consistently provided good games for the VCS. Defender, Centipede, Berzerk, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaxian and Vanguard are examples. Turkeys included E. T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and most of the sports games. The VCS is great for fast-moving action games, but it takes to sports like an elephant to a birdbath.
Other excellent VCS games are: Kaboom and Pitfall (Activision), Demon Attack (Imagic), The Empire Strikes Back (Parker), Star Gunner (Telesys), and Nexar (Spectravision). Needless to say, there are a good many duds also. VCS games sell for $20 to $30.
Great effort has been taken to squeeze every last ounce of graphic capability from the VCS. Early on, Atari discovered that they could turn 4K games into 8K games by a method called "bank switching." Two 4K chips are packed into the cartridge and they alternately turn on and off, tricking the system into playing an 8K game. Recently, CBS Video Games introduced two games, Wings and Tunnel Runner, that use a "RAM+PLUS" chip that triples the capacity of the VCS. The limits of the cartridge possibly may be extended even further.
Add-OnsNot simply content to settle for cartridges, two companies have come out with devices that plug into the VCS and expand its memory even further. The Startpath (Arcadia) Supercharger, designed by Bob Brown, formerly Director of Research at Atari, expands the Random Access Memory of the VCS from 128 bytes to 6,272 bytes. A 50-fold increase in memory gives designers a lot of room to play with, though Starpath has yet to release a monster game.
The Supercharger is the size of two cartridges on top of one another, but it still plugs into the cartridge slot on the VCS. A short cable goes from the Supercharger to any standard cassette recorder. In this way, the Starpath games, which sell for just $15 on tape, get loaded from the tape recorder into the Supercharger. The Supercharger sells for $44.95 (including one game) and Starpath has seven games for it. At this point, no other companies have released games that take advantage of the Supercharger's capability. Amiga will unveil a device similar to the Supercharger in June.
Another improvement in the VCS concerns its controllers, which have a tendency to break after six months of heavy play. No less than 15 companies are selling replacement joysticks and trackballs for every conceivable taste and grip preference. They run from cheap, plastic replacements to huge arcade bat handles for $70 (nearly the price of the VCS). Wico's Three-Way Deluxe Joystick and Suncom's StarFighter are considered the best. Any controller that plugs into the VCS will also plug into the 5200 or the ATARI 400/800/1200.
Death of the VCS?She's a tough old bird. A lot of people like to poke fun at the VCS, saying it's weak and obsolete. But the video-game designers have seen it as opportunity—coming up with ever more powerful chips, improving the joysticks, plugging who-knows-what into it, cramming in some more memory—even using deception to make games seem more complicated. Now, with four companies (Atari, Entex, Unitronics and Spectravision) making computer add-one for it, the rumored death of the VCS has been slightly exaggerated. Unless those ten million VCS owners find a better video game system, with a library as extensive as the Atari 2600 VCS, it may be around in the year 2600.
Dan Gutman is Editor-in-Chief of Video Games Player magazine, and aformer editor of Electronic Fun. He is also an owner/user of an ATARI 800 computer, and will be contributing regularly to our Games Department.