Look at the design of the Atari 2600, the “woody” as it is affectionately known, and compare it to the clodding, Tonka-toy-looking design of consoles that came after. It is sublime–a Furturistic Video Computer System, designed to match the everyday humdrum of the fake wood veneer of your television set. The Atari 2600 is a tank, a beautiful tank, made for the long haul, and it goes with the living room.
Note to Old(er) People — A working Atari 2600 is worth maybe, 10-30 bucks, with all the joysticks, paddles, and loose games included. The girlfriend had to convince her dad the thing wasn’t worth hundreds of dollars before she was able to nab it for me. She brought it over in a charming milk crate, the kind she used to keep her toys in. I swooned a bit over this 80s milk crate. What a perfect way to store my 80s games! Here’s another thing about the design of the 2600, its surface is designed to hold approximately 8 inches of dust. So the girlfriend snapped on a face mask and took a towel to it.
Included was the original manual TV/Game switch, and some twin pitchfork-looking things for an antenna. What the fuck are these? There is an air of desperation out there on the internet when you google how to connect an Atari. It’s daunting at first. I wanted to be “authentic” and hook it up using the manual TV/Game switch, just as I only listen to the Beatles in mono on LP, but the 30 year old switch quickly broke after my manhandling it. So I took a trip to Radio Shack. Man, it weirds me out that Radio Shack still exists. And in fact, it’s the only thing that exists in the mall behind me. The place is a total ghost town, except for this Radio Shack still weathering the economy. A tank, like the Atari.
Finally, I got to the games. They are backgammon to me. (How the hell do you play backgammon?) For most people my age, how to play video games is a set of understandings, rules, and knowledge. Press Start to Begin. A Button Jumps. B Shoots. Start Button pauses. The Atari predates this, and even something like how to hold the joystick, or where to plug it in has no meaning to me. I spent my first hour of Atari disappointed that the joysticks didn’t work, only to later realize I had it plugged into the wrong port.
Of course the graphics require a lot of imagination, and looking up the old game manuals online can help you to decipher what exactly is going on. Hell, you need to see the instructions to know which combination of flicking switches on the tank starts the damn game.
One thing I find endearing about the games is that most were truly designed for two players. Indeed, the goal of these games wasn’t to beat them, finish them, or get to the end, but instead to one-up your pals with a higher score. You beat your friends, not the game. In perspective, I think about those put-upon nerds in The King of Kong who dedicate hours of their lives trying to “beat” these old games like Pac Man, playing 256 levels until the game literally freezes and crashes because the board is out of memory. That’s not the point of those games.
Speaking of Pac-Man, that’s one of the games that my tank came with. Pac-Man on the Atari 2600, along with the infamous ET, singlehandedly destroyed the video game market. They are terrible rush-job games that put profit and corporate greed ahead of the actual product. For instance, Atari made 2 million more Pac Man cartridges than there were actual Ataris to play them on. People returned these unplayable games in droves and they rotted on the shelves in the millions, causing the market to go under. Indeed, Pac-Man is the flickering shitty mess I had hoped it would be.
There is that wonderfully true legend that Atari buried unsold millions of Pac Man and ET cartridges somewhere in a New Mexico desert, covering the area with cement to prevent looting. Wouldn’t that make a great road trip stop on your way to the biggest ball of yarn, to stand on the graveyard of crushed Pac Man and ET games? Just thinking of it gives me a chill.
I have many other games to explore on the Atari, and if you can recommend any to look for, let me know. The one I have that intrigues me the most is Plaque Attack, a variation on Space Invaders where you protect teeth from floating hamburgers by shooting toothpaste.
Beautiful, isn’t it? I want someone to do a painting of this for my living room. With a wood veneer frame, naturally.