The Atari 2600, or Video Computer System (VCS), as it was originally known, first launched in 1977 in North America (1978 in Europe), and was among the first consoles to use cartridges to allow owners of the system the ability to play different games on the same console. Until that time, most video game consoles only had one playable game. In spite of the ability to play a variety of games, Atari planned for the console to be sold for just a couple of years, since they believed they could create newer systems with new technology once they made money from the 2600. Given this planned obsolescence, Atari did all it could to keep the costs related to manufacturing the console as low as possible.

Since both RAM and ROM chips were expensive at the time, Atari designed the 2600 to only have 128 bytes of RAM and for the greater memory allocation to be part of the cartridges themselves. Though the plan was to use no more than 4 KB of ROM in cartridges, most of the early titles released for the system were actually only 2 KB in size. The system also used a chip called the TIA to produce both video and audio output and a 6507 chip as its processor. These gave the system the ability to have a playing field of 40 x 192 pixels and ball and missile sprites of 1 x 192 pixels. If these seem rather limited, that’s because they were. Atari intended for the console to be used to play simple variations of Pong or games with limited objects on screen like Combat.

While these limitations worked well for the games that were originally intended for the system, they severely hindered program- mers. With so little RAM and such limited video and audio capabili- ties, the system could only handle a limited number of variables at one time. As arcade games became more popular and people wanted to play those games at home, Atari faced an increasing challenge to be able to adapt those arcade games to the 2600. Programmers had to learn new tricks to get the console to perform beyond what was expected. The need for programming tricks increased as the 2600 became highly popular thanks to Atari’s licensing of Space Invaders.

 

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