The Atari 2600, released in October 1977, is the video game console credited with popularizing the use of microprocessor based hardware and cartridges containing game code, instead of having a non-microprocessor dedicated hardware with all games built in. The first game console to use this format was the Fairchild Channel F. However, it was the Atari 2600 that made the plug-in concept popular among the game-playing public.
Originally known as the Atari VCS—for Video Computer System—the machine's name was changed to "Atari 2600" (from the unit's Atari part number, CX2600) in 1982, after the release of the more advanced Atari 5200.
It was wildly successful, and during the 1980s, "Atari" was a synonym for this model in mainstream media. The 2600 was typically bundled with two joystick controllers, a conjoined pair of paddle controllers, and a cartridge game - initially Combat and subsequently Pac-Man.
Atari 2600 in its 1986 cost-reduced version, also known as the "2600 Jr."Although not formally discontinued, the 2600 was de-emphasized for two years after Warner's 1984 sale of Atari's Consumer Division to Commodore Business Machines founder Jack Tramiel, who wanted to concentrate on home computers. In 1986, a new version of the 2600 was released (although it was planned for release two years earlier). The new redesigned version of the 2600, unofficially referred to as the 2600 Jr., featured a smaller cost-reduced form factor with a modernized Atari 7800-like appearance. The redesigned 2600 was advertised as a budget gaming system (under $50) that had the ability to run a large collection of classic games.
With its introduction came a resurgence in software development both from Atari and from third parties. The Atari 2600 continued to sell in the USA and Europe until 1990, and in Asia until the early 1990s. Its final European release was Acid Drop in 1992. Over its lifetime, an estimated 25 million units were shipped, and its video game library reportedly numbers more than 900 titles with commercial games released for this system all the way until 1991. In Brazil, the console became extremely popular in the mid-1980s. The Atari 2600 was officially retired by Atari on January 1, 1992, making it the longest-lived home video game console in US game history. It had a lifespan of 14 years and 2 months, nearly three times the typical lifespan of a console.
At the turn of the millennium, 25-years-plus after the launch of the Atari 2600, new homebrew games for the Atari 2600 are still made and sold by hobbyists with several new titles available each year. The console and its old and new games are very popular with collectors because of its significant impact on video game and consumer electronics history and also due to its nostalgic value for many people. In addition, modern Atari 2600 clones remain on the market. One example is the Atari Classics 10-in-1 TV Game, manufactured by Jakks Pacific, which simulates the 2600 console, and includes converted versions of 10 games into a single Atari-brand-look-a-like joystick with composite video outputs for connecting directly to modern televisions or VCRs. Another is the TV Boy, which includes 127 games in an enlarged joypad.
Additionally, Benjamin Heckendorn has created several different versions of a portable 2600, created by cutting apart full-sized vintage units, adding screens and putting them into new enclosures.
The Atari Flashback 2 console, released in 2005, contains 40 games (with four more programs unlockable by a cheat code). The console implements the original 2600 architecture and can be modified to play original 2600 cartridges by adding a cartridge port, and is compatible with original 2600 controllers.
The Atari insignia has become an iconic pop cultural logo.