Buy and Run an Atari 2600

Hook yourself up with the most classic of classics, the VCS.

Maybe you sold it at your own garage sale. Maybe your mom threw it away while you were at college. Maybe you were too young to own one in the first place. Whatever the reason, you’ve found yourself wanting an Atari once again. Yes, the very first video game company did produce many different consoles, but when I say “an Atari” you know what I’m talking about: the Video Computer System, a.k.a. the VCS, a.k.a. the 2600, a.k.a. the Atari.

For the purposes of this hack, I’m assuming that you’re not interested in the collections for PlayStation 2 and Xbox that let you play emulated versions of classic games [Hack #16] , nor are you interested in the popular standalone consoles that plug directly into your modern-day television’s AV inputs and play from a selection of classic games [Hack #15] . No, you want the real thing, whether for nostalgic reasons or to play the games you remember that, for licensing reasons, will never, ever, be included on Atari Anthology, like the execrable E.T. or the 2600 versions of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.

Well, then: here’s how you’re going to do it.

A Bit of History

Though the company was doing well with the success of the Pong arcade game as well as Home Pong [Hack #2] and knew that their new machine, codenamed “Stella,” could transform video games into an even bigger business, Atari did not have the capital to launch the new platform. So founder Nolan Bushnell decided to sell the company to Time Warner, staying on as chairman of the board.

Time Warner’s corporate culture clashed with the iconoclastic Atari, but without their money it is doubtful that Stella would have become the Atari Video Computer System. When it launched in 1977 it was not the very first programmable system (i.e., a game system in which the software was stored not within the console itself but on interchangeable cartridges that were sold separately), but it was the one that set the industry on fire.

At first, only Atari provided cartridges for the machine. But soon, some of the company’s designers began to become frustrated with working conditions under Time Warner and quit to form their own startups, providing independent software support for the VCS. Once companies like Activision and Imagic blazed the trail for “third-party” software development, dozens of small-time publishers started producing Atari cartridges and accessories en masse. This makes having a “complete” Atari 2600 collection nearly impossible.

Buying an Atari

Of course, you’ll need two major things—hardware and software. In each of those categories, however, you’ll want to make sure you cover all your bases.

Necessary hardware parts.

Here’s what you’ll need:

The console itself

Although there are quite a few different revisions of the hardware with minor internal and external changes, for the purposes of this discussion I will stick with the two major versions. The original iteration of the system was shaped like a mask worn by a hypothetical duckbilled Darth Vader, with a woodgrain-paneled front (so as to fit in with the ugliness of the average 1977 living room). This is labeled with Video Computer System on its face.

The second is the Atari 2600, a.k.a. the Atari 2600 Jr., a redesigned, tinier version of the system released in the late 1980s as Atari rode the coattails of Nintendo’s success. Differences between the two are purely aesthetic as they play the same games, use the same power supply, etc. Ironically, although the Jr. is the rarer of the two, the original system commands a higher price. Nostalgia at its best.

A power supply

The 2600 used a unique power supply. The part number was CO16353, and it featured 9v/500ma output and 110/120 VAC input. What distinguishes it physically from your average AC adapter is the plug it uses to connect to the 2600, which is small, like a Walkman headphone plug. It is incompatible with practically every other video game system, so be sure you are buying the right part.

A TV/Game Switch or equivalent

Unlike the power supply, the RF switch (the bit that hooks your Atari up to the television) included with the 2600 was a standard, nearly universal piece of hardware. You can buy them today for about ten dollars at brick-and-mortar RadioShack stores or online at; the catalog number is 15-1268. This uses the classic-style plastic switch that you have to flip yourself by reaching around the back of the television. If you’d prefer an automatic switch, you can have one for a mere three dollars more (catalog no. 15-1267).

Be aware that although the RadioShack adapters feature 75 ohm output (in layman’s terms, the familiar cable that runs into the back of your TV set), the adapters that shipped with the 2600 only featured 300 ohm output (two little U-shaped bits of metal that were fitted onto screws that have since been removed from modern TV sets). So unless you’re using a very old TV you will need a new adapter.

There is a slightly more elegant solution, if somewhat restrictive. RadioShack catalog number 278-255, called the Standard “F” Connector, is a tiny connector that directly links the phono plug on the 2600 and your TV’s VHF input. This is a much cleaner-looking result, the downside being that you can only connect one console at a time and cannot pass your cable television connection through. If you have a television reserved for classic gaming, this may be your best bet.

Controllers of both types.

Strange as it may seem these days—when game consoles ship with a bare minimum of included accessories—the Video Computer System’s standard package included two standard joysticks and a pair of "paddles” with dial controls. You’ll want both to fully enjoy the system’s library of games. The paddle controllers are necessary for playing Pongstyle contests, and since two paddles share one controller input you can easily play doubles Pong with an extra set of paddles.

The 2600 Jr. shipped with only one standard controller. What cheapskates they had become in only a decade. Of course, the system retailed for about a sixth of the price of the VCS.

What games to buy.

There are no games built into the VCS, so you will need at least one cartridge. Since so many were made, the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor that when you buy a VCS—whether online, at a thrift store, or wherever—some games will come along with it. Should you strike out on your own and want to beef up your collection with classics that are both enjoyable and very inexpensive (no more than a dollar or two for the bare cartridge), here is a starter list.


I would stop short of calling Adventure “the origin of video role-playing games,” though many do. Regardless of how much historical and cultural significance is given to Warren Robinette’s saga of a dot that defeats three dragons and recovers a chalice from a castle, it is still a fun and charming game.

Donkey Kong

This is actually quite a terrible rendition of Shigeru Miyamoto’s career-launching masterpiece of an arcade game, but worth having in your collection if only for laughs. Mario, Pauline, and DK are rendered as the formless blobs seen in Figure 1-1, and only the barest essence of the gameplay remains. It probably made Miyamoto cry.

Donkey Kong for the Atari 2600

Figure 1-1. Donkey Kong for the Atari 2600

Jr. Pac-Man

The original Pac-Man on the 2600 was afwul and probably single-handedly kicked off the great crash of 1983. But Jr. Pac-Man, released in 1987? That was some good stuff. It’s interesting to see how much power designers could crank out of the 2600, seven years later (see Figure 1-2).

Yar’s Revenge

If you ever hear anyone slander Atari designer Howard Scott Warshaw for his work on E.T., wave this game in their face! Perhaps the best original title released on the 2600 (i.e., not based on an existing arcade game or licensed property), Yar’s Revenge was a fun outer-space shooter with some clever design ideas.

Jr. Pac-Man for the Atari 2600

Figure 1-2. Jr. Pac-Man for the Atari 2600

What to ask the seller.

If you’re buying a system at a tag sale or thrift store, you’re taking your chances that it won’t work when you get it home. Them’s the breaks. The advantage is that you’ll be paying a lot less. (Or at least you should be. Ever visit a garage sale where things are marked at prices they’d be lucky to fetch on eBay? Put the pipe down!)

But if you’re buying a console online, sight unseen, you do have the right and the obligation to ask the seller questions about the system’s condition. Luckily, the VCS is a rather sturdily built piece of equipment, so it’s rare that you’ll run across one that is well and truly broken. But you should ask if the system has been tested.

Moreover, you should ask how it has been tested! Did the seller simply plug the system in and see if it powered up? Did he insert every controller and test them as well? Do all the switches on the machine function properly? And if it comes with an assortment of games but only one set of controllers, you should ask if there are any games in the lot that are unplayable without special controllers (the necessary controller type is written on the game labels, so the seller will be able to tell you).

Obviously, you don’t want to appear to be an annoying, untrusting, perfectionist brat. Just be sure to email the seller to get a handle on how he treats his merchandise (and his customers) and you will save yourself some hassle in the long run.

Running an Atari

If you have everything listed earlier, setting up the 2600 should be a snap. You’ll notice that the VCS has the wire that connects to the television switch box hardwired into the body of the unit, but the 2600 Jr. does not (so make sure that is included when you buy it as well, or it will necessitate another trip to RadioShack). Plug that into your switch box and plug the switch box into the VHF input on your television set. (If it has a manual switch, make sure it is set to GAME.) Plug the whole mess of wires into the wall socket and cross your fingers.

Common troubleshooting issues.

If these steps do not immediately work, be sure that your television is set on either channel 3 or 4—that’s the actual television set, not your VCR or cable box or satellite dish receptor or what-have-you. In these modern days, we rarely change the actual channel on our actual television sets. Go ahead and give it a try. Also, check the back of the 2600 console for a Channel 3/Channel 4 switch. If the image or sound quality is bad on one channel, try another.

If the image is in black-and-white and you’re sure you have a color TV set, locate the Color/BW switch on the 2600 unit itself. Flip that and you should be seeing the game in three or four glorious, vivid, living colors.

Also, if you find that your paddle controllers don’t seem to work properly— instead of moving smoothly, your vertical line in Pong is jittering and skipping all over the place—you can fix the paddles if you have some degree of technical expertise (or don’t care if you ruin the things because they only cost a buck). See Hack 4, “Use Atari Paddles with Your PC” from Gaming Hacks (O’Reilly) for a brief tutorial on de-jittering your precious paddles for prettier, precision Pong play.

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