The system offered several practical innovations, including removable cartridges, detachable controllers, different types of controllers, and the ability to select from multiple game variations from a single cartridge. Although many technically-superior consoles were released during the 80's, the Atari 2600 remained in production in one form or another long after most of its competitors had folded, all the way up until 1991.
Console design: A-. The Atari 2600 was practical in design, with an easy-to-access cartridge slot and a series of silver switches across the front. The system went through several incarnations during its lifetime, but the original "heavy sixer" version with six switches and a distinctive fake wood facade is the most sought-after by collectors. The second version, which is the most common, raised the controller ports on the back (making them easier to reach), and moved the difficulty switches to the back as well (making them harder to reach). The console's third iteration replaced the wood-grain with a solid black strip labeled with a white "Atari 2600" insignia. The final version had a slim, compact design not much larger than a VHS tape. It was produced in modest quantities from the mid-80s until the end of the system's lifetime.
Console durability: B. Built like tanks, Atari 2600's are highly durable, and it's not hard to find one in good working condition. Compared to newer consoles like the NES, the system has aged extremely well.
Graphics: C+. Early Atari 2600 titles were primitive and blocky, but the system's flexible architecture provided programmers with the freedom to develop special techniques to squeeze more and more out of the system. Thanks to Activision and other innovative third-party developers pushing the envelope, Atari 2600 games gradually became very sophisticated, sporting sharper graphics, flicker-free sprites, and dazzling special effects.
Audio: A-. Like the graphics, developers gradually learned how to harness the system's sound capabilities, eventually producing games with realistic sound effects and even harmonized music. The system has a sonic quality few consoles can match, especially when it comes to explosions.
Controllers: B. One strength of the 2600 is its ability to support third-party controllers. The standard Atari joystick was cheap and prone to breakage, but several other companies stepped in to produce quality alternatives. One limitation of the Atari 2600 joysticks is their single button configuration, although certain games came up with imaginative ways to overcome this. In addition to joysticks, analog "paddle" controllers were shipped with the early systems, providing unique precision control and also allowing for four-player simultaneous play. The paddles do however have a tendency to become jittery over time, but this problem can be remedied.
Media: A. As a pioneer in removable games, Atari designed their cartridges perfectly. Compact, handsome, and nearly indestructible, the games easily stack and have an easy-to-read label on their outer edge. Since the cartridges were large enough to display artwork on the front, Atari plastered its games with artistic mosaics that tended to belie the actual content of the game. Activision took the opposite approach with its labels, displaying pixelated representations of their games. Third-party companies experimented with a number of cartridge designs, and you can often identify the manufacturer by simply glancing at the cartridge.
Packaging: B. Atari 2600 cartridges were sold in cheap but attractive boxes. Most games, especially those from Atari, feature elaborate artwork across the front. The back usually displays a screenshot with a brief description of the game. Most boxes made by Atari and Activision were printed in an array of attractive colors, making them look nice lining a shelf. Atari eventually moved to a silver with red trim color scheme.
Pack-in game: B. Since the system included multiple controllers (2 joysticks, 2 paddles) it made sense to include a multiplayer pack-in game. Combat is the consummate head-to-head battle, pitting tanks and planes against each other over 27 distinctive variations. The game's main drawback is a lack of a single-player mode. When I got my first Atari the prospect of being able to play games by myself was a very appealing feature. The fact that Combat did not support paddle controllers was a smart move on Atari's part, as it encouraged players to run out and purchase a paddle-compatible game such as Breakout, Circus Atari, or Warlords.
Launch titles: C-. The list consisted of Air-Sea Battle, Basic Math, Blackjack, Combat, Indy 500, Star Ship, Street Racer, Surround, and Video Olympics. Of these only Indy 500, Combat, and Air-Sea Battle might be considered immediately appealing. This might explain why the system took a few years to get off the ground.
Library: B. The amount of fun, inexpensive titles in the 2600 library easily compensates for the substantial number of "duds". Atari's initial set of games (pre-1980) tended to be rudimentary but as the newer, arcade-style games demanded richer visuals and sound effects, the quality of 2600 games improved. In 1980 a group of ex-Atari employees formed Activision, the first third-party software company. Activision carved a sizeable chunk out of Atari's market by producing some of the best titles for the system, including Pitfall, River Raid, and Kaboom. Inspired by Activision's success, other companies, both established and new, jumped into the fray with their own lines of games. The resulting glut, combined with a general lowering of quality, ultimately led to a dramatic video game "crash" in 1983, of which few video game companies survived.
Collectability: A. Due to its massive popularity and remarkable lifespan, the Atari 2600 is an ideal system for collectors. Literally hundreds of titles were produced for the system, including an extensive list of legitimate classics including Adventure, Space Invaders, Missile Command, Battlezone, Asteroids, and Frogger. Fortunately, the best titles are cheap and easy to find, and all instruction manuals are available online (see www.atariage.com). The cartridges work like new after a proper cleaning, although the condition of the label may vary. Most games are easy to play and provide timeless fun.
Innovations: Removable cartridges, detachable controllers, joystick controllers, paddles controllers, four-player simultaneus play, distinct game variations, difficulty switches, black and white TV switch.
Pros and Cons:
+ Systems and games durable and easy to find.
+ Wide selection of easy-to-play, classic games.
+ Quality third-party controllers.
- Standard Atari joysticks cheaply made and easily broken.
- Library innundated by cheap, low-quality games.