The Video Game Critic presents

Let's Play the Atari 2600

or

How to Get the Most Fun Out of This Old Thing

Sega 3D Glasses Box

Updated 2023/12/19

The Atari 2600 led the home video game revolution and today it's the ultimate classic console. Launched in 1977, it reached the height of its popularity during the early 80's but remained in production all the way up until 1991!

Since then the system has re-emerged in a number of forms. First there was the long line of Atari Flashback plug-and-play systems. Then we had the Atari Flashback and Atari 50 compilations, allowing you to play dozens of 2600 titles on modern consoles. Most recently the new Atari 2600+ entered the fray, which not only looks exactly like the original system but plays its original cartridges as well.

What is the deal with this system, and why won't it go away? Umm.. maybe because it's awesome? The Atari 2600 has a vast library of fun, easy-to-play titles. During the early 80's innovative new games were appearing in the arcades at a breakneck pace. The 2600 received home versions of the biggest hits, which were a ton of fun albeit their scaled-down nature.

Combat Asteroids Pac-Man
Battlezone, Asteroids, Centipede
And before you chalk up Atari 2600 gaming to pure nostalgia, think again mister! Dig a little deeper and you'll discover that the system and its rich library have held up surprisingly well over the years. The programmers of its original games may not have had much to work with in terms of graphics or audio, but this allowed them to focus on gameplay. Atari 2600 games are fast, clocking in at a brisk 60 frames per second! Today homebrew programmers continue to crank out new titles that far exceed what anyone ever dreamed the system was capable of.

It helps to approach the system with the right frame of mind. Whether you own an original Atari 2600 or one of the more modern incarnations, this guide is meant to help you get the most fun out of your system.


First, check out the instructions

During its heyday Atari invested ample resources into producing attractive, glossy, colorful, fun-to-read instruction manuals. While they typically run only a few pages in length, these manuals effectively jump-start the fun. As a kid they also gave me something to read in the back seat on the trip home from Toys R Us!

Atari 2600 instructions

Each begins with an introduction that explains the premise of the game, usually in the form of a background story accompanied by lush illustrations. Then there's a section explaining the controls. Some pages are dedicated to describing the levels or providing strategy tips. The last page however is most important, presenting a colorful matrix to help you select which game variation to play. More on that later!

Atari 2600 matrix

Highly-valued by collectors, these manuals are often worth more than the games themselves. Fortunately you don't need a physical copy as you can find manual scans on sites like AtariAge.com and AtariMania.com. Though completely optional, instructions help bridge the gap between the pixels on the screen and your imagination. That's important because some of the graphics might be described as "abstract", if you catch my drift.


Use the right controllers

Atari introduced the first joysticks to gamers in the 1970s, but they tended to be cheaply-constructed and prone to failure. If you're using an original Atari 2600 system you should consider a third-party joystick like a Wico Bat-Handle, Tac-2, or perhaps an Epyx controller. All of these work great and have proven remarkably durable over the decades. Prefer a game pad? A Sega Genesis controller works as well!

Atari 2600 controllers

For specific games like Breakout and Kaboom, Atari introduced a secondary set of controllers called paddles. These feature a rotary dial that provides pinpoint analog precision! Hand one of these to a kid today and they will be astonished by the fine degree of control. Granted, these controllers have a tendency to get "jittery" over time but this condition is easily repaired. I cleaned mine out 20 years ago and they've worked perfectly ever since.


Select the right game variation

Now we're getting to the heart of the matter, so pay attention! Each Atari 2600 cartridge contains numbered variations selectable via the aptly-named "Game Select" switch. These determine the difficulty, number of players, and other factors specific to each game. In the case of Combat, the switch lets you choose between several completely different games. Some cartridges only contain a single variation, while others can have up to 255! That would be Maze Craze, by the way.

Atari 2600 select switch

The problem is, Atari often made the default variation (#1) very easy and therefore boring. So if you just pop in Asteroids and hit reset, you'll be underwhelmed. This is where the variation matrix comes in. For best results you'll want to choose the most difficult, feature-rich variation you can find. For example, Asteroids has 66 variations but I'd recommend 6A for maximum excitement. What's the A signify? I'll tell you!


Don't forget the difficulty switches

Atari also incorporated a pair of "difficulty switches" which toggle between A and B. Originally designed to even the playing field during head to head matches, the A setting is typically more challenging. In a game like Football, these affect how fast the players move. In Asteroids, they determine if flying saucers will be buzzing around among the asteroids. Each game uses them differently, and some don't use them at all. Check the manual because they can have a dramatic effect.

Atari 2600 difficulty switches

Note that with the Flashback systems or compilations it may be necessary to press special combinations of buttons to toggle the difficulty switches.


Record your scores

In most modern-day games your goal is to reach some kind of ending but that's not the case with most Atari 2600 games. When it comes to games like Berzerk, Missile Command, Centipede, or Asteroids, it doesn't take long to see everything a game has to offer. The challenge comes from the fact that the action becomes more difficult and intense as you progress. Like an arcade game, your objective is to achieve a high score. It's a classic case of man against machine!

Unfortunately the 2600 does not save high scores for you. You need to record them in a notebook, and be sure to include the game variation and difficulty settings. You'll be glad you did. You can be as simple or fancy, neat or messy as you want. Here is a sample from the high score binder I keep next to my gaming chair.

Atari 2600 score book

With scores written down you always have a new challenge whenever you sit down to play a game. When playing with a group of friends, the most common question is "what is the high score?" followed by "who has it?" When you hear those words you'd better believe some spirited competition and trash talk is right around the corner.

Note that under each of my Atari 2600 reviews you will find a recommended variation and associated high score. See, I already did half the work for you! You're welcome!


One more time...

A typical Atari 2600 game doesn't last very long but don't be surprised if you find yourself hitting that reset switch over and over again. That's because the games are short but action-packed and madly addictive. Assuming of course that you're playing a challenging game variation.

When you're ready to move on you just pop in another cartridge and repeat the process. With no loading, updates, or messing with profiles, all the time spent with this system will be used to... play games. What a concept.

Atari 2600 cartridges


Find an Atari 2600 on eBay, Amazon, YouTube
Find a Wico Bat Handle Joystick on eBay, Amazon, YouTube
Find a Tac-2 Joystick on eBay, Amazon, YouTube
Find a Epyx Joystick on eBay, Amazon, YouTube
Related Links:
Atari Controller Round-Up
Game Cleaning Guide