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Decades Later, the Atari 2600 Makes a Comeback, Cartridges Included

The beloved gaming console now works with your flat-screen TV

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If you were a kid in the late 1970s, an Atari 2600 under the Christmas tree sparked a kind of euphoria normally reserved for kissing your crush or seeing your team win the championship.

Unlike earlier home video consoles — those limited to monotonously hitting Pong’s light blip back and forth across the TV screen — this Atari took cartridges, each with a different game and what seemed like infinite possibilities. Despite the progress in video game systems in nearly 50 years, many Gen Xers have never forgotten the simple joy of pressing a “cart” into the old Atari and seeing its blocky graphics fire up.

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This year, the console was re-released in a new unit called the Atari 2600+. It plays old Atari cartridges you may have hung on to, plus new ones the company is publishing. And the unit connects to modern high-definition TVs.

“The people who are going to buy it right away is exactly our crowd,” says Ryan Burger, publisher of Old School Gamer Magazine. These are “people who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s who want to go back to the day.”

The practice of re-issuing video game consoles isn’t new. For several years, the retro-gaming industry has put out miniaturized versions of older units, including those from Atari, Nintendo and Sega. But in each of those cases, the reformulated consoles came with dozens of games preloaded.

Time to dig in the attic for your old cartridges

The Atari 2600+ is notable in bucking that practice. It has returned to cartridges, an antiquated technology that appeared headed into the dustbin of history when console makers turned to discs in the ’90s and hard-drive systems and game downloads later.

The idea may seem unfathomable. A console from more than 40 years ago, ancient history in the tech world, has been revived essentially in its original form and is able to play software thought obsolete. No word yet on whether the music industry is considering a return of the eight-track tapes that faded away in the mid- to late ’80s.

“I often say it’s very analogous to the return of vinyl records,” says Atari spokesman David Lowey. “Record players came back, and all of a sudden people are buying them again. There’s this return to the physical, to the tactile nature of these things.”

You never forget your first love

Fueling this interest in the Atari 2600+ is a thriving retro-gaming community that never lost its fondness for old systems. Released in 1977, the Atari 2600 was at the forefront of a home video game explosion. Kids could play Space Invaders, Centipede, Missile Command and other favorites without needing a fistful of quarters and a ride to the arcade. 

Original games such as Adventure, Pitfall! and Star Raiders pioneered a movement toward more immersive experiences that could keep players in front of the TV for hours at a time. In the 15 years that the original 2600 was manufactured, Atari and other software developers, including Activision, Mattel Electronics and Parker Brothers, published about 500 games.

Although Nintendo, Sony Playstation and Microsoft Xbox consoles later eclipsed Atari, the cartridge creator has long maintained a soft spot in players’ hearts.

“It’s the console that launched the gaming industry,” Lowey says.

Though the Atari 2600 was discontinued in 1992, it never went away entirely. Collectors and “home brew” programmers — hobbyists who developed new game cartridges in limited quantities for the old system — kept interest alive. 

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Many have preferred the simplicity of Atari to that of complex modern systems. Founder Nolan Bushnell described the company’s philosophy toward games as “easy to learn and difficult to master.”

But one challenge has remained. Unless you are pretty handy with electronics, hooking up a decades-old console to a modern TV proves difficult.

For this reason, many retro-gamers have scoured garage sales and thrift stores for older tube televisions. The Atari 2600+ solves this problem with modern electronics that make it HDMI-compatible.

“For me, it’s about actually playing the games I have,” Burger says. “I literally have 400 Atari cartridges at home. I like to play them, and this will make it much easier for me to do it.”

One unfortunate trade-off in updating the electronics: A small number of the old game carts won’t work on the Atari 2600+.

How to get the games

So where do you find games to play on the Atari 2600+? The console, which sells for $130, comes with a cartridge that contains 10 classic video games.

Atari is also releasing about 2,600 new games, including an updated version of arcade classic Berserk, and you can still find the old cartridges at some used-games shops, thrift stores and garage sales. With this new-old console, the company envisions a repeat of that holiday euphoria with a generational twist.

“I guarantee you there are going to be households like my dad and I, where we’ve bought each other the same thing,” Lowey says. “He wants me to experience what he grew up with, and I knew he grew up with it, so I want to buy it for him.”

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