The VCS/2600


VCS/2600 - Dominating the Landscape

(Page 4 of 5)
Atari 1977

The planned Entex Piggyback Colour Computer add-on stands out by sporting 70 keys that travel when pressed like a real computer keyboard. In spite of the name, the unit sits in front of the VCS as opposed to neatly on top of it. The keyboard contains nine function keys, as well as four cursor keys to control movement. The computer add-on contains a Z80A CPU, along with 8K of ROM to hold the internal instruction set. Only a meager 3K of RAM is available for the Piggyback out of the gate, although an expansion module is offered for boosting the Piggyback to a respectable 18K of RAM, as well as an access port to allow a cassette tape for program storage. Other keyboard attachments for the 2600 are announced, such as Unitronics’ Expander (16K RAM), but only Spectravideo’s membrane keyboard Compumate (2K RAM), with its included music composition and Magic Easel drawing programs, makes it past the prototype stage and onto store shelves in 1983, only to disappear along with the videogame market by the end of the year.

CompuMate, a computer add-on for the Atari VCS/2600, 1983

CompuMate 2600 computer add-on

Reach Out and Play Someone

One of the more interesting and far-reaching of the third-party manufacturers is Control Video Corporation (CVC), with a service called Gameline. The company is created by online information technology visionary William F. Von Meister, who had founded the first commercial online service The Source in June of 1979. He was eventually forced out of ownership of The Source that year by financial supporter Jack Taub in a power struggle, although receiving a million dollar payout for his trouble. In 1980, a controlling interest in the online service itself is eventually sold to Reader’s Digest for $3 million. What would eventually become Gameline had originally been developed for Home Music Store, which had hoped to offer song selections to cable services via satellite. Audio music channels later become standard offerings on Cable TV, but at the time music retailers balked at the idea of this kind of distribution and lobbied the music industry to refuse participation in such a scheme. Von Meister and company then head back to the drawing board and turn to video games as a venue for their technology. Gameline offers downloadable games for the VCS over conventional phone lines through a modem which operates from between 900 – 1200 baud, in order to compensate for varying connection quality. This versatile yet inexpensive-to-make modem was the key to a viable dial-in video game service, and a large part of CVC’s $2 million R&D budget is devoted to building it, developed by vice president of engineering Ray Heinrich, as well as Hartsville, AL-based consultants Seven Systems. The games are stored on the 8K memory bank inside a special, $49.95 cartridge called the Master Module, which connects to the phone line. After dialing into the system via a toll-free number, the phone line is typically tied up for about a minute while retrieving a choice from the rotating roster of 30 games to be offered each month. Customers get a free subscription to Gameliner magazine, where currently available games are listed. There is a one-time hook-up fee for the service of $15, with a $10-$12 annual fee coming into play in the second year of membership. Charges are approximately $1 for up to an hour of play, and the system offers on-screen instructions for the chosen game, as well as a library of instructions for other games on the system. Parents can also set a weekly or daily limit, to prevent kids from overindulging. GameLine is the first stage of a planned comprehensive online BBS type of system for the VCS including MailLine, offering text messages pecked off an onscreen keyboard with a joystick at 15 cents per 8,000 characters, sports news and scores via SportsLine, and home banking and financial management through StockLine. The two-way nature of the data connection also allows large, nation-wide video game tournaments. High scores are recorded by the system if the customer pays an additional 50 cents, and tournament prizes such as college scholarships, sports-cars cars and $100,000 in gold bullion are promised for the winners of the system’s World Video Game Championship. Downloading of games also comes to the Intellivision via PlayCable, and Coleco also announces a partnership with AT&T to deliver games over the phone lines to the ColecoVision. Also touted is The Games Network, where players would rent a special box from their cable providers with a $20 deposit. With this equipment, an initial catalog of 20 games from various manufacturers would be available to gamers.   Gameline launches wide by mid-1983, but licensing disagreements with most of the big cartridge makers such as Atari, Mattel and Coleco prevents many of the biggest 2600 hits from appearing on the system. At launch, Imagic is the sole major manufacturer of games available on the system. In a repeat of what had happened at The Source,  CVC President Von Meister again is relieved of his duties, but not before he brings Marc Seriff and Jim Kimsey into the company. Steve Case, another key member, had been lured over to CVC in 1982 from PepsiCo Inc. When the Gameline system is eventually shut down in early 1985, these three reform CVC into Quantum Computer Services. The company develops a telecommunications network package dedicated to the Commodore C64/128 computers, based on tech licensed from an already existing online entity called PlayNET. QuantumLink is set for launch on October 1, 1985, and the system is operated jointly with Commodore International, who bundle QuantumLink products with their computers and modems. QuantumLink offers connectivity for a flat fee of $9.95 a month, a registration charge of $25 is put into place at the beginning of 1986. A disk drive is needed to load the system software, and if you already have a modem for your 64/128, you get a month of free service. If you need a modem, you are provided one free if you sign up for a four-month term. Users are also billed six cents a minute for “Plus” features such as online chat, email, head-to-head games like Chess and Hangman, and the ability to download demo programs and public-domain software. You do get an hour of “Plus” time free every month, however. Operating hours for the service are 6pm to 7am on weekdays, and 24 hours a day through the weekend. Users, or Q-Linkers as they’re called, can use up to five different accounts; great for parents, who can set time limited profiles for their kids. Or perhaps for those who want to juggle a few different online personalities. Q-Link eventually adds support for Apple computers under the AppleLink banner, and PC Link for IBM compatibles in a partnership with Tandy. An online service for IBM’s PS/1 operating system is also made by Quantum and called Promenade.

Habitat, an online graphical environment by LucasFilm, for the Commodore 64/128

Habitat, an online virtual environment for QuantumLink

If you thought emojis or emoticons were a fairly recent Internet invention, then :p. They actually show up in email and chat room communications on QLink, such expressive symbols known there as QShorthand graphics or QGraphics for short. Hang around long enough and you’ll see happy :), a wink (;)), somebody angry (>:(), a glasses-wearing nerd (8)), or as I demonstrated above, someone sticking their toungue out… among many others. Things get even more visually expressive when the first virtual online graphical community ever is set up on QuantumLink, developed by LucasFilm and made available in a pilot project between 1986 and 1988. Called Habitat, it allows uses to create graphical avatars and chat and barter for items in a real-time environment, including potentially hundreds of different areas, along with user-created rooms. Laws and acceptable behaviors are created by the users, including the robbing and killing of each other. At the end of the pilot period in 1988, Habitat is scaled down and opened wide to users as a simple graphical chat room called Club Caribe. In 1989, Case, Kimsey and Seriff morph QuantumLink and all its sundry services into another little online company…America Online. Von Meister does not share in the billion dollar success of AOL, and succumbs to cancer in 1995 at the age of 53.

End of the Line

Atari itself milks the system for all it’s worth, trying to stave off the obvious obsolescence of the VCS by redesigning the same basic technology into smaller or more gimmicky versions, as well as sundry peripherals to “improve” gameplay. One such attempt is the CX-2700 Remote Control VCS, sporting wireless hand units with a radio connection to the game console, allowing gamers to control the onscreen action as well as pause or reset games without getting off the couch. The controllers also feature a combination joystick and paddle configuration, along with heat sensitive, finger-touch buttons. The 2700 is unveiled at the 1981 Winter CES, and then quietly shelved by Atari. Voice recognition for the 2600 is also dabbled with, via a device called the Voice Controller, manufactured for Atari by Milton Bradley. Surfacing at the Summer CES in 1983, the module plugs into the controller port of the 2600, with a headset attached to it. With this headset players will then be able to speak commands in supported games such as RealSports Baseball, Star Raiders, Battlezone and Berzerk. Sporting a proposed retail price of $100, the system only supports one player; the other must use a regular joystick in the other port, and hopefully will refrain from shouting false commands and screwing his more technically advanced “friend”. Perhaps because of this fatal flaw in human gamesmanship, the Voice Controller does not make it to store shelves in October as planned. Even a system to play games by mind-control is prototyped, but never released. In 1982 the original VCS is remodelled, and given the new official name the Atari 2600 Video Computer System. The new title is based on the console’s model number and done to put the console’s name in line with the new 5200 console, released that year. This name is popularly just condensed down to the 2600. The pack-in cartridge becomes Pac-Man, an arcade license that the company figures will send the 2600 back into the top-sellers list. With Pac-Man in the title, the game sells over 10 million copies, but it is apparent Pac-Man is a rush job and critics declare it a creative disaster. It takes the development of Coleco’s graphically advanced ColecoVision to prompt Atari to offer more advanced technology with their 5200 Supersystem machine, although even this new unit is only a repurposing of Atari’s 8-bit computer line in console form. In early 1984, Atari releases 12 original and licensed games for competing computer and video game systems, under the Atarisoft label. The games include Centipede, Defender, Dig-Dug, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Robotron, Stargate, Picnic Paranoia, Protector, Shamus, Super Storm and Galaxian. They are released for systems such as the Apple II  and IIe, IBM PC, C64, VIC-20, TI 99/4A, ColecoVision and Intellivision.

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