The VCS/2600


VCS/2600 - Dominating the Landscape

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Atari 1977

In the Key of Atari

A few companies also try to make good on the “computer” part of the name Video Computer System, developing prototype computer add-ons with keyboards and storage devices. In 1983, Atari announces an under-$90 attachment that fits easily into the 2600 cartridge slot, offering users a 56-key, chiclet-style keyboard and 8K of RAM, expandable to 32K with add-on modules. Inside the add-on is the vaunted 6502 microprocessor, also seen in Atari’s 8-bit computer line. The system will output a 192×160 graphics resolution and a text screen format of 32 columns by 24 rows. It also has two sound generators. Initially called My First Computer, built into the system is the Microsoft BASIC programming language, combined with specialized graphics and sound statements from Atari BASIC. There is also a connection to allow any regular cassette tape recorder to provide data storage. Atari’s add-on can also accept standard 2600 game cartridges through a slot on its side, as well as a planned library of around 20 new cartridges at launch, featuring entertainment and educational programs. some enhanced to take advantage of the keyboard. In addition, the expansion module will also be able to accept Atari’s planned storage system utilizing high-speed, 1/16 ” wafer-tape ‘stringy floppy’ cassettes holding 128K of data. Eventually renamed The Graduate, other peripherals are announced for the keyboard, such as a 40-column thermal printer, as well as a modem. Instructional software such as  Introduction to Programming and Typo Attack, as well as home productivity programs The Home Filing Manager and Family Finances are announced with the add-on. It’s not all serious stuff though; adaptations of Donkey Kong, Robotron: 2084 and Caverns of Mars are also touted for the system. The whole shebang is promised by Atari for September of 1983 but is ultimately postponed indefinitely that month by the company after the introduction of their XL computer line, and also “in light of the turmoil in the under-$100 home computer market”, according to Atari. At $150, the 600XL home computer is priced only slightly higher than the projected cost of the Graduate.

The Graduate/My First Computer, a computer add-on for the Atari 2600 video game console

The Graduate/My First Computer 2600 computer add-on, 1983

Entex 2000 Piggy Back, a computer add-on for the Atari 2600 video game console

Another view of the Entex 2000 Piggy Back, 1983

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 meagre 2K of RAM is available for the Piggyback out of the gate, although an expansion module is offered for boosting the unit through 16K memory cartridges to a respectable 32K of RAM, as well as an access port to allow a cassette tape for program storage. Onboard the Piggyback will be 8K of BASIC. With a price tag of at or below $125, for an additional $7 users will be able to purchase an adapter to allow the system to connect to the Intellivision, ColecoVision, or the Atari 5200. RS-232 and parallel ports promise connection to peripherals such as printers.

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 companies servicing the 2600 market 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 local or 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.

Menu of available streaming video games, on the Gameline system for the Atari 2600 video game console

A menu of video games available for streaming on the Gameline service, 1983

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 and $100,000 in gold bullion are promised for the winners of Gameline’s World Video Game Championship.

Downloading of games also comes to the Intellivision via PlayCable, and Coleco announces a partnership with AT&T to deliver games over the phone lines to their ColecoVision console. 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 prevent 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, although product from Fox, TigerVision and Spectravision are also planned. 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 execs reform CVC into Quantum Computer Services. The company develops a telecommunications network package dedicated to the Commodore C64/128 computers, a system 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, and 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 on one computer; 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.

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 tongue out… among many others. Things get even more visually expressive when the first virtual online graphical community ever is set up on QuantumLink, with the superbly-named Chip Morningstar as project leader, programmer and principle designer. LucasFilm initially pitches the service as MicroCosm to Steve Case in September of 1985.  It is eventually made available to Commodore 64 users in a beta phase on QuantumLink between 1986 and 1988. Renamed Habitat, it allows users to create graphical avatars and walk around, chat and barter for items in a real-time animated environment, including potentially hundreds of different areas, along with user-created rooms. Laws and acceptable behaviours 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 this form the service continues until 1994. 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.

As an alternative to the delivery of videogames through a phone line like with Gameline, Atari and Activision join forces with an experiment to stream games via FM radio. Via a FM receiver cartridge with circuitry designed by Larry Karr of SCA Data Systems, Inc., an FM subcarrier signal of 12 kbits/s sending game data would originate from a local radio station and be received by  either the 2600 console or an Atari computer. Tests in the field were successful, but the scheme to send Atari and Activision games over radio waves never takes off.

End of the Line

Atari itself milks the VCS for all it’s worth, trying to stave off the obvious obsolescence of the console 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 similar to what will show up on the later 5200 Supersystem, along with heat sensitive, finger-touch buttons. The 2700 is unveiled at the 1981 Winter CES, and then quietly shelved by Atari, after reports of the radio signals from the wireless controllers opening people’s garage doors. Voice recognition and voice synthesis 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 and hear voice prompts 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 that is strongly inferred by Atari to allow players to control games by mind-control is prototyped, called Mindlink. Most media who check out the controller at the 1984 Summer CES comment that it appears to respond to mere pressure from the eyebrows. The dubious system is prototyped,  but never released.

Mindlink, a peripheral for the Atari 2600 video game system.

Purported to allow you to control games with your mind.

In 1982 the original VCS is remodeled in an all-black version referred to unofficially as the Vader console, the first to be 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 name in line with the new 5200 console, also 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 the arcade adaptation 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. Groping for avenues to shoring up their market share Atari announces a series of signed deals with content companies: in early 1983 Atari announces deals with United Feature Syndicate and Charles Shultz Creative Association to create games based on the Peanuts characters; an agreement with Destron, Inc to create software around their coin-operated biorhythm and astrology machines; and an arrangement with the Children’s Television Workshop to make Sesame Street games under the label Children’s Computer Workshop. They also tout a long-term deal with Williams Electronics for first refusal of their arcade works for home video and computer games. Having previously made Defender, Atari also lands games like Moon Patrol and Joust out of this deal, and begins planning home versions while the arcade games are still in the R&D stage at Williams.

The Vader version of the 2600, a home video game console by Atari

The all-black “Vader” console, first to be labelled the 2600, 1982. Guess the force is holding up those joysticks

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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