In my early childhood, my family relied a bit on hand-me-downs. This certainly had the result of being habitually behind the times; as you might remember from an earlier piece, my first and still only NES was a Christmas present in 1993. For several years before then, we had my cousin’s old Atari 2600.
While my young self saw Nintendo as an aspirational brand, I certainly accepted an Atari over nothing. The lack of Super Mario Bros. did not dissuade me from wandering lost around Pitfall. As I was only familiar with a handful of Nintendo games, I didn’t know most of what I was missing, anyway.
Unlike many of my old gaming experiences, I don’t feel a great swell of nostalgia for my 2600. I certainly played it quite a bit, but it seems like I’d play anything to sate my desire for video games. Excuse me a moment…
[Reminder: Don’t try drugs.]
Anyway, the Atari DID provide an improvement over the occasional crappy LCD game I had before. While Tiger Electronics was the most famous purveyor, I don’t think any of the LCD games I ever owned were from Tiger. Perhaps it’s because we never had a dog to chew on the hand grips? Eh, maybe I’ll talk about those on another trip through Amnesia Lane.
For the most part, I stuck to the decent-sized pile of games my cousins collected before moving on. Every once in a while, a family member would gift some random Atari game they happened to find. I say random because them, like me, were very much so in the dark when it came to games.
While many of my gaming peers are old enough to have encountered the Atari consoles, most of them cut their teeth on the NES or the Sega Genesis instead.
While there was a much greater awareness of the Atari (particularly, the once-ubiquitous 2600, also known as the VCS) compared to the Sega Master System or the TurboGrafx, that didn’t seem to be the result of ownership.
There were no magazines in the late 80s and early 90s covering Atari games. Nobody talked about them on the playground. There were no demo kiosks in stores. The only thing I ever could know about an Atari game before playing it was its name. Not a good position to be in considering the loads of shovelware available for the system — enough to kill an industry! I guess it’s a good thing I wasn’t old enough to be shopping for new games yet. It could not possibly have ended well.
Using an Atari is a bizarre experience compared to contemporary systems, or even systems in its own era. I’d have to say the difference that stands out the most is that for each game, the options menu was implemented in hardware. It kind of makes sense when you think about it in terms of arcade cabinets, which used DIP switches to determine how many coins you had to insert or how many points it took to get a 1up. The Atari VCS had two means of achieving this: the Difficulty switches and the Game Select switch.
A common marketing practice for the 2600’s games was to flaunt that a given game cartridge offered a ton of games. These were quite different from the multipacks we know today, and require thinking from a certain point of view. Each of these “games” was the original game on a different setting that (in the better games) threw a new twist on the gameplay. In Combat, for example, you could play variations with ricocheting shots, invisible tanks, invisible walls, or all of the above. Whereas in Night Driver, the changes are too minimal to identify.
Of course, the Atari by itself was never enough to satisfy my interest in the medium and, eventually, the rest was history; while I did devote my share of time to the Atari games, once the NES entered my life I couldn’t be bothered to look back. This is in stark contrast to every system I’ve owned since, with the exception of the Sega Saturn, owing to the fact I don’t have a single game for it. …and the my Sega CD, which I don’t even know if it works or not because it needs an AC adaptor. Or the Atari Lynx that I bought solely for the collection that I probably should just trade for a Virtual Boy.