Atari 2600

When the last Mario succumbs to a barrel – when Pac-Man finally gets cornered by the ghost monsters and there’s no place left to go – when a kid reaches into his pocket for the last quarter and comes up with nothing but lint, a silent wish goes out into the 8-bit aether.  “Man, I wish I had an arcade at home.”

For most of my friends, the Atari 2600 console was the first taste they got of home gaming.  Not for me, though.  While my family tended to be an earlier adopter of consumer tech, we resisted bringing video games into the home for a long while.  It was probably for economic reasons.  After moving into our house in Wading River, my parents had really stretched and my Dad was supporting the family on a teacher’s salary with a little bit of extra cash coming in from his coaching stints.  We didn’t have a lot of extra money in those days, and something like an Atari console was a huge luxury.

In fact, our first home video gaming setup was an old Telstar Pong machine friends of the family had given us.  They got bored of it after they got Atari, so they gave it to us.  The Telstar machine would tide me over for a bit, but it delivered an experience that was nothing even close to what was going on at the arcade at the mall.

I was the last kid on my block to finally get Atari.  I begged my parents for it more than Ralphie ever begged for his Red Ryder BB Gun.  All my buddies were happily playing Asteroids, Space Invaders and Adventure well ahead of me, and I was always super jealous that whenever they felt the urge, they could just flip on the TV and play as much as they wanted to.

There was social capital that came along with being good at many of these games.  Everybody admired the kid in class who was really good at hitting a baseball, or who could send a kickball hurtling past the outfield in gym class.  But equally impressive was the kid who could flip Asteroids or Space Invaders.

“Kenny flipped Asteroids twice,” a kid in my class might say, with the same weight and sense of awe he might use to convey “Kenny hit the game-winning home run in our Little League game on Sunday.”  I had no idea what the heck he was talking about.  The only experience I had “flipping” something was flipping baseball cards with kids in my class. But I could tell from the reverence in tone that Kenny was awesome at playing Asteroids – so good it was worthy of admiration from his classmates.

I wasn’t very good at sports, with my ball-playing skills usually residing somewhere between “let’s not pick that guy for our team” and “total spaz.”  But with Atari, suddenly there was this new social capital – a way for kids who sucked at sports to be good at something that other kids respected.

I was the last kid on my block to get Atari, and that didn’t help my cred.  But when my parents finally came around and gave it to me for my birthday, they did it right.  Not only did they get me the console, but they avoided the mistake most parents made when they first bought Atari – forgetting about getting some decent game cartridges.  When I got the console, they also bought Pac-Man and Defender, two immensely popular titles that would keep me busy for hours at a clip.

We hooked it up to an ancient television in our basement.  It was a color set, but exceptionally old.  The rabbit ears were all bent and wouldn't stand up anymore.  And the set took several minutes to warm up, meaning a kid could turn it on, but it might be several minutes before it would suddenly spring to life and show you a picture that started out as a small dot in the middle of the TV and then gradually grew larger and larger until it filled the screen.  I used a flat screwdriver to attach this little doohickey to the antenna terminals on the back.

I would be surprised if any of the Millennials I know would have any idea of what it was.

In a way, getting Atari later than everyone else was an advantage.  I knew which game titles were good, and which could be skipped.  (No wasting $35 on Freeway or some other lame Frogger clone that plenty of friends had been conned into picking up.)  Atari was past its peak, too, so game cartridges were comparatively cheap, now that Mom and Dad had gotten the expensive ones – Defender and Pac-Man – out of the way.

There were a few local stores that sold Atari game cartridges, and if your timing was right, you’d snare incredible bargains.  One such store was Odd Lot in Rocky Point.

Odd Lot was one of the first stores I ever went to that featured sales on items that buyers at department stores had simply bought too much of.  Right in front of the store, when you first walked in, there was a huge bin of loose Atari 2600 games.  Some of them might not be in the original box, and there might be a few hundred copies of Freeway, but if you had the patience to go through the bin thoroughly, you might be able to snare a good game for $5 or $10.  I remember getting really cool Imagic games there – Cosmic Ark and Demon Attack among them.

Another great place to get games was Sears.  Specifically, we had a Sears Surplus store in Rocky Point that my Dad liked to visit, because they would take all the stuff they had overordered at the regular Sears store in the mall and let it go for pennies on the dollar at Sears Surplus.  Most people forget that Sears had a partnership with Atari back in those days, and even released versions of the 2600 under the Sears name.  Every once in a while, Sears Surplus would get a bunch of game cartridges, and if your timing was right, you’d walk out with a great bargain.

But my favorite place to get games was TSS in Middle Island.  TSS was a full-blown department store that sold all the latest Atari and Intellivision titles.  You wanted a new game that just got released?  TSS was the place to go.  In their toy department, there was a long glass counter at the back where they kept all the video games, staffed with a clerk, who was usually someone very knowledgeable about video gaming.

I was at TSS one day, browsing through titles, and happened to be the only one in the toy department at that time, other than a man who was talking to the clerk.  I noticed they were playing an Atari game that I had never seen before.  It was a racing game, sort of like Night Driver, except waaaaay more detailed.  The man who was playing it showed the clerk how as he was racing, the terrain changed from dry roads to ice.  The time of day changed, too, as he was racing along.  One minute he would be cruising in the middle of the day, and the next, the sun would set and he would be racing at night, avoiding the red tail lights of other cars.

I was intrigued, since I hadn’t seen the game before.  I wandered up next to the man and hung out for a few minutes, hoping he’d notice me.  He didn’t.  He was too engrossed in his game and explaining it to the clerk.  Finally, curiosity overcame shyness.

“Excuse me, sir,” I interjected.  “What game is that?  I’ve never seen it before.”

“That’s because it’s not out yet,” he responded.

The man explained that he was from a company called Activision, and he was showing some games to the clerk that Activision was bringing to market.  He told me this game was called “Enduro” and that it would be out shortly.  That’s when I noticed the cartridge he had plugged into the store’s Atari console didn’t have a label on it.

I stuck around while my parents shopped, and I was the only one in the toy department other than the clerk and the Activision guy.  After playing Enduro for a bit, the Activision guy shut the console off and produced another cartridge.  “This one’s called ‘Keystone Kapers.’”

He showcased a side-scroller featuring a funny-looking little police officer with a billy club, chasing a crook wearing a striped prison uniform through a department store and having to jump over and duck under all sorts of obstacles along the way.  Not exactly my cup of tea – blasting aliens or racing cars was more my speed – but it still looked fun.  And it wasn’t even out yet.

I hung around the video game counter until my parents retrieved me when they were done with their shopping.  I didn’t want to leave, just in case the Activision guy decided he wanted to show more of their upcoming games.  And I gushed about it to my folks all the way home.  (Later, my Dad bought stock in Activision.  I’d like to imagine that my frenzied babbling that day had something to do his investment strategy.  Unfortunately, he took a bath when the bottom fell out of the home gaming industry.)

I was really excited, not only because I had just had a happenstance, once-in-a-lifetime experience getting a sneak peek at Activision’s games, but also because I would get to tell all the kids at school about it the next day.

I told my classmates about how cool Enduro was, and how it beat the pants off Night Driver.  I told them I had also seen this funny game called “Keyboard Capers” – I had misremembered the title – and told my classmates to start looking for these games in stores soon.  For any kid, this would represent an opportunity to score amazing levels of video gaming street cred.  But almost nobody believed me.  That is, until Enduro came out.

Enduro and Keystone Kapers both came out in early 1983, and this was fresh off of the successes that made Activision the dominant player in independent development – Pitfall, Chopper Command, River Raid and a handful of other now-classic titles that helped the Atari 2600 reach new levels of popularity.  Enduro may not look like much now, but it was a vast improvement over the driving games Atari had in its arsenal up until that point.

I did enjoy a brief moment in the sun, once the rumors I had spread about upcoming Activision games proved to be true.  But it lasted only so long. 

I also figured out that "flipping" an Atari cartridge meant running the score up so much that the machine could no longer tally it.  Depending on the game, it might reset, or it might just start counting over again at zero.  I got good enough at Defender that I flipped it five times on different occasions.

But just as I had started catching up with the other kids and their home consoles, new consoles started to hit stores shelves, including Colecovision, a more powerful system that could play more complex and arcade-like games.  Oh, and it could also expand its hardware to play Atari games, too.   Atari’s days appeared to be numbered.