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Published: Thursday, 10/18/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

Oh, Atari, how I love thee

BY KIRK BAIRD
CULTURE SHOCK

I can count on my right hand the number of times I've been excited to wake up at 6:30 in the morning. An early Sunday in November, 1981, was one such ultra-rare occasion. That was the day Kmart marked down the Atari 2600 — aka Video Computer System, aka Atari — to the then-unheard of price of $127, the present-day equivalent of nearly $330.

This low, low price marked the turning point in convincing my parents to pony up for the much dreamed about gaming system as a Christmas gift. That, and weeks and months of pestering.

So on that chilly morning I dragged my dad to a nearby Kmart an hour before the store opened only so we could sit in the parking lot and wait. And while he listened to the radio to pass the time, I mentally plotted my path of least resistance and in-store obstacles from the front doors to the electronics section, where the 2600s were displayed and boxed. Even with my ample prep time I was still the second person to buy an Atari that morning; perhaps foreshadowing my coming dependence on GPS, I somehow managed to get lost while running through the store.

I'm reflecting on this day only because it was 35 years ago Oct. 14 that the Atari 2600 was introduced to the world. While it wasn't the first cartridge-based system — the virtually ignored in its day Fairchild Channel F beat Atari to market by a year — the 2600 was for more than a decade the most popular gaming console.

The Atari 2600 had it all: pixelated on-screen avatars that at the time seemed light years ahead of Pong; an array of controllers for almost any kind of game; most of the top arcade titles; and the must-have buzz that envelops all the cool toys and gadgets. And once I hooked up my Atari to a 13-inch black-and-white television, my world instantly segregated into the video game haves (Atari 2600 owners) and the video game have-nots (those poor chumps who were missing out).

Even after the debut of Atari's biggest rival, Mattel's graphically superior Intellivision, in December, 1979, most of my friends and I remained diehard 2600 supporters. A classmate named Mike was unfortunate enough to be in the "other" camp with his Intellivision, and was teased mercilessly for it. Decades before the Mac-PC and iPhone-Android fan rivalries, Atari and Intellivision camps trolled each other incessantly.

It all seems so silly now since, as with all things technological, a gaming console is only as good as its generation of processors. And so it unceremoniously came to pass that the Atari 2600 fell out of public favor to better and faster gaming systems, beginning with the ColecoVision and the Atari 5200 — the 2600's successor — as well as the nascent gaming software industry for PCs. I caved to the new and improved and sold my VCS and cartridges to some sucker to fund my gaming habit, only to regret my decision in the coming years.

Decades later I rediscovered my first love at a used game store along with some cartridges. Far from collecting dust, the Atari 2600 has found a place and purpose in my house.

I used a specially programmed Atari cartridge to propose to my wife, and have entertained neighborhood kids and my daughter with the crude but easy-to-play classic games. And perhaps, as a sign of ultimate affection for my 2600, I named one of our two cats Atari. My wife refused to let me name the other one Intellivision.

I recently gave the 2600 new life after hooking it up to an older TV in our basement, along with a special cartridge that can store every Atari game made — all in less than one gigabyte.

And when I think about it, that's really not much storage space for more than 30 years of memories.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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