Not too long ago I had a sudden realization.
I don’t just need the games I had with my Atari VCS from 1981-1984.
I need the console too.
I’ve written about my brother and my quest for VCS before (1981 Atari VCS Christmas). The story is long and involved, and covers the (totally true) machinations my brother and I concocted to get our Luddite parents to buy us a video game console. However (spoiler-alert), in the end, while our “plan” nearly ruins Christmas, it also ends-up with us getting VCS anyway.
Here is an excerpt:
“So when the wrapped box the size of an Atari VCS was taken from its’ hiding place behind the tree and was handed to Jeff and I to rip open, it came as an utter and complete surprise. As the wrapping came flying off, there it was in our hands, a real ‘Atari Video Computer System’ complete with Combat! cartridge, two joysticks, two paddles, TV switch-box and AC adapter.
Jeff and I were completely stunned.
Before we could even fathom how it had actually happened, Mari (my suiter) handed us the present she had bought for us. We opened it up to reveal the Breakout cartridge for the VCS. Mari was in on the plan all along. She had done a bit of convincing on her own to get my dad to buy the Atari VCS for us, and was instrumental in the process of getting it for us on Christmas morning 1981. My dad did his part by working some extra overtime at Hughes so he could afford the purchase. It was a rare moment when our family actually seemed to “work” the way I thought family should work. The fact that I was lucky enough to end up with an Atari VCS as the result is something I will never forget.
By the way, as it turned out, our Mom had not only ‘got’ our hints, but was concerned that we would not be sufficiently surprised on Christmas morning if they did indeed get us a VCS. She turned to Mari and had her try to throw us off the track. In the end, all of our twin scheming almost worked too well, and could have back-fired completely if my mom had decided that there would be no surprise.
For sake of this story I’d like to pretend that we had an idyllic Christmas day playing the Atari VCS, and enjoying family time over Combat! And Breakout, but I can’t. In reality the VCS didn’t work out of the box (the TV connection was broken), so we had to take it back to Gemco (of course) the next day to get a replacement. Since we were already out of the house, we spent our Christmas money on Asteroids, Activision Tennis and Activision Laser Blast, cartridges then took the haul home and played the Atari VCS all-day and into the night on December 26th and all the way through Sunday January 3rd, the day before went back to School It probably seemed like a complete waste of time to anyone from the outside, but to Jeff and I, it was pure bliss. “
Now, I don’t necessarily think this story is special or different than the stories from other kids who wanted Atari VCS systems at the time. In fact, I think it’s indicative of Gen X kids dealing with their Greatest Generation parents: the constant consumerism of our youth, clashed with the Depression-Era frugality if theirs.
But the fact is evident: if I’m going to complete a quest to replicate the Atari VCS of my youth, I have to include the console. The problem is, it’s not clear which console we received on Christmas morning in 1981. There were several version of Atari VCS consoles released in it’s life, and not all of them are created equal.
For vintage Atari collectors, the “holy grail” is what is known as the “Heavy Sixer”. It was the original VCS console released in 1977. Collector’s are keen on this version because it’s akin to a “first edition”. It has six front-panel switches, and a manufacturing tag on the bottom that says it was made in Sunnyvale, CA. This unit is heavier than the ones that came after, I believe, because it had extra shielding to help pass initial FCC RF testing. Finding a CIB (complete in box) Heavy Sixer is very difficult, and can be very costly.
Along with the “Heavy Sixer” there are Atari VCS game cartridges known as “gatefolds”. They are similar to the “gatefold” sleeves you find in the record collecting hobby. The original nine Atari VCS games come in gatefold versions. (Air-Sea Battle, Basic Math, Blackjack, Combat!, Indy 500, Starship, Street Racer, Surround and Video Olympics). CIB gatefold game cartridge is many times more expensive than non-gatefolds, for the same reason the “heavy sixer” is more expensive than the other Atari VCS console: people want them more because they came first and are pretty rare.
The next console, released in 1978 is known as the “Light Sixer”. It has six front-panel switches, just like the “Heavy Sixer”, but is lighter, and was made on Hong Kong. From what I gather, this unit is like the “fool’s gold” of Atari collecting. People who are not aware, think they have a “Heavy” version, when it’s really a “Light”. Sometimes “Light Sixers” are priced like “Heavy Sixers” on eBay, and it behooves buyers to ask a lot of questions and see photos before they purchase on thinking it’s the original console.
For me, discovering the difference between “Heavy Sixers” and “Light Sixer” and “gatefolds” and non “gatefold” cartridges brought back a lot of memories. The first story I wrote for this site about my love for the Atari VCS, back in 2007, was named First Communion. It was about my brother and I discovering Atari in 1978 while attending CCD classes with a girl who lived up the street. Lori had a “heavy sixer” and all of her games were in “gatefolds”. Here is an excerpt from that story:
“Lori had ‘2XL’, an early talking robot learning toy that used 8-track tapes to simulate choices made by the user. She had all manner of handheld electronic games from Tiger and Mattel, plus her own TV set and radio. However the thing that made us never want to leave her house was the wood-paneled, ‘heavy sixer’ Atari 2600 VCS her mom bought it for Christmas 1977, the first year it was available. Along with the 2600, her mom bought her every game at the store: ‘Combat’, ‘Air Sea Battle’, ‘Basic Math’, ‘Blackjack’, ‘Indy 500’, ‘Surround’, ‘Video Olympics’ and even ‘Star Ship’. “
But while I have an interest in the “sixer” consoles, I never owned one. I played the sh*t out of Lori’s, and also the one at the local Fedmart, but it’s not the console I want to have if I am to complete my quest. That console, it turns out is from 1980. I discovered this on, of all places, Facebook.
Several weeks ago I asked a question on the AtariAge Facebook page, about what console would have been mass produced in 1981. After a friendly, long, and in-depth, conversation (that you can read to the left) , I discovered the console I “need” is the CX2600A, first manufactured in 1980. There were later consoles, like the all-black Atari 2600, which is nicknamed the “Darth Vader”, and the Tramiel Era “Atari 2600 Jr.”, but the less said about that the better. I now know I need to get the exact console that I first hooked-up to my parent’s TV in 1981, on December 26th. I’d consider anything less, a failure.
What I own now is not a CX2600A. I own a a 1988 vintage Atari 7800 with a reproduction CX-40 Joystick. There is no expansion slot (the first Atari 7800 consoles sold in late 1984 had an expansion slot on the left side), so I know it’s from the late 80’s “Tramiel” era of Atari. This also means that there might be some compatibility problems with the console, including not working with the Arcadia Supercharger. If I’m going to be serious about this Atari Quest, it’s obvious that I will need the proper, 1980 CX2600A version, or I will not be doing this right.
The console has now been added to my quest. I’m not sure I can even afford a CIB CX2600A, but, at any rate, it will be stretch goal for me.
I have not gone shopping for Atari carts in several weeks now, as I have been concentrating most of my time on the “Never Let The First Die” Alarm Podcast, but I will pick it all up again very soon. Along with my love for 80’s new wave, The “Atari fire” still burns in me too…
Color Coding Key:Current Quest Status (As Of 6/24/2017)
X = No copy of any kind
X = Copy has some issues (loose, back condition)
X = Acceptable , but might not be correct version
X = Exact right version from pre-crash era