Posted on June 8, 2019
S2:E6: Why We Collect Atari
In this episode, Steve and Jeff have a frank discussion about what they collect and why they collect Atari. Also includes a couple segments from Steve’s “Fultonbot’s Atari Quest” blog series, as well as an impromptu live remote visit to their favorite retro game store.
Stories from the podcast:
Memories Of The Proper Vintage
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.
I Never Got Into Atari But…
“I never got into Atari”
I’ve heard this phrase so many times from the owners of used and retro video game stores, and fellow retrogamers, that I’ve now come to expect it. When I enter a game store, or make a friendly connection at work, I brace myself to hear those words. They usually come after a shop-owner sees that I’m examining their modest selection of “golden age” games, or when a co-worker spies my Atari and Intellivision posters and memorabilia in my office.
However, what is interesting to me is that those words are hardly ever delivered with malice. Instead, they usually come with a tag that describes their own “lost cause” video game or other obsessions.
“My favorite system was the TurboGrafX-16”
“I really really loved The Dreamcast”
“What did you really think of The Last Jedi”
Personally, I love these conversations, because it shows that retro video game fans are really. mostly, of a single breed. We fell-in-love with something at a formative time in our lives, made an invisible, mental connection to it, and now we miss it deeply. because its’ time has long passed.
And it makes sense to me that many retro game fans are not from “The Atari Age”, just look at the numbers:
Generation X vs. Millennials
According to CNN, there are roughly 68.1 million people in Generation X (1965-1979) compared to roughly 92.3 million Millennials(1981-1997) . However, those sheer numbers don’t tell the whole story. EVERY ONE of those roughly 92.3 million Millennials were born into an existing video game age, with possible older brothers, sisters and parents already engaged in playing video games. By comparison, video games came of age in 1977, which is on the far side of Generation X, which means not only were almost half of 68.1 millions Gen-Xer’s too young to enjoy golden age video games, but also puts their gaming “coming of age” squarely in the Nintendo Generation as well.
What about Baby Boomer’s you ask? Most Baby Boomers (1943-1964) were well-into their 20’s and 30’s by the time golden age video games became “hot” in 1978, and the social norms of the day were much different than they are today. Video games of my youth (I was 7 in 1977) were enjoyed a major majority of the time by kids 7-17. There were some college kids, and a few adults (i.e. the editors of Electronic Games magazine were from the Baby Boom generation), but for the most part playing video was just not an adult activity at all.
As I like to call it, the “infantilization” of America was still in its’ infancy.
According to Wikipedia, these are the numbers of AtariAge systems sold vs. Nintendo Age systems sold:
AtariAge: Atari 2600, 5200, Intellivision, ColecoVision combined: ~36 Million
NintendoAge: NES, SMS, Genesis, TG-16, SNES: ~150 Million
With nearly 5 times more systems sold, just in the late 80’s and early 90’s, it ‘s easy to see why AtariAge gamers are so outnumbered.
Even out of those 68.1 million Gen-Xers playing those 36 million consoles, not everyone played video games. Even in the heyday of Atari, 1981-1984, at my Jr. High School, only about a dozen or so of us actually identified as “gamers” (but we did not use that term as it was not invented yet). We clung together as rag-tag group of nerds who played video games, D&D, and listened to punk rock and heavy metal…but that was not our outward identity.
Almost all of us tried to “fit-in”…but we just didn’t.
We stood out together, usually in a safe spot, gathered by a far-flung planter or under a hidden tree, far away from the rest of the crowd, and attempted to relate to one another because we had no one else to which we could relate. We might look over an issue of Electronic Games, or marvel at the instructions for Atari 2600 Pac-Man, but almost always out of the piercing eyes of our peers.
In high school in the late 80’s, it got worse for “gamers”. From 1984 until 1988 when I graduated, there was no “video game culture” to speak of, at least not where I lived. Nothing. Honestly even talking about video games was cause to get your ass-kicked, much less wearing a t-shirt or reading gaming magazine (if those even existed, which for most of the time they did not). If games were discussed at-all, it was even more hidden and more secreted-away than in Jr. High. Maybe on the BBS systems we called with our computers on 300 or 1200 baud modems, chatting with the sysop, or as we traded pirated games on 5.25 and 3.5 inch floppy discs in the bedrooms, back-rooms and dens of our parent’s houses.
And that is why I, personally, really got into Nintendo. After clawing and scrambling, I actually achieved some kind of very minor social status in high-school. At least enough to actually date other humans and not get my clock-cleaned on a regular basis. I still loved video games though, but to keep up appearance, I had to play them when no one was around, and that was usually on the 8-bit and 16-bit computers that replaced my video game consoles.
A computer was Okay you see. If a person of interest came into my room and saw it one my desk I could claim it was for school. That would work fine as long as they didn’t leaf-through my box of floppy disks to see all the games I had hidden among the word processors and graphing applications I hardly ever booted-up.
Nintendo? I didn’t even consider it. That would have given the game away.
My point is, even for the few kids like me that were into Atari in the early 80s’, at least in my neighborhood, video games were literally and figuratively “beat” out of them by the late 80’s. So if a person managed to hold onto their Atari love through the 80’s and into adulthood, that means they were obsessed or resilient or a combination of both.
And it’s the combination of obsession and resilience that I think most retro gamers, of all stripes and ages, see in each other, and have in common. Long past the “console wars”, we were all infected by the same disease, and that’s the common denominator. Compared to NintendoAge fans, AtariAge fans are few and proud, but in reality, I can see how we are all cut from the same cloth.
And that’s why, whenever I hear “I never got into Atari…but…” I translate that into “I’m a fellow retro gamer, and here is my obsession…”.
It’s like someone is letting me in, opening their door just a crack so I can see into their world. They’ve invited me over to their safe but vulnerable-spot, like the planter or the tree we had in Junior High. It’s the place they feel they can truly be themselves.
“You were never into Atari? That’s okay. We’ve still got some common ground.