Have you played Atari Today?
The Atari 2600, arguably the most iconic and enduring of all games consoles is also possibly the most confusing to collect. Not surprising really, when you realise it comes in eight official Atari branded versions (including the Japanese 2800) along with a whole host of clones spanning nearly a decade and a half of production. From the original 1977 CX2600 ‘Heavy Sixer’ through to the all-black 1986 2600 ‘Junior’ the differences were such that almost everything about the console changed (except the chips). This makes the 2600 almost unique as a console in that you can spend a long time searching out and collecting all the variants. The 2600 has stood the test of time well, better indeed than most consoles of the early 80s period and remains popular with collectors, gaming enthusiasts and casual gamers alike. This popularity is fed with a booming home-brew scene and the recent(ish) production of ‘TV games’ by companies such a Jakks Pacific.
For the purposes of this article I will keep things simple and will only be listing the official Atari models, not the Sears versions, Japanese version nor the many clone models available. Oh, and ignore the dates on some of the YouTube videos, I’m pretty sure they have them wrong.
CX2600 ‘Heavy Sixer’ (1977)
Also known by collectors as the ‘Woody’, this was the original Atari VCS (Video Computer System), not yet known publicly by its 2600 designation. In fact the first 2600 to be officially called the 2600 wouldn’t be for another 5 years with the release of the black 4 switch ‘Vader’ model in 1982.
Usually the most sought after by collectors, the first CX2600 differed from later models by having a thicker plastic lower casing and contrary to what you may read elsewhere the extra weight is solely down to this, there is no extra RF shielding inside and all Heavy and Light Sixers have the same RF shielding. The casing is also visibly different in that the plastic molding that runs around the back and sides is wider than on the 1978 ‘Light Sixer’ and has softer curves as opposed to the more angular second model. There are also other minor differences to the bezel etc. if you know what you are looking for. Manufacture of the ‘Heavy Sixer’ was done mainly in Sunnyvale, California – and, although I have never seen one myself – were also reportedly produced elsewhere. Sears released their own version of the ‘Heavy Sixer’ under licence called the Sears Video Arcade (Rev. A).
CX2600 ‘Light Sixer’ (1978)
This model also known by collectors as the ‘Woody’ due to its imitation woodgrain front panel, was in production for around two years. It was visibly similar to its forerunner but with different molding around the sides and back and thinner molding on the bottom casing making it noticably lighter. It was bundled with two standard joystick controllers, a pair of paddles and a Combat game cartridge.
According to Wikipedia (and a few other sites), when the CX2600 moved production to Hong Kong from Sunnyvale, California the design changed to this lighter slightly restyled version but as I actually own a Sunnyvale ‘Light Sixer’ I know that at least some of these second models were manufactured in the US. The majority of ‘Light Sixers’ were indeed produced in the far east though, and this is where production of all official Atari models remained until their eventual retirement. Sears also released their own version of the ‘Light Sixer’ under licence.
The last of the ‘Woodys’ was this variant which had 2 of it’s six switches (difficulty switches) restyled and moved to the upper back section of the unit. This was due to a motherboard change which meant that the new single board (instead of the previous two) was angled inside the case. Bundled items remained the same.
2600 ‘Darth Vader’ (1982)
The first real style change since the first model in 1977, this version is an all-black version of the CX2600A (hence the nickname) with a new logo. Maybe by now they were thinking that woodgrain was just too 1970s, or maybe they just needed it to look contemporary alongside their newly released 5200. Packaged in a new-look silver box and officially called 2600 for the first time this was Atari’s attempt at keeping up with the changing face of the videogames industry. In-box extras changed too, gone were the paddles and Pac-Man was the choice of bundled cartridge.
2600 ‘Junior’ (1986)
The cheap and cheerful (with its rainbow effect steel band) Junior was Atari’s last attempt at rebranding and remarketing its now outdated system. The likes of Nintendo and Sega were now the order of the day and this small, sleek new model was released at a price that would make it attractive alongside its better but considerably more expensive rivals. A new TV ad campaign was launched announcing “The Fun is Back” (see below). Bundled with a 32 in 1 game cartridge and one joystick and with a new low price of $50 (£35) or less. Pretty much the only difference between this and the Rev. A was cosmetic. This version has a short rainbow graphic and the Rev. A had a longer rainbow graphic on the metal plate.
2600 ‘Junior’ Rev. A (1986)
Almost identical to the original ‘Junior’ except for the longer rainbow graphic on the brushed steel plate.
2600 ‘Junior’ Black
Manufactured in Ireland, this all-black ‘Junior’ is possibly the most uncommon of the three final models. Apart from cosmetic changes it remained internally and functionally the same as the other ‘Junior’ models.