The Atari 2600 is, for a certain generation of gamers, the most nostalgia-igniting console ever made. From its wood veneer fascia to its chunky carts and the legendary CX40 joystick, the machine evokes the very dawn of the games industry, before Sony, Microsoft or even Nintendo arrived to dominate it all. Even for those of us never fortunate enough to own one, the image of it was everywhere, from Grattan catalogues and comic book adverts, to TV programmes and movies such as ET, Electric Dreams and Gremlins. It was a machine that brought seminal arcade experiences to 30m homes around the world.
Now it is back as the 2600+, in a mini format, with HDMI connectivity for modern TVs and a cartridge slot that will play not just newly manufactured carts, but most of the original 2600 and later 7800 titles. Perhaps even more than the mini consoles from Sega, Sony and Nintendo, it captures the technical and aesthetic features of the original machine. As well as two joystick ports (which allow you to plug in the original pads, if you have any that still work), the console has switches to select game difficulty, as well as reset and choose game modes, and you can opt between colour and black and white graphics – all features from the original 2600 models. You even get a reproduction of that wooden front panel. Fans of the original will get a rush of memories with every flick of the power switch and jab at the fire button.
For just under £100 you get the machine itself, all the necessary cables (you’ll need a USB plug), plus one CX40 joystick and a 10-in-one cart featuring Combat, Missile Command, Video Pinball and other classics. Other games are available to buy at £25 each, and you can purchase a package containing two paddle controllers for £30 which also comes with a four-game cart featuring Breakout, Night Driver, Canyon Bomber and Video Olympics.
There’s no getting away from it – this is an expensive way to relive those old days of blocky graphics and bleeping sound effects. The latest in the officially licensed Atari Flashback series of consoles, by contrast, is available for around £80 and comes with over 100 games built in. This series has also included rare and prototype games and comes with two controllers. The build quality isn’t as good, but if you just want to jump on and play a few ancient shoot-’em-ups, it’s good value. There are also countless unofficial mini-consoles and handhelds that contain emulations of all the classic Atari titles – or you can just play many online for nothing.
The range of available games is also light on bona fide classics. No Pac-Man, no Space Invaders, no Pitfall!, Frogger or River Raid – either these were more difficult to source as they were produced by third-party companies, or they’re being saved for individual release later. Whatever the case, very few of the titles that remain genuinely playable and compelling today are included. This, of course, is not a problem if you have discovered a stash of old carts in your loft and just want something to play them on; in that case, the 2600+ is a far better purchase than gambling on an original 2600 on eBay. For those enamoured with vintage Atari technology, this is quite possibly a must-buy.
If you’re just keen to reminisce about the old days, when Atari ruled, and this odd console looked at home beside the gargantuan wooden-boxed TVs of the late 1970s, the Atari 2600+ is an attractive, well-built piece of kit. Put it in your living room and it will bring instant nostalgic warmth, while the games themselves will remind both old and new players what it meant to own a console 40 years ago: surreal, minimalist visuals, no title screens, often no high score tables or game over sequences – just the most rudimentary of interactions between player and screen.
As with many pop cultural relics from the 1970s, the charm and novelty may wear off too soon, the weirdness and limitations all too obvious. What will remain, however, is the perfect miniaturised replica of a beautiful, important machine raising a smile each time you glance its way. For many, that will be just enough.