The Atari 2600
Atari's infamous entry into the programmable race begins in 1975. The first Stella prototype is developed by Steve Mayer and Ron Milner, of the Atari consulting firm Cyan Engineering, part of the company's Grass Valley think tank. A further prototype is then created by Cyan employee Joe DeCuir, with Jay Miner (who later designs the ground-breaking Amiga computer) further refining the Stella chip at Atari's Los Gatos plant.
Named the Atari VCS (Video Computer System), it barely arrives in stores in time for the 1977 Christmas season. It comes with the pack-in cartridge Combat, designed by initial Stella programmer Larry Kaplan, along with DeCuir and Larry Wagner. Combat was originally planned to be integrated right into the ROMs of the machine as a built-in game. Running a 1.19 MHz 8-bit Motorola 6507 microprocessor, it retails for US$249.95. Nine cartridges are introduced along with the system. While there is very little mark-up on the machines due to the high price of the components, the carts cost very little to produce, and sell for around US$40 each. But for two years the VCS struggles to find a niche in the marketplace, and Atari loses millions, substantially dragging down Warner's stock price. There are major production problems, including defective chips and cases, and the easy-going Zen style management techniques of Bushnell, who describes himself as "a bizarre manager", begins to cause problems with Warner head Steve Ross. Under pressure from above, Bushnell leaves Atari in 1978, and the work atmosphere changes perceptively as Warner cracks down on the relaxed attitude towards dress and work hours that the 'hippies' at Atari had previously enjoyed. That year, utilizing the influx of Warner cash, the company produces 800,000 VCS units, a highly optimistic production run. Most of the inventory languishes in Atari warehouses.
The Atari 2600, is the godfather of modern videogame systems, and helped spawn a multi-billion dollar industry. Atari sold over thirty million of the consoles, and together with other companies sold hundreds of millions of games. Cartridges for the system were produced across three decades, and there are still new games being produced today.
In the early 1970ís, video arcade games gained commercial success for the first time. The American public was introduced to Pong, Tank, and other interactive video games which populated amusement parks, bars, and arcades. The games were successful enough to create interest for home versions, so in 1975 Atari released Home Pong and it was a smash hit. Other companies such as Magnavox and Coleco followed suit and released their own dedicated console games. Then in 1976, Fairchild Camera and Instrument introduced the Channel F system, the first cartridge based home video game system. The industry recognized that cartridge systems were the future of video gaming, and began development in that direction. In January 1977, RCA released the Studio II, another cartridge based system, although it only projected in black and white and seemed to be focused on educational titles. Then, in October 1977, Atari released the Atari VCS (Video Computer System) with an initial offering of nine games. This system, later renamed the Atari 2600, would come to dominate the industry for many years.
Between 1979-1980, 12 new games are released for the VCS, but the company is about to make a move that will blow the lid off the home videogame industry. In 1980 Atari becomes the first videogame company to license an arcade game. Space Invaders, originally made by Japanese game maker Taito and then licensed for North American release by Midway, becomes the killer app for the VCS. People rush out and buy the system just to play the game. There are 112 different variations on gameplay available, including invisible aliens, moving bunkers and simultaneous two-player action. Raking in $100 million for Atari, designer Rick Mauer only earns $11, 000 dollars for his work, and he never designs another game for Atari.
Following that, Atari released Adventure, which was the first video game to contain an Easter Egg - placing an object in a certain area revealed the programmerís name, Warren Robinett. Over the next two years, the Atari VCS completely dominates the home videogame market, its only rival of any significance being Mattel's Intellivision unit. Over 25 million VCS (later remodelled and named the 2600) systems are sold, grossing over five billion dollars for Atari. It also smashes the tradition of seasonal toy sales; Atari begins pushing the machine all through the year. Over the course of its production run, over 200 games are produced for Dragster - Activision 1980the system by 40 manufacturers. Approximately 120 million cartridges are sold, and there are 55 different compatible videogame systems eventually released world-wide. The company that had shrunk Warner Communication's market share during the early days of the VCS was now responsible for half of the mother corporation's profits.
Today, the 2600 still has a large number of fans who remember
the countless games played over the years, and the years to come. There
are even games being produced today by hobbyists, often in cartridge
format with a full color label and an accompanying manual. Finally,
the recent trend in retrogaming has introduced many more video game
fans to the 2600, and it continues to live on 24 years after its release!
The ZX Spectrum
By far the most famous and successful of his many products, the ZX Spectrum earned Clive Sinclair a fortune, a knighthood for "services to British industry" and a lasting place in the national consciousness. Huge numbers of Spectrums were sold around the world, making it by some way the most successful British computer ever made. Sinclair's standing rose so high that in 1983 Margaret Thatcher personally presented a Spectrum to the Japanese Prime Minister as a symbol of British technological prowess (although it turned out to be more of a symbol of Thatcherite hubris).
The Spectrum continued to sell into the early 1990s, but by about 1992 it had been squeezed out by the more advanced 16-bit computers and the cheap but more capable Sega and Nintendo games consoles.
The simple architecture of the Spectrum also makes it easy to emulate on modern computers. Spectrum emulators can be found on almost any modern computer and several palmtop devices, and many thousands of Spectrum programs have been converted to emulator formats.
The legendary rubber-keyed ZX Spectrum was for many millions of Britons their first introduction to computing. Originally released in April 1982, it had been designed (under the working name of "ZX82") with the same philosophy in mind as with the ZX81 - namely, to be the cheapest colour home computer on the market. The hardware was designed by Richard Altwasser of Sinclair Research, while the software was written by Steve Vickers (who subsequently wrote the Spectrum manual), on contract from Nine Tiles Ltd, the authors of Sinclair BASIC. The famous keyboard owed its looks to Sinclair's industrial designer Rick Dickinson, who also designed the cases of the ZX81 and ZX80. Although the outward appearance of the Spectrum remained consistent until late 1984, its hardware went through a number of changes