I do not intend to get into video game collecting, but the Atari 2600 was a significant enough machine that it seems like I can make an exception for that one. I saw one going by on eBay at one point, and my interest was piqued enough to look into it. And today, my specimen arrived, which is actually a pretty nice one.
There were a lot of Atari 2600s, and they vary in their collectibility and rarity. The trick is that people who have them and sell them on eBay rarely know what they’ve got. Some people know that there are different models, but even still many people seem to get it wrong. Although I can’t guarantee I haven’t missed something somewhere, I think I basically have it now.
The original run of Atari 2600s lasted a year, and they were produced in 1977 (and I believe a little bit into 1978; they were introduced in October 1977 and the first model was only produced for a year). These first ones were manufactured in Sunnyvale, CA, and featured six switches on the top. After the first year, the case was redesigned a little bit, reducing the weight of the bottom of the case, and most of the manufacturing was moved to Hong Kong. After that, a further redesign reduced the number of switches on the top to four, with the player difficulty switches being moved to the back of the case. So, the distinctions among the early models are between 6-switch and 4-switch varieties, and, among the 6-switch varieties, between the heavy case and the lighter case. So, the first model, produced in the first year, is known among collectors as a “heavy sixer” and the next model, with the lighter case, is known as a “light sixer”. In general, the most collectible ones are the heavy sixers, which are produced in Sunnyvale. Light sixers are generally not produced in Sunnyvale, but there do seem to be quite a number of them that were, usually some kind of promotional models (although not really all that rare). The heavy sixers are still the rarest of the models as I understand it. Sears also marketed its own branded version of the 2600, which also came in at least heavy and light sixer varieties.
Some who know that the six-switch models are more collectible, but yet not understanding the difference between the heavy and light sixers, will refer to what they have as “heavy sixers” even when they’re really “light sixers”—searching around on eBay is likely to yield several examples of that. So, first of all, if you want to get one of those first year models, do not trust what the seller says it is. Trust the pictures. They will at least tell you what kind of case it is. Unless the seller is fairly sophisticated in the ways of the Atari collector (in which case you’re likely to find that the asking price is high), you won’t be able to be sure that the internals are original, but it’s pretty easy to see the difference between the light and heavy sixers’ cases. The most telling place to look is right next to the Atari logo in the front right of the machine, where you’ll be able to see either that the side is thin and with a more angled curve (a light sixer) or thick and with a more even curve (a heavy sixer). And of course, there need to be six switches on the top.
Armed with this information, I started looking around at auctions on eBay, because it’s relatively common for people to sell them indiscriminately, so even though the heavy sixers are rare, they do appear. I was fortunate enough to find one before much time had elapsed, unmarked as being such (being sold at the same price as 2-3 other light sixer systems, without any differentiation between them). So, here is mine.
Mine’s actually got a pretty low serial number as well. I don’t completely understand the serial numbering scheme, but my impression is that the “E” series was the first one, and predates the others, which can end in various letters.
There are various points of differentiation between machines, again I don’t really know exactly what drives them. One is that quite a number of early machines have a slot in the case for “channel select” (which is intended to distinguish between channels 3 and 4 I believe, although the options are labeled “A” and “B”) but without any switch inside. Some don’t even have the hole. Mine has the hole but not the switch.
As usual, my first priority was to take everything apart and clean it up. There are six screws to remove from the back (four of which are kind of at an angle), and then the top comes off. Here’s the CX-2600, topless.
Affixed to the case containing the motherboard was a piece of paper with a cryptic number affixed to it. I don’t think there is a consensus about what these numbers mean. But mine says “99 3390057. #”.
Elsewhere, floating around in the case, was a green sticker that says “118152”—again, I don’t think there’s a consensus on what these numbers mean, but these stickers are not unusual. And the numbers probably do mean something.
One more number I found in there was on a sticker on the RF modulator. This says “7807”—and I suspect that this might be the “build date”, in which case it was built at the end of February, 1978. Which, I might add, is a bit later than I’d expected. This is the only reference to 1978 I saw inside, although at least one of the chips we’ll see later was marked “7752” which would indicate a production date (for the chip) at the very, very end of 1977. So, it’s highly unlikely that this machine was built in 1977, we already knew from that that it must have been assembled in 1978.
Opening up the casing to get at the motherboard, here’s the bottom of it. And yet another receipt-like piece of paper sticking out from underneath, which we’ll see in a moment. One note about the screws here: the one in the rear-right corner (when you hold it with the screws on top and the ribbon cable coming out the side furthest from you) is significantly longer than the other three, so it’s worth keeping track of which screw came out from where.
The motherboard says “Rev 8 C010433”:
Flipping over the motherboard now, we see the receipt paper taped to one of the chips. The paper reads “9913800152.#” and it is taped to a chip that says “7747” on it (47th week of 1977).
The other two major chips read “7752” and “7748”
So what to conclude from all of this? Well, I think the best guess is that it was assembled in early 1978 (probably at the end of Feburary), and so would seem to have been relatively late in the production of the heavy sixers. Nevertheless, it does seem to have a relatively low serial number on the case. Perhaps the case and the internals don’t entirely go together, too, although they are not separated by much time.
Onward, to the cleaning. One thing that I found somewhat surprising was the fact that the painted panel behind the switches is actually a separate piece. So it is in principle possible to replace (or clean) the panel separately from the rest of the top.
The paint on mine is not perfect—actually, I’ve really almost never seen one that doesn’t have the same kind of paint wear this one does.
With everything cleaned and reassembled, I tried out a couple of cartridges. I plugged the 2600 into a set-top DVD recorder (so I could tune to channel 3), which sends its output into the Wings personality card in my Power Mac G3. Lo and behold, I was playing Pac-Man and Pitfall!. Badly.
The setup I got was pretty complete. It came with two joysticks, two paddles, and quite a pile of cartridges. The cartridges I got are: Atari: Combat, Video Olympics, Warlords, Pac-Man, Missile Command, Defender, Human Cannonball, Video Pinball, Asteroids, Surround, Big Bird’s Egg Catch. Sears (Tele-Games): Adventure, Night Driver. Activision: Skiing, Fishing Derby, Pitfall!. Imagic: Atlantis. M Network: Astroblast. Sega: Buck Rogers—Planet of Zoom. Parker Bros: Return of the Jedi—Death Star Battle, Spider-Man, Q*Bert. Again, some cartridges are collectible, some cartridges are super-common, and going into this I had no idea which was which (nor did it really inform much my bidding on this machine). It is possible to get at least an idea of how common these things are from the AtariAge Atari 2600 Rarity Guide, though. For the most part, unsurprisingly, the cartridges I got are pretty common. A couple turned out to be “scarce” or “scarce+”, although they’re not in great condition.
Apparently these are “scarce” in the versions I have: Adventure (though mine has writing all over it and is missing the label from the end), Fishing Derby, Spider-Man (label fell off).
And these are “scarce+”: Atlantis, Big Bird’s Egg Catch (has something affixed to the label), Sega Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom, Star Wars: Death Star Battle (label fell off).
Still, a pretty decent acquisition, I think. I’m confident this is basically the first generation machine and I have a few somewhat hard-to-find cartridges, as well as some of the ones I actually remember playing in the distant past.
I also think that’s the last of my Atari acquisitions, but the 2600 was important enough in history to justify having this one.