The Top Ten Most Influential Video Game Consoles of All Time

The Top Ten Most Influential Video Game Consoles of All Time

  • By: CM Boots-Faubert
  • Posted 21st Dec 2011

(3) Atari -- 2600
(2nd Gen October 1977)

With Atari having firmly established its position as the leading voice in home gaming consoles and games at the time, the launch of the Atari 2600 in October of 1977 -- while from the outside looking in appeared to be just another game system with perhaps obvious outward improvements -- in the end it proved to be a critical generational leap forward for the industry.

The most impressive of its contributions to home console gaming is clearly the use of microprocessor-based hardware in the main system, as well as actual processing capabilities built into the cartridges containing the game code so that instead of having non-microprocessor dedicated hardware with all games built in the game companies could add capability to the base system as needed to make their games function the way that they were designed to.

It should be noted that the Fairchild Channel F was the first console to use this approach, but it must also be acknowledged that it was the 2600 that actually made the process work, and it is for that reason that the Atari 2600 receives most of the credit for making the plug-in concept popular.

Originally marketed and sold as the Atari VCS -- for Video Computer System -- the 2600 line was quickly joined by the Atari 5200 (1982), and so was renamed "Atari 2600" in order to both differentiate it and to simplify identification for cartridges.

The 2600 was typically bundled with two joystick controllers, a conjoined pair of paddle controllers, and a cartridge game -- originally the game Combat, but later it was bundled with the home version of the wildly popular game Pac-Man, which almost guaranteed its place at the top of the heap. As the 1980's drew to a close the market penetration for the Atari game systems -- and particularly the 2600 itself -- was so wide and deep that it very nearly became a generic term for home gaming in much the way that Coke became a generic term for cola-based beverages!

To put its popularity into perspective, consider this: in 2009 the Atari 2600 was named the second greatest video game console of all time by IGN, who cited its role as the console behind both the first home video game boom, and oddly the video game crash of 1983 -- calling it "the console that our entire industry is built upon."

In addition to establishing standards in quality and performance for home consoles, the 2600 was responsible for the second brand war and the first major price war in the industry when Fairchild declared war against Atari, pitting its Channel F system against the 2600 and getting creamed by Atari, who by that point was so confident in its place and success that it was actually licensing the system to be re-badged and sold under different names by major retailers all over the world.

Quickly moving to secure a library of hit titles for its console, Atari largely won that war because it had games like Pac Man, Space Invaders, and other stand-up arcade titles that pushed pushed annual sales of the console to the point that they were measured in billions of dollars, not the millions that Fairchild was raking in.

One move that should sound familiar to modern gamers is the redesign of the 2600 to a slimmer and more compact model made exclusively for the market in Japan that allowed Atari to release a "new" unit in between the traditional timed release schedules, and its foray into the OEM market. Reducing the size of a system has the effect of reducing cost, which allowed Atari to maintain its market position and profits long after the system was being overwhelmed by the next generation of consoles and games -- a situations that is similar to the modern day placement of Sony's PlayStation 2, which until recently was still a viable console with new games being created for it.

The final major contribution that the Atari 2600 console made to the industry was its proof in concept that brand name is often as powerful and influential a factor in the industry as capabilities and the game library for a given console. Considering that the 2600 was the spark that created the fanboy phenomenon and movement that is still with us today, that is saying something.