The start of the affair: The Atari 2600 Jr.

[Editor’s note: Brilliam takes a look back at the Atari 2600 Jr. for his Monthly Musing piece. — CTZ]

Like most kids my age, I wanted a Nintendo. With all of my heart, I yearned to shoot ducks and stomp Goombas and introduce Dodongo to smoke, despite his known dislike for the substance. Even as a five-year-old rambunctious tyke, I would run to the electronics section of our local department store (every month or two when we drove an hour to the Big City) and watch or even play the demonstration Nintendo from the moment we hit the store until my mother dragged me away. At that age, I didn’t really realize it, but my family was not exactly rich. For years, we drank evaporated milk and ate off-brand wheat pasta for days on end, just to make ends meet. A Nintendo, despite being the one thing I wanted more than anything else, was just not a possibility for my family.

One day, however, my father brought home an Atari 2600 Jr. It wasn’t Christmas, or my birthday, and I’m not even convinced it was for me; my dad, like me, is a pretty big nerd. However, he came home with this console I had never seen, two joysticks and three games. I was thrilled, as I needed to be: it would be the only console I would have in my house for eight years. In spite of this, I loved those three games, and played them until they broke — literally. More after the jump.

It’s hard to talk about the Atari 2600 Jr. without sounding really old. You have to say things like, “after the great video games crash,” or “back then you only had one button.” Regardless, I’ll give you a crash course on the Junior: in the late 70s, the Atari 2600 was released and sold millions of units. People were hovering up games, until around 1983 — when the infamous E.T. title launched. The market was saturated with shitty shovelware games, and Atari felt it hardest. The 2600 fell off the radar. In 1986, the Atari 2600 Jr. was released for an astounding $49.99 (when’s the last time you saw a console THAT cheap?) and sold at Sears stores all over North America. A couple years after this (so, there was probably another price cut), my dad picked his up.

My house had only one TV, and it was often being used by my mother or father on weekdays. On Saturdays, I was much too busy melting my brain with the morning cartoons and Honey and Almond Cruncheroos (possibly the best cereal ever made) to play the Atari, but Sundays, after church, it was open season on ghosts, turtles and barrels. My parents didn’t protest, as television on Sundays never got more exciting than the occasional Antiques Roadshow, so I would pull the TV out, unplug the cable box, and screw in the VHF forks for a grand ol’ time. For those too young to remember, to plug one of these things in, there were two screws on the back of your TV. You had to unscrew them, slide a fork-like device in between the screw and the panel behind, and screw the screw back in. It’s hard to describe, and even harder to find a picture of when you don’t know the exact name of the type of connection, but believe me when I say that this process took upwards of five minutes — just to get the console ready to be turned on. Every time. It was pretty much the dark ages, you know.

The forks looked something like this, but about a third of the size that they appear on your screen. They were fiddly, even for my tiny fingers.

But, once it was up and ready, and the volume knob on the TV was turned to an acceptable level (yes, volume KNOB — no remotes!), I would sit cross-legged on the floor, joystick in hand, and plug one of my three cartridges into the machine. I told most of my friends I only had two games, though, because I was inexplicably embarrassed by the first game that I had — Ms. Pac-Man.

Now, I had never played the original 2600 Pac-Man, but I understand that it is about as guilty for the 1983 games crash as E.T. is — it’s just a less funny target to pick on. The port was very poorly handled and it just wasn’t fun, apparently. Whether or not Ms. Pac-Man had the same issues, I’ll never know, because I was too young to have a critical bone in my body. I loved the game. It was like Pac-Man, but with different maze shapes, and the maze’s color would change every two screens. First, a pink level, then a blue level, then an orange, then a green… I probably have the order mixed up, but let me tell you — finding a new maze color in those games was so difficult and so rewarding that I don’t think I’ve ever felt the same sense of accomplishment in a game since.

Long before the days of Pac-Man CE, I was enjoying pill-eating, ghost-chasing action at home… and no, I don’t mean getting high.

One of the other two games holds a lot of fond memories for me — Donkey Kong for the 2600. To compare this game to the original arcade version is tantamount to comparing shat-on tofu to rib eye steak. It contained only two kinds of levels instead of the original’s four, and was awful in controls, difficulty, sound, and even number of colors on the screen (if I remember correctly, there were about four colors). Regardless, I sunk plenty of time into trying to climb up that stupid building in spite of the barrels and things that looked like curling rocks mixed with fireballs, and I loved it.

Those two games, while incredibly close to my heart, never quite held a candle to the third game I owned, though. This game consumed me, and made me into the obsessive button-pusher I’ve turned into today. It’s a game you’ve probably played before, but with much nicer physics and graphics. I’m talking, of course, about the original Mario Bros.

Before the NES, Mario and Luigi were messing up turtles on the 2600.

I bet some of your minds are blown right now. Maybe you knew Mario started in Donkey Kong, but I bet some of you are just now learning that both he and Luigi had a starring role on a console that wasn’t the Nintendo.

This game showed a time in Mario’s life before he even learned how to jump on enemies in a way that would kill them and allow him to survive; the only way he could kill enemies was by using his head to smash the floor underneath them, flipping them on their back, then climbing up and kicking them. Yeah, it’s the same game that was included in SMB3 when you attacked your brother, but back then it wasn’t competitive. Sure, you had separate scores, but you couldn’t headbump your brother to stun him; the only way to screw someone would be hitting them (or using the POW) as they were kicking a turtle over or something. Also, you know those magic platforms you start on when you come to life in Smash Bros.? Started here.

Atari had pipes, turtles, and overweight plumber brothers before the NES ever did.

My dad and I played this game a lot, and while I never quite got the hang of playing it as well as him, I loved it. I would play until I was out of lives, and then he’d give me his control stick and I’d burn all of those lives too. I would dream about the game. In grade one, we had to keep a drawing journal, and half of my drawings were me trying to recreate screenshots of the game.

A lot of games were important to me growing up, but probably none were as important as these three to my development as an overgrown games nerd. I never did get that Nintendo; eventually, I got a used SNES (the same Christmas my mom’s boss got her kids an N64… hmmm…), a PS1 (bought at age 12 with money from my paper route — seriously!), a PS2, an Xbox 360… all amazing consoles with hundreds of hours of incredible memories, but they only facilitated the eternal fascination that Atari’s 2600 Jr. began.