The Atari 2600, introduced in 1977 as the Atari Video Computer System (VCS), was the most popular pre-crash home system. It first released in a six-switch model with a large base, a second six-switch model, and later in four-switch woodgrain, four-switch black-panel, and "2600jr" models, as well as several sub-models which are variations on these models (see the list in the FAQ). Atari released the 2800 in Japan, which was released in the U.S. as the Sears Video Arcade II (see below). Atari also had a prototype wireless 2600 which never made it to store shelves. All models play the same cartridges and use the same peripherals.
In 1983, four companies proposed to turn the Atari 2600 into a real home computer. However, Atari's My First Computer [second picture from Matt Brady], Entex's Piggyback, Unitronics's Expander, and Spectravideo's Compumate were deficient in some way (capabilities, keyboard, price, etc) and couldn't stand up against the existing home computer market.
Through the early 1980s, Atari and third parties introduced (some as vaporware) all kinds of expansions for the aging 2600. Atari themselves had the Space-Age Joystick, as well as the above-mentioned keyboard and the Voice Commander voice recognition system. CVC had the Gameline Master Module which allowed users to play games downloaded through a modem. Milton-Bradley came up with a couple of novel controllers as well, including the Flight Commander and the Cosmic Commander which came with their own cartridges. Amiga, maker of various creative devices, dreamed up the Joyboard and a tape-based game system as part of its "Power System" line of products. The user stands on the Joyboard and rocks in various directions to emulate a joystick. Try playing Activision Decathlon with that!
Due to the popularity of the Atari 2600, there were quite a few compatibility modules for other systems. Mattel made a 2600-compatibility module for its Intellivision II, and Atari made one for its 5200. Cardco announced one for the Commodore VIC-20 but it was not made publicly available. Coleco had not only 2600-compatibility expansion module for its ColecoVision, but a 2600 clone called the Gemini which spurred a lawsuit from Atari.
Clones of the Atari 2600 were abundant. Coleco's Gemini system included two controllers that had both sticks and paddle knobs. It was also sold by Columbia House as the Columbia Home Arcade, which sold 2600 cartridges under roughly the same deal as its book or tape/CD clubs now. Sears had a number of its own 2600 clones, produced with the cooperation of Atari, under the Video Arcade label (they also sold Intellivision clones under the "Super Video Arcade" label). The first two were six- and four-switch models like the Atari models, but with a different plate around the switches and a different fake woodgrain pattern. However, the next model was the Sears Video Arcade II, the only version of the Atari 2800 sold in the U.S. It's shaped like the 7800 but has four joystick ports. Sears also sold Atari cartridges under the Tele-games label, three of which were Sears exclusives.
Unauthorized clones of the 2600 were popular after the crash and some are still being produced today. The Dynavision is a "plain" clone which plays cartridge games. It is called "plain" since many unauthorized clones, like the Rambo, come with built-in games. One clone still being produced is the TV Boy [better picture from JerryG]. The TV Boy is small and portable. Using the optional antenna and four AA batteries, all one needs to do is point it at a TV tuned to channel 13 and play one of the 126 built-in games. It would be the perfect portable 2600 but it has no cartridge port-- one can only play the built-in games.
Atari attempted to bring back the Atari 2600 and in 1989 was trying hard to sell it in a big promotion along with the 7800 and XE Game System. By this time, Nintendo's NES held most of the market and advanced systems like the Sega Genesis were appearing on the scene. Despite Atari's "The Fun is Back... Under $50" campaign, no one wanted the twelve-year-old technology.
Dennis Brown, dgbrown (at) pixesthesia (dot) com, creator and maintainer. E-Mail me with corrections and additions. All contents copyright 2006, Dennis Brown. All trademarks are properties of their respective companies.