Just over 30 years ago – about the same time some of us were queuing up to see Star Wars – the venerable Atari CX-2600 Video Computer System was released. It seems incredible now, but before this – and take note Generation Y, Generation Z or whatever comes after that – most people actually needed to depart the couch for an arcarde or pizza joint to enjoy videogaming entertainment.

The Atari 2600 wasn’t the first in-home games machine – that was Atari’s Home Pong game, released back in 1975 – but when the 2600 debuted two years later it showcased a radical design that relied on external ‘cartridges’ to store a game’s code, and a ‘universal’ Central Processing Unit (CPU) to execute it. Other products of the time used purpose-built hardware to run a handful of ‘locked-in’ games. The cartridge system freed up the internal circuitry from storing the games, and sparked a new industry of independent games developers.

 

Atari's venerable CX-2600 games console.

The Atari 2600 didn’t score immediate success in 1977, but after licensing the arcade smash-hit Space Invaders in 1980 sales shot to two million units. In 1982, Atari sold 8 million units, and by 2004 an astounding 30 million units had been sold and around 900 games had been developed for it. The 2600 also earned the title of the longest selling games console in US history, with sales spanning 14 years.

But how far have we come since those days? How does the Atari 2600 stack up, for example, against Sony’s Playstation 3, arguably the most powerful games console available today?

CPU and memory

Under the hood, the Atari 2600’s CPU – the little engine that could – ran at 1.19 megahertz, or 1.9 million clock cycles per second. The PS3’s Cell Broadband Engine (BE), on the other hand, runs at an insane 3.2 Gigahertz, or 3200 million clock cycles per second! To boot, the Cell BE processor’s architecture also includes seven Synergistic Processing Elements (SPEs), or ‘co-processors’ to help the main processor get the job done. And remember, this is a product that reaches the ‘supercomputer threshold’ set by the US government, meaning it could be put to use in applications such as missile guidance systems!

As memory was very expensive in the late-70s, the Atari 2600’s engineers set aside just 128 bytes of ‘working memory’ for the system to execute games. The cartridges that stored the game data contained 4 kilobytes, or 4000 bytes of memory. In contrast, the PS3 comes with 500 million bytes (500MB) of onboard ‘working memory’, plus anywhere from 20 to 160 thousand, million bytes (20-160GB) of local memory to hold game data. Also, as PS3 games are stored on Blu-ray discs, these contain enough room for up to 50 thousand, million bytes (50GB) of game data – which is some 12.5 million times more than an Atari games cartridge. Amazing!

Controllers

On the joystick front, Atari’s 2600 came with two 8-direction, single-button joysticks. The PS3 cheaps out by offering only a single ‘Sixaxis’ controller, but the console can support up to seven controllers at one time. Also, Sixaxis controller contains a cornucopia of buttons – 12 in total, plus two analog ‘thumb-sticks’, a four-direction pad, and it can connect wirelessly! Oh, and did I mention that it’s motion sensitive, and there’s also a vibrating version?

Graphics

Now how has the visual quality of games changed? By today’s standards, the Atari’s games were drawn from a grid of 192 x 94 pixels with a 104-colour palette, and complemented by stereo audio. The PS3 can create fully fluid, detailed 3D worlds in 1920 x 1080 pixels (1080p high definition graphics), using millions of colours and 5.1 channel Dolby Digital surround sound. Gaming worlds have never been so immersive or sounded so real. And consoles of today do much more than play games – they connect to the internet, screen Blu-ray movies, create slideshows of your photos, play music and more. Consoles of today can also support 3D games and movies, when used in conjunction with 3D glasses and compatible TVs.

It’s more than just gaming grunt

Despite all of the advances in games console technology, one thing remains as true in 1977 as it does now – great games are more than just great technology. Yesterday’s games didn’t have the luxury of flashy graphics, so thoughtful crafted and executed game play took a lead role in the development of games titles, and many were terrifically addictive.

Perhaps the downside of today’s games is that we don’t need to rely on our imaginations as much, and without that, how will we come up with the next generation of games that will take us to the next level?