The fun is back, oh yessiree… it’s the 2600 from Atari!

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December has been an exciting month for the memory of the long-beloved Atari 2600 console. First, a popular Atari 2600 homebrew game, Halo 2600, was added, along with Playstation 3’s Flower, to the Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibit, “The Art of Video Games.” Then, Microsoft announced that they were funding a documentary on the excavation of the lost Atari E.T. cartridges purportedly buried in the fabled New Mexico landfill, to be released on Xbox Live next year.

And then, today I learned that the Internet Archive, the nonprofit project busily attempting to store the history of the Web along with thousands of public domain books, songs, and videos, has opened up a website where you can play hundreds of classic Atari 2600 games, as well as games from other consoles of the early 1980s, appropriately titled the Console Living Room. The site has hundreds of games from the Atari 2600, Atari 7800, ColecoVision, Bally Astrocade, and Odyssey 2 systems, emulated in the browser via a Javascript-based emulator called JSMESS.

The Atari 2600 collection is surprisingly complete. There are hundreds of games for it alone. You have everything from Atari hits such as Asteroids, Centipede, and Defender, to the amazing Activision library of games (before Call of Duty, Activision programmers were making the Atari sing — case in point, the near-NES-quality Pitfall II and Kung Fu Master, which you would never be able to tell ran on a horrendously-crippled 1977 game console with only 128 bytes of RAM and which used two-thirds of its processor power just drawing the screen). They even have… let’s just say the bottom of the bargain bin (like the famously awful E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and the awfully famous Custer’s Revenge.) There are even homebrews (like the Smithsonian-approved work of art, Halo 2600), unreleased prototypes that never made it off the drawing board (such as Miss Piggy’s Wedding and Donald Duck’s Speedboat), and even the diagnostic cartridges used by Atari service technicians to fix broken consoles. You can even read scans of the original manuals (necessary to look at in the case of convoluted adventure games like Raiders of the Lost Ark, and pretty awesome to look at if you’re a fan of trippy late-seventies early-eighties commercial art.)

Even though this is the Internet Archive and not some flash-in-the-pan emu site hosted in Russia or China, I’m surprised the current owners of the Atari trademarks haven’t hit them with a cease and desist yet. Then again, even if they did, most of the companies that put these games out in the 1980’s no longer exist or care or (in the case of, say, Custer’s Revenge, have disavowed all knowledge of making these games.) So enjoy this while you can.

As informative and as exciting as this collection is, however, it’s not without its flaws. Sound isn’t implemented in the JSMESS emulator yet, unfortunately, but they say they’re working on it. And the emulator is rather slow and clunky, at least on my five-year-old Core 2 Duo laptop. But, if you want to witness for yourself a fascinating bit of video game history from the time before 3-d polygons, grim space marines, and hyperrealistic ultraviolence, or if you’re a nerdy Gen-Xer with a nostalgia for Yars Revenge like myself, the Console Living Room is worth spending some time in.

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