The Atari 2600 makes the Toy Hall of Fame

Also inducted, the kite and Raggedy Andy (five years after Raggedy Ann got in).

By Farhad Manjoo
Published November 9, 2007 10:59PM (EST)

Magnavox released the Odyssey, the world's first home video game console, in 1972 -- and failed to change the world. In 1976, Fairchild Semiconductor unleashed a console of its own, the Fairchild Channel F, which also sort of withered on the vine.

Then, in the fall of 1977, Nolan Bushnell* and Ted Dabney, two entrepreneurs whose company, Atari, had already made a big splash with the game "Pong," put forth a stout little box they called the Atari VCS, for Video Computer System. The VCS -- later renamed the 2600 for the system's catalog number, CX2600 -- sold for $199, and initially had a library of 9 games. It was an instant success, selling 250,000 units within a matter of months, and bringing home video games to the masses.

And thus the 2600 belongs to history. On Thursday the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, named the Atari 2600 as one of the newest members of its National Toy Hall of Fame.

"The 2600 had better games, more colorful graphics, and sharper sound" than the systems that preceded it, Jon-Paul Dyson, a curator for electronic games at the museum, says in a statement explaining the induction. He adds: "And what games! 'Combat,' 'Space Invaders,' 'Pac Man,' 'Frogger,' and countless others mesmerized an entire generation and made video games a part of everyday play in the home. The Atari 2600 was a true game-changing toy."

It would be hard to discount the 2600's place in video game history -- there'd be no "Halo 3" for XBox 360 if there weren't "Space Invaders" for Atari in 1980. Atari sold 2 million consoles in 1980, and by 1982, kids everywhere were demanding it. It sold 8 million units.

But that was the height. The explosive growth of the nascent video game industry and a glut of pretty poor games led to the video game crash of 1983, which hit Atari hard. Its future systems never matched the success of the 2600.

Still, through the 1980s, as competing systems and newer technologies came along, the Atari 2600 continued to putter along. It was officially retired in 1992 -- 14 years after its game-changing introduction, after selling more than 40 million units around the world.

The 2600 becomes the youngest toy ever to be inducted into the hall of fame. This year's two other inductees are much older. Raggedy Andy was first produced in 1920, five years after his doll sister, Raggedy Ann, made her debut; he enters the Hall of Fame five years after Ann got in.

The kite, meanwhile, is at least 2800 years old. Patricia Hogan, a curator at the museum, offers this rhapsodic explanation for its induction now: "A kite needs only a bit of abreeze, a wide open field, and a kid who wants to play.... nothing sends the human spirit soaring so well as a colorful kite aloft in a gentle breeze."

Click here for a list of previous inductees into the Toy Hall. Among them: Crayola crayons, the Easy Bake Oven, Barbie, the Slinky, alphabet blocks, the Duncan yo-yo, and, puzzlingly but not completely misguidedly, the cardboard box. The museum offers this paean to that toy: "With nothing more than a little imagination, those boxes can be transformed into forts or houses, spaceships or submarines, castles or caves. Inside a big cardboard box, a child is transported to a world of his or her own, one where anything is possible. "

*An interesting fact about Nolan Bushnell: In addition to co-founding Atari, Bushnell also launched Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants. The guy seems seriously into fun.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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