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This 2600 Mystery Has Puzzled Atari Collectors For Decades


The Atari VCS was launched in 1977 with an initial launch lineup of 9 games - Combat, Air-Sea Battle, Star Ship, Indy 500, Street Racer, Video Olympics, Surround, Black Jack, and Basic Math (or Fun With Numbers). But the CX-26 numbers associated with these games aren’t sequential. I wonder why that is?


Atari’s 2600 is a games console that hopefully needs no introduction. Originally released back in 1977 as the Video Computer System, it had the Atari part number CX-2600 - which is where the 2600 name came from when they decided to rebrand it in 1982, to more clearly show its place in the lineup alongside the new 5200 - which is this absolute unit right here.

The first game released for the 2600 was Combat, it’s a multiplayer fighting game involving various vehicles like tanks and planes, and was based on Atari’s popular arcade game Tank from 1974, and this has the Atari part number CX2601.

In fact, every first party 2600 game has one of these CX26 numbers - all the way up to the last batch of games that Atari released for the console in 1990. Accessories also got a CX number - the joystick was originally CX10 and then later, CX40, and the paddle controllers got the CX30 designation.

But, as a collector, something has always puzzled me about the original 1977 launch lineup of 9 games - Combat - which I’ve already mentioned - Air-Sea Battle, Star Ship, Indy 500, Street Racer, Video Olympics, Surround, Blackjack, and Basic Math - known in the US as Fun With Numbers.

The eagle eyed among you will have spotted that the numbers on these aren’t sequential. It starts off reasonably enough with Combat - number CX2601. Then we have Air-Sea Battle, which, perhaps predictably was 2602, and Star Ship, which was 2603.

But here’s where things go a little skewiff. Next up we have a couple of racing games - Indy 500, which is CX2604- wait, no. CX261…1? And then immediately after that, CX2612, which was Street Racer.

OK, well, that’s 5 of the original 9, so we’ll continue, and next we have CX2621, Video Olympics - an impressive collection of 50 different games - if we count variations - all along the Pong theme, which, alright, was a bit long in the tooth in 1977 but still great value for money for the sheer amount of content.

Finally, rounding out the original lineup were Surround (CX2641), Blackjack (CX2651), and Basic Math (CX2661) - and this cartridge was a particularly tricky one to track down - I’ve been looking for one for a reasonable price for a couple of years now but I did manage to get my hands on it in the end. They’re the kind of lengths that I go to for your entertainment.

Anyway, those last 3 titles are particularly interesting because the numbers are all 10 apart, which gives us a pretty big clue as to how this system was supposed to work.

I always thought that the rather jaunty numbering scheme was due to differences in development time - that when Atari internally commissioned a new game, it would be assigned a CX number, and if CX2661 happened to be finished before CX2646 then so be it, it would be released first and that was that. For example, in the case of these two games, Pac-Man was released 5 years later in 1982, despite having the much lower number.

But looking a little more closely into how these numbers work - at least the very early ones - we can see that there was indeed some method behind Atari’s madness - so rather than drag things out any longer, lets examine it now.

The first group - CX2601 to 2610 - can be broadly categorised as combat or action games. Even CX2606 Slot Racers, which to the uninitiated might sound like a racing game, is actually a somewhat similar concept to Combat, with one player hunting down and shooting the other, just with slot racers on a track rather than tanks and planes.

Super Breakout is a weird exception in this group, and hopefully the reason for that will become clear in a minute.

As mentioned, Indy 500 and Street Racer - CX2611 and 2612 respectively - are both racing games, but this next block is well and truly messed up almost straight away by the inclusion of Adventure, which is absolutely not a racing game at all. In fact there’s all sorts of random stuff in here.

Reason being that the numbering system had fallen apart pretty rapidly by 1978, when evidently someone internally at Atari worked out that it was a silly idea and started backfilling numbers - hence 1981’s Super Breakout getting such a low number - not to mention being in completely the wrong category.

So as mentioned CX2601 to 2610 were broadly intended to be fighting or combat type games, and by and large these slots were filled pretty rapidly due to the popularity of this genre at the time and 2611 to 2620 as mentioned, were probably going to be racing games.

It’s been speculated that CX2621 to 2630 were going to be ball and paddle games, starting of course with Video Olympics, with Breakout later joining it in the 2622 slot, but admittedly much like the previous group, we only have two games to go on.

As for the 2631 to 2640 block, the jury’s well and truly out on this one with a bit of a weird and interesting mix of stuff. They started with Superman though, so maybe licensed games?

Admittedly we’re on shaky ground here so thankfully the next block, CX2641 to 2650, seems pretty intuitive - following on from 1977’s launch title Surround, there are 4 more 2-player strategy games - Hunt & Score (or Concentration in the US), Codebreaker, Flag Capture and Video Chess - and then the list starts to fall apart again thanks to our old friend Pac-Man.

The CX2651 to 2660 block initially launched with Blackjack, being closely followed by Casino and Slot Machine, and these all of course fit into the category of casino or gambling games, so it’s probably safe to assume that this was the intention there.

Finally, CX2661 to 70 started with that hard to find Basic Math cartridge, quickly followed by Hangman and Brain Games, although oddly enough the 2663 slot went to Road Runner, a much later game that wasn’t released until 1989 - maybe indicating that something else was originally intended for that slot and later cancelled.

Anyway, with Basic Math and Brain Games broadly fitting into the educational category, maybe that was the intention for this block.

So, it seems when Atari first started allocating numbers to VCS games way back in 1977, that they very much had a system in mind - and I think it’s very telling that they only ever expected there to be a maximum of 10 games of each genre on the system.

Of course, as mentioned, that was soon abandoned, and the humble 2600 went on to sell more than 30 million units in its lifetime, finally being discontinued at the ripe old age of 15 in 1992 - and of course, now seeing a resurgence thanks to the excellent 2600+ released last year.

Now, you’ve probably noticed I’ve used some pretty vague language in this video like “maybe” and “apparently” and “probably” and there’s a good reason for that - that reason being that there’s no actual documentation from Atari itself proving that these categories were ever a thing. I got this information from a 22 year old AtariAge forum post by a user called Pitfall Harry, apparently based on an older post by a user known as Tempest.

So - take all of that with a pinch of salt. But I thought it was an interesting thing to ponder and it certainly makes sense. But what do you think? I’ve linked that forum post down below for your perusal - does it make sense that Atari only ever expected the VCS to be a flash in the pan with 10 games of each genre in its catalogue, or are people finding patterns here where they don’t really exist? Let me know down in the comments.

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