You Can Judge a 2600 By Its Cover
If you’ve joined us at the museum to do any accessioning you know how carefully we assess artifacts when they come to us. Part of that assessment is noting any specific differences within types of artifacts to make sure that our collection is representative as well as comprehensive. With the Atari 2600 (or colloquially, Atari Video Computer Systems) there are many variations beyond the standard wood grain console. Yet these systems are all essentially the same in terms of performance and options. While every serious 2600 fan has their own favorite version of the console, one of the most coveted examples is the “heavy sixer” version of the original Atari Video Computer System. Heavy sixers are an example of the earliest Atari VCS systems and like many early electronics have a few key identifiers that don’t require opening them up and reading chip codes or serials off the board.
Unlike later versions of the 2600, heavy sixers have six switches on the front of the console instead of four on the front and two on the back. Within the variants of six switch VCS systems, the heavy sixers are also, unsurprisingly, more heavy – about half a kilogram in fact. Taken together these two factors give us the name and its inverse “light sixer” to describe later runs of the VCS which don’t feature the heavier bottom half of the plastic shell which gave the units their additional weight. The heavy sixer in our collection (2016.014.002) comes from Harold M. Lee, who was the original owner and noted Atari employee. You can see the thick frame on the bottom half of the system and distinctive six-button configuration across the front of the system.
There are other less noticeable identifiers of Atari 2600 vintage as well. These include the shape and size of the bezels around the switch holes, and as mentioned earlier, screen printing, board revisions, and component choices inside the system.
Also notable is that heavy sixers were produced exclusively in the Bay Area. Later, when production expanded overseas to Hong Kong the heavy sixer didn’t make the transition. This means that if you have a Heavy Sixer (NTSC or PAL versions) it came from right here in Santa Clara County; the home of Atari and the birthplace of the video game industry.
Retro Game Collector has done a great writeup with comparison shots between heavy and light six switch Ataris, and if you’d like an even more comprehensive study of the differences between systems there is an excellent thread over at Atari Age that gets into the literal guts of the issue. If you’d like to see and compare light and heavy sixers, four switch, and other Atari systems, stop by the museum and see if you can spot the differences yourself!
2016.014.002 – Gift of Harold M. Lee