Atari 2600+
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Originally released back in 1977, the Atari VCS (later known as the 2600) was a groundbreaking piece of consumer electronics.

Sure, it wasn't the first 'game console' to hit the market, but it was the first to find lasting commercial success; indeed, the name 'Atari' became synonymous with 'video game' for much of the early '80s and the console itself made its way into millions of North American homes, creating a gold rush which would eventually result in the crash of '83 – an event that saw the seemingly unbeatable home video game sector collapse under its own overconfidence.

But we're not here for a history lesson – we're here to review the latest evolution of that classic console, the Atari 2600+. Created by the 'new' version of Atari – a company which has done much in recent years to leverage the nostalgia for its past iterations – in conjunction with Plaion (formerly known as Koch Media), the pitch is refreshingly simple: what we have here is a replica of the original 2600 which is capable of playing original 2600 and 7800 cartridges but outputs to your modern-day television via HDMI. It is accompanied by a selection of 'new' physical games, too.

Does the Atari 2600's library stand the test of time in 2023, and does this revised piece of hardware do enough to be worth a look when you consider the vast array of other retro classics on offer? Let's find out...

Atari 2600+ Review: What's In The Box

Included in the box are the Atari 2600+ console, one CX40+ joystick, HDMI cable, USB-A to USB-C power lead and a 10-in-1 cartridge including the following games: Adventure, Combat, Dodge ‘Em, Haunted House, Maze Craze, Missile Command, Realsports Volleyball, Surround, Video Pinball, and Yars’ Revenge.

Unlike systems such as the SNES Classic Edition and Mega Drive / Genesis Mini, the Atari 2600+ does not contain any pre-loaded games.

Atari 2600+ Review: Design

Atari 2600+
Yes, that Atari logo does light up when the console is powered on — Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Although it's called the 2600, this new system is based on the iconic woodgrain-fronted VCS design (the original 2600, released in 1982, had an all-black casing). It's around 80 percent the size of the original system and retains the four-switch design of the remodelled VCS from 1980 (the original 1977 VCS had six switches on the front, but two of these were moved to the back during the redesign).

In the middle of the Atari 2600+, there's a cartridge slot, which is intentionally wider than the one seen on the original hardware to make insertion and removal of games easier. This is flanked by the aforementioned four switches; the two on the left control power and allow you to toggle between a colour image and black and white (this only works on certain games), while on the right of the cartridge slot, you'll find the 'Game Select' and 'Game Reset' switches, which are instrumental in getting some titles to start.

On the back of the machine, there are two DB9 controller ports, difficulty switches for both players, a toggle to switch between 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios and the USB-A power socket. The HDMI port is also found here.

Overall, the Atari 2600+ looks and feels solid enough, even if the majority of the casing is taken up by thin air. Atari and Plaion could certainly have made it much smaller like Nintendo and Sega did with their micro-consoles, but then you'd almost certainly have lost the ability to use original media – so it's an understandable trade-off.

Atari 2600+ Review: Controllers

Atari 2600+
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Atari describes the bundled CX40+ joystick as a "1:1" replica of the original – and we have to say we agree.

It feels very close to the real thing (well, as close as our fading memories are able to ascertain) with a robust design that gives the impression it's capable of surviving many years of punishment. Because it uses the same DB9 connection as the original stick, you can even use this new variant with your original Atari VCS/2600 hardware if you so wish (likewise, your vintage controllers will work just fine with the 2600+).

It's a shame, then, that Atari has only included a single joystick with the console, because an awful lot of the system's games are reliant on two players being present to truly shine (Combat was our multiplayer jam back in the '80s). You'll almost certainly want to invest in a second CX40+ if you're serious about getting the most out of this console.

Additionally, Atari has reproduced the analogue 'Paddle' controller, which is only available in a separate bundle and includes a cartridge containing four Paddle-ready games: Breakout, Canyon Bomber, Night Driver, and Video Olympics.

Again, the Paddle controllers feel like an incredibly close match to the original design, with the analogue wheel offering a pleasing degree of proportional control. The good news is that the Paddle controller comes in a wired pair, so if you opt for this accessory, you'll be able to play with a friend immediately.

Atari 2600+ Review: Emulation

The Atari 2600+ is powered by a Rockchip 3128 "system on a chip" with 256MB DDR3 RAM and 256MB eMMC fixed internal storage, and games are emulated via version 6.7 of the popular Stella emulator (for 7800 games, ProSystem 1.3E is used). Rather than running directly from physical media, game ROMs are dumped from the cartridge into memory when the system is turned on, which incurs a short amount of load time.

Naturally, emulating a system from 45 years ago is going to be well within the means of pretty much any chipset you could care to mention in 2023, but it's still worth noting that the performance here is as close to the real thing as we can make out.

We may not be talking next-generation visuals here, but the 720p HDMI output looks sharp and bright, making these esteemed classics appear as good as possible on modern TVs. Importantly, both 2600 and 7800 titles are emulated brilliantly despite the fact that two different emulators are being used here (there are some quirks relating to PAL games, which will come to shortly).

One thing that is worth mentioning is that the Atari 2600+ does not currently boast full compatibility with the entire VCS / 2600 / 7800 library. Atari claims the system has "up to" 99% compatibility with all available 2600 and 7800 carts, but this is very much a work in progress, and there are games which haven't yet been tested on the machine. Incompatible titles currently include RealSports Boxing, James Bond 007 and Omega Race.

It's worth noting that Atari can improve compatibility over time, as the USB-C port can be used to deploy firmware updates to the console.

Atari 2600+ Review: PAL vs NTSC

We don't have to concern ourselves with television standards today, as all modern systems use a universal HDMI connection to output to your TV. However, back when the original Atari 2600 was doing the rounds, the world was divided into PAL and NTSC territories – and this appears to have an impact on how the 2600+ performs when playing software from this period.

We noticed that our copies of Pole Position and Galaxian both have a large, black space below the play area – presumably a by-product of the fact that PAL games were designed to run in a reduced, letterboxed format compared to their NTSC counterparts. We weren't able to verify entirely, but we assume the copies we own are both PAL versions.

Futhermore, the Atari 2600 uses different colour palettes depending on the signal; NTSC uses a 128-color palette, while PAL only has 104 colours. This reduction in colour appears to manifest itself in the PAL version of Pole Position's road becoming a solid black. On the NTSC version, it's grey.

We sadly didn't have NTSC versions of these titles to test on the 2600+, but it's worth keeping in mind if your collection is mainly made up of PAL games – you might find that they display in a slightly squashed format and exhibit colour differences when compared to their NTSC versions.

The other titles we tested appeared to run without any problems, but it's frustratingly hard to tell what region the games are from – back in the day, a 'P' sticker on the back would denote a PAL game, but these often go missing over time.

This isn't a fault of the 2600+ but an unfortunate legacy from the era when the world used different TV standards. If you're in a territory where NTSC was the norm, this isn't going to be an issue for you.

Atari 2600+ Review: Games

Atari 2600+
Original 2600 and 7800 games will work on the 2600+, with a small number of exceptions — Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

While the Atari 2600+ doesn't have any games built-in, it does come with a physical cartridge that contains ten different titles – many of which are solid-gold classics in the system's library and important historical milestones. Adventure, for example, is one of the earliest RPGs, and creator Warren Robinett included one of gaming's first 'Easter Eggs' within the game world.

1982's Haunted House used player-controlled scrolling at a time when this was not the norm and could be seen as the ancestor of the 'survival horror' genre. Based on the arcade game of the same name, Missile Command offers one of the most unique gameplay hooks of all time, while Yars’ Revenge – created by the legendary Howard Scott Warshaw, who also coded the infamous E.T. for the console – is Atari's best-selling original game for the 2600 and a seminal multidirectional shooter.

Selecting a game to play is done by shifting the position of four dip-switches on the rear of the cart. It's hardly an elegant solution, but it's one that was actually used on Atari 2600 carts back in the day – so it's authentic if nothing else.

Because it has a working cartridge slot, the Atari 2600+ can also play original 2600 and 7800 games, which massively opens up its potential library. Despite the advanced age of both systems, a great many of the best games can still be obtained cheaply in unboxed form, but there's a good chance that many of the people eyeing this particular console will already have their own collections.

Atari 2600+
The 10-in-1 and 4-in-1 carts come with dip-switches so you can select the game you wish to play — Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Aforementioned incompatibility and PAL issues aside, we found that all of the games we loaded up worked perfectly despite the passage of time. You may find that a few of your carts require gentle cleaning, but for the most part, our testing period proved how truly resilient these lumps of plastic really are.

Alongside the 2600+, Atari is also releasing two new physical carts. Mr. Run and Jump is Atari’s first brand-new official 2600 cartridge release since 1990 and is based on the full-fat version of the game, which is available on modern systems. Naturally, the Atari 2600 edition isn't as visually alluring or complex as its big brother, but it's still a fantastic platformer and shows what 45-year-old hardware can do when placed in the right hands.

The other physical cart is Berzerk: Enhanced Edition, which is a revised version of the 1980 classic which has robot voice phrases, enemies which fire diagonally, new animations and various bug fixes.

Atari 2600+ Review: Where To Buy

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Atari 2600+ Review: Conclusion

Atari 2600+
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Atari has done a wonderful job paying tribute to its past with the 2600+. While it's not quite a full-size replica of the original, it looks and feels close enough, and the ability to use your original games and accessories is a massive boon. We also like the fact that Atari is releasing a series of physical cartridges – including all-new games, like Mr. Run And Jump – as it makes the hardware feel more alive than ever.

Some people might grumble about the fact that the 2600+ uses emulation rather than a more accurate FPGA solution, but we'd imagine those same people would be paying more than the $129.99 / €119.99 / £99.99 being asked if an FPGA chip had been used. Besides, emulation is more than good enough when you're talking about games that are 40-odd years old, and the Stella and ProSystem emulators used are mature and capable.

Age is worth mentioning again here because, putting nostalgia to one side for a moment, it would be naive to expect software from the very dawn of the video game industry to offer as much long-term entertainment as more recent titles. While many of the games included in the 10-in-1 pack are classics, they're arguably short-term experiences and could well appear hopelessly archaic to anyone born after the turn of the millennium. Unlike, say, the SNES Classic Editon, the appeal of the Atari 2600+ is likely to be a little more exclusive.

Having said that, we had a whale of a time diving back into gaming's history, and were pleasantly surprised that some of the younger members of our household took a lot of interest in what, in reality, must surely seem like a relic to anyone under the age of 20. Perhaps there's something universally appealing about the instant, pick-up-and-play gameplay offered by 2600+ – it has crude visuals, sure, but it also boasts gameplay which isn't saddled by load times (well, beyond that initial ROM dump, at least) or downloads, and it champions local multiplayer.

If you're an existing Atari fan or you want a history lesson in the origins of the world's biggest entertainment medium, then this represents a solid investment – just make sure you buy a second CX40+ controller because Combat is still one of the best two-player games of all time, in our honest opinion. Also, try and pick up NTSC carts where possible, as the PAL ones often offer a less appealing experience.

Massive thanks to Atari for supplying the 2600+ used in this review. The Atari 2600+ launches on November 17th, 2023.