Santa Brings a Tech Relic: The Atari 2600

Santa brought a technology relic to the Rhudy girls this Christmas: an Atari 2600 aka Atari Flashback 2.

My three daughters weren’t quite sure what to do with it when they saw it under the tree with its wood veneer finish. After all, they hadn’t asked for it, but Mr. Claus is known for giving a few surprises.

For those born in the ’70s with rotary-dial phones and remote controls sporting a built-in strangulation hazard, which stretched from the TV to couch, this black-and-orange box was a technological marvel.

We never had an Atari in my house. But we did get a Commodore Vic 20 computer, which my mom still has in her attic. The Vic 20 had some games, but it wasn’t nearly as cool as Atari: the mother of all gaming systems. I never could figure out what to do with that tape-deck attachment that came along with the Vic.

Back to the Atari. The credit card-sized cartridges with games like “Asteroids” and “Pitfall” were a precursor to a massive shift in home entertainment and the beginning of a vicious cycle for kids and parents: Buy the game station. Buy a game. Play the game. Get bored. Beg mom and dad to buy another game.

Fortunately, the 2010 Atari version Santa gave my girls had 30-plus games built in, so there were no cartridges to buy or to keep going by blowing off the dust.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Atari started selling for $199 in 1977. That was a ton of money. In the ’70s, my dad bought a used VW bug for a few hundred more.

Growing up in Richmond, most of friends had an Atari, so I wasn’t completely deprived. I do, however, remember visiting my buddies who always felt the need to exclaim, “I need to show you how to play, so watch me first.”

Back to Christmas morning. As the Rhudy girls dug through Santa’s stash, they wanted to see the plug-and-play fun of low-end graphics with oversized joysticks for themselves.

“This looks a lot different,” said one of my girls, as she maneuvered a frog to eat flies with a tongue twice the size of its body. I responded optimistically asking, “It’s fun, right?”

After about 20 minutes they were on to playing with a new manicure set and later asking if they could play their grandmother’s new “Dance, Dance Revolution” game for her Wii.

I can’t say that I blame them. The Wii graphics, movement and sound blow away the Atari, but I think they appreciated the brief technology flashback. I know their parents did.

Jonathan Rhudy enjoys pinball, "Donkey Kong Jr." and the always-fun crane-claw game.