The Atari 2600 was originally the Atari VCS (it stood for Video Computer System). It was only later, when Atari released the ill-fated Atari 5200, that it started being called the 2600. Most people, though, just knew it as an Atari - all of which are infinitely preferable to the name Atari founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney originally chose for their company: "Syzygy".
The name Atari was, by all accounts, plucked from a mind-cloud, and apparently has no actual meaning (though it is close to a Japanese word meaning hit or strike).
Of course, the VCS wasn't Atari's first games machine: that was Pong, which "popularised" a type of video tennis game that Bushnell had seen running on the Magnavox Odyssey home console (for "popularised" read "ripped-off" - Bushnell settled a lawsuit from Magnavox out of court, later claiming, somewhat uncharitably, that "I absolutely did see the Odyssey game and I didn't think it was very clever").
Developed off the back of its Pong profits - a two-word phrase only ever previously used by Gallic entertainer McFlatulus The Fartslinger - the 2600 landed in the US in 1977, with the UK following a year later. Included in the box were two joysticks, two paddle controllers, and a copy of Combat - a multiplayer shoot 'em up, based on two separate Atari arcade games, in which players went at one another in tanks or planes.
Contrary to what most might think, the Atari VCS wasn't an immediate success. Slow initial sales, from a public worn down by an endless parade of Pong clones, led to Bushnell parting ways with Atari, and its parent company, Warner Communications.
Outside of Atari, Bushnell's other gifts to the world would include the American restaurant franchise Chuck E. Cheese's - the first family restaurant to integrate food, arcade games, and an animatronic rat - and uWink, a chain of bistros which featured a video screen on each table, allowing customers to order food, get nutritional information, and play games. The company closed its restaurants in 2010.
By the end of 1979 the fortunes of the Atari 2600 had changed - and it became the biggest-selling Christmas gift that year.
The turning point can in part be attributed to the release of Warren Robinett's Adventure, which pretty much rewrote the book on what a video game could be. It paved the way for Zelda, Dragon Age, The Witcher... and was the first video game to feature an Easter egg. Not a literal Easter egg - but a hidden message concealed within the game's guts.
It tells you much about the culture within Atari that Warren Robinett had to bury his own created-by credit for players to stumble across (at the time, Atari kept the names of its game creators off its products to prevent them being lured away by competitors).
I don't remember first becoming aware of the VCS. In fact, my memory is a little unreliable when it comes to whether my family even owned one, or whether we borrowed or rented one. You'd think something like that would stick in my mind as a more significant thing, but it wasn't until I got a ZX Spectrum that I truly fell in love with games.
I've vague recollections of unboxing a VCS - though it might've been a second-hand model, which would certainly be consistent with much of my childhood.
I'm pretty certain we must've had an Atari, because, well, I remember playing on one in the living room, I remember going to the video shop to rent Atari VCS games, and I remember borrowing The Empire Strikes Back off of Michael Connabeer (who, apropos nothing, I once witnessed urinating in a coal scuttle during a game of hide and seek).
I also remember my mother attempting to play Space Invaders, and thrashing around in an armchair while wrestling with the joystick, as if she was avoiding a flock of geese.
Ah, those joysticks - stiff, graceless things... moving one was like trying to remove a hoe from a bag of rain-hardened cement, but at the time we knew no better. We had nothing to compare it to. Oh, there had been other consoles, but Atari - with its full colour graphics - was the point at which gaming truly vomited into the public's consciousness.
These were the days before people like me grumbled about launch line-ups. There was no gaming press, at least at the beginning, to shine a spotlight on Atari's business practices. It was a time when gaming was pure and untainted by cynicism. We all accepted it for what it was.
One of the firsts Atari gave us, for which it's rarely given credit, is Activision - the first third-party video game developer and publisher. Indeed, the fact that Activision is still around today - and still one of the biggest games companies in the world - is one of the most enduring legacies of the Atari era.
Formed by a bunch of disgruntled Atari employees, who felt they weren't getting sufficient credit for their games - something I wish to troll them with here by deliberately not naming them - Activision gave us one of the most iconic Atari 2600 games: Pitfall, which pretty much gave the world the side-scrolling platformer.
Activision had similar success with River Raid, while Atari had hits with Yar's Revenge and Star Raiders - another hugely influential game.
Of course, not every 2600 game was so well received. Much has been written about the Atari version of E.T., and how it singlehandedly brought the video games market crashing to earth, like a knackered blimp. The truth is, while E.T. might've been a tipping point - quite literally when thousands of unsold cartridges were buried in a "tip" - the writing had been on the wall for a while. Indeed, the dreadful 2600 version of Pac-Man was as much to blame for Atari's woes.
With the company unable to stop third-party development for its machine, the 2600 was overburdened with cheap and cheerful games, and Atari could only look on in horror as a company called Mystique released a series of "Swedish erotica" games; Custer's Revenge saw the titular General Custer sexually assaulting a captured Native American Woman, Beat 'Em and Eat 'Em found the player masturbating off the top of a building, while Bachelor Party was a version of Breakout in which the bat and bricks were assorted nudes.
Erotica was pushing it.
CRASH AND SICK BURN
The 1983 video game crash brought about by this over-saturation saw video game revenues drop by around 97% over the next couple of years. Companies were left bankrupt, while even Atari survived only by the skin of its Jeremy.
One of the less documented causes of the crash was the rise of the home computer. Though Atari had itself already released a couple of home computers - the Atari 400 and 800 - it would take the company a few years to really get the message that this was the way the winds were blowing; Atari released another console in 1982, the 5200, which became yet another victim of the crash.
In 1984, Warner Communications sold Atari to Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore. Under his watch, Atari would briefly fanny around in the home computer market - its Atari ST becoming perhaps its most notable home computer, selling particularly well in Europe. Gallingly for Tramiel, however, sales would lag behind the Commodore Amiga for the duration of the ST's life.
But then, the Amiga did do the graphics for Babylon 5....
Nowadays, the Atari name has changed hands so many times that it can't really be considered the same company. Indeed, it is for this reason that it is today better known as "Trigger's Broom".
The brand, such as it exists - as a subsidiary of Infogrames - focuses almost exclusively on smartphone products. Part of a "comeback strategy" announced in 2014 aimed to reach out to new audiences and growing markets, including "LGBT, social casinos, real-money gambling, and YouTube".
Whatever that means.
Atari's attempts to return to console gaming in the 1990s - with the handheld Lynx, and poorly-received Jaguar - did little to reverse its seemingly inevitable decline.
Visiting the company's European headquarters towards the end of the Jaguar's existence was one of the more depressing moments of my time as a games journalist. The vast building was a virtual ghost town, its Jaguar launch party - a few Twiglets thrown into a ditch, which journalists were then pushed into - was a stark contrast to the big budget launches from Sega and Nintendo.
Atari might've drifted into irrelevance in recent years, but for what it gave us it deserves better. Without Atari, the games industry wouldn't exist in the form we have it today. It's telling that even now, nearly 40 years later, Atari remains one of the most iconic brands. Its logo - a stylised callback to Pong, the game which gave the company its start - remains instantly recognisable.
Indeed, as is the Atari 2600. Or VCS. Or whatever it's called - I dunno.