Basic Programming for the Atari 2600

Basic Programming for the Atari 2600

As soon as I saw my first computer as a child, I knew I wanted to work with them when I got older. So when I got my first “computer,” my Atari 2600, and I saw that a cartridge existed that would teach me the fundamental steps of computer programming, I wanted it.

My Grandmother loved the idea of educational toys and one magical weekend after my birthday, she escorted me to the Toys R Us in North Bergen, NJ and bought me Basic Programming and the Keypad Controllers. I was giddy with anticipation the entire ride home, staring at the box and dreaming of unlocking digital worlds.

When I got home, I went to work. Not reading instructions, but putting the cart into the system and hooking up the controllers. When I fired it up and saw this, I was lost.

I don’t understand! I had done absolutely nothing to learn or prepare for this moment, why was not able to mash buttons and make new games? I guess I needed to read the manual.

What I discovered wasn’t exactly what I hoped, but in retrospect, it was something very useful. Yes, the interface and controllers were cryptic, but Basic Programming taught me about basic concepts in programming that would be with me my whole life.

With this cartridge, I could write my name or move a brick, all under the wise tutelage of this program’s creator, Warren Robinett (of Adventure fame). Who was able to create Basic Programming despite the tight limitations of the system.

According to Robinett:

The 2600 had only 128 bytes of RAM, 4K of ROM for the program, and a 1MHz 6502 processor. It was pretty challenging to do any game on it, much less a BASIC interpreter. However, by that time I was pretty experienced on the 2600.

Halcyon Days

In my world, Basic Programming did not last long. I made my way through the manual over the course of a weekend or two. Then it, and the controllers went into a box, rarely to be seen again. While this might seem sad and perhaps not the best use of a birthday gift, it did awaken in me a want to learn. This taste for programming would lead me to my first computer, the Commodore VIC-20 and ultimately a career in computers.

Having lived through all of this, and now having a computer in my pocket capable of things undreamed of in 1979, I can say that trying to use Basic Programming today is a struggle. Firing it up and consulting the manual, every interaction feels onerous.

Lucky for me, my context and experience with it combined with a history with computers, allows me to appreciate what an accomplishment is contained within this cartridge. Still, it is best experienced vicariously through others. So if you have the opportunity to fire up Basic Programming and just about any other Atari cartridge, you might want to give this one a pass.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. JV

    As I remember this computer programming cartridge and controllers were around $65.00 when I put them on my Christmas list.. I had mapped out a Scramble arcade clone on graph paper in school that I surly would be able to program on my Atari with this new set up … I had my mom convinced that I would soon be programming some amazing games… Christmas morning comes and I can make a block kinda move in a stair case pattern up the screen.. This was definitely the biggest disappointment I’ve had as a kid for a gift… I was like … I waisted $65 of my Christmas present money on this ?? I can appreciate what the cartridge is about now and the limitations with the hardware.. I actually was kind of embarrassed to show my mom what she waisted her money on … But hey … I sure loved Adventure and a few other games… The supercharger was amazing …

    1. Retroist

      I remember trying to show off my accomplishments as well and it being even more underwhelming for my grandmother.

      Agreed, not the best use of the money for back then. Still an interesting bit of history.

  2. Ken

    It was interesting to be certain. I got my 2600 towards the tail end of the systems life span so this was never on my radar. They always did a great job with their cover art and had I seen this, I’m sure I would have wanted it. As is stands I didn’t get into computers until we started getting them in class rooms in school and my dad started programming for the company he worked for.

  3. Retroist

    That cover art really is something. This early art is so dreamy.

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