Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Forgotten Switch : The Atari 2600's B&W/Color Switch

The original Atari 2600 VCS had six switches to control the various game functions, Power On/Off, B&W/Color, Left Difficulty, Right Difficulty, Game Select and Game Reset.   In the early models of the console, there were six aluminum switches, symmetrically spaced on either side of the cartridge slot, three on the left, three on the right.  Later, Atari redesigned the console to reduce costs and put the left and right difficulty switches on the back of the console and used standard plastic switches instead of aluminum.  Even with this change, there were still two switches to the left of the cartridge slot and two to the right.  This continued into the Atari 2600jr, except that all the chrome switches had been replaced with plastic.  Nonetheless, the symmetry of the Atari 2600 is an aesthetic that has been seldom been so rigorously pursued in a console's design throughout its lifespan.

Atari 2600 Light Six Switch
The standard Atari joystick only had one button and the cartridges were too small at first for title screens, menus and logos.  Changing settings were done by these switches and the program reading the appropriate port.  Only the Power On/Off switch had a fixed function, it was connected directly to the electrical path that powered the console.  The other five switches were each connected to a bit on an I/O port.  The game could do whatever it wanted with them, but by convention the Game Select and Game Reset switches usually did just as they indicated.  While Left and Right difficulty were originally intended to set a handicap for one or both players, human or computer, they could just as easily be used to adjust game characteristics.

Atari 2600 Woodgrain Four Switch
The Black and White switch is the focus on this blog entry.  It is just as important as the other switches, yet too frequently overlooked and left off modern products.  The original intent of this switch was to alter the game to switch its colors when the switch was set to the B&W position.  The player should set it if playing on a B&W TV to improve contrast between the player/missile/ball graphics and the playfield/background.  The Atari 2600 had sixteen choices of colors or hues and eight levels of brightness or luminances.  Typically, when the B&W side of the switch was activated, the program would switch to using the eight monochrome shades offered by the 2600.  Sometimes, it would use more muted colors.  On a Color TV, the B&W choices would come very close to simulating what the image would like on a true B&W TV.  Here are two examples to show when this would be useful :

Combat - Color Switch
Combat - Color Switch on Simulated B&W TV
Combat - B&W Switch
Air-Sea Battle - Color Switch
Air-Sea Battle - Color Switch on Simulated B&W TV
Air-Sea Battle - B&W Switch
However, it is very important to remember that a B&W TV was often the second TV in American households in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  If the parents did not want the kids to hog the main TV with video games, they would hook the system up to a second TV.  Few U.S. TVs had two color TVs during this time frame.  Many kids grew up playing video games on B&W TVs, it is a very important part of retro gaming that too often overlooked.

From 1977 until 1982, most Atari and then Activision (made up of ex-Atari programmers) games used the B&W/Color Switch as originally intended.  In fact, until Atari's silver label cartridges and Activision's special label cartridges, it is easier to compile a list of games that did not use the B&W/Color switch as originally intended.  They are as follows :

Atari/Activision Games that Do Not Support B&W

3-D Tic-Tac-Toe
Demons to Diamonds
Super Breakout
Yar's Revenge

Activision Decathlon
Keystone Capers
Plaque Attack
Pressure Cooker
Robot Tank
Spider Fighter

When it comes to Atari Silver, Children's or Red labels or Activision's Special labels, unless the game was previously released as a text or picture label, it will almost certainly not use the B&W/Color switch as intended.  In addition, relatively few third party games released during the 2600's official lifespan use it.  There are some exceptions, and this is not intended to be a complete list but for illustrative purposes :

Other Companies that Support B&W as Originally Intended

Star Wars ESB
Bank Heist
Music Machine
Star Voyager
Space Tunnel
Realsports Volleyball
Mega Force
Worm War I
Crash Dive
Revenge of the Beeksteak Tomatoes

Finally, there are several games that use the B&W switch for a special function unrelated to its original intent. Often it could be used to pause the game, but other games assigned a unique function to it.  Here is a list of games that I have verified :

B&W Switch used for Something Else

Space Shuttle (engine controls)
Cosmic Ark (turn on/off star field on some cartridges)
Fantastic Voyage (pause)
Solaris (inverts planet horizons)
Mouse Trap (removes playfield)
Starmaster (brings up Galactic Chart)
Beany Bopper (pause)
Flash Gordon (pause)
Spacemaster X-7 (pause)
Secret Quest (brings up Status Screen and password)

There are undoubtedly more games than on this list, but it serves as an illustrative example of why the B&W/Color switch should not be utterly ignored.  Devices like the Atari Flashbacks which do not include the B&W/Color switch will not function as originally intended with these games.  

Activision Logo

On a totally unrelated Atari 2600 subject, it is interesting to note how consistent Activision was with its in-game logo.  Activision always displayed its logo "Activision" on the game screen for every game.  In its early games like Fishing Derby, the logo would simply be present somewhere on the bottom of the screen.  For the later games, like Pitfall, the text Copyright 198x would appear, then the Copyright text would scroll up and Activision would appear. On games released near the crash, there would be a rainbow leading into the A in Activision.  The A itself was redesigned, otherwise the logo pixel pattern seems identical :

Scrolling Logo 1982-1983
Scrolling Rainbow Logo 1983-1984
Beamrider is the only game where the Activision logo is not always seen during gameplay from the pre-crash era.   Beamrider was the first game to use the (c) character instead of the word Copyright.  It is also the last time the rainbow version of the Activision logo would be used.  Ghostbusters is unique in that it does not have the word Activision is not using the standard appearance.   After Ghostbusters, the (c) and year would be instantly replaced with the non-rainbow Activision logo, no scrolling.  Also, if the game was licensed from another company, that company's name would appear after Activision's.  


  1. Awesome! I found that interesting!

  2. I always wanted to know what the switch actually did, maybe I'll get to own a 2600 one day and experience it myself on both a monochrome and color television.