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Built To Last - The Atari Times

Built To Last

Cartridges withstand the test of time
by Brian C. Rittmeyer

June 9, 2001
I'll make you a bet - find me a Sony PlayStation and games at a flea market in 20 years that still works, and... well, I don't need to finish that thought, because it's not going to happen.

The Nintendo 64 may very well be the last cartridge-based console ever seen, as manufacturers are giving up on the costly format in favor of the cheaper-to-produce compact disc. What this means for the future appears to have been overlooked - gamers raised on CD-based systems such as the PlayStation and Dreamcast will probably not be able to enjoy their own version of "classic gaming" that those raised on cartridge-based systems such as the Atari 2600, 5200 and 7800 do today. Yes, they may be able to relive their youths through the wonder of "emulation," but like masturbation, it's a poor and ultimately unsatisfying substitute for the real thing.

For the first part, it's unlikely the hardware will survive. A more than 20-year-old 2600 pulled from a shed and filled with dirt, dead insects and cobwebs can be cleaned out, plugged in and works; a rock can be popped out of the cartridge port of a 7800 and the machine will function. More sensitive hardware such as the PlayStation would probably be reduced to a paperweight by such neglect. The durability of Atari's hardware in particular is well known, whereas the flakibility of hardware such as the original Nintendo Entertainment System is equally known - one particle of dust gets in its cartridge port and kablooey.

But even if the hardware for CD-based systems was to survive, its software is it's Achilles heel - it doesn't take much to render a compact disc, music or data, unreadable and useless. Today's classic gaming owes much of its existence to its very format, the cartridge. A CD could never withstand the kind of abuse a cartridge can take and still function. While there's a well-known Internet account of a 2600 cartridge exposed to various extremes - fire, boiling, and microwaving among a few - and still working afterwards, cartridges are likely to encounter and survive through the simple ravages of time, poor environment and neglect. 

Any collector of Atari game cartridges need have two items handy - rubbing alcohol and cotton swabs. When cartridges are found at flea markets, yard sales and second hand stores, or even bought online, they are likely to have seen better days. They're gonna be dirty, or worse. They may still have a label, or part of a label or none at all. Any Atari collector who values his consoles should never plug in a new acquisition until after a thorough cleaning.

The "door" system employed by Atari on 2600 and 5200 cartridges has helped ensure their survival by protecting them from the elements. For those unfamiliar, these cartridges had a spring-loaded door-like device that kept the chip concealed until inserted into its console - male ends on either side of the cartridge port of the console would move corresponding latches on the cartridge, raising a door over the chip.

But for any old cart, door or not, a cleaning with an alcohol-dipped cotton swab will turn the swab black and the contacts a glittering gold. Cartridges with exposed chips are likely to need more attention, but it is a rarity for cartridges for any Atari system not to function - a 5200 cartridge with corroded contacts may not work after simply being cleaned, but after several insertions and removals from a console, it will begin to work again; a 2600 cartridge covered inside and out with green mold and a decayed label can be opened up, cleaned, put back together and rendered functional again.

And there's another advantage to cartridges - the cartridge itself. It can be held and felt. The Atari 2600 and 7800 cartridges are beautiful in their simplicity, while their label art is, well, art. The 5200 cartridges impress by their size, like the gigantic console for which they were made. One can admire and compare the differences among manufacturers - Activision, Imagic, Sega, Parker Bros., Coleco and others all had their own unique, signature cartridge design. The really avid will note variations in labels. By comparison, a compact disc is just another compact disc - they're all the same, and be sure to hold them by the edges. In a way, one could say the cartridges were as unique and interesting as the games themselves, just as today's CDs are as common and boring as many of the fighting and racing games they contain.

The technology may be outdated, but it was built to last. While some may only want to acquire cartridges in mint condition, with perfect labels, there's satisfaction to be found in rescuing these dirty and battered cartridges, and consoles, from oblivion. While classic games can be played on computers with emulators, there's just no substitute for grasping a cartridge, putting it in the console, turning on the power, and being drawn into your television as you first were so many years ago.

Reader Comments for Built To Last

Some More Facts by Michael on 2008-03-28 03:42:55
Yes...it's true. Atari carts are going to last for many generations to come. But there are those with the 5200 that need to be clued in on a key fact to protect those games...ESPECIALLY when they have never owned this system and bought one off ebay...without instructions.

If you play the 5200 for awhile and decide to quit for any length of time and turn off the system, please remove the cartridge immediately. Do not leave a game cartridge in the 5200's cartridge port when it is turned off and the AC adapter is plugged in. Eventhough the system seems to be off...there is a constant 5V supply being sent to the cartridge port and being in there for any length of time without the system being off will erase the cartridge's ROM where the game program resides.

I had this happen to me when I received my 5200 and some games as a Christmas gift when I was a kid. I had left my Space Invaders game in there overnight, not knowing. When I returned the next day to play and turned on the system...all I got was a screen full of garbage.

On a final note, now that you know about the cartridge port of the 5200, do not clean the port unless it has been unplugged from the wall and left alone long enough for any remaining power in the console to deteriate. If you are not sure, hit the power button. This will short the two power prongs on the slot itself and short the CPU of the console.

I hope that you don't mind me posting this. But this needs to be said to help protect this generation of consoles from dying prematurely.
The 2600 by Guitarman on 2009-01-01 10:59:41
I still play the 2600 I have and it works great! I love the fact that the system still plays games almost flawlessly. I always make jokes that the 2600 still works but newer PS2s have problems reading discs. They don't make 'em like they used to!
The 2600 by Guitarman on 2009-01-01 11:01:10
I still play the 2600 I have and it works great! I love the fact that the system still plays games almost flawlessly. I always make jokes that the 2600 still works but newer PS2s have problems reading discs. They don't make 'em like they used to!
Only thing left out... by Darryl B. on 2009-01-08 01:03:24
Some of the "RAM Plus" games that CBS made (Tunnel Runner) are difficult to get working again after they crap out.
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