Atari at one point during the late 1970s was considered infallible, a company too good to fail. It laid the foundation for both arcades and home video game consoles, with hit games such as Pong, Asteroids, and Space Invaders. A lot of third-party developers started by making games for Atari systems (Activision is one of them).
Given the company’s storied legacy, why are Atari games so cheap now? The answer lies in basic economics- low demand and high supply, at least for most popular Atari games. Some 30 million Atari 2600 consoles were sold, and the company had so many excess game cartridges that many of them had to be buried.
Retro gaming is a very niche hobby, engaged in by Gen X and millennials who want to relive their childhood. There are way fewer Atari gamers than there are PlayStation, Nintendo, or Xbox gamers. Even old 6th and 7th gen console games from the 2000s are in higher demand compared to Atari classics such as Pong and Asteroid.
Why Are Atari Games So Cheap Now?
While Atari laid the foundation for video games as we know them today, it disappeared into irrelevance during the late 1980s due to a chain of poor business decisions. Atari’s best-selling console of all time is 2600, its first console. Released all the way back in 1977, it is a relic in terms of hardware.
Even though 2600 was impressive for its time, the NES and Genesis surpassed it in every single way. Nintendo and Sega games from the 8-bit era have better graphics, more complex soundtracks, superior gameplay, etc. Atari’s 2600 sold well back in the day, but there are only a handful of folks today who still want to play those games.
Most just take the easy route and emulate Atari games on their PC. Because finding an Atari 2600/ 7800 in good condition is pretty tough. And when you do find one in decent shape, the price is quite steep compared to other consoles from the same era.
On the other hand, Atari games are in no shortage. Atari made so many copies of popular titles like Pac-Man and Asteroids, that they had to bury millions of these cartridges because nobody was buying them. Not because the VCS wasn’t popular, but because the company vastly overestimated potential game sales.
As soon as the NES and Genesis dropped, gamers weren’t all that interested in the Atari 2600 anymore. Since storage space costs money, Atari had to get rid of these cartridges. Some were practically handed away for free.
There is no scarcity of Atari games. The cartridges are built like tanks and are far more resilient than discs which can get scratched. Atari game cartridges will last forever, and they will stay cheap because of the relatively low demand for these games in the modern era.
What Happened To Atari Games?
Atari failed to evolve with the changing games market and stuck to its legacy of creating simplistic arcade-style games. Nintendo and Sega stole Atari’s thunder in the 1980s, and Atari’s newer consoles like the 7800 just failed to capture that VCS magic. When the VCS (2600) was released in 1977, it was revolutionary.
You could load new games into the console by purchasing cartridges, and there were different controller types. Atari had this compact, affordable gaming box that offered an experience comparable to arcades at home. But the deluge of cheaply designed games made by developers looking for a quick buck resulted in the video game crash of 1983.
Because Atari’s video game division provided licenses to just about anyone with no regard for quality control, its brand value dropped in the eyes of gamers. Nintendo took a much stricter approach to this issue, making sure that they had a sizable library of quality games and not just shovelware. Atari had nothing to compete against flagship titles such as Mario, Donkey Kong, Sonic, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, etc.
Are There Fake Atari Games?
Like with any popular game console, there are fakes of Atari games out there. You have to be especially careful while purchasing rare Atari games on the used market because some of these can set you back by a few hundred dollars. Always look for sellers with a high rating from confirmed buyers.
If you’re buying locally, it’s a lot easier to detect fake Atari games. Just bring along a few photos of genuine game cartridges for the games you want. Fake cartridges will have labels with washed-out colors, missing logos/ inscriptions, and spelling errors.
Of course, some fakes are made extremely well. And the only way to know for sure is to open up the cartridge and look at the circuit board underneath. Fake cartridges replace multiple chips with a single one (owing to differences in manufacturing technology between now and then).
How Much Did Atari Cost In 1980?
The Atari 2600 launched at $189.95, which is equivalent to over $900 in today’s money. However, the console’s price dropped sharply in the following years. By 1981, you could get yourself an Atari VCS for just $131.
And this advertisement from a 1984 Sears circular showcases an Atari 2600 for under 50 bucks. One can only imagine how much further prices dropped after Nintendo launched its NES. Games for the Atari 2600 cost between $20 to $30, which is the equivalent of $100 to $150 in today’s money.
Why Did Atari Fail?
Changes in internal management resulted in delayed release schedules. By the time Atari released the 7800, Nintendo had already established a strong foothold within the global market. The NES and Famicom were selling like hotcakes, and Atari had no exclusives to compete against the likes of Mario and Zelda.
Even though the 7800 was cheaper than its rivals, sales figures were quite disappointing. Between 1986 and 1990, Atari sold 3.7 million of these consoles. Doesn’t sound terrible, until you look at how many units the NES sold- 61.9 million.
Do People Still Use Atari?
Some folks still own their old Atari 2600 or 7800, and take it out for the occasional session of Pong/ Pac-Man. But most people who play Atari games today just use an emulator. Atari consoles are still sold on the used market through sites like eBay, with some sellers offering entire game collections alongside the console.
The company still exists today, but it’s very different from the Atari of the 1970s. Today, it’s owned by a French holding company called Atari SA. It makes money from merch and retro game sales.
Atari still releases games, but these aren’t AAA titles. They are mostly indie or retro-themed with a pixel art style. Asteroids Recharged, Pong Quest, and Rollercoaster Tycoon are some of the new games published by Atari.
You can also buy their new “VCS” console, which sells for a relatively affordable price of just $199. Which is not too far from the launch price of the original VCS in 1977. However, today’s VCS is just a prebuilt PC with a custom body that’s powered by an AMD R1606G APU.
I hope this article helped you understand why Atari games are so cheap nowadays. Long story short, there are way more people selling their old Atari games than there are buyers for these games. Retro games like Mario Bros. and Sonic The Hedgehog are in higher demand compared to Pong and Asteroids.
Plus, Atari’s cartridges were built so tough that they won’t die any time soon. This means that these games will keep floating around in the used market for the foreseeable future. Atari made a lot of game cartridges, way more than there are owners of Atari consoles.