Although it was not the first programmable video game console (that honor belongs to the Fairchild Channel F), the Atari 2600 was easily the most popular system of the late '70s and early' 80s, meaning it is now the most thoughtful after system by those looking to revisit the Golden Age (pre-Nintendo era) of video games. The 2600 (originally called the Atari VCS) was released in October of 1977 and was not officially declared dead by Atari until January of 1992, making it the longest lived video game system in the history of the industry. And, at more than 30 million systems sold, it is also one of the most commercially successful.
When compared to today's offerings, Atari 2600 games have very primitive graphics. However, the actual gameplay of many of the system's titles have a timeless quality that can not be denied. Some of the more enjoyable releases include: Space Invaders and Phoenix (shooters); Jr. Pac-Man and Jawbreaker (maze games); Kaboom! and Dig Dug (action games); and Super Breakout and Warlords (ball-and-paddle games). Those looking for more complex titles should seek out games like Adventure (a spiritual forefather of the Legend of Zelda), Pitfall! (a progenitor of Super Mario Bros.), and Space Shuttle: A Journey into Space (an innovative flight simulator). Hundreds of games were released for the 2600, meaning players of all stripes should be able to find something to their liking.
In 1979, Mattel Electronics released the Intellivision, giving birth to the first true console war. Marketed as a more sophisticated, more powerful alternative to the aging Atari 2600, the Intellivision boasted games with superior visual detail and more realistic features. The system's popular, groundbreaking sports titles (such as Major League Baseball and NFL Football) have not agreed as well as some of the 2600's more action-oriented efforts, but armchair athletes will definitely find the Intellivision to be the Golden Age system of choice when it comes to sports. Fun non-sports games for the system include Beauty & the Beast (a Donkey Kong-like game), BurgerTime (a great port of the arcade classic), Diner (the sequel to BurgerTime), Demon Attack (a game that Phoenix fans will love), and Thin Ice (a cute take on the Qix formula).
Nineteen-eighty-two saw the release of two next-gen systems, the ColecoVision and the Atari 5200, both of which blew away previous consoles in terms of sheer audio / visual power. Bolstered by wonderful ports of such coin-op classics as Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Mouse Trap, Lady Bug, and Zaxxon, the ColecoVision was the first system to give gamers the true sensation of playing their favorite arcade games in the comfort of their own homes. Released just a few months after the ColecoVision, the 5200 was also a success in terms of arcade quality, giving gamers exceptional ports of Defender, Moon Patrol, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Robotron: 2084, and many others. Unfortunately, both systems were victims of the Great Video Game Crash of 1984, which, for a variety of reasons, brought the industry to a virtual standstill (until 1985, when Nintendo released the NES to wide acclaim).
In addition to the aforementioned fab four (Atari 2600, Intellivision, ColecoVision, and Atari 5200), there were a variety of other systems released during the late '70s and early' 80s, including the obscure APF MP1000, the interesting Arcadia 2001, the underrated Astrocade, the Odyssey2 (which had its own keyboard), the Vectrex (which had its own monitor), and the Microvision, which was the first programmable handheld system.