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Take Hold of Your Census

by Ben Valdes

I am not one who is prone to editorialize. I may carry a collapsible soapbox inside my brief case, but I assure you that it is strictly for emergency soap purchases. Yet every now and then a wrenching controversy arises — one of such staggering consequence to the classic video gaming community that I am forced to speak out. The issue: How many different Atari 2600 cartridges do you have?

Frankly, it does not surprise me how often this question comes up. Determining which of your Atari 2600 cartridges are "different" is tricky business indeed. It is an undertaking that confounds both newbie and grizzled collectors alike. Is this game unique? Is that one merely a label variation? Is a double-ended cartridge one game or two? Is it okay to count Sears titles? To find your own answers to these vexing questions you must dig deep. You must weigh the mighty wisdom of the most ponderous thinkers of our time. To quote none other than the Leader of the Free World, "It all depends on what your definition of the word is is."

Now, I don't claim to be an authority. I checked the mirror this morning — no grizzle yet — but I believe that I am qualified to highlight a few of the reasons why categorizing and counting your collection is so fraught with pitfall. Here goes...

I. Label Variations

This is an appropriate place to start. After all, it is the first thing that we all notice when we begin building our collections. "I just shelled out $1 for a plain text Missile Command, and now here's another one with a pretty picture? Should I buy this one too? Hmmm." But it's really a no-brainer. You buy it, as we all do, because it is different. Surprisingly, your master plan to use your text label Missile Command as trade bait never seems to pan out. Now you have 2 Missile Commands. For life. They are different, but should you really add that second one to your Official Count? Tough call.

Some collectors take label variations to unimaginable extremes. Driven by an unquenchable thirst for "one of each," they seek out variations in font size, border style, color tone, texture and a variety of other subtle differences that can only be distinguished with a Scanning Tunnel Effect Electron Microscope. If you are really serious about collecting label variations then you have got to get one of these babies. A good one, new, will set you back about $3 million. But keep your eyes open — you never know when one might turn up at a flea market or yard sale.

One collector I know is trying to assemble a complete set of Pac-Man cartridges, one for every different date code embossed on the end label. Another boasts that a tour de force of the ubiquitous Combat cart is the centerpiece of his collection — 55 "different" cartridges in all! The latter collector's other hobbies, by the way, include repeatedly folding and unfolding the same piece of paper and counting to really, really high numbers in his head.

Another collector friend of mine bragged endlessly over his discovery of a Defender cartridge made unique by a ® symbol on its end label. Must be a prototype!!! After months of agonizing over it, he finally summoned the courage to risk degrading his extreme rarity by actually playing it. Giddy over the possibility of discovering novelties in its game play too, he invited me over for the solemn occasion of its initial power up. It was my privilege to bear witness that night when a remarkable discovery was indeed made. It was our handling of the prized Defender variation that shook the crusty remains of a smashed up spider skeleton free of its decades old bond to the cartridge end label. Tragically, his Official Count was thus reduced by one.

Two important lessons can be gleaned from the anecdotes above. First, the variety of Atari 2600 label variations is as difficult to categorize as it is limitless. And second, I desperately need to expand my circle of friends.

II. Re-titled Games

Atari threw us a real curve with a few of their titles. There's Stargate and Defender II, Hunt & Score and Concentration, Basic Math and Fun with Numbers. More than just label variations, they are whole new titles! And still, they are the same old game. If we collect both, what does that do to our Official Count? Are we counting different games or different titles? Decisions, decisions.

III. Manufacturer's Re-labels

Parker Brothers' Q*bert, Atari's red label Q*bert. How many different carts is that? The Atari release is a licensed re-label of the Parker Brothers original. They're not really duplicates, but they are the same old game. Atari also issued licensed re-labels of games made by Coleco: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Mouse Trap and Venture.

Activision bought the licenses to a trio of Imagic games: Atlantis, Demon Attack and Moonsweeper. They packaged them in their familiar Activision-style cartridge cases, but with plain blue labels on them. Interestingly, Activision's name appears nowhere on the cartridge casings nor anywhere on the labels. The name "Imagic" does. Are they, then, Imagic label variations or Activision re-labels?

Mattel gave us SuperChallenge Baseball and SuperChallenge Football. INTV later bought Mattel out of the video game business and reissued the two games as simply Baseball and Football. (Whether INTV is really a different company is also a source of much debate.) As if things were not complicated enough already, INTV stirred things up even more by changing the labels, too. The old blue text on black labels became black text on white labels. SuperChallenge Baseball and SuperChallenge Football can therefore be simultaneously considered as label variations, re-titled games and as manufacturer's re-labels. Categorizing the two games is, in itself, a SuperChallenge. And the waters get murkier as we go.

IV. What about NTSC / PAL cartridges?

Many games are available in both NTSC and PAL formats. If you have one of each for a particular title, how many different games is that? The ROMs are different. But are they really different games? Would you consider the little P that designates some PAL carts as a label variation? My spider skeleton collecting friend surely would.

V. What about the "Sears" cartridges?

The number of people who do not count the Sears titles is amazing. "With the exception of Submarine Commander, Stellar Track and Steeplechase," many are quick to say, "Sears carts are just Atari re-labels." But if memory serves me correctly, wasn't it the Sears labels of the cartridges that hit the store shelves ahead of the Atari labels? Back in 1977, Atari was still struggling for name recognition. They decided it was wiser to have the established and esteemed Sears brand name launch their product instead of their own name. At the risk of being burnt at the stake for heresy, I say that the 11 introductory Atari label carts should be counted as Sears re-labels since Sears was the name under which they first appeared. If you see it this way too, it may seriously alter your Official Count.

VI. The Double-edged Sword

Double-enders pose nasty little logic problems. Xonox gave us Ghost Manor/Spike's Peak, Artillery Duel/Spike's Peak and Artillery Duel/Ghost Manor. How many different games is that - 6, 3, 2 or 1� ?

If you find the single-enders first, you're in for a real treat. Pick up Artillery Duel, that's one. Pick up Ghost Manor, that's two. Now find the Artillery Duel/Ghost Manor double-ender and what have you got? The acquisition of the double-ender has demoted your two single-enders to mere duplicates, and your unique Xonox cart count drops from two to one! Finding that double-ender was an absolute disaster, the mathematical equivalent of negative one. Your collection would be better off if you threw it away!

VII. The Bad Boys (damaged carts)

Do you count your label-less wonders or no? It's pretty tough not to include your only copy of Mr. Do!'s Castle in your Official Count just because it is missing its label. When the cart is that rare, you want to brag about it even if it looks like it spent a few seasons as the puck in the neighborhood street hockey league. Can you really keep from counting your Quadrun cart just because the casing happens to be smashed and the chip is a crispy black blob on the exposed PC card? "I just need a little free time. I swear I can fix it!"

VIII. Avast Ye Matey! (pirate carts)

How dare you legitimize pirate games by counting them!

IX. Starpath and Coleco Tapes

Do you count them? They are not really cartridges, but many collectors include them in their "cartridge" lists anyway. Perhaps Starpath collectors should only count the Supercharger itself, since that is what they are actually plugging into the cartridge slot. Starpath's Party Mix release is a mix of 5 completely separate games on a single cassette tape. How would you count that?

...Let Me Count the Ways.

Ok, enough gerrymandering. I have raised a lot of questions, but I have answered nothing. It's time for me to face the issue: "How many 2600 cartridges do I have?"

Here's how I break down my own 2600 collection...

Third Parties
Atari Labels
Sears re-labels
Atari re-labels
Starpath Tapes
Euro-only PAL releases
PAL Pirate carts
Sears Exclusives
different carts/tapes

There are an additional 23 noteworthy label variations that I confess to keeping, but I can not bring myself to include them in my Official Count. I have accumulated many of the lesser variations as well, but I don't count them either. In fact, I don't even bother to weed them from my trade bin.

I suppose that if I really wanted to get technical, then I would have to disqualify several of my cartridges from my Official Count for a variety of reasons.

Sears Re-labels
Atari Re-labels
"Gray Zone" cartridges
    - Same games as their Atari counterparts.
    - Re-titles or re-labels of other companies' games.
    - Got legitimate copies of them all.
    - Single-enders which also appear on my double-enders.

So, I could have as many as 419 or as few as 336, depending on how you want to count them. 396 doesn't exactly split the difference, but I believe I drew the line at a logical location. I am satisfied. Besides, I don't really care all that much how you want to count them. I prefer to count them the way that I want to count them.

How do I justify the "Gray Zone" cartridges?

Because I doggedly hunted each one of them down. Because each cartridge was different enough in appearance that it made me say, "Kewl!" when, at last, I found it. Each was its own little triumph, a separately savored victory. To tell me that any one of them "doesn't count" because it is not the way VGR, DPG or The Consensus counts is absurd. No, an insult! It would be as if a stranger went through my family photo album and told me, "Those memories don't count because you used the wrong speed of film." VGR can count his carts however he wishes, and you can count your collection as you see best (In fact, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do exactly that). But this is MY collection, MY list, MY 396 different carts! It is my categorical decisions that ultimately matter, my accounting that elevates 396 cartridges to a COLLECTION and distinguishes it from being just another bean counter's investment portfolio.

How many different Atari 2600 cartridges do I have? There are as many ways to enumerate as there are ways to define what "different" is. But I know the true number because I know when one of my carts is different. It all depends on what MY definition of the word is is.

My fellow collectors, I believe that the time has now come for us all to take hold of our... whoops! Sorry. I have to step down now, gotta run. A mega-sale on soap is about to expire.

Ben is a classic videogame collector who currently shares his living space with 396 "different" Atari 2600 video game cartridges. If you think that you can help him become the newest member of "Club 400" then he would love to hear from you. Please e-mail him a copy of your current trade list at