We build the LEGO Atari 2600 console and it contains a hidden secret

The new LEGO Atari 2600 is LEGO’s latest overture for the adult gaming audience.

It’s a marketing push that started in 2020. Then LEGO brought the LEGO Nintendo Entertainment System, which came with a replica of a Super Mario Bros. (1985) cartridge and a recreation of an old TV. When you turned the crank, the TV showed a rotating, buildable 8-bit level, complete with a jumping Mario. In 2021 LEGO released a huge question mark block. When you opened it, you were treated to three mini-tableaux from Super Mario 64 (1996). By designing and promoting these two Nintendo sets, LEGO targeted audiences in their late twenties to late thirties.

LEGO Atari 2600

By comparison, the audience that played Atari is in their 40s and 50s. That LEGO gave the green light to this new set and anticipated profitability shows how much the target demographic has changed in just a few years. Aside from the occasional precocious kid or teen who specifically loves retro gaming, the LEGO Atari 2600 is an adult set through and through.

Building the Atari 2600 LEGO Set

The LEGO Atari 2600 is a vintage trip, recreating the construction and proportions of the original console. LEGO Technic is used sparingly; the body of the console is largely made of brick. The designers created a sloped exterior by building two separate walls and securing them together with a series of interlocking hinges. The console’s signature wooden finish is achieved by alternating tanstones with strips of dark brown. The black vents along the top of the console are depicted with smooth tiles laid end-to-end. The color and game selector switches feature rubber bands that provide feedback when you press them. The culminating effect is quite convincing; stand at a little distance and you can easily confuse the console with the real item.

The joystick is a bit resourceful, not just for how it looks, but also for how it feels. The base of the stick is buffered on four sides with rubber, which gives some resistance and pushback when you turn the stick, and returns the stick to its neutral position as soon as you release it. It is an excellent facsimile of the real thing.

The console comes with three game cartridges (Adventure, Centipede, Asteroids), a shelf to store them and miniature tableaux of each respective game. The cartridges can all be placed in the console. The colorful visuals on each tableau are based on the album cover of each title; it reminds us how simplistic the graphics were in 1982, and how far the game’s concept was from technical reality.

There is also a little surprise on one of the tableaux. The Atari Game Adventure is widely regarded as one of gaming’s first Easter eggs: a secret chamber where designer Warren Robinett attributed the game’s design to himself. On the back of the adventure tableau is a small egg on a stand, in recognition of this milestone.

But the pièce de résistance is the secret compartment in the console itself. Slide the top back and a diorama of an 80s living room appears. Slide it forward – back in place – and the diorama goes down again. After installing the sliding blade, you install a separate mechanism that “grabs” and prevents the blade from sliding off completely. It’s a great party trick for home guests who see the replica and assume there’s nothing more to the console than what appears at first glance.

As for the diorama itself, it’s filled with minimalist depictions of 80s pop culture. There’s an adventure series poster whose hero closely resembles Indiana Jones. There is another poster promoting new wave rock. There are small, printed accessory pieces with pictures of a boombox and VHS tapes. And in the center of the living room is a miniature television and Atari, with a LEGO minifigure playing on it. It’s one thing to depict something with hundreds of bricks, allowing the LEGO designer to capture subtlety and nuance. It’s another thing to render something in such a bare-bones way and still achieve the same end result.

It is a fitting reflection of what the Atari 2600 has achieved. Saddled with technical limitations, the developers created the impression of an alien space battle, or a monster invasion, or a labyrinth of booby traps, with little more than lines, dots, beeps and a single joystick. And then they relied on our imagination to carry us the rest of the way. It’s now easy to look at – in an age of 4k graphics and 14 button controllers – and wonder how something like this could have caught people’s attention. But everything had to start somewhere. And this set is a beautiful tribute to that humble origin.

The LEGO Atari 2600, set #10306, costs $239.99. It consists of 2532 parts and was designed by LEGO Designer Chris McVeigh. It is now available.

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