Christmas 1977

Christmas twenty nine years ago was the last time I really wanted something for Christmas.

I was twelve years old and, while I did not believe in Santa any more, I still believed that happiness could be found in the form of a present under the tree.

I knew what I wanted to find under the tree. I knew and I wanted it so bad it hurt! It hurt worse than any puppy love crush of my youth. If I did not get this for Christmas, only blackness and despair would follow.

I wanted an Atari 2600.

The coveted box I saw in so many stores

Oh yes I did. It was the dawn of the video game age. Pong, Space Wars, Tank, Lunar Lander, were around and I was hooked. And then, in the fall of 1977, the Atari 2600 was released. Video games at home! It even came with Tank!

I cannot stress this enough. As only a young boy can, I knew I just had to have an Atari 2600.

As Christmas approached, I watched the ads. Everybody had the Atari 2600. Do you hear that Sony? Atari had enough units for everybody who wanted one!

There was one problem. One big problem. The price.

I remember vividly the standard retail price of an Atari 2600 in Santa Clara county at Christmas 1977.

It was $144.

Time for a moment of perspective with help from our friends at Measuring Worth.

How much was $144 to me?

In 2005, $144.00 from 1977 is worth:

$464.00 using the Consumer Price Index
$379.76 using the GDP deflator
$439.54 using the unskilled wage
$655.69 using the nominal GDP per capita
$883.17 using the relative share of GDP

So, somewhere between $380 and $900 in today’s dollars.

Not a killer. Not enough to break the bank, but a lot more than my dad was going to spend on a Christmas present.

It would be like my daughter asking for an Xbox 360 or a PlayStation 3, but that would only play, say, My Little Pony games. I would not buy that for her. My father loves football, and there was no football game for the 2600, so I knew there would be no deal there.

Still, I had hope.

I grew up with the luxury of being the first child in my generation on both sides of my family. The first grandchild. The first nephew. And I remained in that position for a number of years. It is an enviable position, being the first child. Even when siblings and cousins come along, for a while you have no competition when it comes to Christmas presents.

So I went to work. I was subtle at first, or what passes for subtle in a twelve year old boy. I mentioned, A LOT, the Atari 2600, where it was for sale, and all of the games that came with it. It said right on the box that Combat included 27 games! (I was to drink that bitter draft later. I did not know it really meant 3 games with 9 very small variations.)

As Christmas approached, I made a greater effort to ensure there was no doubt in the mind of any living relative that what I really wanted for Christmas was an Atari 2600.

I began to annoy my father. Realizing that ground was fallow, I stopped all action on that front.

Soon it was mid December. The days crept by. Worry and doubt were in my mind. Would I get this for Christmas?

I concentrated my effort on my grandparents. That was where the money was. Those were the happy adults who were always so nice, who were always so indulgent compared to my mother or father. (And boy, doesn’t that one sting now that I am a parent.)

I cut all pretense. I laid out what I wanted. I made brazen offers. Get me just this and do not worry about anything else. Get together as a group and buy it. I was willing to mortgage next years birthday presents to get one. Whatever it took, I was willing to go there.

Soon it was Christmas Eve. We went out to visit relatives and friends, ending up at my father’s parents. This was the first opportunity.

The evening wore on. I tried to play it cool. The die was cast. There was no point in any more brokering. I just had to wait.

But it was hard to wait. And there were a lot of presents over there at my grandparents house. Too many there for me to discreetly measure boxes and check tags.

Finally, dinner was over, dessert was done, the table was cleared, dishes clean, and the time for presents was at hand.

I politely opened up the smaller presents, knowing they were not what I was looking for.  I played it cool on the outside while inside was a turmoil of doubt and desire. Then we were down to the last few boxes, the best presents saved for last, and there was one there for me. A big box. Just big enough I thought.

But not quite the right dimensions. I opened it up. It was not an Atari 2600. It was a competitor, a video game consol from Coleco.

I stifled my pain.

In hindsight, I wish I still had this system. It is so rare that no fellow nerd has put up a Wikipedia article about it. It was in the shape of a triangle. On one side it had a steering wheel, for driving games. On the next side it had a pistol hooked in for shooting games, and on the final side it had two controller for the Pong knock-off that came with it. It had a triangular cartridge on the top so you could play different gun, pong, or driving related games on it.

This system is so rare that I have never seen another one nor have I ever met anybody who ever had one. It got completely swamped by the 2600, so I never saw another game cartridge for it. (Addendum: It was the Colect Telstar Arcade)

I could see my grandparents decision process later. To them, this looked like a much better game. It was much more accessible to them, with a steering wheel and a gun. So much better than those two funny little stick controllers on that Atari. It even cost more than the 2600. They went up market for me!

I remember this lesson as well, now that I am a parent. Don’t try to buy an item that is comparable to what your child wants and tell them it is just as good or better. Either get what they asked for or avoid it altogether. Your idea of what is comparable will never fly with your child.

So home we went that night, no 2600 in hand yet. But I still had one more chance. I knew it would not show up at home the next morning, but that afternoon we were spending with the other side of the family. Grandma’s house.

Grandma had come through for me in the past. This was the woman who took me to see “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in the theater when I was 9 years old. This was the woman who had both The New Yorker and MAD Magazine delivered to her home. I still had hope!

And the hope was well founded. It was a much smaller group at her house than the previous night. The minute we walked in the door I could see a present of exactly the right dimensions under the tree.

I knew it was there.

We got through dinner. We got through dessert. We made our way over to the presents. I let the smaller presents go past, letting that box linger in the corner of my eye. I went with that. I knew it was a big present. I knew what it was. I could play it cool until we got to that one. Soon, it was the last thing under the tree.

And then I got to open it. And there it was, an Atari 2600.

I cannot say I heard “Ode to Joy” in my head at that moment, like Alex in “Clockwork Orange,” but I might as well have. It was that sort of moment for a 12 year old boy.

And I played that thing to death. It wasn’t until I bought a second hand Apple II+ six years later that the 2600 got any rest.

I saved up and bought cartridges, some great (Adventure!) and some not so great (Pac-Man). I broke half a dozen joysticks in that time, but my grandmother would always drive me over to the Atari offices off of Borregas Avenue in Sunnyvale where they had an unofficial replacement policy for kids who showed up on their doorstep. (Nobody wants to send a kid away unhappy.)

In 1985 I gave my whole Atari 2600 setup to a friend. Games like Wizardy, Castle Wolfenstein, and Ultima III had lured me away, but I still remember the 2600 fondly.

The Atari 2600 was the gateway to computer gaming for me and made me the noob I am today.

7 thoughts on “Christmas 1977

  1. mrrx

    My parents didn’t get me one.

    Dad redeemed himself when at age 16 he bought me a computer. A TRS-80 with full 4k of RAM !

    An awesome story told very well.


  2. joew

    My 2600 never got wrapped, my mom fell asleep playing the thing Christmas eve. I am lucky I pryed the damn thing away from her.

    It wasn’t till our commador 64 that I traded out my Atari.
    (Talengard ,Ultima and Zork owned my soul)

    Good story here, really put me in the Holiday Spirit. Thank you.


  3. deg

    What a wonderful story! Of course, this puts me in mind of A Christmas Story, the main difference(s) being that a game console is a WAY better gift than a BB gun, and you didn’t put your eye out.

    I did get momentarily distracted from the story with the link to the “Measuring Worth” site, but the game there quickly lost my interest when I had to figure out what the ‘initial year’ were and my not knowing what GDP stood for. Gross deficit, um… proletariat… General dollar predictor….. Never mind. That distraction was concluded soon.

    I was comforted go learn that I was not the only child who made a practice of discreetly checking tags and box dimensions. I did feel deliciously dirty running that surveillance op, as deliciously dirty as a ten-year-old can feel.


  4. Scott Sanicki

    Have you ever discovered the brand or model of the triangle console? I had what sounds like the same system and am dying to find one. We had it, a tank game for two (complete with dual joystick controls for each), and an Atari 800 (no shiny XL for us) on which I cut my video gaming teeth on Miner2049er and StarRaiders. The 800 is the most readily available (eBay rocks) but I’d really like to at least see the triangle system up close again. Thanks for the memory.


  5. Adrian

    I had that triangular system too. I particularly remember the driving game, because the cars went by in a pattern of twos and threes that I could just destroy for hours. All the while in a sort of unhealthy coma with spit dripping from my mouth.

    The gun game was just a guy moving around on the screen. My dad kept telling me I was cheating because the point was to draw the gun from the holster, but I just staid there with the gun leveled at the screen ready for that guy to come out.

    I remember thinking “Well it has a cartridge, so technically there could be other games for it. But wouldn’t those games have to involve either a gun, a car, or the paddles?”


  6. bluelinebasher

    You never forget your first. The Atari 2600 was mine as well, but in the early 80s. I was a bit young when I got it, and it was more out of the blue than something I coveted. I remember my dad enjoyed playing video chess, until he set it on the hardest difficulty and ended up waiting for hours for the processor to make each and every move. But the gauntlet had been thrown, and I had never seen him so satisfied to win a video game when it was all over. I’m surprised the chessboard wasn’t burned into the TV, and of course, the Atari was on the only TV in the house. I enjoyed the bowling game which was both side view and top down at the same time.

    First gift computer was a Tandy Color Computer 2. Played One on One with Dr J and Larry Bird. It was somewhat of a let down since we had Apple computers in our school labs which had some nice games (Bolo, Karateka, Prince of Persia). But I did get to shatter the backboard in 3 color glory…

    First console I saved up personally for was the NES, which instead of coming packaged with a game, came with a tip book to help me beat all the games I didn’t have. It was another month of odd jobs before I got a game for it. Noob roots at their finest.


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