We Build the LEGO Atari 2600 Console and It Contains A Hidden Secret

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

It’s a marketing push that began in 2020. That’s when LEGO released 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 displayed a rotating, buildable 8-bit level, complete with a jumping Mario. In 2021, LEGO released a massive 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 an audience that was in their late 20s to late 30s.

LEGO Atari 2600

The audience that played Atari, by comparison, is in their 40s and 50s. That LEGO greenlit this new set and anticipated its profitability shows how much the audience demographic has shifted in just a couple of years. Aside from the occasional precocious kid or teen that’s specifically into retro gaming, the LEGO Atari 2600 is a set for adults, through and through.

Building the Atari 2600 LEGO Set

The LEGO Atari 2600 is a vintage trip, recreating the original console’s build and proportions. There is a sparing use of LEGO Technic; the console’s body is largely composed of brick. The designers created an angled exterior by building two separate walls and attaching them together at a series of interlocking hinges. The console’s signature wooden finish is accomplished by alternating tan bricks with slivers of dark brown. The black vents that line the top of the console are depicted with smooth tiles, laid end-to-end. The color and game selection switches are rigged with rubber bands, which give feedback when you press them. The culminating effect is quite convincing; stand at a slight distance, and you can easily confuse the console for the genuine article.

The joystick is a bit of ingenuity, not only for how it looks but also for how it feels. The base of the stick is buffered with rubber on four sides, which gives some resistance and pushback when you rotate the stick, and returns the stick to its neutral positioning once you let go. It’s an excellent facsimile of the real thing.

The console comes with three game cartridges (Adventure, Centipede, Asteroids), a shelf to hold them, and miniature tableaux of each respective game. The cartridges are all insertable into the console. The colorful visuals on each tableau are based on the cover art of each title; it’s a reminder of how simplistic the graphics were in 1982, and how far apart the concept of the game was from its technical reality.

There’s also a little surprise on one of the tableaus. The Atari game Adventure is widely credited as having one of gaming’s first Easter eggs: a secret room where designer Warren Robinett credited himself with the game’s design. On the back of the Adventure tableau is a tiny egg on a stand, in recognition of this milestone.

But the piece de resistance is the secret compartment in the console itself. Slide back the top, and up pops a diorama of an ’80s living room. Slide it forward—back into place—and the diorama goes back down. After installing the sliding top, you install a separate mechanism that “catches” and prevents the top from sliding off entirely. It’s a great party trick for home guests who see the replica and assume there isn’t anything more to the console than what meets the eye.

As for the diorama itself, it’s filled with minimalist portrayals of ’80s pop culture. There’s an adventure serial poster, whose hero bears a strong resemblance to Indiana Jones. There’s another poster promoting new wave rock. There are tiny, printed accessory pieces depicting a boombox and VHS tapes. And in the center of the living room is a miniature television and Atari, with a LEGO minifigure playing it. It’s one thing to depict something using hundreds of bricks, which allows the LEGO designer to capture subtlety and nuance. It’s another to depict something in such a bare fashion, and still accomplish the same end result.

It’s an appropriate mirroring of what the Atari 2600 accomplished. Saddled by technical limitations, its 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 trusted our imaginations to carry us the rest of the way. It’s easy to look at now—in an era of 4k graphics and 14-button controllers—and wonder how such a thing could have captured people’s attention. But everything had to start somewhere. And this set is a lovely tribute to that humble origin.

The LEGO Atari 2600, Set #10306, retails for $239.99. It is composed of 2532 pieces and was designed by LEGO Designer Chris McVeigh. it is available now.

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