24 March 2000

CVG 101: When Is a Combat Not a Combat? (originally for Classic Gamer Magazine)

[Classic Gamer Magazine introductionThis article originally appeared in CGM #3 (spring 2000) and is a revision of one I wrote for Suite 101 using the same title.]

Once your classic cartridge collection reaches a certain size, you’ll discover you’re finding few new cartridges at thrift stores. In order to "get their fix," so to speak, many collectors start collecting label variations to keep their number of "finds" up. Label variations simply means different types of labels on the same game. For Colecovision cartridges, this might mean the difference between the labels saying the cart is "for Colecovision" and saying it’s "for Colecovision & ADAM." For Intellivision, it’s probably the difference between the colorful Mattel labels and the black and white Intellivision Inc. labels, which also featured slight name changes to avoid licensing fees (e.g. "Football" instead of "NFL Football"). For the Atari 2600 it’s more complicated.

Because the 2600 (or VCS) was sold for over a decade, Atari went through four major label styles. The original style was all text on a black background. Then they started replacing much of the text with a colorful picture like the one on the box. Next Atari went with a silver background. Finally, at the end of the console’s life, they used a rust background. (Most collectors call it red; some call it brown. I think "rust" is more accurate than either of those.) But in all but a handful of cases (see sidebar), the game names never changed. So when is a Combat cartridge not a Combat cartridge? When it’s a Sears Tele-Games Tank Plus cartridge.

When the Atari 2600 debuted, Sears was one of the strongest retail chains in the United States. If you wanted to sell your product at Sears, it had to have a Sears brand on it. Thus, when Atari signed an agreement with Sears to have them sell the 2600, it became the Sears Tele-Games Video Arcade. (Tele-Games was the "brand name" for video games at Sears. It has no relation, as far as I know, to the current Telegames company (www.telegames.com), which happens to sell video games.)

Several of the games received new names as well. It’s uncertain exactly why Sears did this. Perhaps it was to confuse shoppers and have them buy what they thought was new game when it was actually one they already have. To make things more confusing, they named some cartridges after dedicated consoles they had previously released and just added a Roman numeral to the end to differentiate them. The most obvious example is Breakaway IV (a.k.a. Breakout).

Not all games were renamed, of course. Home versions of arcade games Atari had to secure licenses for were not (e.g. Space Invaders, Pac-Man), nor were those based on other licensed properties (e.g. Superman). There were also three games that Atari created, but only sold through Sears (see sidebar).

It is interesting to note that while Sears similarly renamed Mattel’s Intellivision as the Super Video Arcade, they didn’t rename any of Mattel’s games. The boxes and instructions were different, but the cartridges and overlays are generally indistinguishable from Mattel’s normal releases when found loose.

As a collector, you might ask whether the Sears version of games and consoles are rarer and therefore more desirable. In general, all Sears releases are slightly rarer than their Atari or Mattel counterparts. Whether they’re more desirable, however, depends on the collector you’re dealing with. Some collectors who don’t care about most cartridge label variations do collect Sears labels. Others don’t care at all, except for the "Sears exclusive" games.

If you do decide to start collecting label variations and start examining your duplicate games very closely, you might be amazed at just how many differences you’ll find. There are some definite sub-types within the main Atari label variations described earlier. And even within those sub-types, you can find some very minute changes on labels that appear identical at first glance. And that goes for third party companies, too.

John Earney began compiling a list of 2600 label variations, which can be found on his home page at http://www2.best.com/~jearney/. It hasn’t been updated in a few years, however. I guess even John got overwhelmed by all the small changes one can find. So, if you decide to collect label variations, set a limit on what you’ll keep. Otherwise you’ll probably quickly find your collection (rather than your extras) overflowing with Missile Commands, Space Invaders, and maybe even Combat, regardless of the name on the label.


Sears NameAtari Name
Arcade GolfMiniature Golf
Arcade PinballVideo Pinball
BaseballHome Run
Breakaway IVBreakout
Cannon ManHuman Cannonball
CaptureFlag Capture
CheckersVideo Checkers
CircusCircus Atari
Code BreakerCodebreaker
Dare DiverSky Diver
Dodger CarsDodge 'Em
MathFun With Numbers
MazeSlot Racers
Maze ManiaMaze Craze
Memory MatchHunt & Score
Outer SpaceStar Ship
Poker PlusCasino
Pong SportsVideo Olympics
RaceIndy 500
SlotsSlot Machine
SoccerChampionshp Soccer or
Pele's Soccer
Space CombatSpace War
Speedway IIStreet Racer
Steeplechase[Sears exclusive]
Stellar Track[Sears exclusive]
Submarine Commander[Sears exclusive]
Tank PlusCombat
Target FunAir-Sea Battle
Atari Video CubeRubik's Cube
Basic MathFun with Numbers
Championship SoccerPele's Soccer
(A Game of) ConcentrationHunt & Score
Fun with NumbersBasic Math
Hunt & Score(A Game of) Concentration
Pele's SoccerChampionship Soccer
Rubik's CubeAtari Video Cube

Postscript (June 2013)

As it says at the top, a big chunk of this article is identical to one I wrote for Suite 101 a few years prior. The reason for this is quite simple; I blew my deadline. On February 23, I thought to check old e-mails and discovered the deadline had been February 10. Luckily for me, Cav was way behind, so I got about 10 days to write something. The old article was stuck in my head for some reason and my contract specifically left me free to use articles in print media.

I found several copies of John Earney's label variations list around, but the most recent (from 2001) is available at Atari Age.

This article is also available at Good Deal Games and has been for many years. Cav worked out some deal with site owner Michael Thomasson, and Michael specifically requested this article. The request came several months after I wrote it, so the potential conflict with Suite 101 didn't occur to me until now. But by then the article had been gone from Suite 101 for a long time, so I'd say no harm done.

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