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atarilogocornerThe Atari 2600 is commonly hailed as the ultimate classic gaming console.  Its mere mention warms even the coldest soul.  People just seem to love what, today, looks so primitive.  But in its heyday, the Atari 2600 provided many a person with hours of 8-bit entertainment.

The 2600 had the longest lifespan of any console to date.  Even as Atari released game consoles that were supposed to replace the 2600, the 2600 stood fast.  Something about the console just kept drawing people in.

The legacy of the 2600 continues up to today.  Many collectors and gamers alike still enjoy playing an Atari 2600 game every once in a while. Unfortunately, the system and games have become commodities, sometimes costing a good amount of money to own, making them impractical for someone just wanting to play off and on.

Luckily, there is a great Atari emulator available called Stella as well as many ROMs out there that you can download, meaning you can play the 2600 on your computer without spending a dime!


Stella was named after the codename that Atari had for the 2600 while it was in development. The Atari emulator is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.  To download the version for your OS, hit the link here and go to “Stable Releases” on the side navigation bar.  Once there, you should see the following.

Atari emulator


Click the version of the Atari emulator you need and let the file download.  Both the download and install should be pretty quick.

Now the fun part. Unlike its competitor, Z26, Stella has a Graphical User Interface and lets you navigate to your ROMs wherever you have them on your computer without using the command line.

Open up Stella and you should see this screen.

free Atari emulator

Navigate to where you keep the BIN files of your games.  Here, I am going to play Berzerk.

old Atari games

After you double click, your game should start up in an Atari emulator window like so.

play atari games on pc

Now you’re ready to play some Atari.

The controls are simple.  For most games, you will only need Left CTRL and your directional keys.  Left CTRL is the same as the single red button found on 2600 controllers.  The directional keys work as the joy stick.

For the other various switches on the console refer to the “User’s Guide” section of the Stella website.  They mostly use the F keys.

The User’s Guide also provides a lot of information on how to alter the Atari emulator to fit your liking.  You can change the video settings, change the audio settings, or even remap the controls on your keyboard.

Stella is provides good emulation and tries to integrate some of the hardware glitches that some games took advantage of to achieve certain effects into the program. Since Stella is under constant development, you can check in every once in a while to see if the software has been updated.

If you are interested in Stella, then you should check out my article The 2 Great Websites for Atari 2600 Enthusiasts The 2 Great Websites for Atari 2600 Enthusiasts Read More about 2600 fan sites that was published here on MakeUseOf a little while back.  There, I gave the lowdown on and, both of which happen to be great places to get 2600 ROMs.

So now you can play all of those classic favorites without shelling out the cash for a vintage systems that isn’t even guaranteed to work with a little help from Stella.  If you know any other good Atari emulators out there, don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments below.

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  1. James
    February 22, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Your use of "commodities" is wrong. A commodity is something extraordinarily common and traded commonly and with ease. Basically the 2600 has become the opposite of a commodity! Its become a collectors item!

    • Mike Fagan
      February 22, 2010 at 2:48 pm

      You are correct, that is one definition of "commodity," but according to Merriam Webster's dictionary, a "commodity" can also be defined as "something useful or valued." So, I guess we are both right.

  2. Nate
    January 29, 2010 at 8:50 am

    Had to use this for a class where we were programming Atari games. It's pretty awesome.

    • Mike Fagan
      January 29, 2010 at 11:28 am

      Haha, I want to take that class!