The Atari 2600 had a screen saver feature, where the colors of objects in the screen were randomly changed.

Was it the first home console to have such feature, if not who holds the title?


2 Answers 2


By definition of "Console" to mean a system dedicated to play games or entertainment software, it depends on the criteria. In basic format - yes.

From Wikipedia - Screensaver, History: (emphasis, mine)

The Atari 400 and 800's screens would also go through random screensaver-like color changes if they were left inactive for too long. The user had no control over this. These computers, released in 1979, are technically earlier "screen savers." And prior to these computers, the 1977 Atari VCS/2600 gaming console included color cycling in games like Combat or Breakout, in order to prevent burn-in of game images to 1970s-era televisions

Though the "Brown Box" is considered to be the very first home console in 1967, it did not reportedly feature a screensaver and screensavers were primarily used on early computers with CRT monitors. As written in the snippet above, the Atari 2600 had a screensaver but it should be noted that only if the ROM included it - that is, "screensaving" was contingent on the medium and the programming of the medium.

As far as my own research, consoles required a cartridge or disc inserted to boot and function or had the ROM(s) permanently attached to the internal PCB until the Sega Saturn.

Many other consoles including the Nintendo Entertainment System to the 3DO Real Interactive Player and Amiga CD 32 did feature animations asking for players to insert a medium, which can also be argued as a screensaver on a functional level but served more as a mechanic to prompt the user to act.

This means Sega Saturn was the first home console that would boot without a medium inserted(*)(**) from and allow the player to use other preinstalled device features (such as playing media and manipulating storage devices).

Incidentally, playing music on the Sega Saturn featured a flying spaceship as a form of screensaver, which is the truest form of screensaver that was built into a mechanic of the console rather than of the medium.

Therefore it can be argued that while the Atari 2600 was the first console to use a screensaver as a feature of select media, Sega Saturn was the first to deploy it as a standard function of a feature.

There is a YouTube video showing the start-up screens of every major and most minor consoles from 1985-2013 to see how some consoles had iterations of what one may consider a screensaver until the user took action. It's run-time is just over 14 minutes.

(*) Sega CD was an accessory to the Sega Genesis released in 1991, not a separate console developed to operate independent of something else therefore not relevant in context to the question or scope of answer.

(**) Sony PlayStation was released in Japan on December 3, 1994 - 11 days after the Sega Saturn in their country of origin.

  • 'By definition of "Console" to mean a system dedicated to play games or entertainment software' - by any chance do you know, where this definition/name originates from? Mar 3, 2018 at 19:54
  • Yes, the dictionary, definition: an electronic system that connects to a display (such as a television set) and is used primarily to play video games. Mar 6, 2018 at 0:51
  • Dictionary definition is always post-factum to actual usage. I'm trying to figure out, who \ when \ why started to call them 'consoles'. Mar 7, 2018 at 12:54
  • Well given definition, it may have been popularized through natural progression of language. However, that would also predate the video game system in question thus, the system fell into the terms. If what youre hunting is a sort of which came first scenario, id say the term was applied as a distinction from other game set ups prior. Mar 8, 2018 at 20:49
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    Atari required as a matter of policy that all cartridges produced by its programmers for the Atari 2600 had to include the color-cycling feature, and I recall Activision cartridges would start cycling colors after awhile as well. I'm not sure when the first Atari-2600 compatible cartridge was produced that didn't include a screen saver, but I think it's fair to regard the screen saver as being a characteristic of the system given the huge fraction of games that included one.
    – supercat
    Jun 5, 2018 at 20:27

The link provided specifies "8-bit Atari computers," which would include the Atari 800 and 400, which are very different from the Atari 2600. It also specifies that the routine to display the screensaver was "stored in the system ROM of the computer," of which the 2600 has none, and I wouldn't count a game cartridge as "system ROM" or anything built in to the console. Anecdotally, I have also seen games like Solaris and Maze Craze run for long periods of time with no input and they showed no such screensaver.

I believe this was a function of specific games, and while Combat was pretty integral to the 2600 as a package back in the day, I would say No, the Atari 2600 was not the first home console to have a screensaver.

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