endlabels

Have you ever taken a really good look at your Atari 2600 cartridge collection? No, you don’t have to be a hardcore collector to take note of this. You don’t even have to have to be a collector of boxes or manuals to do this! Grab a handful of your Atari 2600 games. Specifically, grab some that were produced by Atari themselves, or by Sears for their “Telegames” label. I bet that at least some of them have this mysterious three digit code that was stamped onto the end label. See it now? Very good! Now that you have seen it, chances are you might be curious to know what this code is all about, aren’t you? Glad you asked, so let’s take a look!

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More than a few years ago, there were some fine people over at the AtariAge forums that had a similar question: What was that mysterious code that was stamped on some of those cartridges? There were a lot of people out there that had their own speculations, however the one that seemed to be the closest match was simple enough to be true. It turns out that these stamps on the ends of the game labels actually indicated when the game was physically produced!

codes

But as you take a look at the numbers on the cartridge, you see such indicators as “21 3”, “222”, “16 3” and “51 2”. How is this supposed to be any type of normal system? It certainly doesn’t say anything right off the bat, saying that a game was produced on March 14, 1981! Well hold on a second folks, it’s not that simple. First off, the stamps didn’t exactly tell you the precise date that the games rolled off the assembly line. Instead, they show you the week and the year they were produced.

The code is actually quite simple, really. Let’s take it one step at a time. First off, we will take the three digits shown, and assign them the algorithm of “WWY”, where “WW” stands for the week of the year, and the “Y” indicates the final digit of the year in question. Taking the four numbers I gave you in the last paragraph, “21 3” would mean that the cartridge was physically made in the 21st week of 1983. “222” means the game was put together on the 22nd week of 1982. Meanwhile, “16 3” would show a production time period of the 16th week in 1983, and “51 2” would mean the game was pieced together on the 51st week of 1982. Simple, isn’t it?

So when does a “week” start and end? While most of us know that a calendar week starts on Sunday and ends on Saturday, something called the “ISO 8601 Standard” defines such week numbers so that “Week 1”, the first week, which is actually on a Monday-Sunday basis, in which Thursday falls in the new year. Thus, sometimes January 1st, 2nd or 3rd may actually fall in “Week 52” (or even 53) of the previous year, or December 29th, 30th and 31st may fall into “Week 1” of the new year.

calendar

So as of right now, you know the week number of the year that the game was made. That’s great, but what does that mean as far as actual dates go? What do you do with this new information? You’ll need a calendar from those years and some basic math skills in order to make this one work a little better. “21 3” means that the game was made in the 21st week of 1983, which was produced sometime between May 23-27, 1983, assuming no production work took place on weekends. Meanwhile, a stamp of “222” indicates the 22nd week of 1982, which was between May 31 and June 4, 1982. Continuing with this trend, “16 3” would have been put together on the 16th week of 1983, which was the time period between April 18-22, 1983. Finally, a stamp of “51 2” was created during the 51st week of 1982, which would have been between December 20-24, 1982. It’s actually very simple when you think of it!

Which everything said here is fine and dandy, but why would someone go through the trouble to find out what this all means? It really can give you a sense of history, not just with the production codes, but with the history of the various Atari 2600 label variations (text, picture, etc), as well as even the rarity of certain cartridges. The original poster on the AtariAge forums, Christophero Sly, had this to say, after requesting some help from other members of the group, asking for what production codes everyone’s cartridges had:

“I started this thread to find out how many weeks of production certain carts had and if that might help to explain why some are hard to find, while others are quite common. Speculating about the Atari text labels with date stamps, I’d say that the transition to picture labels was staggered over the course of 1981 and early 1982.  Some titles appear to have made the transition in mid-1981, while others don’t appear to have made the transition until early 1982 (Human Cannnonball). As an example, shining slade has a text label Bowling with a date stamp 33 1.  I have a picture label Bowling with a date stamp 42 1.  Thus, Bowling was transitioned somewhere between the 33rd and 41st weeks of 1981.  The earliest date stamp I can find on a Picture label for which a text label was also produced for the same title is 37 1 (Night Driver, Slot Racers, Video Pinball, and Video Olympics). Concentration, Blackjack, Fun with Numbers, and, possibly, Flag Capture don’t appear to have been discontinued or transitioned to picture labels in 1981-82.  It appears that Atari continued to produce these titles as text label carts until 1983.”

R

So now, there is just one other question, that has yet to be answered. Some of the cartridges also have a letter stamped next to the three digit code that we just discussed. The letters that are known include an “R” and a “D”. While some people believe that this is very similar to how some US coins are minted, with the letter indicating which mint they were stamped at, other people believe that “R” actually stands for “revision”. Unfortunately right now however, there just isn’t enough information about this to be totally sure, but I’m positive that one day, we’ll know!

So, there you have it. A small history of the production codes stamped on the end labels of some of your favorite Atari and Sears branded 2600 cartridges. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna play some games instead of researching them… I think this history lesson was a lot for my brain to handle! Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

Original “Atari” Post: http://atariage.com/forums/topic/78615-text-label-carts-with-date-stamps-on-end-labels/page__hl__date%20stamp

Additional “Sears” Post: http://atariage.com/forums/topic/78928-date-code-stamps-on-sears-picture-end-labels/page__hl__%20sears%20%20carts%20%20stamps