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Atari 7800 — playing second fiddle to the NES

By: 28 November 2010 2 Comments

As any gaming enthusiast who was around in the early 1980s knows, Atari’s star faded during the Video Game Crash of 1983.

To figure out just where Atari stood after the aforementioned crash, it’s important to understand a bit of history about the company. Atari was founded in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney and then sold to Warner Communications in 1976. Warner made a ton of cash off its Atari brand until the bottom dropped out of the console gaming market.

Warner decided to keep the arcade gaming division of the company and sold the computer and home video game divisions to Jack Tramiel in 1984. Tramiel, of course, was the man who pushed the Commodore 64/VIC-20 line of computers to dizzy heights before retiring from the company.

Two events occurred during the Video Game Crash and aftermath that shaped Atari’s future (or lack thereof, really). For one thing, Nintendo approached Atari about marketing its successful-in-Japan Famicom in the U.S. as an Atari-branded machine. Those negotiations went nowhere and Nintendo decided to redesign the Famicom, release it in North America in 1985 as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and wound up with the top selling game console of all time.

Second, Tramiel wasn’t too interested in video games when he took over Atari. No, he decided to concentrate on the home computer market. That meant that the Atari 7800 ProSystem — which was set for release in 1984 — was shelved.

By the time Atari made the decision to compete with the wildly successful NES by releasing the 7800 in 1986, it was too late. A small marketing budget and a list of release titles that were aging in 1984 and out-of-date in 1986 didn’t help matters. The result was a machine that got very little third-party support and went on to boast a library of around 50 games or so.

That’s a shame because the Atari 7800 was a very capable machine. The graphics were far better than what the Atari 2600 had to offer and were, in many ways, superior to the Atari 5200. Unlike the 5200, the 7800 didn’t feature controllers that were downright awful and was somewhat compatible with 2600 games.

The yawn-inspring "Scrapyard Dog."

Ah, but the dated games available for the system caused most gamers to look past the 7800 and stick with the NES. The pack-in game for the Atari 7800, for example, was Pole Position II, a game that had been in arcades since 1983. Most of the games released for the 7800 were arcade ports of titles like Galaga, Asteroids, Ms. Pac-Man and Centipede that either bordered on definitive ports or introduced enough improvements to make them a true kick for collectors (the two-player, simultaneous modes in Centipede, for example). Regardless, those games were considered out-of-date in 1986 as people were more interested in the platform gaming craze that Nintendo helped start with Super Mario Bros.

Instead of an innovative running, jumping, boss-fighting, adventuring game on par with Super Mario Bros., Atari put some marketing behind Scrapyard Dog, a game that was merely competent compared to what was available on the NES. In Scrapyard Dog, the big-nosed hero wanders around and collects items, fights stuff and tries to save his dog. To get an idea of how unprepared Atari was to go toe-to-toe with Nintendo, have a look at the release date of Scrapyard Dog — 1990. Mario and Nintendo were well entrenched by then and a lame title like Scrapyard Dog wasn’t going to change that.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some great games for the 7800. Midnight Mutants — a game in which the player runs all over a ghoul-filled town in hopes of saving Grandpa Munster (from The Munsters television show, remember?) — is a hoot that also came out in 1990. Ballblazer is another great one that offered a pseudo three-dimensional display, fast-moving action, colorful graphics and some of the best music on the system. Sadly, no one got to the great titles available for the 7800 because they just couldn’t get past those outdated arcade games.

Ironically, those games are the very things that make the 7800 so valuable to collectors. In addition to the aforementioned ones, you’ve got solid ports of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Food Fight, Robotron, Xevious and some others. Some wacky programmer even made Burger Time available (it’s called Beef Drop and you can buy it at the AtariAge.com store). In fact, a good number of arcade ports have been put together by “homebrew programmers” over the past few years, making the arcade gaming appeal of the machine even stronger.

What are some downsides to the system? Simply put, the sound stinks. Yes, the sound generating hardware is almost identical to the Atari 2600. While developers were encouraged to put in an additional chip in their carts that could make the 7800 sound great, few of them did so (Ballblazer did use that method and the results are fantastic).

Similar to the NES controller, but not as good.

The controllers were better than what was available for the 5200, but not by much. The standard 7800 controller is, essentially, a joystick with a weird, long base and two cramp-inducing buttons on the side. Atari did produce a digital pad that is similar to the NES controller, but the thing simply isn’t as comfortable as the one designed by Nintendo. A weird, easy-to-lose “thumbstick” is included with that one — it screws into the directional pad and is just plain annoying. Fortunately, the standard Atari 2600 sticks plug into the 7800. Sure, the standard 7800 controller has two action buttons, but the one-button Atari 2600 stick works fine for most games.

Another drawback is that the Atari 2600 emulation works well to a point. Most games run just fine, but there are some exceptions. Robot Tank by Activision is, perhaps, the most noteworthy exception. Also, those great games by Imagic don’t work too well, but that has more to do with the size of the cartridge slot on the the 7800 — it’s set deeper than the one on the 2600, meaning weird-shaped cartridges like the ones Imagic made simply won’t fit well in the 7800 unless you force them in. That’s not good as it’s not difficult to damage your cartridge or your 7800.

Finally, the 7800 lacks the RCA output and “automatic” RF switch box that came standard on the NES. Nintendo did its homework on it RF switch, by the way. The thing isn’t as subject to interference nor does it “leak” video like the switches that were on previous systems. Yes, the 7800 has that miserable little RF box and you’ll want to get rid of it to play the thing on a modern television set. Fortunately, an adapter that costs just a few bucks will clear up the fuzzy picture common to the sad RF box that came standard with the 7800 — grab that handy adapter here.

By the way, the Atari 7800 is a pretty good system for collectors as there are some unique games and definitive arcade ports available and both the games and systems are pretty cheap (click here for Atari 7800systems and games). As for most of these classic systems, you’ll find plenty of games reviews over at The Video Game Critic and the forums, store and historical information available at AtariAge.com is always useful.

All in all, the Atari 7800 was a great little system that never really had a chance. Atari waited too long to release it and appeared to have lost its understanding of the home console market once the system did see the light of day.

Stay tuned — more reviews to come in the “retrogaming” category here at First Arkansas News.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.

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