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My Gaming Education Part 2: The Atari 7800 Pro System

Updated: Feb 26




By 1983 Atari had several problems contributing to its lack of profitability. Perhaps the largest of these was their money-making Atari 2600 system was becoming woefully outdated next to more powerful systems in the marketplace. The release of the Atari 5200 Supersystem in 1982 was not the homerun Atari was expecting. Universally criticized for its poor controllers, awkwardly large console size, uninteresting software, somewhat dangerous RF switch (it was prone to fires), and a lack of backwards compatibility with the 2600, customers were not flocking to the new “Super System”. It’s better graphics and industry first game pause button just weren’t enough to win over consumers.


Tell me more about this firm unit my friend...

Now like many kids born in the 1970’s we had a 2600, although originally, we knew it by its proper Christian name the Atari Video Computer System. The 2600 is such an integrated part of my generation’s childhood it was like any other household item. Everyone in my neighborhood had one, like you would expect someone to have Kool-Aid, toilet paper, or bread. I was young when, along with my two older siblings got ours in 1979 (I was 7). For several years it was the center of pretty much any later 1970’s and early 1980’s kid’s universe (within the confines of their family room anyway). I would spend many childhood hours playing Space Invaders, Adventure, Frogger, and that terrible version of Pac-Man.


Little Timmy will love "Super Xenu Space Battle"

As the 80’s rolled along, all sorts of other entertainment boxes arrived in our home in the forms of other game systems or home computers with varied fanfare or school playground distain (not to mention cable TV and the VCR). Make no mistake, brand loyalties were drawn in these early childhood gaming days. The last thing you wanted to be was the kid with the uncool gaming system or the wrong home computer. No one wants to play your Bally Astrocade Billy… no one. The cool kids all had Colecovision, the nerds in the know had Commodore 64’s, and the kids who couldn’t play past sunset all seemed to have Texas Instruments Computers or Intellivision. Even as more advanced hardware superseding the abilities of the Atari 2600 came around, Atari was still the golden standard for early videogame entertainment. I loved my 2600 even though the version of Donkey Kong made for it looked terrible compared to the bootleg one I had for my TRS-80 Color Computer.


Article about the "upcoming" 7800 in the September 1984 issue of Electronic Games magazine

 

It was the announcement of the forthcoming Atari 7800 “Pro System” in the September 1984 issue of Electronic Games magazine that brought to me a level of excitement and anticipation unlike any other consumer product I had known up to that time. Here it was, Atari was about to take on all these newcomer posers and be crowned the once and future king. The 7800 promised to be the powerhouse graphic monster the 5200 wasn’t with the software to prove it. I would no longer have to be jealous of that jerk Scott’s Colecovision down the street and its non crappy looking version of Donkey Kong.

 

Late 1983-84 is a storied time for video game historians, and I will not bore you with another story about the “Great” video game crash of 1983. As a kid growing up during this era though, I will say your dollar would go far in the Kay Bee bargain bin with Atari 2600 cartridges selling for as little as 2-4 dollars. I don’t recall understanding the panic of the business per se during this era as a gamer, more of just the understanding that there was a transition going on or maybe a “weeding out” as less well received systems were being shown the door at bargain prices. In three or so years the market would be transformed, sadly for many of the 1983 gaming companies they would not be part of it.

 

Unreleased keyboard add-on (from doteaters.com)

Atari planned for the 7800 to both finally upgrade the aging 2600 and to fix the failings of the poorly received 5200. Having a straight out of the box backwards compatibility with the 2600 (with no adaptor needed) was a brilliant move, and I have always felt the 7800 is a particularly handsome looking console looking like a mini 5200 with cleaner lines. The 7800’s controllers did fix the 5200’s odd choice of having non-centering controllers, but I can’t endorse either’s ergonomics (Atari’s later non-US gamepad controllers for the 7800 are however, excellent in my opinion).

 

Atari executives lacked so much confidence in their own internal development teams in 1983 they hired General Computer Corp (or GCC) to develop the new system and its first run of games. GCC has important ties to arcade gaming history and Atari originally responsible for creating an add-on kit for the arcade version of Atari’s Missile Command. GCC also developed a Pac-Man modification kit known as Crazy Otto which would become Ms. Pac-Man along with the Atari arcade games Food Fight and Quantum. GCC had a rep for creating products quickly and of quality, something Atari was struggling with by 1983. The first run of titles would be exclusively ports of (at the time) popular arcade titles including 7800 planned exclusives of Food Fight and Galaga.

 

Meanwhile, at Nintendo HQ

The 7800 was intended to be a home system offering almost perfect home arcade ports. Technically the 7800 is capable of graphic resolution higher than that of Nintendo’s NES, but the 7800’s custom 6502 processor gets bogged down with the higher resolution. Because of this, 7800 titles often use its lower resolution mode. Another questionable design choice was the exclusion of the POKEY audio chip on the system motherboard, opting to include the audio chip in cartridges instead. This leaves the 7800 with only the original 2600’s limited audio capabilities by default. If the original Atari had sold the system, I would imagine they would have put POKEY chips in every title, and no one would have been the wiser. With the change of ownership in 1984, owner Jack Tramiel (a proud cheapskate) simply wouldn’t spend the extra cost for the chips resulting in only two titles (Ballblazer and Commando) having the superior POKEY chip audio onboard.

 

Originally Atari had planned the typical computer keyboard add-on that almost every gaming system promised pre-1984, along with some other interesting expansions including a high score saving device. After finally being launched in 1986, two years late, all add on accessories had been cancelled. Early 7800 consoles still have an expansion port on the right side of the system intended for a Laserdisc add on. The very first run of 7800 systems also still have Warner Brothers logos on the bottom of the console, since they had been manufactured previous to the change in ownership and sat in a warehouse for 2 years.

 

Due to a programming error, Impossible Mission is actually impossible to beat

Software releases would be sporadic over the entire lifespan of the system with early releases consisting of GCC developed ports of arcade games, that by 1986-1987 were considered ancient. By the end of 1987 only 17 game titles had been released, mostly either from pre 1984 arcade game titles or poor ports of computer arcade games. Keep in mind by 1987 NES players had 31 titles in the USA including the excellent Super Mario Bros, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, The Legend of Zelda, and Excitebike. The 7800 versions of classic arcade games like Ms. Pac-Man, Dig Dug, and Xevious are very well done for the most part, but kids weren’t exactly clamoring to play them by 1987.

 

Fatal Run, a great looking but terrible playing game

Several promising games were cancelled in development early in the 7800’s life including the often-advertised 7800 version of Lode Runner, Crystal Castles, Electronic Arts’ Sky Fox, and the Lucasfilm game Rescue on Fractalus (rumored to have been given the axe because Tramiel didn’t want to spend the extra 2 dollars on a larger ROM that would have been required). By late 1987-1988 Atari leaned in heavily to ports of computer software titles poorly suited for a system without a keyboard. It’s not to say the 7800 couldn’t produce decent modern software. Atari would release very good ports of the arcade titles Crossbow, Xenophobe, Commando,and Ikari Warriors. Activision (one of the few 3rd party companies that supported the 7800) made a nice port of Bally-Midway’s Rampage. Through most of 1988 the 7800 limped along with an embarrassing 17 new titles, including the shockingly bad Realsports Baseball and the worst port of the classic computer game Karateka imaginable.


A few solid titles in the 7800 library, including the fantastic Alien Brigade

Late in its life, the 7800 produced some interesting original titles including the RPG action title Midnight Mutants (which had an unofficial tie-in with the TV show The Munster’s), the humorous Ninja Golf and Basketbrawl, the decent Mean 18 Golf, along with a good looking but poor playing apocalyptic racer Fatal Run. The crown jewel of these later original releases is probably the 1st person shooter Alien Brigade. Partly inspired by the Taito arcade title Operation Wolf, the game includes some of the more competent graphics for the system along with nice play dynamics including cut scenes.


Midnight Mutants is a fun and unique RPG

It seems that developers had cracked a bit of the code on how to make a decent 7800 game towards the bitter end of the product life cycle, leaving many possibly well-designed games unreleased. Prototype ports of the arcade games Klax, Toki, and the Amiga computer shooter Sirius 7 have been founded by collectors. There have also been a side scrolling fighter based on the Chuck Norris film(s) Missing in Action found which showed a lot of promise. The titles Road Riot, Steel Talons, and Electrocop are reported to have been finished by programmers but never released (and are yet to be found as playable prototypes).

 

"What if we released 3 or 4 more systems?" - Atari in 1989

At the end of the 1980’s Atari was producing 2 different computer line-ups (the ST and XE) and an incredible 4 different home video game systems (2600, 7800, XEGS, and the Lynx). The focus was defiantly on the ST computer line which did well in Europe and had a strong following with music aficionados in the USA. The 7800, 2600, XE computer line, and short lived XEGS system were all taken out behind the barn of Atari on January 1st, 1992, and put them out of their misery. Atari would focus on the excellent Atari Lynx handheld system along with the somewhat stillborn Atari Falcon computer afterwards.

 

Three unreleased 7800 titles which would have made things better

The legacy of the 7800 is often one surrounded by “what ifs” and missed opportunities. If released in 1984 as originally planned, the 7800 could have changed the course of gaming in the USA. Instead of the USA becoming dominated by Nintendo’s NES system, the 7800 might have been the dominate console for the mid to late 80’s instead. If its early arcade ports had come out in 1984 as originally intended, they would have been impressive. It is hard to not feel the system was less than properly marketed or developed for by the post 1985 Atari Corporation, not so much as released as simply allowed to exist. Hardware wise the 7800 was no slouch and a handful of titles (Midnight Mutants, Missing in Action, Commando, Ballblazer, Alien Brigade) show that is capable of great playing, sounding, and looking titles. Unfortunately, its library is also full of a lot of mediocre titles that can best be described as shovelware (Barnyard Blaster, Hatrick, and Planet Smashers are truly terrible).


Later edition outside of the USA 7800's got these neat gamepad controllers

Today the 7800 is popular with retro collectors, mostly remembered for some of its more oddball titles and missed opportunities. I had a 7800 starting in 1986, and it mostly served as a secondary plaything next to my loved Sega Master System and Atari 520ST computers by the later part of the 1980’s. As I sit here writing this, I still feel the overwhelming emotion of a system that just was mishandled by its owners. Atari seemed to be fine with having the 7800 limp along in the bargain bin, competing with its older ancient sibling the 2600 next to it in a dark corner of Toys R Us. The 7800 might be the biggest lost opportunity post 1985 Atari ever had next to the Atari Lynx. But I’ll save that story for another day.

 

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For me the big stand out of the 7800 was Ball Blazer for two reasons. 1) The random fractal music generator that played between demo modes. I would leave the game going for ages just to hear what it would come up with. 2) It had by far the smoothest 3-D scrolling I had ever seen at that time (excluding vector games). That one game alone keeps me very nostalgic for this system. Many Ball Blazer cartridges have been scrapped simply to harvest their Pokey chips to repair arcade games. Another great article about an often overlooked but important part of video game history.


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