The Atari 7800 ProSystem was a solid up- grade over the 2600 and the 5200, both of which were great consoles, but had a number of increasingly obvious shortcomings. By 1986, when the 7800 hit store shelves, the 2600 was drastically outdated (blocky graphics just wouldn’t cut it anymore), and the aging 5200, which had fragile, non-centering joysticks that were the subject of much derision, had ceased production in 1984. When the 7800 hit the scene, gaming traditionalists were thrilled with the system’s trio of launch titles, which in- cluded Joust, Ms. Pac-Man, and Asteroids, the latter of which offered a new wrinkle on the old rock-shooting formula: two-player simultane- ous action. Pole Position II, a less impressive port, was the pack-in game with the system.
Unfortunately for Atari apologists, the wildly popular Nintendo NES had launched in the U.S. the year before, ushering in the next generation of home gaming. The dynastic NES boasted the vaunted Super Mario Bros., one of the best, most influential games in the history of the industry, and the console would soon be- come the home of such groundbreaking titles as Metroid and The Legend of Zelda. The 7800, though blessed with nice retro arcade ports and a number of other interesting titles (such as Midnight Mutants), simply couldn’t compete with the Nintendo juggernaut. The NES saw vastly superior marketing and third-party sup- port, and its cartridge library contained a plethora of games that were expansive in nature and advanced in terms of both gameplay and graphics. The 7800 also had to compete with Sega’s Master System.
Theoretically, the Atari 7800 could have launched in 1984, since it had been designed and tested by that time. However, former Com- modore executive Jack Tramiel had bought the video game and computer divisions of Atari from Warner Bros. in 1984, and, for a variety of reasons, shelved the 7800 until 1986, after the NES had already staked an enormous claim on the market. It’s been reported that Tramiel pre- ferred computers over consoles, that he was skeptical until he saw the money Nintendo was bringing in, and that he had some licensing is- sues to work out. Whatever the case, the 7800 made it into stores a couple of years too late. In addition, the system was hindered by Atari’s continued support of the 2600, and by the con- fusing introduction of the Atari XE console, which played cartridges designed for Atari’s line of home computers.
The Atari 7800 is a powerful, graphically capable system that can handle lots of moving objects at once with little to no slowdown or flickering. Also, it is backwards-compatible with the Atari 2600, meaning it can play most of the games in the 2600 library. On a less pos- itive note, its sound capabilities are compara- ble to 2600 audio, and many gamers complain about the system’s controllers, which are sturdy (compared to Atari 5200 joysticks), but tiring on the hands. The side buttons are thumb- killers when lots of continual pressing is re- quired. The system is compatible with any Atari 2600 joystick, but only for one-button games.
Production of the Atari 7800 came to a halt in 1991, and the system left with the repu- tation of an underachiever. Given an earlier re- lease date, more marketing support, and more console-defining games, the 7800 could have challenged Nintendo on a more even playfield. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t meant to be.