The Atari 7800 ProSystem, or simply the Atari 7800, is a video game console released by Atari Corporation in June 1986. A test market release had occurred two years earlier under Atari Inc. The 7800 was designed to replace Atari Inc.'s unsuccessful Atari 5200 and later to re-establish Atari Corp.'s market supremacy against Nintendo and Sega. With this system, Atari Inc. addressed all the shortcomings of the Atari 5200: it had simple digital joysticks; it was almost fully backward-compatible with the Atari 2600; and it was affordable (originally priced at US$140).
Several key factors influenced the design of the 7800. First, Atari had been facing mounting pressure from the ColecoVision, which boasted graphics that more closely mirrored arcade games of the time than Atari’s reigning 2600 VCS system. Second, the Atari 5200 (the original intended successor to the Atari 2600 VCS) had been widely criticized for not being able to play Atari 2600 VCS games and for the poor quality of its analog joysticks. Finally, dropping prices of home computers like the Commodore 64 had caused many to believe that buying a home computer was a better investment because it provided more detailed game play and could be used for other purposes such as word processing.
Previous game consoles sometimes had a difficult time replicating the arcade experience in home versions of popular arcade games. In particular, home versions of arcade games sometimes had problems with flickering and slow down when more than a few moving objects appeared on the screen at once. GCC, which had a background in creating arcade games, designed their new system with a graphical architecture similar to arcade machines of the time. The 7800 featured the ability to move around tremendous amount of objects (75-to-100) that far exceeded previous consoles. Powering the system was a 6502C processor running at 1.79 MHz, similar to the processor found in home computers (Atari 8-bit, Apple II, Commodore 64) and other consoles (Atari 5200 and Nintendo Entertainment System).
In response to the criticisms of the Atari 5200, the Atari 7800 could play almost all Atari 2600 games out of the box, without the need for an adapter. In addition, it featured a return to a digital controller.
To address the concerns of parents that home computers were a better investment than consoles, the system was designed to be upgraded to a full-fledged home computer. A keyboard was developed, and the keyboard had an expansion port (which was the SIO port from Atari's 8-bit computer line, though the 7800 could not run Atari computer programs) allowed for the addition of peripherals such as disk drives and printers.
To enhance the gaming experience further, GCC had also designed a 'high score cartridge,' a battery-backed RAM cart designed for storing game scores. On the side of the 7800 was an expansion port, reportedly for a planned connection with a laserdisc player.
One month later, Warner Communications sold Atari's Consumer Division to Jack Tramiel, who did not want to release a new video game console under his newly formed Atari Corporation. He pulled the plug on all projects related to video games and decided to focus on Atari's existing computer line in order to begin development of the new 16-bit computer line (which appeared as the Atari ST).
The Atari 7800 languished on the warehouse shelves until it was re-introduced in the summer of 1986 after the success of the Nintendo Entertainment System proved that the video game market was still viable.
Tramiel’s marketing push was far more subdued than Warner had planned originally. The keyboard and high score cartridge were canceled and the expansion port was removed from later production runs of the system. Tramiel dusted off any games that were completed from the original 1984 launch with the color labels of the original games often being replaced with low-cost black and white labels. Advertising was not a priority, with Tramiel pushing the system to market with a meager $300,000 marketing budget that could not compare with the multi-million dollar campaigns by Nintendo and Sega.
MARIA has a number of different graphics modes which are either 160 pixels wide or 320 pixels wide. While the 320 pixel modes theoretically enable the 7800 to create games at higher resolution than the 256 pixel wide graphics found in the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System, the intense processing demands of MARIA typically meant that programmers typically created their games using the lower 160 pixel modes.
The 7800, like other Atari consoles, featured a (then) broad palette of 256 colors. Up to 25 colors could be displayed on screen at one time in the absence of special hardware tricks, though demos exist which place all 256 colors on the screen at the same time. Sprites can be between 4 and 12 colors.
The MARIA’s approach had advantages and disadvantages when it came to generating graphics in software during the lifespan of the 7800. It excelled at moving around large numbers of sprites on a static screen without the screen flickering that plagued other 8-bit systems. Its flexible design enabled it to play games which used display list manipulation to generate a pseudo 3D appearance such as Ballblazer (1987) and F-18 Hornet (1988). While side-scrolling games in the vein of Super Mario Brothers are possible on the system (1990's Scrapyard Dog is the best example), it is significantly harder to develop such a title than on a tile-based system such as the Nintendo Entertainment System.
A common criticism of the 7800 regards its use of the TIA to provide 2-channel sound effects and music, resulting in sound quality that is virtually identical to the Atari 2600 VCS from 1977. While the inclusion of 2600 hardware is required to maintain compatibility with the older system, this drove up production costs and reduced available space on the 7800’s motherboard. As such, the 7800 does not include additional hardware for generating sound as it does with graphics and the sound hardware is considered the weakest part of the system.
To compensate for this, GCC’s engineers allowed games to include a POKEY audio chip in the cartridge which substantially improved the audio quality. To ensure software developers had an economical means of producing better sound than TIA, GCC had originally planned to make a low-cost, high performance sound chip, GUMBY, which could also be placed in 7800 cartridges to enhance its sound capabilities further. This project was cancelled when Atari was sold to Jack Tramiel.
Despite having the capability to support sound chips in cartridges, almost no 7800 cartridges feature POKEY hardware for enhanced sound. Ballblazer, released in 1987, uses the POKEY to generate all music and sound effects. Similarly, Commando, released in 1989, uses a POKEY to generate in-game music while the TIA generates the game's sound effects for a total of 6 channels of sound.
Following the debate over “Custer's Revenge”, a controversial Atari 2600 VCS title with adult themes, Atari had concerns over similar adult titles finding their way onto the 7800 and displaying adult graphics on the significantly improved graphics of the MARIA chip. To combat this, they included a digital signature protection method which prevented unauthorized 7800 games from being played on the system.
When a cartridge was inserted into the system, the 7800 BIOS included code which would generate a digital signature of the cartridge ROM and compare it to the signature stored on the cartridge. If a correct signature was located on the cartridge, the 7800 would operate in 7800 mode, granting the game access to MARIA and other features. If a signature was not located, the 7800 remained in 2600 mode and MARIA was unavailable. All 7800 games released in North American had to be digitally signed by Atari. This digital signature code is not present in PAL 7800s, which use various heuristics to detect 2600 cartridges, due to export restrictions.
A view held by some was that the 7800 was essentially a souped up 2600. Even in an interview, Leonard Tramiel supported this viewpoint, stating "the 7800 is essentially a 2600 with some things put into hardware that were done in software on the 2600. While this view is shared by many, the 7800 is different than the 2600 in several important areas. It features a full 6502c processor whereas the 2600 VCS has a stripped down 6507 processor which runs at a slower speed. It has additional RAM (Random Access Memory) and the ability to access more cartridge data at one time than the 2600. The most substantial difference, however, is its entirely different graphics architecture which differs markedly from either the Atari 2600 VCS or Atari’s 8-bit line of computers.
The source of the confusion stems from the fact that compatibility with the Atari 2600 is enabled by including the same chips used in the Atari 2600. When operating in “2600” mode in order to play 2600 titles, the 7800 uses a Television Interface Adapter (TIA) chip to generate graphics and sound. The processor is slowed to 1.19 MHz in order to mirror the performance of the 2600’s stripped-down 6507 processor. RAM is limited to 128 bytes found in the RIOT and game data is accessed in 4K blocks.
When in “7800” mode (signified by the appearance of the full screen Atari logo), the graphics are generated entirely by the MARIA graphics processing unit, all system RAM is available and game data is accessed in larger 48K blocks. The system’s 6502c runs at its normal 1.79 MHz instead of the reduced speed of 2600 mode. The 2600 chips are used in 7800 mode to generate sound as well as switch and controller interfaces.
The Atari 7800 faced the severe software drought that would plague all the Atari Corp. consoles sold after the video game crash. While the system can actually play hundreds of different cartridge titles (due to its compatibility with the Atari 2600), the number of titles specifically designed for the Atari 7800 hardware is the lowest of any commercially released Atari system. Only about 60 titles were released during its original production run. The system has a fan base who appreciate its solid conversions of early 1980s arcade hits as well as quirky original titles and computer ports. However, there are notable flaws in the Atari 7800's game library that prevented it from achieving the success of its contemporary competitors.
The initial launch titles in 1986 were not competitive in the marketplace following the video game crash. Rather than investing in competitive games for the system, Jack Tramiel initially preferred to dust off the system’s pre-crash library, which were less detailed than post-crash games such as Super Mario Bros. These games seemed dated, and did not resonate with mainstream audiences.
After releasing the initial pre-crash titles, Atari began development on new 7800 titles but their investment in development and production was very limited. Numerous Tramiel-era 7800 games were quickly rushed to market and with work done by low cost developers resulting in games which were disappointingly unpolished and lacking in features.
Steve Golson from GCC would later remark, “Jack [Tramiel] couldn’t get any development done for new games. He tried to get people to develop games for the system but he wasn’t willing to pay them any money. So, none of the game developers were willing to work on it.”
A key differentiator between games on the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System compared to games before the crash was the overall size of the game programs. Whereas games prior to the 1983 video game crash were typically 4K to 32K, games released after 1985 were often 128K to 640K (1 to 5 megabits in size). The 8-bit processors in consoles limited how much game data could be accessed at once, so game data was accessed in small (32K to 64K) bankswitched sections.
While the Atari 7800 is capable of playing bankswitched games, neither its pre-crash library, nor Tramiel’s first releases made use of bankswitching, with games being 16K to 48K in size. This severely limited the amount of complexity on the initial run of Atari 7800 games when compared to the competition. While some initial 7800 games were referred to as “Super Games”, this was a marketing spin that typically referred to a game which had previously appeared on a home computer and not to the size of the cartridge itself. Consumers complained that Atari 7800 lacked the depth and variation often found on Nintendo and Sega machines.
In response to criticisms about the shallowness of their game depth, Atari later began to use bankswitching in 1988, releasing 64K and later 128K (1 megabit games). By the end of the system’s life cycle, most games were 128K in size, with a few being 144K. While the system was certainly capable of playing even larger games (4 megabit and beyond) no games of that size were developed.
At the time, a key driver for success with a home console was the number of home conversions it had of popular arcade games. This had been a primary reason for the success of the Atari 2600 VCS against systems like the Intellivision.
During the Atari 7800’s life cycle, Atari found themselves struggling to get developers to create 7800 versions of then-popular arcade titles because of a controversial policy employed by Nintendo. When Nintendo revived the industry, they signed up software development companies to create NES games under a strict license agreement which imposed serious restrictions on what they were allowed to do. One of the key clauses was that companies who made Nintendo games were not allowed to make that game on a competing system for a period of two years. Because of the market success of the NES, companies chose to develop for it first and were thus barred from developing the same games on competing systems for two years.
The software libraries of the Atari 7800 and Sega Master System suffered tremendously as a result. The 7800 fared even worse due to the fact that Sega could draw from their own library of arcade hits in supporting the Master System (Atari’s arcade division had been spun off into a separate company in 1984). The Atari 7800 was often forced to fill the void with either computer conversions or original titles, to varying degrees of success.
Some NES titles were developed by companies who had licensed their title from a different arcade manufacturer. While the creator of the NES version would be restricted from making a competitive version of an NES game, the original arcade copyright holder was not precluded from licensing out rights for a home version of an arcade game to multiple systems. Through this loophole, Atari 7800 conversions of Mario Bros., Double Dragon, Commando, Rampage, Xenophobe, Ikari Warriors and Kung Fu Master were licensed and developed.
A primary criticism of the Atari 7800’s library is that many games on the system were also available elsewhere. Most of the original lineup of games had already appeared on either Atari’s 2600, 5200 or 8-bit computers. This practice continued after Jack Tramiel’s takeover of Atari as many 7800 games also appeared on the 2600 and XE Game Systems as well. Later, many games that were on the 7800 also appeared on the Atari Lynx.
The Atari 7800’s small library also suffered because some key genres were either unrepresented (role playing games), poorly represented (sports games), or had a disproportionate glut of titles (flight simulators)
There was virtually no effort by Atari Corp. to recruit third party developers, and most software houses were locked into making Nintendo games for the NES. Eight third party Atari 7800 titles were manufactured by three companies (Absolute, Activision, and Froggo) with the rest manufactured by Atari themselves. However, most Atari development was actually contracted out.
In response to criticism over ergonomic issues in the 7800’s proline controllers, Atari later released joypad controllers with European 7800s, which were similar in style to controllers found on Nintendo and Sega Systems.
The Atari 7800 remained active officially between 1986 and 1991. On January 1, 1992, Atari Corp. formally announced abandonment of the Atari 7800, in addition to the Atari 2600, the Atari 8-bit computer line, and the Atari XE Game System. By the time of the cancellation, Nintendo's NES had dominated the market, controlling 80% of the North American market while Atari Corp. only controlled 12%. The Atari 7800 distantly trailed the Nintendo Entertainment System in terms of units sold but was a profitable enterprise for Atari Corp., coasting largely on Atari’s name and its 2600 compatibility. Profits were strong, due to low investment in game development and marketing. However, Atari’s marketing of the 7800 helped to further tarnish their reputation, ultimately leading to their continuous decline with subsequent systems such as the Jaguar and Lynx.
When emulators of 1980s video game consoles began to appear on home computers in the late 1990s, the Atari 7800 was one of the last to be emulated. The lack of awareness of the system, the lack of understanding of the hardware, and fears about the digital signature lockout initially caused concerns. Since that time, however, the 7800 has been emulated successfully and is now common on emulation sites.
The digital signature long prevented homebrew games from being developed until the original encryption generating software was discovered. When the original digital signature generating software was turned over to the Atari community, development of new Atari 7800 titles began. In addition, the Atari community has slowly uncovered the original 7800 development tools and released them into the public domain. New tools, documentation, source code and utilities for development have since been created which has sponsored additional homebrew development. Several new commercial Atari 7800 titles such as Beef Drop, Bon*Q, Pac Man Collection, Combat 1990, Santa Simon, and Space War have been created and released.
Perhaps the most interesting recent development was the creation of the Cuttle Cart II, a device that allowed the Atari 7800 to read MMC cards containing binary files of Atari 7800 programs. The Cuttle Cart II has enabled more people to play the entire 2600 and 7800 library on an original system as well as binaries of unreleased games and new homebrew titles.
The Cuttle Cart II was a success by homebrew standards, selling out both production runs and commanding high prices on Ebay.
In 2004, Atari (now owned by Infogrames) released the first Atari Flashback console. This system resembled a miniature Atari 7800 and joysticks and had 20 built in games (five 7800 and twenty 2600 titles). While the unit sold well, it was controversial among Atari fans. Atari had given the engineering firm, Legacy Engineering, extremely limited development timelines. The firm was forced to build the Flashback using NES-On-A-Chip hardware instead of recreating the Atari 7800 hardware. As a result, the Flashback has been criticized for failing to properly replicate the actual Atari gaming experience.
Legacy Engineering was later commissioned to create another 7800 project that never made it to market. A reseller with millions of unsold Atari 2600 and 7800 games acquired from the Tramiels looked into remaking the system and bringing it to market as a way for new customers to play old Atari games. The project was cancelled after prototypes were made.
As with most game consoles, there were more games in development for the 7800 than were actually released. However, very few prototypes have been located, due to Tramiel Atari’s reluctance to make them in the first place. Atari 7800 prototypes tend to be highly coveted by collectors, often fetching hundreds of dollars when sold. Some collectors are unwilling to share the rare items publicly as doing so risks decreasing the value of their prototypes.
Nonetheless, some unreleased Atari 7800 games, as well as early versions of released games have been released to the public. A few have been manufactured and sold.
Other 7800 games remain lost, despite indications that development occurred. The most notable of these are Skyfox (shown on the back of the original system box) and Electrocop (artwork has since been uncovered).