An Atari 7800 and a screen of a game.

Gaming Against The Grain: Atari 7800

BY DEREK LABAT: Your first console. You never forget it.

You hold that box, looking at all the potential games you can get for it.  Then you open it up, slide it out, unwrap and lay out all of the pieces.  You put it together, hook it up to your TV.  You insert the pack-in game (remember those?) and just like that, there was only you and the game.

For me, that first console was the Atari 7800.  Here’s a little bit of backstory on it:

Atari was looking for a follow-up to its phenomenal 2600. The result: the Atari 5200. The 5200 looked good, but its controller was notorious fragile, making the console’s games virtually unplayable. The 5200’s failure, coupled with underwhelming sales of Pac-Man and E.T. for the 2600, brought about the video game crash of 1983.

Atari seemed to have the answer with the 7800, which received positive praise during a test run in 1984, however, the company split with former Commodore Computers chief Jack Tramiel acquiring Atari’s home and computer division. While Tramiel believed computers were the future (and he was right), he also believed the era of video game consoles was over (which he was dead wrong about). As a result, the 7800 was shelved until 1987 – the year before, Nintendo brought the NES to the U.S., taking the country by storm. By the time Atari realized their mistake, they were left fighting Sega for the 20% of the market share Nintendo didn’t have.

Of course, this means nothing to a seven-year-old getting his own video game console for the first time.

In regards to processor speed, resolution, and color pallets, the 7800 was comparable to the NES and Sega’s Master System — its sound chip and poor controller design (at least in North America) was its Achilles Heel — but, again, this didn’t matter to seven-year-old me. It was the backwards-compatibility that gave it lasting appeal for me.

These days when you mention video games, people think of Nintendo and Mario, or PlayStation.  In my family, like others in the U.S., Atari was what came when you mentioned video games. There were at least four Atari 2600’s in my family.  The 7800 was the obvious choice for us.

I only ever owned three 7800 games: Pole Position II (the pack-in game), Centipede, and Galaga, but since I had access to a wide library of 2600 games for free, there was no reason to buy 7800 games. Not that there were many 7800 games to buy, thanks to Nintendo’s third-party development rules. I had some of the best games on the 2600; Ms. Pac-Man, Frogger, Pitfall, Crystal Castles, Space Invaders, Missile Command. I also had some of the worst games on the system; Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, but at that age, I didn’t care. I simply accepted they couldn’t be as good as the arcade originals.

Eventually, I got an NES, but I still held on to my 7800. In fact, in high school, I bought about twenty games for about $20, practically doubling my collection to around 40 (close to the 60 games officially released for the 7800), adding Asteroids and Yar’s Revenge. I finally sold my 7800 and all my games for about $80 after I graduated from high school (before retro gaming collecting really became a thing) even, though Atari would never be a major player in the video game market again — the 7800 was discontinued in 1990 and its next two consoles fell flat — it takes me back to when my whole family could gather around the front TV and play video games.

All my other consoles may have been just mine, but the 7800 was ours.